I have no doubt that Paul was writing to the church which was at Rome. There are no such thing as maverick Christians in the Word of God – unattached, unaffiliated Christians. To the Ephesian church, Paul said: “Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church BY Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.” The Epistle to the Romans was sent to the Christian church, the Baptistic church, in Rome. If there were any Christians in Rome who were not a part of that church then it is unlikely that they ever heard the wisdom and revelation of this book. And ideally that is as it should be today. God has ordained His churches to be the spiritual homes of the children of God.
So Paul has finished his salutary introduction, and he is ready to move on. Is there any significance in the first thing that he says after his introduction? Sometimes that might be the case, but when someone actually says, “Let me begin by saying….” then you have an indication that the next statement is significant. The Greek word that Paul used here in verse 8 was “proton.” This is a common word in the Bible, and it could mean “first” in several different ways. “First in time or place, in rank, influence or honor; the principle thing; or the rudimentary or basic thing.” It used to be said that atoms, the basic building blocks of everything, were made up of electrons, neutrons and protons. Today science has dug even deeper – or smaller – into what make up these tiny, tiny things. But I suppose that it could be said that even in physics “protons” are the first of all things.
And what was the first thing that Paul chose to mention about the church in Rome? As I think back over fellowship meetings that I have attended, and as I think about the religious magazines and newspapers that I have read, and as I recall things that I have known and noted about churches around the country, there are certain characteristics that churches use to compare themselves among themselves. For example when I was in Bible school, there was the all-important SIZE of the church. It was not uncommon to center church advertizing on two things: “Come visit the LARGEST church in the city,” or “Be a part of the FASTEST growing church in town.” And these two things were not just the image projected toward the community; it was the information used to evaluate churches by the fellowship of churches. Then came such things as which church SAVED and/or BAPTIZED the most converts in a year. The size, or the growth, of a church was not necessarily the same thing as the baptisms in that church. I used to know of dozens and dozens of churches baptizing thousands and retaining hundreds. Some churches were known by their fleets of BUSES, or their number of SATELLITE CONGREGATIONS. One church in Tennessee, had several hundred, or a thousand, in their congregation, but they also had dozens of missions and chapels scattered across two or three states, and they included the attendance of those missions in their total Sunday attendance. So they reported twice the attendance than they actually had assembled at any one service. Some churches deliberately inflated their statistics in order to inflate their standing among the brethren. Some churches were measured by the FAME of their PASTOR within their particular fellowship or even across fellowship or denominational lines. Other churches were known for the TROUBLE they were causing local governments. Today, size is still important in determining the worth of a church. But now we have other criteria, such as the BRAND OF COFFEE, the size of the VIDEO SCREEN and the CASUALNESS of the preacher’s attire. Today, churches judge themselves by the kind of MUSIC they perform and the kind of CARS in the parking lot.
In addition to these, there are actually some worthy criteria being used in church evaluation. What version of the SCRIPTURES do you use? There are web-sites which list churches that only use the King James Bible – that is good. There are other churches which are known for SPECIFIC DOCTRINES which they hold – and this is good. There are web-sites which advertize churches which hold to the same kind of doctrine. There are independent, non-affiliated Baptist churches. There are sovereign grace and election Baptist churches. And there are still a few churches which are premillennial and which believe in a pretribulational return of the Saviour. These last few things are attributes which should be proudly displayed by the churches which hold them. I think that it is a shame when people and churches appear to hide what they actually believe. The other day a missionary called, asking for permission to come and to present his work. I asked him a few questions – to which he had some adequate answers. But when I asked him what he believed about “election,” I was dumbfounded at his answer. He said, “I believe that God has elected everyone to be a soul-winner.” I don’t know if he was trying to be cute, but he came across as devious and stupid. (By the way, he will not be preaching for us in the near future.)
Having said all that, please notice what stood out above all things, when it came to the church in Rome. “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, that your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world.” Rome was, at that time, the capital of the western world. As a result there were various kinds of political officials coming and going in every direction. It was also one of the largest cities in the western world, requiring lots of supplies to maintain it. So there were business people coming and going all of the time. Just as it takes a lot of outside help to maintain a large city today, it was true back then.
Now, I’m not going to imply that all those secular travelers knew about the Christian church in Rome. But there were enough Christian visitors, and enough Jews caught up in the Christian confusion, to hear and spread the news. Paul was ministering in Corinth when this letter was written. Corinth was perhaps the second or third most important commercial center in the Mediterranean. News about the church in Rome came to the church in Corinth on a regular basis. And Paul was certainly in touch with the churches in Macedonia and Asia. He knew for a fact that Philippi, Thessalonica, Ephesus and Colosse were familiar with the Roman church.
And since all of them knew were experiencing persecution, this was not necessarily the topic of conversation. And since they were all growing to some degree, size and growth were not important subjects. What was first on their lips was the FAITH that each of them shared. And I’m foolish enough to think that what was first in the mind of Paul was first in the mind of the Lord. Paul was writing under the direction of the Holy Spirit here; this is the mind of Christ being expressed. And if it was the mind of the Lord only 2,000 years ago, and only 10,000 miles from here, then perhaps it ought to be high on the list of our thoughts as well.
