Lancaster First United Methodist Church
July 10, 2011
Romans 1:1-17 & Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Rev. Robert McDowell
“The Greatest Letter Ever Written: Romans 1-4”
It is with a fair amount of trepidation that I begin this four week sermon
series on the Letter to the Romans.
The superlatives that are used to talk about Romans make it daunting to think
about preaching on it!
“It is Paul’s finest work – a masterpiece!”
“It is the greatest letter ever written!”
Some have even compared it to other great works like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony
to give some sense of its magnitude and excellence.
Probably more volumes have been written about Romans that any other letter in
It has changed more lives, and changed the world more than any other letter in
It led to the conversion of Augustine in 386 A.D., and later influenced his
thinking and writing, which has had a huge impact on the church ever since.
Martin Luther’s reading of Romans shaped his theology, and was a significant
part of the Protestant Reformation.
It was after hearing about Paul’s letter to the Romans that John Wesley had his
heart warming Aldersgate experience, and from that point on, the Methodist
Movement began to explode.
Yet, as Eugene Peterson says in his intro to Romans, “When this letter arrived
in Rome, hardly anyone read it, certainly no one of influence. There was much to
read in Rome – imperial decrees, exquisite poetry, finely crafted moral
philosophy – and much of it was world class. And yet in no time, as such things
go, this letter left all those other writings in the dust.
The letter to the Romans is a piece of exuberant and passionate thinking. Paul
takes the well-witnessed and devoutly believed fact of the life, death, and
resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and thinks through its implications. Paul
writes to tell us how the death and resurrection of Jesus has changed the
direction of world history, and at the same time the life of every man, woman,
and child on the planet.”
Over these Sundays in July, we’re going to work our way through Paul’s letter to
the Romans. It is a letter that is meant to be read in its entirety.
Although there are many, many well-known verses that are instantly recognizable
throughout Romans, individually they do not do justice to the whole letter. For
the letter in its entirety is more like a masterful symphony, whose sum is much
greater than its parts. Just listening to a few measures played by one violin
doesn’t allow one to appreciate the whole.
Paul’s letter to the Romans is probably one of the last letters he wrote. It was
most likely written from Corinth around A.D. 55.
Paul didn’t start the church in Rome, like he had started so many churches
throughout the Eastern provinces of the Roman Empire. He wanted to continue his
evangelism in the Western provinces, and take the gospel all the way to Spain.
He needed the help of the church in Rome if he was going to be able to do this.
By the time Paul wrote Romans, the church in Rome was divided. When the gospel
was first preached in Rome, probably by Peter, there were many Jews living
there. Like elsewhere, many of them believed the gospel Peter shared, and became
believers that Jesus was the Messiah. They came to be known as Jewish
Christians, because they retained their Jewish customs even though they were
But many Gentiles in Rome also heard Peter preach, and became Christians. They
had no Jewish background, and didn’t pick up any of the Jewish customs. They
came to be known as Gentile Christians.
Sometime in the 40s, before Paul wrote this letter, the Emperor Claudius had
expelled all the Jews from Rome, including the Jewish Christians.
During their expulsion, the Church in Rome continued under the Gentile
Christians. And several years later when the Jews and Jewish Christians were
allowed to return to Rome, the Jewish Christians would naturally have rejoined
the church they had left.
And this created tension between the two groups. The Jewish Christians were
trying to understand their faith in Christ through their Jewish practices and
understandings. And the Gentile Christians were trying to understand the gospel
of Jesus through their pagan background and their Roman roots.
This background helps us understand some of the topics that Paul takes on in
We’re going to be focusing on the first four chapters of Romans this morning.
Next Sunday, we’ll look at chapters 5-8. On July 24, we’ll get to chapters 9 –
11 and then we’ll conclude on July 31st with the remaining chapters, 12 – 16.
Paul begins the letter to the Romans by introducing himself to them. Remember,
he has never been to Rome, and he didn’t plant the Church in Rome. He uses an
interesting juxtaposition of adjectives to describe himself. On one hand he is
an apostle, who has been set apart for the gospel of God. And on the other hand,
he refers to himself as a slave of Jesus Christ.
