by Craig Blomberg
The epistle to the Romans led Martin Luther to reconsider the medieval Catholicism that he had been taught and to recover a biblical theology of justification by faith rather than works. Thus no other portion of Scripture was more instrumental in spawning the Protestant Reformation beginning in the early 1500s.
Similarly, it was Romans that led John Wesley two centuries later to recover the need for a personal conversion experience within a significant portion of the Church of England that had often lost sight of this.
As a result, a new branch of Protestantism was born that came to be known as the Methodist Church, which in turn would later produce various other holiness churches (e.g., the Nazarenes) and ultimately the twentieth-century Pentecostal and charismatic movements.
Also in the twentieth century, Romans would transform the young German liberal, Karl Barth, who went on to become perhaps the most influential theologian of the century anywhere in the world, establishing what came to be called neo-orthodoxy.
These developments should cause no surprise. This epistle of Paul provides the most systematic answer anywhere in Scripture to the question of how to become right with God, which is the fundamental question of human existence on the assumption that God exists at all.
More comprehensively, incorporating both the theological and ethical material of the epistle, Romans sums up the Christian answer to the question of how to know God’s will for one’s life. This letter is the “Gospel of John” of the epistles—the fullest and most organized presentation of the heart of the gospel. All human beings have sinned and thus have become alienated from God. Restoring a desirable relationship with their Maker required the atonement wrought by Jesus Christ.
Actualizing this relationship—what Christianity calls salvation—necessitates faith in Christ, which combines belief in his deity and bodily resurrection with submission to his lordship (making him ultimate Master of one’s life). No form of works righteousness can ever bring about this salvation.
Still, those who have truly been justified will by definition have living within them the Spirit, who guarantees their transformation into increasingly godly people, though undoubtedly in as many different ways as there are individual believers and not without plenty of lapses and fresh starts. This “progressive sanctification” culminates in the ultimate glorification of the believer when Christ returns, which combines a resurrected body free from the decay that leads to death with a morally perfected spirit that never again sins.
Because moral change begins already in this age, believers are commanded to yield themselves increasingly to the Spirit, who will empower them to obey the commands of the gospel. At the most general level, these commands involve physical and mental purity in the dedication of one’s entire self to the Lord. They then proceed to the level of discovering one’s individual spiritual gifts and exercising them faithfully and in love. And they point out that Christian maturity exhibits itself in the joyful tolerance and even encouragement of other believers to live as God has shaped them and as he guides their consciences on all issues other than the small handful of biblical absolutes that remain nonnegotiable.
If we begin acting on all of these precious truths that we can know clearly represent God’s will for our lives, then we will be poised to understand his guidance on the often more difficult questions about our personal callings, including where to work, where to live, whom to marry (or whether to stay single), whether to have children, when to move, and so on.
At times, this guidance may lead us to understand that God is giving us the freedom to rely on what can be called “sanctified common sense.” In other words, as we saw in Acts, God frequently does not disclose his will through unambiguous signs but through a process of our exploration of numerous possibilities, all of which could reflect acceptable ways to serve him, but only one of which actually materializes.
Or, in other cases, we simply have to choose among God-honoring activities, since we can do only so many things in so many places in this finite, fallen existence of ours.
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