(from a transcript of a sermon preached on 6/24/01 at Sovereign Redeemer Assembly)
Please turn to Romans 1:8. This is the second sentence in Paul's epistle to the Romans:
Romans 1: (8) First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, that your faith is spoken of in all the world.
The first thing that Paul says after his salutation is that he is thankful to God for the saints in Rome. Notice that he thanks God THROUGH Jesus Christ. This shows an important fact. All of our thanksgiving and praise to God is through Christ. There is no true praise to God except through the person and work of Christ Jesus. Turn over to Hebrews 13:15:
Hebrews 13: (15) Then through Him let us offer up a sacrifice of praise to God always, that is, [the] fruit of the lips, confessing to His name.
The word "Him" there refers to Jesus Christ, if you look at the context. Here is a command to offer up a sacrifice of praise to God THROUGH Jesus Christ. The first word of verse 15 is crucial. "THEN through Him ..." This shows us that the reason why we are to offer up praise to God through Christ precedes this sentence. Let's read verses 10 through 13:
Hebrews 13: (10) We have an altar of which those serving the tabernacle have no authority to eat. (11) For of the animals [whose] "blood is brought" by the high priest "into the [Holy of] Holies" concerning sins, of these the bodies "are burned outside the camp." (12) Indeed, because of this, in order that He might sanctify the people by His own blood, Jesus suffered outside the gate. (13) So let us go forth to Him outside the camp bearing His reproach.
HERE is the reason why we are to offer up praise to God through Christ. It is because Jesus suffered and died for us outside the gate that we would be sanctified by His blood. It again comes down to the person and work of Christ.
Now we hear a lot of people say, "Thank God." Yet most of them are not thanking God through Jesus Christ. They do not thank God through the merits of Christ's obedience and death that make the only difference between salvation and damnation. They thank their god because their god enabled them to meet certain conditions. They think they can come to God and praise God based on Christ's merits PLUS their own merits. They do not realize that all they are going to face at judgment day, if God does not save them, is a God of wrath, with no mediator to plead their case.
So what do we, as believers, have and do through Christ? Let's look at some Scriptures that talk about this.
Romans 5: (1) Then being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, ... (11) and not only [so], but also glorying in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we now received the reconciliation.
Romans 7: (25) I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then I myself with the mind truly serve [the] Law of God, and [with] the flesh [the] law of sin.
Romans 16: (27) to [the] only wise God through Jesus Christ, to whom [be] the glory forever. Amen.
1 Corinthians 15:57:
1 Corinthians 15: (57) but thanks [be] to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!
2 Corinthians 1:5:
2 Corinthians 1: (5) Because even as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.
2 Corinthians 3:4:
2 Corinthians 3: (4) And we have such confidence through Christ toward God;
2 Corinthians 5:18:
2 Corinthians 5: (18) And all things [are] from God, the [One] having reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and having given to us the ministry of reconciliation,
Galatians 4: (7) So that you no more are a slave, but a son, and if a son, also an heir of God through Christ.
Ephesians 1: (5) predestinating us to adoption through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will,
Philippians 1: (11) being filled [with] fruits of righteousness through Jesus Christ, to [the] glory and praise of God.
1 Thessalonians 5:9:
1 Thessalonians 5: (9) because God has not appointed us to wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ,
2 Thessalonians 3:12:
2 Thessalonians 3: (12) And we command such and exhort through our Lord Jesus Christ that working with quietness, they may eat their own bread.
Titus 3: (6) whom He poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ, our Savior;
Hebrews 13: (21) perfect you in every good work, in order to do His will, doing in you that [which] is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom [be] the glory forever and ever. Amen.
1 Peter 2:5:
1 Peter 2: (5) you also as living stones are being built a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
1 Peter 4:11:
1 Peter 4: (11) If anyone speaks, [let it be] as [the] words of God; if anyone ministers, as by strength which God supplies, that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ; to whom is the glory and the might to the ages of the ages. Amen.
Can you see, just from these few passages, what we have and do through Christ? Our whole SALVATION is through Christ. All blessings we receive are through Christ. All praise we give is through Christ. Our whole LIFE is through Christ! We as believers have Christ as our all in all. And all our prayer and thanksgiving and praise is through Christ. You will notice as we pray that we always pray in Jesus' name, or through the name of Jesus, or in Christ. That's because all of our prayer and thanksgiving to God the Father is not just straight to God the Father, so to speak. It is THROUGH Christ to God the Father. It is only THROUGH Christ that we have access to the throne of grace. It is only THROUGH Christ that we can enter the holy of holies.
