Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith. And you also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.
I spoke at the University Christian Union in Aberystwyth ten days ago to a hundred or so students, but before I began, after I’d been invited to the front to address them, one of the students on the committee, before praying for me, asked me an unrehearsed question. “What right do you have to speak to us about God tonight?” It was a very probing and important question. I could have said that what I believe about God is nothing original in me at all, that I get that knowledge where every Christian gets it, from the Bible, that it is the faith of the great creeds of the church, of the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church. The leaders of the Christian church – reformers and evangelists and missionaries – have held to what I believe for hundreds of years. I will have been a personal disciple of Jesus Christ for sixty years in five months’ time, and I have been preaching the Bible in this town for 48 years and want to go on teaching it until we’ll know that I’m incapable of doing so helpfully any longer. I said some of that by way of reply and was glad to inform that student audience convictions like that, though such words can be dangerously ego-reinforcing.
In the opening verses of Romans Paul is similarly giving his readers credentials for writing this letter with the expectation that they will pay heed to what he writes. Romans has this fascinating lengthy introduction. He tells us four or five things about his authority to write to them as he does.
1. PAUL HAD JESUS CHRIST OUR LORD AS HIS MEDIATOR WITH GOD.
You might not spot this in our text, but it is there and it is the first of many times that the mediation of Christ appears in this letter. He writes, “Jesus Christ our Lord. Through him . . . we received grace and apostleship” (vv.4&5). In other words he was not a self appointed apostle and spokesman for God. Neither was it a bare appointment of the holy God that showed him mercy and made him an apostle. All these privileges came to him through the Jesus Christ whom he’s been describing to us, the one announced in the Old Testament prophets, the Son of God and the seed of David, God and man, the divine nature and the human nature, in one person, the one who was killed but rose from the dead. Paul’s fittedness and right to speak and write in the name of God with all that divine authority behind him came to him through his mediator, the Lord Jesus Christ.
It is great to have a mediator and an advocate who can give you privileges and introduce you to people and places that you couldn’t have had without him. For example, Peter Hulland the former pastor of the Stanton Lees church in Derbyshire, had a brother who once worked in Buckingham Palace, and one afternoon in 1976 Graham took us as a family to a couple of parts of the Palace that otherwise wouldn’t have been accessible to us except for his place on the staff there. He was our mediator and he had the authority to take us into certain rooms and galleries. Again when I was a little boy because my father was a station master I had a ride on the plate of the engine and watched the fireman shoveling in the coal and pulled the cord that blew the hooter. You probably had such an experience or know of other friends or members of your family who through a special relationship had been given access to fabulous places and people, a seat in a royal box, a visit to the Oval Office of the White House, a visit to the cabin of a Boeing 707, an interview with a great conductor and so on. It wouldn’t have been possible except through the active mediation of a certain person with authority to do so.
There is one God and there is one Mediator between God and man and that is the God-man Christ Jesus. Through Jesus Christ I am introduced to God. The Son escorts me into his Father’s presence; “This is Geoff Thomas who served me in Aberystwyth” I can imagine him saying it. Jesus takes my petitions and he presents them in the best possible way to his Father. He presents his sacrifice as the reason for my pardon, and it’s through him that God can be so kind to me and can give me all things richly to enjoy. Through Jesus Christ I was gifted and called to be a preacher. Through him I can come as close to God as the Son of God himself. I cannot get any closer. This Mediator makes our tongued-tied and gauche words to God acceptable and pleasing to the Father. He clears away all our unworthiness. We talk to our earthly fathers easily and lovingly, and they do so to us, and so the Lord Jesus Christ is able by his mediatorship to make our presence and our prayers acceptable to God as if we were speaking just to our loving Dad. In the same way any divine gifts and blessings of usefulness or vocation that become ours in serving God and serving the church come to us through the mediatorship of Jesus Christ. If God humbles himself when he sends a holy angel on a mission then he certainly humbles himself to speak to his creatures through us, we so imperfect and muddled, and he so spotless, but again, through his Son Jesus Christ he does so. He sets us apart and calls us and uses us.
