Spreading the gospel doesn’t excite us. “Oooh! Ooooh! Pick me!” Perhaps in our “everybody’s-got-their-own-truth” culture, evangelism is too daunting. Perhaps we don’t know how to explain the gospel. Or perhaps we don’t care enough.
Paul, however, is eager to tell the gospel. Buried in his greetings to the Roman church lies an overlooked truth: making the gospel known is an obligation.
THANKS AND PRAYER FOR THE CHURCH AT ROME
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. God, whom I serve with my whole heart in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times; and I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you (1:8-10).
Ten years before Paul’s letter, the church (composed of numerous house churches) had become a major presence in the city. But the world knew of their faith, because Rome was the pagan empire’s center and travelers from the city spread the news. For that Paul tells them he thanks God through Jesus Christ.
He also tells them he prays for them, invoking God as his witness to confirm how he remembers them constantly. In fact, the church at Rome is so much on his heart that he prays God may finally open the way for him to visit.
We have no reason to doubt Paul’s sincerity. After all, this church flourishes in the heart of the pagan empire! But Paul’s plans reach far beyond Rome: he hopes the Roman church will become a base from which he can take the gospel to Spain.
I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done–by the power of signs and miracles, through the power of the Spirit. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation. Rather, as it is written: “Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand.” This is why I have often been hindered from coming to you. But now that there is no more place for me to work in these regions, and since I have been longing for many years to see you, I plan to do so when I go to Spain. I hope to visit you while passing through and to have you assist me on my journey there, after I have enjoyed your company for a while. Now, however, I am on my way to Jerusalem in the service of the saints there (Romans 15:18-25).
LONGING TO SEE THE CHURCH AT ROME
I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong– that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith. I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles (1:11-13).
At the same time, he longs for meaningful ministry among the Roman church. He wants to “impart . . . some spiritual gift to make you strong.” In fact, he explains, he hopes that “you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.”
Paul will bring with him whatever spiritual gifts the Holy Spirit has given him as an apostle and the church will utilize whatever gifts the Spirit has given them. The purpose: that they might be strengthened and encouraged in the faith.
Paul may be concerned the Roman church presumes Paul doesn’t care much about them. This concern may lie behind Paul invoking God as witness to his constant prayers for them. And may lie behind Paul assuring them he’s often planned to visit them but has so far been prevented.
EAGERNESS TO PREACH TO THE CHURCH AT ROME
I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome (1:14,15).
Why is Paul eager to preach the gospel to those who are at Rome? Because he is “obligated” to. In the original Greek, Paul says, “I am a debtor both to Greeks and non-Greeks . . . But why is Paul a debtor, or under obligation, to preach the gospel to everyone?
“Debtor” implies we owe something to someone. Suppose we discovered the cure for cancer. Wouldn’t we owe it to cancer-sufferers to make the cure known. So we have received the good news of God’s grace in Christ. It explains how sinners can be saved from eternal hell to know God now and in the righteous, eternal new creation to come. Don’t we owe it to lost sinners to make the “cure” known?
Note: Paul isn’t indebted to God. Pay back God for his grace and grace is no longer grace. But God’s grace in Christ to Paul makes Paul a debtor to everyone who doesn’t know grace.
Am I obligated to spread the gospel of grace as Paul was? After all, I’m not an apostle. But obligation doesn’t spring from apostle; it springs from grace. If I’ve received God’s grace in Christ, then I’m obligated to talk about grace.
But grace-obligation is different from law-obligation. Law-obligation commands me to spread the gospel and warns of stiff consequences if I don’t. Grace-obligation urges me to spread the gospel out of love for the lost and a desire to spread God’s glory.
Receiving God’s grace in Christ is like finding a cancer-cure. Love (at least concern) for suffering cancer patients should motivate me to spread news of the cure. But spreading grace doesn’t depend on my emotions. I’m still obligated. I still am indebted to God. But I pay the debt to him by telling others of his grace.
“Lord Jesus, you brought me grace from the Father. It comes with an obligation to spread the good new of that grace. Please change my heart so that I love others who need that grace too. You know all sorts of objections hold me back, the biggest being their resistance. So please show me who I should reach out to and how. Talking about this grace-cure should be easy, but we both know it’s not. I need you to work by the Holy Spirit, because this obligation is way beyond me. I ask this for your glory. Amen.”