All of God’s Word is powerful, but some parts of it are especially rich in revealing the Gospel. In addition to the four Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, there are two books that could easily be called the “fifth gospel.” The prophecy of Isaiah so clearly foreshadows Jesus, the promised Messiah, that we read from it at both Christmas and on Good Friday.
In this year’s Epistle lessons we’ve come to a semi-continuous reading of St. Paul’s New Testament letter to the Romans. From June until September we’ll hear Paul unfold the Law of God that convicts all mankind of sin and His Gospel that saves us from its consequences. Martin Luther was very fond of this letter, saying “This epistle is really the chief part of the New Testament, and is truly the purest gospel. It is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but also that he should occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul.”
Unlike most of his other letters, St. Paul wrote this letter to a church in Rome that he had neither founded nor visited. But it was Paul’s desire to meet them soon, because they were bravely proclaiming the saving Gospel of Christ in the capital city of the Roman Empire. The irony of Paul’s planning was that it would take years before he could visit Rome, and then not as a free man, but as a prisoner. Paul was sent by the Roman governor Festus to Rome so that he could appeal his false arrest all the way to the Emperor.
What was Paul’s purpose for writing this powerful letter? In part, he was writing it as a letter of self-introduction. Paul had made extensive missionary journeys in the eastern part of the empire. He hoped the church in Rome would be the launching point for further travels into the western part of the empire. Before he could enlist their support he needed them to understand what he was going to teach.
But the letter to the Romans is not a fundraising letter. Paul blesses the Romans (and us) with a clear explanation of the Christian faith. This Christian faith addresses the fundamental problem we share, which is our mortality. Why do we die? Because we are naturally infected with sin. Even at conception we were bearers of the sin of Adam’s disobedience. And sin is identified by the law, which paints both Jews and Gentiles with the same brush.
But, even while we were still sinners, without any merit or worthiness to justify our place in God’s heavenly kingdom, Christ died for us. Our baptisms unite us with Him in all aspects of His saving grace. We die with Him, we’re buried with Him, and we rise with Him. That’s the death of the old sinner and the new birth of the righteous child of God.
On good days and on bad days; through obedient times and through shameful times; in clear confession of faith and when we struggle to articulate the pain we suffer; God connects us to our Savior, Jesus, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, who calls us to faith.
Please read the letter to the Romans with the same joy that Luther experienced when this passage finally sunk in to his troubled conscience: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, "The righteous shall live by faith." [Romans 1:16-17]
Dead to sin and alive in Christ,