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The Opportunity of Studying Romans

by Ray Van Neste

(previously appeared in the Baptist & Reflector, January 2008)

This year’s January Bible Study presents quite an opportunity as it focuses on Romans.  It is amazing to see the impact this one letter has had on the church and indeed the whole of western civilization.  Bible scholar Gordon Fee has written, “This letter is arguably the most influential book in Christian history, perhaps in the history of Western civilization.”  The impact of this letter is no doubt related to the fact that in this letter Paul gives us his most detailed exposition of the gospel.  B. H. Carroll, founding president of Southwestern Seminary, wrote of Romans:

“It is the most fundamental, vital, logical, profound and systematic discussion of the whole plan of salvation in all the literature of the world.  It touches all men; it is universal in its application; it roots, not only in man’s creation and fall, but also in the timeless purposes and decrees of God before the world was, and fruits in the eternity after the world’s purgation.”

Romans has greatly impacted key leaders in the history of the church.  The most prominent theologian in the early centuries of the church was Augustine of Hippo.  Yet, he did not look like a promising candidate for leadership early in his life.  He was living in immorality and rebelling against God.  He had heard some of the best preachers of the era and his mother prayed regularly for his conversion.  Then one day as he walked in a garden he heard some children at play calling out “Tolle Lege” (“Take up and read”) and he saw a Bible lying on a bench.  Opening the Bible he came to the 13th chapter of Romans, was convicted of sin and came to faith.  He went on to be a great defender of the faith through difficult days.

As the years passed the church in the Middle Ages largely lost the gospel.  Then, an obscure German monk with an uneasy conscience because of his awareness of sin began a study of the book of Romans.  In this letter Martin Luther found the clear teaching of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.  Relieved and animated by the life-giving truth of justification by faith, he went forth preaching this truth and the world has never been the same.  This Protestant Reformation was primarily a recovery of the pure gospel resulting in a dramatic increase of gospel proclamation around the world.  This emerged from the study of the book of Romans and is why Luther said of Romans:

“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.  It can never be read or pondered too much, and the more it is dealt with the more precious it becomes, and the better it tastes.

…Therefore it appears that St. Paul wanted to comprise briefly in this one Epistle the whole Christian and evangelical doctrine and to prepare an introduction to the entire Old Testament; for, without doubt, he who has this Epistle well in his heart, has the light and power of the Old Testament with him.  Therefore let every Christian exercise himself in it habitually and continually.  To this may God give his grace. Amen.”

Two centuries later as stagnation had set in in much of the Church of England a young man set out to preach without ever truly being converted.  After some struggles and failures, he sat in a service where someone read Martin Luther’s preface to his commentary on Romans.  Listening to the truths of this letter, John Wesley said he “felt his heart strangely warmed” and he was converted.  Wesley went on to preach in power to thousands of people and played a part in the great evangelical awakening of that era.

Other examples of famous individuals could be given, but the letter has no doubt impacted many, many people whom we will never read about.  I have been blessed to watch one example in our church.  One of the pastors has a grown daughter who had rejected the gospel she heard from her childhood and made it clear she was unconverted.  Many in the church had prayed for her for years.  Then one Sunday word came in that her live-in boyfriend had been shot multiple times and was in the hospital in critical condition.  We prayed that morning that God would use this to bring both of them to faith.  We visited, shared and prayed.  Then one night in the hospital, after everyone had gone, this young woman picked up a Bible that a family member had left.  She said she simply opened the Bible and came to the 13th chapter of Romans- very near where Augustine had read almost 1600 years earlier!  There in the hospital, having been convicted of her sin and need of Christ through Romans, she was converted.  Today she and her husband are active faithful members of the church.  The gospel, contained in the book of Romans, is still changing lives today.  No doubt this is why Bible scholar F. F. Bruce once wrote, a bit tongue-in-cheek:

“There is no saying what may happen when people begin to study the letter of Romans.  So let those who have read thus far be prepared for the consequences of reading further: you have been warned!”

What an opportunity to join with the church through the ages in studying once more this great letter!  May God be pleased to bless this study in our churches to the salvation of souls and rejuvenation of the church.

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