But the word “faith” is a rather broad Biblical subject. And it is impossible to determine from the context exactly what Paul meant. Under those circumstances, perhaps it’s not too important that we try to figure that out.
I personally doubt it, but he could have been referring to what we call “saving faith.” As we all know, humanly speaking, there are two things by which we are linked to God’s saving power. Without repentance – and faith – there is no remission of sin. With only one prong inserted into the electrical outlet, the appliance isn’t going to work. But if our faith is Biblical then repentance will be as directly connected to our faith as a shadow is connected to its substance in the light of the sun. Over and over again, we are told that it is by faith we are saved; we are justified by faith. As Jesus said to the Mary, “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.” The Bible is filled with great and wonderful revelation, “but these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.” I will not say that the scattered Christian world was not delighted to hear that there were both Jews and Romans in the capital of the empire, who were putting their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. But the context just seems to say that this was not the faith for which Paul was praising God. The context seems to suggest that he was writing to saints and uttering praise for something beyond their salvation and sainthood.
Another Biblical application of the word “faith” leans toward all the things that people believe. I think that was the meaning of Jude when he exhorted his friends: “Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” Paul used this same kind of language. “Let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ: that whether I come and see you, or else be absent, I may hear of your affairs, that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel.” “This charge I commit unto thee, son Timothy, according to the prophecies which went before on thee, that thou by them mightest war a good warfare… fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, whereunto thou art also called, and hast professed a good profession before many witnesses.” “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.” I would like to think that the church in Rome was known as a doctrinal church, teaching and preaching the whole counsel of God. Undoubtedly those people were in conflict with the Jews of the city, over the identity of the Messiah. They were certainly staunch defenders of the Second Coming. In fact, I would venture to state that they believed, taught and practiced what we do here. Apparently, that was a day when what people believed to be true, was at the forefront of their fame. And by the way, isn’t it interesting that we aren’t even told the name of their pastor or pastors? Surely they had an elder, a bishop, who oversaw the church and directed it in Biblical doctrine. But he was not the pope in Rome, and his fame was not more important that the faith of the group.
I noticed that several commentators suggest that the word “faith” in this case might be a synonym for “Christianity” “devotion,” “piety” or even “religion.” “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, that your Christianity is spoken of throughout the whole world.” I’m not going to quarrel with that interpretation. Doesn’t this take what a person believes one step farther into the realm of practical evidence of that faith? Isn’t it interesting that the New Testament book which condemns theoretical and mere theological faith, is the same book which defines godly religion? “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.” James 1:27 – “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.”
So Paul could have been praising the Lord, that these Christians were Christians in every sense of the word. They were followers of Christ in meekness and kindness – as well as in doctrinal exactitude. They were followers of Christ in watching the Heavens and listening for the trump of God – but also in listening to the cries of their neighbors. They were known to be Christians in practical holiness – as well as evangelism. When a visiting Christian came to Rome on business, they were hospitable and even generous towards him. When someone like Apollos came along who didn’t have all of his theological ducks in a row, they didn’t create a row bashing him on the head. Despite being Baptists they were more like Christ than like John the Baptist.
But that doesn’t mean that weren’t obedient servants of the Lord. Would it surprise you to find that Paul concludes this letter in just the same way as he begins? Well, it’s not exactly the same thing, but it has a distinct parallel. Romans 16:17 – “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them.” I think that a very real part of Paul’s use of the word “faith” refers to their doctrine. It was pure doctrine, Biblical doctrine, Christ-honoring doctrine. But it was under assault, as it has been ever since. “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple. For your obedience is come abroad unto all men. I am glad therefore on your behalf: but yet I would have you wise unto that which is good, and simple concerning evil.” He begins his letter by saying that their faith was spoken of throughout the whole world, and at the conclusion he says that their obedience was come abroad unto all men. I would add the two together to conclude that their faith expressed itself in obedience. “And the God of peace shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen.”
This is very similar to what the Apostle said to the church in Thessalonica – I Thessalonians 1:2 – “We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you in our prayers; Remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, in the sight of God and our Father; Knowing, brethren beloved, your election of God. For our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance; as ye know what manner of men we were among you for your sake. And ye became followers of us, and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost: So that ye were ensamples to all that believe in Macedonia and Achaia. For from you sounded out the word of the Lord not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith to God-ward is spread abroad; so that we need not to speak any thing. For they themselves shew of us what manner of entering in we had unto you, and how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God; And to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come.”
I pray that our church might have a similar testimony before the saints around the world. I pray that it includes a love and support for missions. That part of it is a consistent stand for doctrinal truth. That it is a testimony of purity and holiness. And that we have a reputation of love for Christ and a desire for the return and glory of the Lord.