Dan Popp
Romans: The most important book ever written
By Dan Popp
October 6, 2010

The Bible has proven itself over millennia to be the most valuable book that humanity possesses. Nothing else even comes close to coming close. But just as a mental exercise, which individual book of this divine collection would we rank highest in importance?

Many readers would give the top spot to the beautiful Gospel of John, with its one-verse summary of the good news (3:16) and its profound depiction of Jesus as God-distinct-from-God (1:1). Perhaps Isaiah, Job and other Old Testament books would get some votes. But I would argue that, for sheer significance, Paul's letter to the Christians in Rome would take the crown. It contains the gospel message in a straightforward, logical style. It lays out God's plan for all time and all people. It demolishes errors that arise again and again, and it's as current as today's newspaper.

To quote a churchman of a previous age, "This Epistle is really the chief part of the New Testament and the very purest Gospel, and is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul."

American Christians today could tell you the plots of dozens of Hollywood movies. But how many could give even a rough synopsis of the most important book ever written?

As our civilization is sinking, the lifeguards are drowning in biblical ignorance. God will let all good people into heaven (if there is a heaven). There isn't anything in the New Testament against homosexuality. God chose the people of Israel at one time, but now He has rejected them. Jesus demands that government take care of the poor. All of these are refuted in this small-but-mighty letter written about AD 58. Romans answers mankind's oldest and most critical question: How can a man be right before God? (Job 9:2)

I am not qualified to teach this book. But I believe that its basic message is accessible to every believer, and that an understanding of that message is crucial to our personal and national survival. Think of me as the organizer of a book club; and the book we're going to read and discuss — if you choose to join us — is Romans.

Chapter 1

Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures. [NASB]

What is Romans about? "The gospel of God." What is the gospel? Well, whatever is, it is "of God" — it originates in heaven, not with men — and it calls the entire Old Testament as a witness on its behalf. Don't miss that.

Jesus didn't just die and rise again. If He had, He would be a footnote to history, rather than its center point. Jesus died and rose again according to the Scriptures (1 Cor. 15:3). Everything about His life on earth, from conception to ascension, was predicted hundreds to thousands of years before. The so-called Gnostics could never provide similar evidence for their teachings. Muhammad couldn't make that claim. No one except Jesus of Nazareth can point to hundreds of fulfilled prophecies as certificates of authenticity. And as Amos wrote (3:7 NASB), "Surely the LORD God does nothing unless He reveals His secret counsel to His servants the prophets."

Concerning His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made the seed of David according to the flesh [KJV] ...according to the human nature he took [Jerus]

"This asserts Christ's deity as basic to His person and prior to His Incarnation, since His identification with David's line "came to be," a literal rendering of the participle genomenou, translated [in the NIV] was." — John A. Witmer's commentary on Romans

...and patently marked out as the Son of God by the power of that Spirit of holiness which raised him to life again from the dead. [Phillips]

Jesus is God and man in the first part of the verse — existing before Adam was created, then becoming part of a particular human family; and He is declared man and God in the second part — having done the very human thing of dying, and the very divine thing of rising from the dead. You'll find these little reminders of the simultaneous deity and humanity of Jesus on almost every page of the New Testament if you look for them.

Skipping to verse 7:

To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints. [NIV]

Just as Paul is called or set apart to be an envoy of the good news, all of us are called to be saints, that is, holy ones. "In the plural, as used of believers, it designates all such and is not applied merely to persons of exceptional holiness, or to those who, having died, were characterized by exceptional acts of 'saintliness.'" (Vine's Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words) Christian, when God addresses His "saints," He's talking to you.

Down to verse 16.

I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes; first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. [NIV]

When Paul unfolds the good news, he begins by saying that it is "power," and instantly links salvation to faith. This coupling will be emphasized many times in this little book. You'll notice a lot of pairs in Romans: Jew/Gentile, Law/faith, flesh/Spirit.

And here's what the good news is about — the major theme of the most important book ever written: righteousness.

For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith [ESV] ... by faith from first to last [NIV] ...resulting from faith and leading on to faith [TCNT]

We need to understand a few "religious words" in order to discuss Romans, but we shouldn't go into Ned Flanders Mode when we see one. They're generally simple, and most of them weren't religious words at the time they were penned. What I'm trying to say is that the good news is about God breaking into our world at the level of childbirth and parties and eating and dust in our shoes and money worries and friendship and funerals. It would be a mistake to put these words, and this message, into our "Religion" box, where we can be sure they won't touch our "real life."

Bible translator Robert Young said that when we come across the King James word salvation, we should read, safety. I think of the idea of rescue. When Peter cried to his fellow Jews to "be saved from this crooked generation" (Acts 2:40) he was pleading with them to escape from evil and danger, to a place of rest and security. That's salvation.

Righteousness is just as simple; it means rightness. It's "the character or quality of being right or just," according to Vine's. Most of us think of ourselves as pretty "straight arrows." But are we, really? And if not, how do we get straightened out?

...as it is written, The just shall live by faith. [KJV] Or: The upright man finds life through faith. [Jerus] Or: The one who by faith is righteous shall live. [margin, ESV]

This is already the second time Paul has appealed to the authority of the Hebrew Scriptures: "...as it is written...." But he quoted only part of that great statement from Habakkuk. The whole verse reads, "Behold the proud, his soul is not upright in him; but the just shall live by his faith." [NKJV] This is perhaps the most startling yin-yang contrast in Romans: the opposition of pride to faith. We tend to think that the opposite of faith is unbelief. And in a way, of course, that's true. But God also says that the reverse of faith is pride.

Ephesians 2:8,9 reads: "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast." [NKJV] A columnist once wrote that this passage isn't about our deliverance from the wrath of God, but about boasting! Well, according to many writers of Scripture, safety and self-centeredness aren't separate issues. "God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble." (James 4:6 NKJV) It is the proud person whose soul is not upright, Habakkuk says; it is the one meek enough to receive God's gift on God's terms whose crooked soul is made straight, and who lives. This particularly other-than-human humility is faith.

More about that, Lord willing, next time.

© Dan Popp


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