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When the wonder of the Gospel breaks into your life, you feel as though you are the first person to discover its power and glory. Where has Christ been hidden? He seems so fresh, so new, so full of grace. Then comes a second discovery—it is not that Christ has been hidden; rather, you have been blind! Now, however, you have experienced exactly the same grace as countless others before you. You compare notes. Sure enough, you are not the first! Thankfully you will not be the last.

If my own experience is anything to judge by, discovering Romans can be a similar experience. I still remember as a Christian teenager the slow dawning of this thought in my mind: All Scripture is God-breathed and useful, but it also seems to have a shape and structure, a center and circumference. If that is so, then some Biblical books are foundational, and these should be mastered first. That was when I discovered that (alongside systematic theologies) Biblical commentaries must be the foundation of my book collection. And so I purchased the wonderful studies of Romans by Robert Haldane and John Murray. (Only today does it strike me that a certain ethnic prejudice may have been present in me—both were Scots!)

As I studied Romans, wrestling with some of its great truths, struggling with some of its tough passages (surely it is to them that 2 Peter 3:15–16 refers), I began to realize that countless feet had walked this way before. I had only just begun to join them in discovering the mind-renewing, life-changing power of what Paul calls “the gospel of God” (Rom. 1:1; 15:16), “the gospel of Christ” (Rom. 1:16; 15:19), and “my gospel” (Rom. 2:16; 16:25). Soon I would discover why Martin Luther called Romans “the clearest Gospel of all.”

The Gospel of Romans can be summarized in one word: exchange. In fact, as Paul summarizes the teaching of Romans 1:18–5:11, he concludes that Christians “rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation” (Rom. 5:11). The Greek word katallagen, translated “reconciliation,” literally means a change or exchange. Paul’s Gospel is the story of a series of exchanges.

Exchange No. 1 is described in 1:18–32. Despite knowing the clearly revealed Creator God who has displayed His glory in the universe He has made, humanity has “exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (1:24), “changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image” (1:23), and “exchanged the natural use for what is against nature” (1:26).

Exchange No. 2 is the direct, divinely ordained consequence of this: God exchanges the privilege of man’s communion-knowledge of Him for His righteous wrath against man (Rom. 1:18ff). Instead of knowing, trusting, and lovingly glorifying God, mankind lives in ungodliness and unrighteousness (the order is significant) and therefore draws forth God’s judgment. Communion is exchanged for condemnation. This is not merely eschatological; it is invasive in a contemporary way. Men and women give God up and flaunt their pretended autonomy, saying, “We despise His laws and break them freely, yet no threatened thunderbolt of judgment touches us.” They are so judicially blinded and hardened that they do not see that the conscience-hardening, body-destroying effects of their rebellion are the judgments of God. His judgments are righteous—if we will have ungodliness, then the punishment will come through the very instruments of our crime against Him. In the end, we have exchanged the light of His presence for present inner darkness and future outer darkness.

In response to the great exchange that has been accomplished for us in Christ, there is an exchange accomplished in us by the Spirit: unbelief gives way to faith, rebellion is exchanged for trust.

Exchange No. 3 is the gracious, unmerited, indeed demerited, exchange that God provides in Christ. Without compromise of His righteousness revealed in wrath, God righteously justifies sinners through the redemption He provides in Christ—the blood-propitiation for our sins. This Paul states in the rich and tightly packed words of Romans 3:21–26.

It is only later in the letter that he gives us a different, and in some ways more fundamental, way of looking at this. There he says that the Son of God took our nature (coming “in the likeness of sinful flesh,” Rom. 8:3) in order to exchange places with Adam, so that His obedience and righteousness might for our sakes be exchanged for Adam’s (and our) disobedience and sin (Rom. 5:12–21).

Exchange No. 4 is that which is offered to sinners in the Gospel: righteousness and justification instead of unrighteousness and condemnation. This Christ-shaped righteousness is constituted by His entire life of obedience and His wrath-embracing sacrifice on the cross, where He was made a sin offering (coming “on account of sin,” Rom. 8:3).

