Law, Gospel, Corpses, and Babies
by Jonathan Hamilton
It’s Saturday afternoon. I’m supposed to be working on the family budget right now. Fortunately, I decided to start reading the book of Romans about an hour or two ago and now I’m off the hook.
Truth be told, I am ten-year-old-at-first-baseball-game giddy to be starting a new study in Romans. Romans is the book that transformed my personal Bible study and ignited a hunger for Divine truth I don’t remember ever experiencing prior to my first (and last) trek through it as a freshman/sophomore in college twelve years ago. I ought never go that long again between studies of this Theological masterpiece.
Admittedly, I’m running a risk by giving you this glimpse into the first few verses of Romans. If you attend Bethany Baptist Church, you are likely to hear me preach this at my next possible opportunity. If you attend Calvary Baptist Church of Wakefield, you might hear this at my guest preaching appearance on June 1. However, the risk is largely mitigated based on the likelihood that by the next time I preach I will have about fifteen competing sermon ideas from this great book. So this article might be your only crack at hearing the awesome truths I’m learning on this first section of Romans. The bottom line is this: if I don’t preach it to someone, even in written form, I’m going to drive my wife crazy with my living room mutterings and occasional displays of redefined charismata. So here goes.
Romans 1:1-7 (NASB)
Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, 3 concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, 4 who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name’s sake, 6 among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ; 7 to all who are beloved of God in Rome, called as saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
For a sermon, I’d likely preach this whole section. But for the purpose of this article, and for what caused me some hooping and hollering earlier, I’ll focus on verses 1 and 2.
I’m guessing that most folks, when hearing the words “Romans Chapter One” likely think of the famous section from verses 18-32 that deal with humanity’s awful state. However, ignoring the first half of this chapter is done at great cost to the reader. The truths found here are monumental and glorious. If you are running out of time to read today, quit reading this article and go read and contemplate the first half of Romans 1 for yourself.
Romans opens with Paul introducing himself to the church at Rome, who according to some later verses he had not yet met in person, but had longed to for some time. At the end of verse one, he mentions the fact that he was set apart for the gospel of God, a privileged calling indeed. Verse two continues on this theme of the gospel, which Paul states that God, “promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures.” And it is here I want to focus.
Paul is clearly making reference to the gospel foundation that was laid in the Old Testament. The very first instance of this truth would be in Genesis 3:15, where God promises to send a Deliverer to crush the head of Satan. But I’d like to focus on an example of the gospel foundation in Exodus to show you what got my Bibdrenaline pumping a little while ago.
Do you remember Exodus 3? This is the chapter in which Moses encounters the burning bush in the wilderness of Sinai near the end of his time shepherding for his father in law, Jethro. He had vacated Egypt 40 years prior under threat of death from Pharaoh. Now, as an 80-year old man Moses was about to be called by God to go back to Egypt, to a new Pharaoh and to the people of God, to lead God’s sovereign rescue effort of His chosen people. The Israelites were about to go from giant group of slaves to theocratic nation.
But Moses resisted. Five times, as a matter of fact. As a lesson on the patience of God, this is a great chapter for you to mark down for later study. In Exodus 3:11, Moses’ very first of five objections went like this: “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?”
God’s gracious response (verse 12)? “And He said, “Certainly I will be with you, and this shall be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain.”
Interestingly, God gave Moses a sign that required Moses to obey before receiving it. Those aren’t our favorite kind of signs as humans, eh? But now we skip ahead. Moses had returned to Egypt. God had unleashed 10 plagues against the pagan nation, each one an attack on a different Egyptian deity. Finally, after the death of Egypt’s firstborn, Pharaoh and his people basically rushed the Hebrews out of the land, sending them off not with rocks and pitchforks, but amazingly, with gifts of immense worth.
In a final brazen act of rebellion, Pharaoh and Egypt changed their minds and pursued Israel to the brink of the Red Sea. Expecting to meet the sons of Jacob in weakness and quickly secure their return and surrender, instead Egypt met God. Face to face, as it were. And the results were not pretty. The people of God lifted nary a finger, and all of Egypt’s mighty warriors lay dead on the shore. God would not be mocked.
