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The vital importance of Romans

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.

Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ...

286 years ago today, on 24th May 1738, a thirty-four year old clergyman called John Wesley went, as he himself put it, “very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate St [London], where one was reading aloud Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans.  About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed.  I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for my salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken my sins away, even mine; and saved me from the law of sin and death.” 

John Wesley’s conversion (and 24/05/1738 is always called that) was to prove of huge significance for the revival that swept the UK and North America in the years that followed.  And the key to life, for Wesley, had come in having Paul’s letter to the Romans explained.

It was understanding Romans which had also changed everything for Martin Luther, 220 or so years earlier.  He was lecturing on Romans at Wittenberg University – but at the same time as having an intense spiritual struggle.  How could he be put right before God?  He’d sought to live a blameless life, but had found this impossible, and indeed came to hate the phrase in Romans the righteousness of God, because it spoke to him only of God’s righteousness, and therefore his own lostness.

But in studying Romans, things changed.  Luther takes up the story: At last, meditating day and night and by the mercy of God, I gave heed to the context of the words, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall  live.’”  Then I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that through which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith… Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through gates that had been flung open.”

All this – from the letter to the Romans!

Many of us at church have been studying this great letter this year – and rightly so, for its importance cannot be overestimated.  Many clues in the letter indicate that Paul wrote it with the express purpose of explaining and defending the gospel that he preached. For, while that gospel is indeed (as the examples above show) powerful to save, it is also easily misunderstood, twisted or forgotten.  The true gospel is surprising and counter-intuitive: left to our own devices, we’ll lose it. (For more on this, see here.)

That’s why we really, really need Romans, and why rediscovering it has proved so important in church history. Read it, work on grasping it, and you’ll be strengthened immeasurably.