The book of Romans has left an indelible impression on the lives of God’s people throughout the ages. The early church theologian Augustine ran from God throughout his life, but God relentlessly pursued him. One day, he was sitting in his garden and overheard children singing, tolle lege, “Take up and read.” Augustine opened the Bible to Romans 13:13–14: “Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”
The sixteenth century Reformer Martin Luther was once asked whether he loved God. “Love God?” Luther responded, “Sometimes I hate Him.” Luther feared that God would punish him no matter how hard he tried to please Him. God opened his eyes through the Spirit to understand the Apostle Paul’s famous statement: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (Rom. 1:16–17). Luther realized that when Paul wrote of God’s righteousness, he did not refer to God’s own righteousness but the gift of righteousness that comes to sinners by faith in Christ. When God opened Luther’s eyes, he said, “Here, I felt that I was altogether born again and the very gates of paradise opened up before me.”
The eighteenth century preacher John Wesley had little interest in the gospel until he attended a meeting where someone read from Luther’s preface to Romans:
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 salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.
These encounters with this book highlight three things that we should know about the book of Romans.
1. The gospel is a free gift from God.
First, salvation is a free gift. History is littered with religions that preach a quid pro quo message of redemption—you must perform acts of goodness in order to be saved. This was Luther’s burden that created angst and even animosity in his heart toward God. He knew that God was righteous and His law was exacting—there was no way he could perform enough good works to outweigh his sins. As King David cried out, “Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you” (Ps. 143:2). The same sentiment appears in a Psalm of Ascent, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Ps. 130:3). Luther was acutely aware of this truth but then, in His mercy, God opened Luther’s eyes to see that God has given the perfect obedience and suffering of in our stead. This outpouring of grace is, as Paul says, “the free gift of God” (Rom. 6:23; 5:15–17).
2. Salvation is received by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
Second, like Luther, by the sovereign grace of God, Wesley realized that the only way to receive the gift of salvation was by trusting in Christ alone for his salvation. As Paul writes, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Rom. 3:21–22; cf. 5:1; 10:6, 17). Paul elsewhere elaborates on this truth in his letter to Ephesus when he writes: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; It is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8–9).
3. The gospel has freed us from Satan, sin, and death so we can walk in newness of life.
Third, when God saves us by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, He does so unto the goal of walking in newness of life; that is, living in holiness and righteousness. The gifts of the gospel and faith in Christ are not a license to sin, as Paul emphatically denies:
Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! . . . We were buried therefore with [Christ] by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Rom. 6:1–4)
God confronted Augustine with this truth when he heard the children chanting “take up and read” and opened the Bible to Romans 13:13–14. Augustine knew he needed to repent of his sins, and only the grace of God in Christ could enable him to do so that he might live in holiness.
Three things you should know about Romans are that (1) the gospel is a free gift from God, (2) salvation is a gift we receive by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, and (3) that the gospel has freed us from Satan, sin, and death so we can walk in the newness of life. Augustine, Luther, and Wesley learned these truths by God’s grace, and our prayer should be that God’s Holy Spirit would indelibly imprint them on our hearts as well.
This article is part of the 3 Things You Should Know collection.