Knowing Christ is our mediator is the greatest antidote to feelings of helplessness and fear in working for God in the church. It is an insult to our Mediator to refuse the invitation of a congregation to do a work for the church. Feelings of inadequacy are very common. You remember how Moses wrestled with the call of God to lead the people out of Egypt, forcing Jehovah God to justify and explain. Again remember Jeremiah’s initial refusal to become a prophet: “‘I do not know how to speak; I am only a child.’” And then how sternly came the response: “But the LORD said to me, ‘Do not say, “I am only a child.” You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,’ declares the LORD” (Jer. 1:6-8). It is the Lord who is speaking, and he tells Jeremiah “I am with you,” and you remember that same Lord spoke to his apostles and gave them a commission. He said to them, “and lo I am with you always.” God commissions prophets and apostles through the same Mediator who commissions us to our work in his church, far less exalted of course, but demanding and nerve-racking nonetheless. He will be with us. He is the conduit through whom God’s blessings come upon us and reach God’s people, and Jesus is the one through whom our cries for help are heard and answered by God.
2. PAUL HAD RECEIVED GRACE AND APOSTLESHIP THROUGH CHRIST.
“Through him . . . we received grace and apostleship” (v.5). Have you noticed that tiny pronoun? What does he mean by that word ‘we’ here? Paul can’t be standing in solidarity with the entire congregation in Rome and saying, “We have all become apostles” because they certainly had not. They hadn’t seen the risen Christ as he had. What can be the meaning of this pronoun ‘we’? Is it referring to Silas and Timothy his companions in labour? No. They’re excluded for the same reason; neither of them had been witnesses of the resurrection. Is Paul referring to all the other apostles? That seems unlikely. I guess it is a figure of speech like the plural of majesty– “we are not amused.” Here it’s probably the plural of category; “I am indeed one of the apostles” Paul is saying, though he had a separate calling to be the apostle to the Gentiles.
So through his Mediator with God Paul had received grace and apostleship. That could mean the grace of apostleship, the charisma . . . the gift of grace of being an apostle, but I think we ought to take them separately. I see this as just another occasion Paul has for magnifying the mercy of God that he had received. He had been a wretched evil man. He had blasphemed the name of Jesus, and had done such cruel things to Christians, having them thrown into prison maybe for years, both women and men, young and old. He wanted their leaders dead, and wanted them stoned to death as a fierce warning to others of what would happen to them if they should believe that Jesus was the Christ. He did not stay in Jerusalem to wipe out every disciple there. After setting up the machinery of inquisition he went everywhere else he could to hunt down Christians as the chief inquisitor, even traveling hundreds of miles north to Damascus to strangle the infant church in its crib there. He was the last man whom Christians expected to become a fellow believer with them, and when he professed faith in Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of God they couldn’t believe it. They thought that it was another cunning ploy that would allow him into their inner circle and then he’d betray and arrest them all.
Paul received grace from the living God through Jesus Christ. God didn’t reward Paul as he deserved by smiting him dead. God didn’t use a brilliant godly man like Stephen to replace him and send him to preach to the Gentiles. God didn’t raise up some other man with even better talents and gifts and wisdom than Paul. He had mercy on Paul and for years afterwards blessed him every day of his life and used him to help others. He could never get over it. Paul never stopped being amazed at what had happened to him and speaks frequently about God’s grace to him. He says to the Corinthians, “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me” (I Cor. 15:10). And to the Galatians, “God . . . set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, [and] was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles,” (Gals. 1:15). He can’t stop talking about the mercy he had received. To Timothy he says, “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (I Tim. 1:13-16). He writes him a second letter and he tells Timothy again about this wonderful grace of God: “God saved us and called us to a holy life – not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time” (2 Tim. 1:9). And when he writes to Titus he can’t wait to remind him what God’s grace had done to the both of them; “he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy . . . by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life” (Tit.3:5-7). And so here to the Romans, as he gets on to other things he just has to slip in his debt to grace; “we received grace” he tells them.
He wanted them to see that the man writing this letter was what he was by the grace of God alone, exclusively, without any reference to Paul deserving it or that grace had come to him after he had paid the price, prayed and agonized and made himself worthy of getting it. He never was that. It was sovereign grace, sheer vertical mercy from God that had made Paul and continued to make him the person he was. So there was hope for them if Saul of tarsus had received grace after all he had done. Have you seen this? Do you have any sense of wonder? Are you only too aware that all the good that’s in you, and anything decent you are and have done in your life is because of the grace of God? Omnipotence has worked to redeem you and change you. A student at Oxford named John C. Ryle once went to church on a Sunday. He didn’t often go to church, but that day in that service the minister read these words which as he heard them changed his life powerfully for ever; “God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no-one can boast” (Ephs. 2:4-9). Have you known the grace of God?
