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by Henry Allen Ironside
Lecture 1 - The Theme and Analysis
The Epistle to the Romans is undoubtedly the most scientific statement of the divine plan for the redemption of mankind that God has been pleased to give us. Apart altogether from the question of inspiration we may think of it as a treatise of transcendant, intellectual power, putting to shame the most brilliant philosophies ever conceived by the minds of men.
It is noteworthy that the Holy Spirit did not take up an unlettered fisherman or provincial Galilean to unfold His redemption plan in all its majesty and grandeur. He selected a man of international outlook: a Roman citizen, yet a Hebrew of the Hebrews; a man whose education combined familiarity with Greek and Roman lore, including history, religion, philosophy, poetry, science and music, together with closest acquaintance with Judaism both as a divine revelation and as a body of rabbinical traditions and additions to the sacred deposit of the LAW, the PROPHETS, and the PSALMS. This man, born in the proud educational centre, Tarsus of Cilicia, and brought up at the feet of Gamaliel in Jerusalem, was the chosen vessel to make known to all nations for the obedience of faith, the gospel of the glory of the blessed God, as so marvelously set forth in this immortal letter.
It was evidently written somewhere along the journey from Macedonia to Jerusalem, and very likely, as tradition asserts, at Corinth.
About to leave Europe for Palestine to carry to the Jewish Christians, his brethren after the flesh and in the Lord, the bounty provided by the Gentile assemblies, his heart turns longingly to Rome, the “eternal city,” the mistress of the ancient world, where already apart from direct apostolic ministry a Christian church had been formed. To a number of its members he was already known, to others he was a stranger, but he yearned over them all as a true father in Christ, and earnestly desired to share with them the precious treasure committed to him. The Spirit had already indicated that a visit to Rome was in the will of God for him, but the time and circumstances were hidden from him. So he wrote this exposition of the divine plan, and sent it on by a godly woman, Phebe, a deaconess of the assembly at Cenchrea, who had been called to Rome on business. The letter served the double purpose of introducing her to the Christians there and ministering to them the marvelous unfolding of the righteousness of God revealed in the gospel in accordance with the testimony committed to Paul. Think of the grace that entrusted this matchless epistle to the feeble hand of a woman in times such as those! The whole Church of God throughout the centuries owes to Phebe a debt of gratitude, and to the God who watched over her unending praise, for the preservation of the valuable manuscript which she delivered safely into the hands of the elders at Rome, and through them to us.
The theme of the Epistle is the Righteousness of God. It forms one of an inspired trio of expositions which together give us an amazingly rich exegesis of a very brief Old Testament text. The text is found in Habakkuk 2:4: “The just shall live by his faith.” As quoted three times in the New Testament there are just six words, the pronoun “his” being omitted. The three letters referred to are Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews, each of which is based upon this text.
Romans has to do particularly with the first two words. Its message is, “THE JUST shall live by faith,” answering the question that is raised in the book of Job, “How shall man be just with God?”
Galatians expounds the two central words, “The just SHALL LIVE by faith.” The Galatian error was in supposing that while we begin in faith, we are perfected by works. But the apostle shows that we live by that same faith through which we were justified. “Having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?”
Hebrews takes up the last two words, “The just shall live BY FAITH.” It emphasizes the nature and power of faith itself, by which alone the justified believer walks. Incidentally, this is one reason why, after having carefully examined many arguments against the Pauline authorship of Hebrews, I have not the slightest doubt that it is correctly attributed to the same one who wrote Romans and Galatians; and this is confirmed by the testimony of the apostle Peter, in his second epistle, chapter 2 Peter 3:15-16, for it was to converted Hebrews Peter was addressing himself and to them Paul had also written.
The epistles to the Romans may be readily divided into three great divisions. Chaps. 1-8 are DOCTRINAL, and give us THE RIGHTEOUSNESS of GOD REVEALED IN THE GOSPEL. Chaps. 9-11 are DISPENSATIONAL, and give us THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF GOD HARMONIZED WITH HIS DISPENSATIONAL WAYS. Chaps. 12-16 are PRACTICAL, and set forth THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF GOD PRODUCING PRACTICAL RIGHTEOUSNESS IN THE BELIEVER. Each of these divisions will be found to break naturally into smaller subdivisions, and these into sections and subsections.
