Mark Noll once described church history as “a gigantic seminar where trusted friends, who have labored long to understand the Scriptures, hold forth in various corners of the room.” (Turning Points, 3rd. ed., 6) It’s time for the local church to begin listening to these trusted friends. The heroes of the Christian past have much to tell us about the Bible. A new year provides fresh motivation to rightly divide the Word of truth, and church history can often help us to direct that focus, whether in personal study or in groups. While all of Scripture is God-breathed, a great cloud of witnesses testify to the life-changing and world-changing power of the book of Romans. For those individuals or churches struggling to muster the will to dig deep into the Bible this season, the following are three reasons to begin studying Romans in 2017…
- The Conversion of Augustine: Romans 13:13-14
No other single figure has influenced the Western church, and few others have influenced the course of human history, like Augustine (354-430AD). The bishop of Hippo has greatly shaped our understanding of civics, psychology, biography, anthropology, eschatology, philosophy, and theology and so much more. According to Carl Trueman, “as all medieval theology was to some extent a dialogue with Augustine, one might say that all medieval theology could be categorized as broadly Augustinian.” (Luther on the Christian Life, 32) Further, B.B. Warfield once famously claimed that the Protestant Reformation was the triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of salvation over Augustine’s doctrine of the church. Consequently, one could very well call the “Western” church the “Augustinian” church. He was that vast in his thinking. For a Western Christian today, his theology is inescapable, and it began with Romans in many ways.
As a youth, Augustine was a member of what many would call a youth gang. It might also be difficult for modern Christians to imagine the fact that Augustine also lived with a mistress for more than a few years. During this time he dabbled in Neo-Platonism and Manichaeism before coming face to face with his own sin. According to Gerald Bray, “Like Paul, Augustine was deeply conscious that it was not he who had found God but God who had found him. This is the hallmark of true conversion and it shaped his entire outlook.” (Augustine on the Christian Life, 50) He first encountered Paul in Romans. After hearing the voice of a child, his sudden conversion came with the reading of Romans 13:13-14. Augustine records the encounter in his Confessions:
I rushed back to where Alypius was sitting, since there I had left the book of the Apostle when I moved away from him. I grabbed, opened, read: “Give up indulgence and drunkenness, give up lust and obscenity, give up strife and rivalries, and clothe yourself in Jesus Christ the Lord, leaving no further allowance for fleshly desires.” The very instant I finished that sentence, light was flooding my heart with assurance, and all my shadowy reluctance evanesced.
- The Conversion of Martin Luther: Romans 1:17
The only man to rival Augustine in significance for the Western church is a former Augustinian friar by the name of Martin Luther. It has been said that more biographies have been written on the Reformer than any other single individual in the history of the world. Not only was he the “father” of the Protestant Reformation and the world’s very first “Protestant,” he also forged a new way of thinking about salvation – one he claimed to have borrowed from Augustine. According to Tom Schreiner, “Luther’s understanding of Romans and Pauline theology constituted the most significant shift in exegesis and theology since Augustine. Indeed, Luther’s pastoral and theological wrestling with the letter continue to influence us to this very day.” (Romans, 1)
The law school dropout-turned-monk experienced overwhelming burden and anguish at the thought of God’s impending judgment upon him in his sin. His confessions at the abbey became so frequent that his supervising monk told him to stop bothering him! Eventually, the young Luther became a theology professor and the leader of perhaps the greatest movement in the history of the church. However, before he could teach others about justification by faith, Luther’s conversion came with his new understanding of Romans 1:17:
And thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted. At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.”” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith.
- The Conversion of John Wesley: Luther’s Preface to the Epistle of the Romans
According to Mark Noll, “George Whitefield and the Welshman Howell Harris had pioneered field preaching, but it was John Wesley who became the great organizer of itinerant, outdoor evangelism.” (Turning Points, 218) While Wesley has been well-criticized for his views of Christian “perfection” and his Catholic-Protestant blend of justification, he revolutionized the modern world by taking small Bible societies modeled in Oxford and turning them into circuits for an entire denomination built upon itinerant preaching. Scholars like Henry Rack have debated the date of Wesley’s conversion, largely because Wesley himself seemed to for years. However, what is undeniable is that the book of Romans gave Wesley a new sense of assurance he had never relished until Aldersgate:
In the evening, I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading 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 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.
The Augustine-Luther-Wesley connection, although not often considered, appears to be a theological chain bound by the book of Romans. As a result, it could be said that almost every chapter of Western history has been forged by this 16-chapter letter. It’s a life-changing, world-changing book. Has every professing believer in your church read this monumental work? If not, history suggests that perhaps it’s a great place to start in 2017.