Martin Luther encouraged Christians to consider making the book of Romans the daily diet of the soul. It's no secret Romans played a pivotal role in his discovery which sparked the Protestant Reformation. Romans became a gateway to glory and changed the trajectory of history. This is what he wrote about that season:
"I had indeed been captivated with an extraordinary ardor for understanding Paul in the Epistle to the Romans...I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring - to know what St. Paul wanted. At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words...- Thereupon I ran through the Scriptures from memory. That place in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise."
Two facets of Luther's words stand out to me: the aggressiveness of his study of Romans and the gladness that resulted. I imagine Paul's face looking a lot like Rocky Balboa's after round 11 of a boxing match as Luther "beat importunately" upon the text of Romans. Romans takes work. Romans takes time. It will stretch you mentally and physically to stay the course in Paul's sustained logic over 16 chapters. It may be better to think of yourself going to the gym versus going to a coffee shop before you open it. But the sweat will pay off.
For Luther, refusing to give in and giving heed to the "context of the words" gave way to paradise. The crushing weight of falling short of God's glory gave way to the coming weight of certain glory in Christ (Rom. 3:19-23 vs. 8:28-39). Luther went from feeling cornered by God's righteous condemnation against him to finding the freedom of God's righteousness being in his corner because of divine grace. The case for hopelessness seems closed at 3:20 and in the reversal of all reversals, in Christ, the case for maintaining hope becomes closed. No wonder "paradise" was the word he chose.
As you pummel Romans for its meaning like Luther, I wanted to give you three big-picture helps that will inch us closer and closer to that gateway of paradise he found in the gospel. These three threads tie the book together.
1. Boasting: The gospel forges such a resiliency of hope that any obstacle to our future glory loses its threatening force. We boast in the hope of the glory of God (5:2). The gospel enlists seemingly insurmountable hurdles into the service of hope. God's righteousness forges the ability to overcome in hope as He refuses to betray anyone who banks on Him. As one writer said, gospel hope "talks trash" in Romans (Gaventa). Hope has the last word. Always.
2. Belonging: This new boast forges a new community in which we belong. Truly belong. "Therefore welcome one another, just as Christ also welcomed you, to the glory of God." (Romans 15:7). As you read, look for the word "all" or "everyone." The dysfunctional communities of discorded lust and judgmental hypocrisy of all humanity in Romans 1:18-3:20 give way to the grace-infused, hope-filled community called church where all peoples can be included through Christ. The gospel that became a gateway to paradise for Luther in its vertical dimension is the same gospel that becomes a gateway to profound community in the here and now in chapters 12 - 16.
The gospel in Romas is full of big hugs. A hug from heaven sparks a million hugs on earth. It's church y'all, the way it was meant to be. Hope forges harmony.
3. Burden: The gospel also forges mission. Paul wrote Romans to enlist the Church's support to get beyond Rome to Spain, where "Christ had not been named" (Romans 15:20ff). He desired to establish them in the gospel of God so they could extend the gospel of God. Or as I heard said recently, Paul desired the church to go from being consumers of the gospel to conduits for the gospel. The gospel makes us debtors, not to the flesh but to those who have yet to hear and believe (Contrast Romans 8:12 with 1:14). This gospel isn't meant to merely help us sleep better at night in the hope it produces. It also implants a deep restlessness for others to hear and believe. The privileged burden of the mission to pray for the lost and propel pioneer endeavors for the gospel is forged by this gospel (Romans 9:1-5, 10:1-2, 15:14ff).
Boasting, belonging, and burden - these three aspects of Romans are why it is featured so prominently in our equipping avenues before we send people overseas for gospel work. I think of how these three flesh out in the missionary life:
- Boasting: The gospel forges stubbornness to stay despite the hardships that mount up in the missionary life.
- Belonging: The gospel ends the hostilities that tear apart communities around the world and showcases the power of Christ to bring people together, truly together.
- Burden: The gospel creates a people who give Christ glory among the nations. It's not just for us, it's for them. We also want them to see the glories of the gospel that they become eager to share in its advancement around the world.
The gateway to paradise through the gospel of Romans is still open for the world. And our presence among the nations helps them find it.
So, as you sweat through the logical progression of Romans, look for these threads. Trace the flow. The work is worth it. And reader beware, you may be inching closer to discoveries of glory that unlock further dimensions of paradise yet to be explored.