Romans: The Missionary Letter that Changed a Man and the World

In 1512, a 29 year-old Augustinian monk named Martin Luther became professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg. Luther entered his new calling amidst immense inner turmoil—what he would label anfechtungen or anxiety of the soul. Despite his immense training both as a monk and an academic, he remained overwhelmed by the wrath of God against sinners, and despite all his efforts, he could not achieve a level of righteousness and purity that would quiet his soul and give him assurance of God’s pleasure with him.

In his first years as a lecturer in Wittenberg, he lectured through the Psalms (1514–1515) and then Romans (1515–1516). Luther would come to credit Romans 1:17 with changing his life. In Romans 1:17, Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4, “For in [the Gospel], the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith.” By studying this text in the original Greek rather than the Latin translation of the Roman Catholic Church, Luther began to see his (and his Church’s) error. He had read the passage as meaning that the only persons who could “live by faith” were those who had actually attained righteousness. Luther explains what happened to him:

At last meditating day and night, by the mercy of God, I…began to understand that the righteousness of God is that through which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith…Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open.

The rest is history. The 95 theses nailed to the church door at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, the Protestant Reformation, and the five solas (Scripture Alone, Faith Alone, Grace Alone, Christ Alone, the Glory of God Alone) all flowed from this encounter with the book of Romans.

That may not surprise us since we stand on the other side of Luther and since we often regard Romans as both evangelism tract (the Romans Road verses) and book of theology. But consider the purpose of Romans: Romans is a missionary letter to the churches of Rome, inviting them to partner with Paul in his missionary work.Romans is a missionary letter to the churches of Rome. Click To Tweet

Paul begins the letter by expressing his desire to visit the churches in Rome so that they might be mutually encouraged by one another (Rom 1:11-12). At the end of the letter, he reveals his intentions: He wants to visit Rome on his way to Spain. He hopes that they will help him on his way (Rom 15:23-24). While the help Paul seeks means more than finances, it certainly doesn’t mean less. In our lingo, Paul is “support raising.”

What interests me in particular is how Paul goes about support raising. He shows very little interest in getting the Roman churches to have an emotional response to “the need” in Spain. That doesn’t mean Paul is callous to the human needs around the world. In Romans 9:1–3, he expresses “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” for Jews who don’t believe in Christ, even wishing to take on the curse for their sin himself. But this sort of emotional plea isn’t the center of what Paul is doing.Paul focuses on two things: his gospel call and the content of the gospel. Click To Tweet

Instead, Paul focuses on two things: his gospel call and the content of the gospel. Paul begins the letter by expressing God’s calling on his life. He is “a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God” (Rom 1:1). He is “under obligation” to preach the gospel to all nations (Rom 1:14), and therefore, he is “not ashamed of the gospel” (Rom 1:16).

He then spends much of the rest of the book explaining what that gospel is. “It is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16). The gospel is the good news that, even though “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” we “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Rom 3:23-25). It is the good news that we no longer stand condemned in our flesh but are alive in the Spirit, adopted into the family of God, and guaranteed by God’s grace to be glorified along with all creation (Rom 8). It is the good news that transforms our thinking, aligning our will with God’s will (Rom 12:1-2).

The gospel-focus of this missionary support letter changed Martin Luther, just as it has changed countless others. While we don’t know whether Paul ever made it to Spain, we do know that the gospel did. And that same gospel continues to go forth to the ends of the earth because one missionary chose to focus his support raising less on where he was going or what he was doing and more on who God is and what God has done in Christ.

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