Now back to Romans 1:8. Let's look at the second part of the sentence. What is it in particular about these saints that Paul is thanking God for? He is thanking God that their faith is spoken of in all the world. Their FAITH is the belief in the gospel of salvation conditioned on the atoning blood and imputed righteousness of Christ alone. And this FAITH was being spoken of in all the world. Now does that mean that everyone without exception in the whole world knew about the faith of the Romans? Of course not. When Paul says, "in all the world," he is saying, "all over the world." Paul had never been to Rome, but he had heard of the faith of the Roman church wherever he went and corresponded. In these circles, their faith was famous. This shows us two things. First, it is not a sin to be well-known for your faith. In fact, Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is thankful that their faith is well-known. Second, we should consider WHY the Roman Christians were well-known for their faith. Was it because they tolerated all kinds of differing views of the gospel? Was it because they really didn't know what they believed? No. The Romans were well-known for their FAITH, their BELIEF. And they were well-known for their FAITH because of their DOCTRINE. How could people in other parts of the world know of their faith? It is only by knowing what DOCTRINE they proclaimed. And since Paul speaks peace to the Roman believers, we know what DOCTRINE they BELIEVED. They believed the doctrine of the gospel. And I'm sure they were zealous in their proclamation of the gospel, or else they would not have been spoken of in all the world.
On to the next sentence, which is in verses 9 and 10:
Romans 1: (9) For God is my witness, whom I serve in my spirit in the gospel of His Son, how without ceasing I make mention of you (10) always at my prayers, beseeching if by any means now at length I shall be blessed by the will of God to come to you.
The first phrase is "For God is my witness." Some would say that Paul is swearing an oath here. I do not believe this to be the case. Paul is saying, "You don't know this, but God knows this." Paul is talking about his unceasing prayers for the Romans, which only Paul and God can know. It is meant to be an ENCOURAGEMENT to the believers there, not an accusation that the Romans are doubting his love for them. As Jesus said in Matthew 5:37, "But let your word be Yes, yes; No, no. For whatever is more than these is from evil." Paul was NOT saying, "I pray for you Romans without ceasing. I promise I do. I swear I do." If he WERE saying that, then what about all the other times when he DOESN'T swear? For example, in Romans 16:19, Paul says, "I rejoice over you." He didn't say, "For God is my witness that I rejoice over you." Now if the phrase "For God is my witness" means "I swear that this is really, really true," then what of Paul's not swearing in Romans 16:19? Does that mean that Paul didn't really rejoice over the Romans, since he didn't SWEAR that he rejoiced over the Romans? Of course not. That's why our yes should be yes and our no should be no. If we start SWEARING that some things are true, and then we merely STATE that other things are true, then we're in danger of setting up a hierarchy of truth: some truth is more true than other truth. For example, if I didn't take the last cookie and I SWEAR that I didn't take the last cookie, then what about the next time when I didn't take the last cookie and I merely STATE that I didn't take the last cookie? Is my STATEMENT that I didn't take the last cookie any less truthful than my OATH that I didn't take the last cookie? Well, it would sure seem so to some. We should say, "No, I didn't take the last cookie," and that should be it. And we should not demand more of others. Somehow, so-called "lying under oath" is seen as more heinous than just plain lying. And why is that? Because our society expects that when one SWEARS to tell the truth, he will really tell the truth, but when one just STATES he will tell the truth, he may be lying. See the hierarchy that this creates? If a brother says, "I will tell the truth," he has no need to say, "I SWEAR to tell the truth," and we have no need for him to say this. We are satisfied with yes or no. Anything more than this is from evil.
The second phrase is "whom I serve in my spirit in the gospel of His Son." Paul is saying that He serves the omniscient God IN his spirit IN the gospel of God's Son, Jesus Christ. Paul, and all true Christians, do not merely serve God outwardly, as the religious pretenders do. We serve God in our inmost being. And how do we know that we do not just serve God outwardly? Because we serve God in the GOSPEL of JESUS CHRIST. We believe God's promise to save His people conditioned on the atoning blood and imputed righteousness of Christ alone. We went over this in our little two-part series on faith and works. Religious works without true faith is dead. Serving God outwardly without inwardly believing the gospel is just dead works. Paul served God in his SPIRIT, in the GOSPEL. All these self-righteous pastors and missionaries out there who think they're serving God by going on long and exhausting trips around the world to gain converts are doing nothing more than making people two times more children of hell than they already were. And how can we tell the true believer from the false professor? By their zealousness to do good deeds? No - it is by their GOSPEL. What GOSPEL do they believe? Paul believed and preached CHRIST CRUCIFIED. He believed and preached that it is the work of CHRIST ALONE that ensures the salvation of all whom He represented. He served God in his spirit in the gospel. This is in contrast with those who are outwardly religious and moral and zealous but who believe that it is NOT the work of Christ alone that ensures the salvation of all whom He represented.