From that introduction, Paul gives thanks for the Christians in the Church in
Rome. He regularly prays for them. And he tells them that he was wanted to come
and meet them for a long time, but has never been able to yet. He wants to
proclaim the gospel among them. He wants to strengthen them with spiritual
gifts. He wants to encourage them, and be encouraged by them.
Paul had longed to take the gospel beyond Rome and all the way to Spain. In
order to do this, he would need some help both with other people to join him,
and with finances for the journey. This is how he had worked previously in
starting new churches throughout the Eastern provinces, and undoubtedly he was
planning to use the same method to reach the Western provinces.
Paul then begins to lay the groundwork for the message that he will unpack
throughout the rest of the letter. That is, the Good News of Jesus Christ
revealed by God is for everyone in the world. Paul believed that everyone in the
world is in need of the good news of Jesus Christ.
Since the beginning of time and in all of God’s creation, God has shown his
eternal power and divine nature in the things he has made. No one has an excuse
not to worship God, but people have still turned away from God, and separated
themselves from him. Every human being is guilty of sin. But, the Good News of
Jesus Christ is for everyone by faith.
When I was in seminary, I had a New Testament professor, who pointed out the
list of sins that Paul mentions toward the end of chapter 1, and he said how
we’re all in that list somewhere. Paul’s point is that we all miss the mark of
what it means to be the people we were created to be.
In chapter 2, Paul teaches us about the foolishness of judging others. No one
has the right to judge another, for no one is without guilt. Judge not, lest ye
The story is told of a rich man who was sailing for Europe on one of those great
transatlantic ocean liners. When he went on board, he found that another
passenger was to share the cabin with him. After going to see the
accommodations, he came up to the purser's desk and inquired if he could leave
his gold watch and other valuables in the ship's safe. He explained that
ordinarily he never availed himself of that privilege, but he had been to his
cabin and had met the man who was to occupy the other berth. Judging from his
appearance, he was afraid that he might not be a very trustworthy person. The
purser accepted the responsibility for the valuables and remarked, 'It's all
right, sir, I'll be very glad to take care of your valuables for you. Your cabin
mate has been up here and left his for the same reason!”
God is the only one in a position to judge. Only God knows every fact about us
in order to judge righteously. Paul writes that everyone will be repaid
according to their deeds. God will not show any partiality. Gentiles and Jews
will be judged by God; Gentiles will be judged apart from the Jewish Law, and
Jews will be judged under the Law. Paul rightly teaches that a person’s actions
reveal a person’s true inner character.
In chapter 3, Paul continues to show that no one is righteous—not the Jew, and
not the Gentile. Everyone is under the power of sin.
In verses 3:10-18 Paul uses 9 different Old Testament verses to prove the
depraved state of human beings.
“There is no one who is righteous, not even one.”
“All have turned aside, together they have become worthless; there is no one who
shows kindness, there is not even one.”
“Their throats are opened grave; they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of vipers is under their lips.”
“Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
An illustration of how an Eskimo kills a wolf is a good example of how we are
slaves to sin:
"First, the Eskimo coats his knife blade with animal blood and allows it to
freeze. Then he adds another layer of blood, and another, until the blade is
completely concealed by frozen blood.
"Next, the hunter fixes his knife in the ground with the blade up. When a wolf
follows his sensitive nose to the source of the scent and discovers the bait, he
licks it, tasting the fresh frozen blood. He begins to lick faster, more and
more vigorously, lapping the blade until the keen edge is bare.
Feverishly now, harder and harder the wolf licks the blade in the arctic night.
So great becomes his craving for blood that the wolf does not notice the
razor-sharp sting of the naked blade on his own tongue, nor does he recognize
the instant at which his insatiable thirst is being satisfied by his OWN warm
blood. His carnivorous appetite just craves more--until the dawn finds him dead
in the snow!"