Within several weeks, Israel, the new nation, reached the wilderness of Sinai and its famous mountain (Exodus 19). God had kept His promise to Moses. The sign had been fulfilled.
It was here at Sinai (also called ‘Horeb’) that God told Moses to prepare the people for an overwhelming display of his holiness and wrath on the third day. Not a man or beast ought to touch the mountain or the death penalty would follow. We’re told that when God descended on the mountain, the sight was so terrifying that the people trembled before Him. There was thunder, lightning, the sound of a loud trumpet, and God came down to the mountain in fire, causing it to seem as if the whole mountain were a furnace as its smoke poured forth to the heavens. All of this was a stark reminder that God was holy and they were not. He could not be approached by sinful people. He was set apart. He was hallowed. He was fearful in His wrath against sin.
It was also here at Sinai, just prior to this mighty display, that God offered the people a covenant (Ex. 19:3b-6):
Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel: 4 ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. 5 Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; 6 and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel.
Now we often gloss over this truth, but it remains: God was not offering them a flexi-nant. This was not an 80/20 deal, in which as long as they kept their end of the bargain 80% of the time, He would keep His. It wasn’t even a 99/1 deal. That’s not the way covenants work. In reality, the people were being asked to perfectly keep this covenant. And they quickly accepted this impossible task in verses 7-8:
“So Moses came and called the elders of the people, and set before them all these words which the Lord had commanded him. 8 All the people answered together and said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do!” And Moses brought back the words of the people to the Lord.”
A more appropriate response might have been, “Hey, we can’t do that. We need help! We need grace! We need mercy!” Regardless, a question likely arises in your mind: why would God put forth an impossible covenant? This seems unfair at worst, or pointless at best.
The answer is simple, and it is the foundation of the gospel. Israel could not possibly earn, or merit, God’s favor. The covenant wasn’t given them as Plan A of the gospel, and when they failed miserably God decided to enact Plan B. No! The point was to show Israel, and through the record of the Old Testament to show us as well, that we cannot make ourselves pleasing or acceptable to Him. There was no hope for them. There is no hope for us.
Except in the powerful gospel of Christ. You see, if you strip away our sin, if you strip away God’s holiness and wrath, then you strip away the foundation of the gospel. If I have it in me to keep God’s covenant, than a bloodied and forsaken Deliverer seems a bit unnecessary, even excessive, don’t you think? The substitutionary atonement of Christ (my sin and God’s wrath placed on Him at the Cross, His righteousness clothing me) comes off as an archaic and gory notion of barbaric proportions rather than a glorious and Divine resolution to our sin debt.
Paul got it. Paul probably got it better than anyone ever has. He realized how rooted the gospel was in the Old Testament, and why. And he gloried in the privilege of carrying that long-ago-promised gospel far and wide.
The people standing at Sinai were spiritually dead corpses. And such were we . You see, the gospel isn’t medicine for the sick, it’s resurrection for the dead. Paul makes this much clear in Ephesians 2:1, 4-6:
And you were dead in your trespasses and sins…4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6 and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,
This reality of spiritual deadness – the fact that the unsaved are literally spiritual cadavers totally devoid of life – brings a whole new dimension to what Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3:3: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” The gospel takes mature, adult carcasses rotting with sin and stinking of death, and re-bears them as clean, pink, shiny, new little babies in Christ. This is being born again! This is the new birth! This is the power of the Cross! No longer a dead man lying lifeless on the table, but a vigorously alive infant crying and screaming and constantly desirous of milk! Glory!
Paul knew this gospel. He saw its roots in the Old Testament. He understood its foundation. And rather than minimizing the ugliness of the human condition, he underlined it. For the gospel becomes more glorious as we better understand from what we were rescued. The book of Romans has rightly been called the Gospel of God’s Grace. I’m on the tip of this magnificent continent, and cannot wait to go inland.
Acclaimed Commentaries on Romans, in order of preference (full disclosure: I have a copy of Moo’s on the way):
The Epistle to the Romans, Douglas Moo
Romans, Thomas Schreiner
The Message of Roman’s: God’s Good News for the World, John R.W. Stott
Romans, R.C. Sproul