Let me bring you right up to date, from Facebook last week, from a Christian I’ve been introduced to by her old minister, but have never met. Her name is Rachel – Rachel Brownlee, and she had had to be away a long way from home at a week-end conference concerning a new business she has successfully set up. She was missing her husband and children and her church, and this is what she wrote . . . a week ago today, “Today is Sunday, my most favourite day because I get to go to church where I sit and, among other things, listen to a preacher (an ordinary man) tell me God loves me. This news is not easy for me to take. First of all, you don’t know me like God does. I’m not a sweetheart or a ‘good person.’ I’m a mess. I’m bitter and angry. I’m self righteous and rude. I’m self centered and confused. And this is the highly abbreviated list – there’s a limit to what even I will say on Facebook, thank goodness.
“And I don’t know about you, but I like to earn things – money, respect, friendship, love. But with God everything I have is his gift and everything I am comes up short, way short. He sees me as I really am, and it’s not pretty.
“So here am I holding nothing good, being nothing good. Why does God love me? Because, as much as I like to make everything be about me, this isn’t, it’s about him. It’s about what all the best stories are about, like Prince Charming. He saw me here, pitiful and in need and he came to my rescue. He scooped me up and he said, ‘I know. . . . I know you can’t make it. I know your energy is gone and your goodness is nonexistent. But I have you. I will do it all for you. I will be everything you can’t be.’
“And he’s so beautiful. He’s absolutely radiant in his holiness and purity. He didn’t come for me because I’m a good girl and I earned it. He came because I’m broken up with nothing to be proud about, and he determined to love me and give me hope for every day and for ever. I don’t know why he should love me when I spend most of every day running away from him. But I know, deep in my dirty little heart, that his love is true love, inescapable and constant. And on Sundays, my favourite day, I can’t run. I just have to sit there and hear him say: ‘I love you.’ Why? Because he does love me.
“If ever you feel the need to have someone to love you the way he loves me, then in the words of a hymnwriter, ‘all the fitness he requireth is to feel your need of him, and this he gives you.’ And if you are angry at the church for being full of hypocrites, I understand. But that’s why we’re there – because we need him most of all.” Now that was on Facebook last week, written by Rachel who understands grace, grace choosing, grace saving, grace keeping, grace loving us.
Paul had received grace and also he received apostleship, that is he became one of the top twelve unique men on the whole planet whose teaching would be the foundation for the church until the end of the world. In other words, God didn’t save him but then put him in a corner in the church and told him, “Behave and keep quiet for the rest of your life after all you’ve done.” No. He made him higher than Peter. Peter could never have written this letter, or the letter to the Ephesians, as Paul did. Peter could never have been the man to take the gospel to the Gentiles and plant churches all over Greece. God forgave Saul of Tarsus, giving him the most public profile in the whole church. He made him the mighty messenger he was to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.
3. PAUL CALLED GENTILES TO THE OBEDIENCE OF FAITH.
“To call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith” (v.5). This writer, Saul of Tarsus, had once gone from town to town and had called on different houses in which, so informers had told him, Jews lived who had become followers of Jesus Christ. So Paul had hammered on their doors and called them to give an account of their lives and what they believed, and as a test called on them to speak blasphemously of the Lord Jesus. Then after some months of this wickedness, on the road to Damascus, he had met with this risen Jesus and for the rest of his life he did the very opposite, he called on Jews and Gentiles to trust in Christ, to repent of their sins and bow down to king Jesus the Messiah. Once upon a time he had summoned Christians to cease believing in our Lord, but now he summoned them to trust in him.
