My sermon text tonight is in some ways the entire book of Romans, because what we will be reflecting on is the relation between the content of Romans and its stated purpose. The former of these is in many ways quite familiar to us in our tradition. Yet the latter is significantly less so, I believe, and this is why we have read Romans 1:1–17 and 15:14–33, since those passages frame the entire body of the letter and also comment directly on Paul’s reason for writing it.

The book of Romans is such a heavily used book of the Bible in our Protestant tradition. I wonder what mainly comes to your mind when you think of it.

I am sure most of us here tonight can mentally scan through much of the theological content of Romans without effort, from its opening announcement of the gospel as the power of God unto salvation for all who believe in 1:16–17; to its memorable description of natural revelation and God’s wrath in 1:18–32; to key proof texts regarding total depravity (3:10–18), universal sinfulness (3:23), propitiation (3:25–26), and justification by faith alone (4:4–5); to its magisterial federal theology in 5:12–21; to its clear insistence that justification should not lead to antinomianism (ch. 6) yet that the Law itself is also unable to sanctify us (ch. 7); to the great conflict between flesh and Spirit as well as rich reflections on Christian assurance and future hope (ch. 8); to its stalwart depiction of God’s sovereignty in election and reprobation (ch. 9); to its insistence on one way of salvation for Jews and Gentiles throughout chapters 9–11 and elsewhere; to its clear description of the legitimacy of civil government and of Christian submission to it (ch. 13); and to perhaps the clearest description we have of adiaphora in ethics (chs. 14–15). These are the kinds of things we go to Romans for and the things that most readily come to mind when we think of this letter, all of which are a wonderful provision to the church.

Yet tonight I want to ask if when you think of Romans you also typically think of another topic that I did not mention so far, which is the topic of missions. There is a good chance that you do not.

We are here tonight to install a new Regional Home Missionary, the Reverend Bruce Hollister, for the Presbytery of the Midwest. And as we do this, I want us to reflect together on how Romans, one of the most theologically robust books in all of Scripture, is itself indelibly and throughout its pages a missionary document as well, that is, a document written in order to prepare for, make possible, and guide a new missionary endeavor to an unreached part of the ancient world, namely Spain. As we think about this, I hope we will be impressed by the biblical phenomenon of the letter to the Romans and appreciate how this rich, nuanced, profound, lengthy theological document is all of those things precisely for the express purpose of facilitating missions within the church of Jesus Christ. In this way, Romans joins two things that the church has typically had a difficult time holding together and has sometimes even regarded as in conflict with each other, namely, deep, nuanced theology and missionary outreach.

The passages we read this evening are, for the most part, not among the most well-known or well-used texts of Romans (apart from 1:16–17, which we included with the rest of the letter’s introduction). Yet at the same time, these passages are also among the most important for interpreting Romans. We would all generally agree that knowing who wrote something, when, to whom, and why is crucial to rightly understanding what a person wrote and its significance. And yet perhaps nowhere in Scripture are such details more frequently and systemically eclipsed than with Romans, which people routinely take as something of an abstract, situationless theological treatise. But as the last five decades of scholarship on Romans have emphasized, viewing Romans as a generalized, situation-unspecific treatise is inadequate. While Romans is theologically very deep, it is also not generalized, abstract, or context-free. It is, instead, very pastorally guided all throughout, and as we want to reflect on tonight, specifically with an eye to missions.

The fact that Romans is a missionary document is indicated by many things in the letter, but especially by our passages in Romans 1 and 15. When we look closely at these sections, we should notice an extended set of verbal and thematic parallels between the passages. This includes references to:

  1. The “gospel of God” (an unusual phrase for Paul, found in 1:1 and 15:16)
  2. The distinct grace given to Paul to serve the Gentiles (1:5 and 15:15–16)
  3. The specific purpose of this ministry to the Gentiles, to bring about their obedience (1:5; 15:18)
  4. Paul’s awareness of the strength of the Roman churches (1:8; 15:14)
  5. Paul’s desire to visit the Romans (1:11; 15:23)
  6. Explanation of Paul’s absence from Rome previously (1:13; 15:22)
  7. Paul’s desire to impart something to the Romans, but also clearly to receive something in return (notice a progressive heightening of terms in 1:11–12; 15:15, 23, 28, 32, which eventually come to clearly include a desire to receive financial help from Rome)
  8. Concern for the hope of salvation for both Jews and Gentiles and for the defense of God’s uprightness in giving salvation to both (1:16–17; 15:8–12)
  9. Paul’s commitment to minister to all kinds of peoples, including barbarians (1:14) and the Spanish (15:24, 28), whom people in Rome would have viewed as a chief example of barbarians

