27th March 2011

Transformational Epistle

“For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith’”
(Romans 1:17 NIV)

The apostle Paul wrote his epistle to the Romans nearly 2,000 years ago. Only a few pages, less than 10,000 words, but its impact has been profound. At least three times it has produced an upheaval that forever changed the church for the better.

In the early 1500s Martin Luther was trying to ease his conscience through living what he called a “life without reproach”. In spite of obeying all the rituals and ordinances of his priestly order, Luther still felt alienated from God. Later, as a university lecturer on the book of Romans, Luther found himself drawn to Paul’s declaration as printed above. The truth of this powerful passage finally struck him. He wrote: “There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God…namely the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith…Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”

The Protestant Reformation was a result.

The second upheaval came in the 1730s. The Church of England had fallen on hard times. London was a hotbed of gin-drinking and loose living. Corruption was rampant, even in the churches. A devout young Anglican minister, John Wesley, was preaching repentance, but his efforts were having little effect. He was touched by the faith of a group of German Christians on a trans-Atlantic voyage. In Wesley’s words: “I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation: And an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

Once again the Book of Romans helped turn the church back to faith as it launched the Evangelical Revival.

In the midst of World War I in 1916, a young Swiss pastor finds his optimistic, liberal views about a Christian world advancing toward moral and spiritual perfection shattered by the mind-numbing slaughter on the Western Front. In Karl Barth’s ‘Romans’ commentary, published in Germany in 1918, Barth was concerned that the original voice of Paul was being lost, buried under centuries of scholarship and criticism. In writing about Romans 1, he said that the gospel is not one thing among other things but a Word that is the Origin of all things, ever new, a communication from God demanding faith and that, when properly read, creates the very faith it presumes. The gospel, he said, demands participation and co-operation. So he showed that the Word of God was relevant to a battered world disillusioned by global war. Once again, the book of Romans was the shining star, showing the way.

Barth’s Commentary on Romans has been described as a bomb dropped on the playground of philosophers and theologians. Once again the church was changed by the message of Romans taking hold of a devout reader. It changed Luther, Wesley, Barth. And it continues to change many today. Through it the Holy Spirit transforms its readers with faith and assurance. If you don’t yet know that assurance, I urge that you to read and believe the Book of Romans.

Holy Father, thank you for the wisdom preserved in your Bible—which, thanks to the touch of your grace, transforms those who consider its message. Thank you for humble men, willing to change, who can inspire others to follow where they have led. In Jesus’ name we pray.

Study by Joseph Tkach 

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