Evangelism is an activity which is characterized by this call, this note of divine authority. It’s a summons from the throne of heaven, through God’s people, to all who will hear it, to display the obedience of faith. It is a tender summons, and a pleading summons. A friend once asked a girl if she felt comfortable about evangelism. “Oh yes,” she replied, “I do it twice a week.” It sounds like a course of multi-vitamins that you take regularly. Calling people to faith isn’t just something you ‘do’ – out there – and then get back to normal living. It involves a sustained, loving attitude of concern, taking people seriously, getting access into their space, and then speaking to them of Christ as Lord in the context of our natural patterns of daily life – waiting outside the school with the other mothers for the children to come out, walking to lectures, speaking about the past week-end in the office on Monday. “All day long,” is how Paul describes his evangelism, in other words, whatever opportunities God’s providence opened up for him, both in and out of season. All day long we are as it were stretching out our hands to a gainsaying and disobedient generation. In our hearts we are longing and praying for them to change; we are crying to them, “Turn from your unbelief and put your trust in Jesus Christ.” That’s the cry of a people who themselves have first heard and obeyed the call of God. It is the cry of people constrained to do it; they simply cannot stop calling people to come along with them on the road that leads to heaven, and the explanation for their energy is that they have tasted that the Lord is good.
A new milk-shake shop has opened in Aberystwyth, have you noticed it? It opened the day the summer heat-wave started which must have helped the young couple taking on this venture. I have been to it three times. I have tasted the milk-shakes and they are good. I have treated friends to some. I have bought one for my wife. I am a good customer. But I have also tasted something better, the good news of Jesus Christ and that’s good too. That is my message to all men in every corner of the world, all the members of my family, and for some of you younger believers, all the boys and girls in your class, all the other prisoners in prison, all the neighbours on your street, all the people in your town, all without exception, none too evil, none too hard; I “call people from among all the Gentiles” (v.5) saying “Ho everyone who thirsts, Come! Drink living water in Jesus Christ. He is the best. He is the most refreshing of all.
To what are we calling them? The Greek text as well as the Authorized Version say, “to the obedience of faith” and what does that mean? The interpretation that the N.I.V. gives – the obedience that comes from faith – is the correct meaning I’m sure, that there is a Christian obedience to God that appears when we bow and acknowledge that the message is true. Our obedience comes from commitment to all that the gospel declares, the fact that Jesus Christ came and did what he did. In other words, the gospel is preached. Let me explain it to you in a minute; it declares this, that God once sent his Son into the world, the God-man, really a man; really God; really human; really divine. He lived a perfect life fulfilling the whole law. He then died as the Lamb of God in the place of favoured sinners; he died intentionally, suffering the wrath of God against all those who believe in him. In his death he took away all their guilt and blame; he forgave all their sins. He rose from the grave on the third day, triumphant over death and hell and Satan. He ascended into heaven. He rules in power from on high with all authority in heaven and earth. He gives the Holy Spirit and eternal life to all who obey this gospel by trusting in him. He will come again to make a new heavens and a new earth. There is no better news! My duty is to preach this to you, and never stop. Your duty is to believe it and so obey the word of the gospel.
4. PAUL CALLED PEOPLE TO BELONG TO JESUS CHRIST.
Paul insists on this and repeats it in the next verse, “You also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ” (v.6). So Paul wasn’t calling people to a vague act of religious emotion. No, he would tell people, “Stop being loners and strangers but come and belong to Jesus Christ. Belong to him! That was his message, because the only alternative is to belong to what you think is right and wrong, in other words, to belong to the Law. To whom are you going to belong, to the Law – your own standards and personal rule book – or to the gospel of Jesus Christ?
The Law will tell you that by your sins you have deserved God’s wrath, temporal death and eternal damnation. The Gospel is the message that Jesus Christ has, by his sinless life and by his suffering and death for our sins in our place, obtained for us God’s grace, the forgiveness of sins, and eternal life. It calls you to belong to him.
Law and Gospel have completely different contents. The Law is about us. The Gospel is about God. The Law is about our works. The Gospel is about Christ’s works. The Law is about our sin. The Gospel is about God’s Son. The Law shows us our sin. The Gospel shows us our Saviour, Jesus Christ. The Law tells us what we are to do and not to do, how we are to be and not to be. The Gospel tells us what the Son of God, Jesus Christ, has done for our salvation. Can you say, “Now I belong to Jesus; Jesus belongs to me; not for the years of time alone but for eternity”?
The Law is the message of God’s anger against our sin. The Gospel is the message of God’s grace for Jesus’ sake. The Law says that God is mad at us because of our sins. The Gospel says that God is pleased with us because of our Saviour. The Law condemns our sin and ourselves. The Gospel forgives our sin and us. The Law is bad news. The Gospel is good news, the only really good news. The Law means death. The Gospel means life. To whom do you belong?
