Today we turn a significant corner in our reading through the New Testament. Up to this point, we have been reading through the “narrative” sections of the New Testament. Narrative is a type of literary form that simply tells a story about what has happened in history. All of the Gospels and the book of Acts fall into this general category. Except for the closing couple of chapters of Acts, we’re now making our way into the “Epistles” , which means “letters”. Letters are completely different from narratives. Letters are written by an individual to either another individual or a group. Usually there is a central reason (or occasion) for writing the letter, and the writer usually orders the letter around that theme. The book of Romans is one of those “letters”.
It is written by Paul, about whom the final two chapters of Acts was all about. In Acts 27 and 28, Paul describes being arrested in Jerusalem on trumped-up charges, and his journey to Rome because of his appeal of those charges, as was his right as a Roman citizen. He describes the rough sea journey, the shipwreck off the island of Malta, and their eventual arrival in Rome. Acts closes with Paul boldly proclaiming the Gospel while in chains and under house arrest.
Now that we are in Romans, we have stepped back in time a bit. Now, Paul is probably in Corinth during his third missionary journey, and he is writing to the churches in Rome. The occasion for writing the letter was to address some theological and practical concerns that he saw (or had heard of) in the churches in Rome. Romans contains the greatest collection of Paul’s theology that we find anywhere in the New Testament.
Today’s reading goes through the first four chapters of Romans. In these chapters, Paul is laying a foundation for the gospel. The over-arching principle he is trying to teach is that all people are utterly lost and hopeless of salvation because of sin. He drives this point home in Chapter 3:10-18
10 As it is written:
“There is no one righteous, not even one;
11 there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
12 All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”
13 “Their throats are open graves;
their tongues practice deceit.”
“The poison of vipers is on their lips.”
14 “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16 ruin and misery mark their ways,
17 and the way of peace they do not know.”
18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
None of us walks away from reading that feeling very confident about our own righteousness, do we? That was Paul’s intent. People in that day and age put all of their confidence in the Law, and their ability to follow the Law. But Paul says, that trying to achieve the kind of righteousness that makes us right with God by following the commandments of the law is hopeless and futile.
Paul doesn’t fully role out the “good” side of the Good News until a few chapters later, but he doesn’t hold us in complete suspense. He gives us a glimpse of the hope we have in Christ in chapter 3:21-22a
21But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.
Let us praise God today for the amazing plan He put in place to make righteousness available to us. Not as something we “achieve” but as a gift of grace, given to those who believe.