Romans 1:1 - Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God...
The book of Romans begins by implying the most amazing of all truths. Its first word stands out like a venerated historic monument to the truth that is the heart and soul of this epistle. The principal theme of Romans is the gospel of God, and the glory of the gospel is that God’s grace is radically lavished on those who least deserve it. Romans will go on to explain in detail how that, “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more”, but before doing so, it strikes us with a flesh and blood example of God’s grace abounding to the chief of sinners, and it accomplishes this by simply naming its author: “Paul”.
This is amazing, because Paul was no ordinary man. Though his religious zeal far exceeded that of his peers, so did his sin. The Paul who penned Romans was formerly the Saul who stoned Stephen. He was once a wicked man –a murderer, a blasphemer, a God-hating persecutor of the Lord and His church. In his rebellion against Christ, he knew no equal. So great was his sin that he didn’t hesitate to declare himself to be the chief of sinners, and this not by the exaggeration of a false humility but by the sober assessment of an aged, reflecting mind (1 Tim. 1:15). If anyone were unfit for Christ’s service due to having sinned away the possibility of grace, it would have been him. Yet far from disposing of this raging Pharisee on a rampage to exterminate Christianity, God saw in him an opportunity to display the abundance of His mercy by magnifying the immensity of His grace in the conversion and calling of Saul of Tarsus.
So God takes the saint’s foremost persecutor and turns him into their foremost servant; He takes Christianity’s greatest enemy and turns him into its greatest promoter; He takes the church’s greatest liability and turns him into its greatest asset, as Paul relentlessly preaches the faith he once tried to destroy (Gal. 1:23-24). But this is not all –He also takes the greatest of sinners and causes grace to so super-abound so as to utterly transform him and use him as an instrument of divine revelation to inscripturate the greatest treatise on the theology of the gospel ever written, thus illustrating with vivid clarity the glorious truth that divine grace triumphs over human sin by the gospel of Jesus Christ. The first word of Romans is a monument to God’s mercy, a trophy of the triumph of God’s grace!
This is why Paul could say, “I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 1:12-14). He speaks of grace “overflowing” toward him, giving the picture of the pouring forth of a provision of divine favor that not only corresponds to the spiritual need incurred due to sin but also goes beyond it to provide such a generous fullness so as to constitute an abundance that supplies more than what is necessitated to meet the need. Thus Paul spoke of “the immeasurable riches of his grace” (Eph. 2:7), because God’s saving grace is unfathomably abundant as it is lavished on the sinner, and he knew this by personal experience.
It is out of such an experience of grace that Paul unleashes the theology of the gospel in Romans from the very depths of his soul, with the burning conviction that every sentence, every phrase, every word must contribute to the extolling of the glory of this grace as God the Holy Spirit breathes through His inspired apostle to lay bare the mind of God in the salvation of sinners. No doubt, Paul’s reception of such a mighty deluge of grace uniquely positioned him to be a choice instrument to minister such grace so effectively to others. It provided him with a supernatural depth of understanding into its mysteries out of which he later draws from with such brilliant detail as He masterfully expounds the nature of salvation throughout the book of Romans.
Church history is replete with similar examples of God’s grace saving and transforming men who later put pen to paper and write out of the abundance of grace they received. In the 17th century, a tinker from Bedford, England, being a vile blasphemer, was infamous in his town for being the most ungodly of wretches. Yet the same sovereign grace that had saved Saul of Tarsus was also poured out on John Bunyan, who later penned “The Pilgrim’s Progress”. Bunyan, who himself knew the depths of hellish depravity, had also soared the heights of heavenly grace, and penned his famous account of the Christian’s pilgrimage from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City out of the depths of his own experience of grace. The man who was considered the greatest of sinners came to know such grace that he was able to pen the greatest of the church’s fictional narratives, which so remarkably portrays the life of faith, and has been a blessing to countless multitudes!
John Newton of the 18th century has a similar testimony. He was a blatant God-rejecter, a scoffer of the Christian faith, a hater of men, and even occupied himself in human trafficking for a time. His sin brought him so low that he even despaired of life and precipitated murder, contemplated suicide, and arrived at such depths that his testimony literally parallels that of the prodigal son of Luke 15. Though he far out-sinned his peers in all sorts of evil, the Lord broke his stubborn will and caused him to fall in surrender at the feet of Christ where he received forgiveness. Newton would later write the church’s all-time favorite hymn, “Amazing Grace”, as an outburst of praise from the depths of his own heart after having experienced such amazing grace himself. This is yet another case of God using the chief of sinners to magnify the abundance of the grace of the gospel by penning powerful words which exalt mighty, triumphant grace!
The fact that Paul wrote Romans should cause us to pause, be still, and wonder at the magnitude, power, and depth of God’s grace in the gospel. Though Paul was simply following the ancient custom of placing the author’s name at the beginning of a letter as opposed to our modern practice of placing it at the end, it is not without significance that he, and not any other, was the actual human instrument used by the Spirit of God to pen such a wonderful masterpiece of divinely inspired literature. Just as God used Bunyan and Newton –men who were formerly considered to be among the most wicked of the sons of men, to pen some of the most God-glorifying exultations of grace in church history, God used Paul to pen the book of Romans. Not only does the content of the literature magnify God’s grace, but also the instruments He chose to use to write it, as they stand forth as a testimony to the very grace they write about. And Romans stands head and shoulders above the rest, not only because of the majesty of its style, the genius of its presentation, the depth of its content, the glory of its truth, and a host of other reasons intrinsic to the nature of Holy Scripture, but because it is Holy Scripture itself, uniquely inspired by the Holy Spirit and consisting of the very Words of God.
When any sinner despairs of finding mercy, he has only to meditate on the facts which made the first word of Romans a reality. If Paul’s sin was so great so as to be greater than all the rest, but still wasn’t greater than God’s grace as it abounds in the gospel of which Paul was later made a herald, then no amount of human sinfulness should cause the repentant sinner to despair of finding mercy in the cross of Jesus Christ. Paul’s reception of saving mercy in spite of sin is an example to all who desire to experience salvation. As he testified, “But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Tim. 1:16).
The book of Romans begins by giving us a real-life example of the reality of its grand theme before proceeding to expound it in detail, as if to imply that what is explained therein is not the mere theory of ivory-tower theologizing, but the real, authentic down-to-earth experience of redeeming, transforming grace as it is brought to bear on real, live, sinful sons and daughters of Adam. That the first word of Romans is “Paul” is nothing short of a mighty miracle to the praise of the glory of God’s sovereign grace. Let us never underestimate it!
“If sinners will be damned, at least let them leap to Hell over our bodies. And if they will perish, let them perish with our arms about their knees, imploring them to stay. If Hell must be filled, at least let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go there unwarned and unprayed for.” -Charles H. Spurgeon