Law and Gospel have different promises. The Law makes promises only with conditions. The Law promises life and every blessing forever – to anyone who can earn it by living sinlessly, loving God totally, and loving the neighbour perfectly. There is only one problem. Since Adam and Eve, none of us has lived and loved perfectly. None of us has even come close. None of us has kept God’s commandments. All of us have been born sinners and have been unable to help ourselves. All of us have sinned and sinned again. All of us have forfeited the promises of the Law. To whom do you belong? The law or the gospel of Christ?
The Gospel promises without conditions. The Gospel really has “no strings attached.” Christ has kept God’s Law for us. He had no sin. He lived and loved perfectly. But then Jesus, the eternal Son of God who had also become true Man, became guilty in God’s sight for all our sins. The Bible says, “The Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). And “the wages of sin is death.” Christ did die, horribly and torturously, suffering in our place for our sins. He died the death we deserved in order to impute to us the righteous life he earned. There are no conditions. Jesus meant it when he said, “It is finished” (John 19:30). We do not save ourselves. The righteous Lord Christ has saved us. We arc not our own saviours. Jesus is our only Saviour. Do you belong to him?
Law and Gospel are different in terms of threats. Because we are sinful, the Law is full of threats. It threatens us with God’s anger and all the punishment we have deserved by our sins. It threatens us with God’s anger forever. It threatens us with pain and death in this world, pain and death in the next world. It threatens us with eternal, endless, everlasting torture in hell and damnation.
The Gospel knows no threats. It removes the threat of God’s anger by proclaiming its opposite, God’s grace in Christ. It removes the threat of punishment for sin by proclaiming forgiveness for Jesus’ sake. It takes the sting out of pain and death in this world by removing the idea that God is mad at us and is punishing us. It removes the threat of death in the next world by assuring us of eternal life. It removes the threat of hell by promising heaven with perfect joy, with Jesus.
Law and Gospel have completely different results. Sometimes the Law makes people angry because they refuse to admit that they are sinners. They get mad when they are told about their sin. Sometimes the Law makes people despair because they conclude that God does not want to save them. They despair of being forgiven. Those reactions are not the fault of the Law but of the people who so react.
The Bible says, “By the law is the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20). This truth hurts, but it is necessary. We must know about the problem before we care about the solution. We must know about the question before we care about the answer. We must know about the disease before we care about the cure. We must know about the danger before we care about the rescue. We must know about damnation before we care about salvation. Has the knowledge of the Law brought you for salvation to the Lord Jesus Christ in the gospel?
The first result of the Gospel is to bring us to faith in Christ, in the forgiveness he earned for us. Through the Gospel the Holy Spirit moves us to begin to love God and our neighbour and to grow in that love. By God’s power faith in salvation leads to gratitude for salvation and also to love for the Saviour and for those whom the Saviour loves.
The Gospel assures us of forgiveness and moves us to love God and the neighbour. The Law gives direction to the love the Gospel creates. The Law gives us the specifics of how we should love God and our neighbour – but only the good news of the living Jesus gives us the love. As gratitude and love grow by the Gospel, we do less and less evil, more and more good, by God’s power, moved by the Gospel, guided by the Law. You must be freed from the condemnation of the broken law to flee to Jesus and belong to him for ever.
5. PAUL DID EVERYTHING IN HIS LIFE ‘FOR HIS NAME’S SAKE.’
Though those four words are in the first verse of our text in our translation (v.5) yet they come at the end of the sentence in the original. They are its climax, and all that I’ve said must have this one end in view, the glory of God’s name. That is our chief end in life, to exalt his name. When Jesus taught us to pray he told us to address God as our Father in heaven, and then the first petition of the prayer was, “Hallowed by thy name.” That is our goal in life whether we eat or drink, preach or pray, love our God or love our neighbour – we do all for his name’s sake. Our names last a little while. In a century a few will look at our names on a tombstone in incomprehension, but his name will endure.
His name for ever shall endure, the God of Israel,
For he alone doth wondrous works in glory that excel.
And blessed be his glorious name to all eternity;
The whole earth let his glory fill, Amen, so let it be.
13th October 2013 GEOFF THOMAS