It is a fearful thing that people can be "consumed by their own sinful
pursuits." Only God's grace keeps us from the wolf's fate.
Yet, as bound by sin as people are, God is all the way at the other end of the
In well-known verses from Romans 3:23 Paul writes, “All have sinned and fall
short of the glory of God.”
But he goes on to say, “They are now justified by his grace as a gift, through
the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of
atonement by his blood, effective through faith.”
Those who are justified by faith have received, not achieved, favor with God and
therefore have nothing to boast about.
It is all the righteousness of God revealed in Jesus Christ that God offers as a
free gift to those who have faith which justifies us in God’s eyes. It is Jesus’
righteousness, not ours which sets things straight.
Once there was a man in England who put his Rolls-Royce on a boat and went
across to the continent to go on vacation.
While he was driving around Europe, something happened to the motor of his car.
He cabled the Rolls-Royce people back in England and asked, "I'm having trouble
with my car; what do you suggest I do?"
Well, the Rolls-Royce people flew a mechanic over! The mechanic repaired the car
and flew back to England and left the man to continue his vacation. As you can
imagine, the fellow was wondering, "How much is this going to cost me?"
So when he got back to England, he wrote the people a letter and asked how much
he owed them. He received a letter from the office that read: "Dear Sir: There
is no record anywhere in our files that anything ever went wrong with a
That’s justification! That’s what Paul is writing about in this letter, that
even though we have all missed the mark and have sinned, the good news is that
through God’s grace in Jesus Christ, we can be made right.
In chapter 4, Paul begins to show how faith has always been the way in which God
justifies humans as being righteous. He uses the example of Abraham from the Old
God promised Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation. And even
though Abraham was old, and his wife Sarah was barren, Abraham still believed
God would keep his promise. Romans 4:3 says, “Abraham believed God, and it was
reckoned to him as righteousness.”
Abraham believed God even before he had been circumcised as the sign of God’s
promise. Therefore, Paul writes, Abraham is the father of both Jew and Gentile
alike. Abraham was fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised
he would do.
Paul says that the story of Abraham’s faith recorded in the book of Genesis,
where the bible says his faith was reckoned to him as righteousness was not just
written for Abraham’s sake. It was written for us as well!
“For it will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from
the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our
John Wesley agreed with the early Protestant Reformers that justification is
making our relationship with God right through Jesus Christ. But he went a
little farther in his understanding, and taught that God’s mercy and grace shown
in the suffering and death of Jesus on our behalf, pardons our sins and restores
our capacity for love of God and neighbor.
It results in a renewal of the image of God in us that had been damaged by sin,
so that we might begin lifelong growth in Christ-likeness as the Holy Spirit
enables us to love God and neighbor. The theological word for this process is
the word, “sanctification.”
Our justification in Christ begins our lifelong process of sanctification
These opening four chapters of Romans invite us to think about some very
important and fundamental issues that every person needs to wrestle with whether
they have a religious faith or not.
What does it mean to be human? Why do I often struggle in being the person I
know I’m supposed to be? And most importantly, what or who can help me to be the
person I was created to be?
Paul helps us to think about these important questions in the opening of his
letter but he also lets us know early on this good news when he writes in Romans
1:16, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation
to everyone who has faith.”
Just think, today, in this very moment, this good news can be true for each and
every one of us here today. Through faith in Jesus Christ, God is more than able
to save us from our sins so that we can be the people we were created to be. All
you need is to have faith that this is true for your life.
Now, if you think that is really, really good news, just wait until we get to
chapters 5 through 8 for next Sunday. Like a great symphony, this composition is
about to reach a glorious crescendo.
Thoughts/Actions Steps for the Week
1. Have you placed your faith in Jesus Christ? Read Romans 1:16-17.
2. What new insights have you learned from our focus on Romans 1-4 today?
3. Read Romans 5-8 in preparation for next Sunday’s focus. If you want to read
the whole letter at one time, it takes approximately an hour to read.