The next phrase in the sentence is "how without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers." This is linked to the first phrase, "For God is my witness." Paul is telling the Romans that he unceasingly prays for them. He always mentions them in his prayers to God. This is an example of how we should construct our private prayers for people and groups. We should mention them by name. And if the number of people and groups is too long to remember, there's nothing wrong with writing them down so we can remember to mention them in our prayers. We know of many believers and assemblies in other places, and we should be diligent to mention them by name in our prayers. These brothers and sisters are precious to us, and we should bring them before the throne of grace regularly. We should weep when they weep and rejoice when they rejoice. And remember, Paul was saying this before he had ever met any of them face-to-face. This is the case for most of the brothers and sisters in Christ we know around the world, isn't it? Although it's hard to be as close to them as those with whom we have regular face-to-face contact, we should always keep in mind that we are one in Christ, and this is a bond that runs deeper than face-to-face relationships. Let us remember to bring them before the God of mercy and grace in our prayers.
Now for the last phrase:
Romans 1: (10) always at my prayers, beseeching if by any means now at length I shall be blessed by the will of God to come to you.
This is the sum of the content of Paul's prayers for the Romans. Paul earnestly asked God to make it so he could visit the Roman believers. He didn't care about the means of getting there; he just desired to get there. He would consider it a blessing to go to Rome to be with the believers there. Do we consider it a blessing to be with believers? You know, this is one of the greatest blessings God has given us on earth, and we should never take it for granted. We need to desire to be with other believers - to fellowship with them, pray with them, worship with them, encourage them, and, as we will see in verse 12, the Lord willing, to be comforted with them. God created the assembly for this purpose. The assembly isn't just an added accessory. It is one of the vital organs of the church. If you're listening to this message and you're the only Christian you've ever met, then you need to think seriously about moving to a place where there's at least one more Christian. How much do you desire to be in the assembly of the saints? How important is it to you? God shows us in His Word that it is very important to Him. It is a means of growth and encouragement. Without an assembly, you will wither. And note that even though Paul was not yet in Rome, he was not outside the company of other believers. He was not out on his own. He wished to see the believers in Rome because he had heard of their faith, and I'm pretty sure he had corresponded with at least some of them before, and he wanted to rejoice and fellowship with them.
Finally, Paul says, "by the will of God." Even though Paul desired to go to visit the Romans, he knew that it was not his desire that would make this come to pass. He realized that it could only come by the sovereign will of God. He was submitted to God's will. He realized that if God did not decree before the foundation of the world that he would travel to Rome, there was no way he would get to Rome. This is why, in our prayers, when we ask God for something, we should acknowledge that it is still up to the will of God. We need to realize that when we pray to God and ask that something be done, we NEVER, IN NO WAY, change God's will. It's not as if God didn't want Paul to go to Rome but God changed his mind when Paul asked for it. Prayer does not change God's mind. God is unchangeable. He has already decreed the beginning to the end and everything in between and everything even outside of time itself. Our prayers show our submission and devotion to God, our love for His people, our sorrow over our sin, and our desire to see souls saved through the preaching of His gospel. So when we pray that God's will be done, we show our submission to the sovereign God who has planned all events and who will carry out all events as planned with no exceptions or deviations. That's why we say, "if the Lord wills" or "the Lord willing" when we say that we are going to do something or be somewhere. Let's turn over to James 4:13-16:
James 4: (13) Come now, those saying, Today or tomorrow we will go into this city, and we will spend one year there, and we will trade and will make a profit, (14) who do not know of the morrow. For what [is] your life? For it is a mist, which for a little [while] appears, and then disappears. (15) Instead of you saying, If the Lord wills, even we will live, and we will do this or that; (16) but now you boast in your presumptions. All such boasting is evil.
God actually calls it BOASTING when someone says that he will go somewhere or do something without saying "if the Lord wills." Turn over to 1 Corinthians 4:19:
1 Corinthians 4: (19) But if the Lord wills, I will come to you shortly. ...
Here we see an example of the proper attitude. Paul didn't boast, "I will come to you shortly" with no thought of God's will. He acknowledged that the only way he would come to the Corinthians was by the will of God. If God willed it, he would come. If God did not will it, he would not come.
In conclusion, let us who are Christians thank God through Christ for our brothers and sisters in Christ scattered throughout the world. They are the ones who serve in spirit in the gospel of Jesus Christ. They believe the gospel of salvation conditioned on the atoning blood and imputed righteousness of Christ alone. Let us desire to fellowship with them. Let us pray for them. And let us always, in all our prayers and desires, be submitted to the will of God. Amen.