Taken together, all these parallels between Romans 1 and 15 comprise an elaborate, multi-faceted inclusio around the body of the entire letter, and in the ancient world such an inclusio functions as a kind of heading, saying, “Everything in between these references should be read in connection with what is mentioned in them.” In other words, Paul’s composition of Romans, which features both the longest introductory section in all his letters and the longest concluding section in all of his letters (including ch. 16), frames the entirety of the letter around numerous key themes, in relation to which we should read the letter’s central content.

And when we notice these cues that Paul provides for reading the letter, what do we see? Not only that the content of Romans must be read in light of the situation described in this inclusio, but also more particularly that there is really one main purpose why Paul writes to Rome, along with three subordinate goals that help support this main purpose.

On the one hand, then, the main reason that Paul writes to the Romans is his desire to have them help him travel to Spain to extend the gospel to an unreached people group there. While many statements in Romans 1 and 15 (and elsewhere) communicate this purpose indirectly, Paul also states the matter directly in 15:23–24:

But now, since I no longer have any room for work in these regions, and since I have longed for many years to come to you, I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain, and to be helped on my journey there by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a while.

Then, not to be unclear, he reiterates the same idea again in 15:28— “When therefore I have completed this [impending trip to Jerusalem] and have delivered to them what has been collected, I will leave for Spain by way of you.”

On the other hand, though, as we read Romans, we also need to see that, in addition to this main purpose of beginning to gain support for a Spanish mission, there are at least three other significant obstacles to this, which Paul must surmount if he is truly to win the Romans’ support for this cause and if that support is truly to prove helpful in the ways needed. These three obstacles, evident within the letter, create three additional, subordinate purposes that Paul also seeks to accomplish in Romans, which could be stated as follows.

First, the Romans lack clear, accurate knowledge about Paul’s message. This is partly due to his never having visited them before (1:10–15; 15:22), but it is compounded by the existence of strong criticisms of Paul’s preaching, which 3:7–8 show the Romans knew about. In response, Paul sets out to introduce crucial aspects of his teaching in a way that will also overcome misperceptions spread by others and so enable the Romans to want to support him. Among other things, Paul’s effort to introduce his teaching to the Romans helps explain the broad number of topics Romans addresses, while his effort to defend himself helps explain the surprisingly negative, apologetic beginning of his theme statement for the letter in 1:16— “For I am not ashamed of the gospel . . .”

Second, the Romans lack internal unity. Chapters 14–15 especially show how the church in Rome was experiencing significant internal division, with so called “weak” Christians judging the “strong” and the “strong” despising the “weak.” Regardless of the specific source of the division in Rome, a significantly divided church is certainly not a very stable one for sending and supporting a missionary. In addition, the specific topic that divides the Romans concerns what foods to eat and days to observe or not. Most scholars conclude (rightly, in my view) that this division revolves around whether Christians should continue to follow certain distinctively Jewish practices, or not, and so connects closely to the question of Jew-Gentile relations—precisely the kind of controversy that could undermine a future mission to Gentiles in Spain. In addition to introducing and defending his maligned gospel to the Romans in general, then, Paul also needs to help the Roman churches have greater internal unity by explaining a gospel that is for Jews first as well as Greeks, the nature of Israel’s place within redemptive history, and the nature and limits of the continuing applicability of the Law.

Third, the Roman church was steeped in the externalism and competitive hierarchicalism of their culture. Here we must think not only about the Romans’ relation to Paul or to each other but of their prospective relation to any future converts in Spain too. We can remember that Paul is not only concerned for the topic of Jew-Gentile relations in Romans but also with Gentile-Gentile relations, or particularly as he notes in 1:14 that he is under obligation to go not only to wise Gentiles, like the Greeks, but also to the comparatively foolish ones, which he calls barbarians. We can remember here that wisdom in the ancient world is always correlated with ability or power, and so the Romans, who were at the center of the ancient world in the first century, would naturally see themselves occupying a position of superiority compared to others, and especially to ignorant, unsophisticated peoples in the provinces Rome had conquered. If the Roman Christians cannot even accept each other without major divisions, how could they be in a position to reach out to, accept, and have fellowship in one body with converts from the unwashed masses to be found in an uneducated and uncouth backwater like Spain? For this to be done, they must give up external comparisons and hierarchically competitive ways of viewing other people, which would prevent them either from wanting to reach the Spanish or from being anything other than condescending and divisive with those Paul reached.