In addition to Paul’s four-fold insistence on the fact that this divine exchange is consistent with the absolute righteousness of God (3:21, 22, 25, 26), he stresses that this way of salvation is consistent with the teaching of the Old Testament (“being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets,” 3:21, cf. 1:1). He also insists that we contribute nothing to our salvation; it is all “of grace.” The sheer genius of the divine strategy is simply breathtaking.

Exchange No. 5 emerges here. In John Calvin’s movement in his Institutes of the Christian Religion from Book II (on the work of Christ) to Book III (on the application of redemption), he writes: “We must now examine this question. How do we receive those benefits which the Father bestowed on His only-begotten Son not for Christ’s own private use, but that He might enrich poor and needy men? First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from Him, all that He has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value to us … we obtain this by faith” (Institutes, III. i. 1, emphasis added).

In response to the great exchange that has been accomplished for us in Christ, there is an exchange accomplished in us by the Spirit: unbelief gives way to faith, rebellion is exchanged for trust.

Paul expresses himself at this point with meticulous precision. Justification is always said to be “by faith,” never “on account of/on the basis of faith.” Faith is not the ground or basis upon which we are justified, but the means or the “instrument.” Our faith is in Christ, in whom our justification, our “right-wising” with God, has been accomplished. In Archbishop William Temple’s oft-quoted words: “All is of God; the only thing of my very own which I contribute to my redemption is the sin from which I need to be redeemed.”

This is clear enough in what Paul says in his basic exposition. It is made even clearer in his application of that exposition in Romans 3:27–30. Here he argues that all boasting in relationship to justification is excluded. But then he probes the question of why. He asks, “By what law [i.e. principle]? Of works? No, but by the law of faith.”

The genius of the divine way of salvation is that in it we are personally, actively united to Jesus Christ, but in a way that adds nothing and contributes nothing to His work.

In one sense, of course, boasting is excluded by the law of works, since we cannot perfectly perform them, and even if we did, either personal or ceremonial works would be inadequate to deal with our guilt and sin. But that does not seem to be Paul’s point. Rather it is that faith as the way of receiving justification excludes the possibility of boasting. Faith by definition excludes all contribution on our part.

But how can this be, when faith is seen in the New Testament as our activity? It is not God who believes either for us or in us; it is we who believe. The genius of the divine way of salvation is that in it we are personally, actively united to Jesus Christ, but in a way that adds nothing and contributes nothing to His work. Faith is non-contributory; it is not a substitute for Christ but the reception of Christ. As B.B. Warfield finely puts it in his Biblical and Theological Studies, “It is not faith that saves, but faith in Jesus Christ.… It is not, strictly speaking, even faith in Christ that saves, but Christ that saves through faith. The saving power resides exclusively, not in the act of faith or the attitude of faith or in the nature of faith, but in the object of faith.”

Although we are actively involved in faith, we are passive with respect to the accomplishing of justification. In the deepest sense, then, it is “by grace you have been saved through faith, and that [whether the grace, the faith, or the union of the two in justification] not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Eph. 2:8–9; notice the repetition of the non-boasting of Rom. 3:27).

In the light of this, when Paul says later that “faith was accounted to Abraham for righteousness” (Rom. 4:9), he is obviously not contradicting himself but simply citing Genesis 15:6 and seeing that statement as a shorthand summary of his own teaching that we are justified because we believe in God’s promise of salvation accomplished in Christ and received by faith.

This Gospel of grace involves us in the ongoing discovery that there is much in our lives that has not yielded to the restorative and demolishing power of grace; much remains yet to be done. That is why Romans is the clearest Gospel of all!

Ashamed of the Gospel

The Will to Fight

Keep Reading To the Church at Rome ... The Book of Romans

From the January 2002 Issue
Jan 2002 Issue