On close reflection, then, we ought to read Romans in relation to both the one overarching purpose of missions and these three subordinate purposes that connect to it. Moreover, as we read the letter, we can see again and again how each of these subordinate purposes is repeatedly being addressed.

For example, regarding introduction and self-defense, we not only see that Paul begins his letter on a remarkably defensive note in 1:16, but he also subsequently goes to great lengths to show how his theology does not implicate God in unfairness in 2:11; 3:6; and 21–26, how justification by faith alone does not in fact undermine the importance of Abraham (ch. 4) or of Christian obedience (ch. 6), and how Paul has not forsaken but continues to try to reach his kindred according to the flesh (ch. 9). Clearly, Romans is designed to defend Paul’s gospel in a variety of ways.

Similarly, regarding internal unity, Paul not only claims that the gospel is God’s power for the Jew first and also the Greek (1:16), but he also goes on to address the objections of a Jewish teacher proclaiming circumcision in 2:17–29, shows God’s equal treatment of Jews and Gentiles in both sin and salvation in Romans 3, addresses the peculiar place of the Jewish people within redemptive history throughout Romans 9–11, enjoins unity of diverse parts within the one body of Christ in Romans 12, and directly addresses weak and strong in Romans 14–15.

Or again regarding externalism and hierarchicalism, Paul not only describes a mission to all kinds of Gentiles (1:14–15) but also addresses a variety of ways in which visible distinctions between different groups of people are not a basis for confidence. He shows how God’s observable patience with some people’s sins is only temporary in 2:1–11, how the Jew is properly defined by something hidden not something visible in 2:17–29, how Abraham was justified before not after he was circumcised in Romans 4, how the hope of God’s people is not presently visible and will only be revealed at the resurrection in Romans 8, how not all Israel according to the flesh was truly of Israel spiritually in Romans 9, and how it is neither the outward distinction of abstaining from foods nor the outward distinction of eating those same foods that accomplishes God’s purposes in Romans 14. After all, the kingdom of God is not in fact of eating or drinking but of the invisible, spiritual realities of righteousness, joy, and peace in the Holy Spirit (14:17). Throughout the letter, Paul, therefore, instills a theology of the cross that undermines externalism and all forms of this-worldly hierarchicalism.

In these and other ways, then, detail after detail of Romans makes clear that we understand Romans best when we read it as an effort to transform the Roman church’s relations to Paul, to each other, and to the assumptions of the culture around them—all for the sake of missions.[2] Clearly, in order to become an effective part of supporting a mission to Spain, the Roman church would need to think rightly. In fact, it would need to be transformed by the renewing of its mind (12:2). In other words, it needed sound theology and ethics, or else the mission that Paul planned would either never start or would eventually be imperiled. Put differently, Romans demonstrates how the missionary endeavors of the church must be funded and supported by deep theological interest, nuance, and precision, of just the sort that the letter provides.

Why? Well, among other reasons, because missionary efforts are something we engage in actively, and everything we do and how we do it is always predicated on our view of ourselves, the Lord, and others. In other words, missions, as with the rest of life, is inescapably and deeply theological, whether we know it or not.

Our options, then, are to be acting out a theology that is insufficient, reductionistic, unnuanced, or just plain wrong and so not be able to have proper unity internally or proper engagement with unbelievers externally, or else to be more thoroughly and deeply biblical in our beliefs, seeking to have and make use of all the resources that Romans and the rest of Scripture provide us in order to know how to be the church and seek to reach a lost world. In other words, to serve the gospel of God properly, our theologizing should have clarity, precision, and depth for the sake of cordial unity in the inward functioning of the church and in proper outward expansion.

It is not mere coincidence, then, that the single greatest missionary of the apostolic church was clearly also one of its greatest—probably its very most influential—theologian.

Similarly, we can also be thankful, as we reflect on our own context, for the great theological resources and heritage we possess as Reformed believers and as members of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Ours is certainly a heritage steeped in theological care. And it is not despite this but because of it that we should be enabled in a particular way to do missions.

We can therefore be encouraged tonight to remember afresh the synergy—the necessary and inescapable synergy—between theology and missions. The missionary endeavor, whether overseas or here, is always among other things a conflict of worldviews, between the Christian faith in all its detail and unbelief in its varied forms. How will we navigate that conflict and address exactly what each alternative, non-believing worldview offers if we do not have deep and carefully crafted theology ourselves? In fact, Reformed theology, more consistently than any other Christian tradition, has a detailed and all-embracing biblical worldview to offer, not least because of the long-standing impact that books like Romans, Hebrews, and many others have had on it.

In fact, this is part of what J. Gresham Machen and others understood when they first formed the Independent Board of Presbyterian Foreign Missions and then later founded the OPC itself and its missions committees. Contrary to the pragmatism of the mainline church of that time, the missionary endeavor is not a place for compromise or for watering down the distinctives of Scripture so that unbelief is left partly intact or less than fully challenged, uprooted, and replaced by the all-embracing claims of Jesus Christ.

In addition, we must remember that missions always require great sacrifice from the church and a willingness to love others who are outsiders or foreigners to our own experience. How will we want to do that? How will we know how and how not to do that? How will we know what is essential and what is optional? Romans shows that this is no easy, shallow task; it is one that can easily be misunderstood. We need the depths of Romans’s own theology, then, in order to be properly informed and equipped as a church for this task.

We, therefore, must see clearly that what the broader church often sees in competition, namely theology and missions, we should see as closely, cordially intertwined and interdependent. And we should be encouraged by the richness of the theological heritage that we have, drawn in no small measure from Romans. Yet we should also be challenged to ask ourselves afresh in every generation of the OPC whether we have indeed embraced the cordial relation between theology and missions as we should. Does a tension between theology and missions continue to exist in our midst in any measure? Is our cordial commitment to deep and nuanced theology at a high or a low ebb as individuals and as a presbytery? And what about regarding missions? It is fair to say, I think, that the Presbytery of the Midwest is known for effective outreach and expansion. Is it also equally known for its interest in theological depth? And similar questions can and should be asked by every other OPC presbytery about itself as well. Does beautifully detailed and deep theology fuel missions? And does a desire for missions sponsor extended effort to articulate and defend beautifully detailed and deep theology, just as in Romans?

No doubt there are many forces at work in the world around us that would seek to chip away at and undermine our commitment to theological depth and precision as well as to missions. We live in a day of unparalleled distraction, technologically and otherwise. It is easy to feel we do not have time for deep theological study or for engaging theological controversy. We live in a day where people outside the church are increasingly unfamiliar with even the basics of the Christian message, making outreach and discipleship even more energy intensive than it has been in recent memory. It is easy to feel weary or overwhelmed, is it not? We also live in a day of increasingly aggressive and high-profile opposition to Christian truths. Particularly in our Midwestern context, where disagreement and conflict are generally avoided, these features of life today could challenge our theological resolve. Or, looking in the opposite direction, they could challenge our resolve to engage in missions instead.

Yet in the face of these great challenges, may the magisterial letter of the apostle Paul to the Romans both encourage and challenge us afresh to remain committed to and even to relish in the synergy between profound, nuanced theology and God’s mission to a lost and dying world. May we continue to value our rich theological heritage as we should and to pursue missions zealously, precisely on that theological basis and nothing less, as we should. And may we particularly be strengthened in the gospel itself, with all the detail that Romans and other parts of Scripture use to describe and defend it. For that gospel, regarding a Savior crucified and resurrected for us, who is received by faith alone, and who transforms lives with a heavenly hope, is indeed the sole power of God unto salvation, a power that can even bring hedonistic, profligate, willful Gentiles like ourselves to the submission of faith, the assurance of sonship, the transformation of ethics, and the ultimate glory that awaits in the future. May we be strengthened, unified, and directed by this letter then, brothers and sisters, as we engage the great missionary task both within the boundaries of our own presbytery and beyond, unto God’s glory alone. Amen.

[1] This article is a lightly revised version of a sermon preached at the installation of Rev. Bruce H. Hollister to be Regional Home Missionary of the Presbytery of the Midwest on April 9, 2021.

[2] This general approach to reading the entirety of Romans as an integrated whole is helpfully articulated by Robert Jewett, Romans: A Commentary, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007).

Marcus A. Mininger serves as professor of New Testament Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana, and is associate pastor at New Covenant Community Church (OPC) in Joliet, Illinois. Ordained Servant Online, May, 2023.

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Ordained Servant: May 2023

Missions in Romans

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