In submitting the following outline I do so only suggestively. The careful student may think of more apt designations for each particular part, and may possibly find it simpler to separate the different paragraphs according to some other arrangement, but I suggest the following analysis as one that seems to me to be simple and illuminating:
DIVISION I. DOCTRINAL, chaps. 1-8:
The Righteousness of God Revealed in the Gospel.
SUBDIVISION I. Chaps. 1:1-3:20: The need of the Gospel.
Section A. Chap. 1:1-7: Salutation.
Section B. Chap. 1:8-17; Introduction.
Subsection (a) vers. 8-15: The Apostle’s Stewardship.
Subsection (b) vers. 16,17: The Theme Stated.
Section C. Chaps. 1:18-3:20: The Ungodliness and Unrighteousness of the entire Human Family Demonstrated, or, The Need of the Gospel.
Subsection (a). Chap. 1:18-32: The State of the Degraded Heathen-the Barbarian World.
Subsection (b). Chap. 2:1-16: The State of the Cultured Gentiles, the Moralists.
Subsection (c). Chap. 2:17-29: The State of the Religious Jews.
Subsection (d). Chap. 3:1-20: The Complete Indictment of the Entire World.
SUBDIVISION II. Chaps. 3:21-5:11: The Gospel in Relation to the Question of our SINS.
Section A. Chap. 3:21-31: Justification by Grace through Faith on the Ground of Accomplished Redemption.
Section B. Chap. 4: The Witness of the Law and the Prophets.
Subsection (a) vers. 1-6: Abraham’s Justification.
Subsection (b) vers. 7, 8: David’s Testimony.
Subsection (c) vers. 9-25: For all Mankind on the Same Principle.
Section C. Chap. 5:1-5: Peace with God: Its Basis and Results.
Section D. Chap. 5:6-11; The Summing Up.
SUBDIVISION III. Chaps. 5:12-8:39: The Gospel in Relation to Indwelling SIN.
Section A. Chap. 5:12-21: The Two Races and Two Heads.
Section B. Chap. 6: The Two Masters - Sin and Righteousness.
Section C. Chap. 7: The Two Husbands, Two Natures, and Two Laws.
Section D. Chap. 8: The Triumph of Grace.
Subsection (a) vers. 1-4: No Condemnation; In Christ.
Subsection (b) vers. 5-27: The Spirit of Christ in the Believer.
Subsection (c) vers. 28-34: God for us.
Subsection (d) vers. 35-39: No Separation.
DIVISION II. Dispensational. Chaps. 9-11: The Righteousness of God Harmonized with His Dispensational Ways.
SUBDIVISION I. Chap. 9: God’s Past Dealings with Israel in Electing Grace.
SUBDIVISION II. Chap. 10: God’s Present Dealings with Israel in Governmental Discipline.
SUBDIVISION III. Chap. 11: God’s Future Dealings with Israel in Fulfilment of the Prophetic Scriptures.
DIVISION III. PRACTICAL. Chaps. 12-16: Divine Righteousness Producing Practical Righteousness in the Believer.
SUBDIVISION I. Chaps. 12:1-15:7: God’s Good, Acceptable, and Perfect Will Revealed.
Section A. Chap. 12: The Walk of the Christian in Relation to his Fellow-believers, and to men of the world.
Section B. Chap. 13: The Christian’s Relation to Worldly Governments.
Section C. Chap. 14: Christian Liberty and Consideration for Others.
Section D. Chap. 15:1-7: Christ, the Believer’s Pattern.
SUBDIVISION II. Chap. 15:8-33: Conclusion.
SUBDIVISION III. Chap. 16:1-24. Salutations.
APPENDIX. Chap. 16:25-27: Epilogue: The Mystery Revealed.
I would earnestly press upon the student the importance of committing to memory, if possible, this outline, or some similar analysis of the epistle, before attempting the study of the letter itself. Failure to get the great divisions and subdivisions firmly fixed in the mind leaves the door open for false interpretations and confused views later on. Many, for instance, through not observing that the question of justification is settled in Chapters 3-5, are greatly perplexed when they come to Chapter 7. But if the teaching of the first chapters referred to be clearly understood, then it will be seen that the man in chapter 7 is not raising again the question of a sinner’s acceptance with God, but is concerned about a saint’s walk in holiness. Then again, how many a soul has become almost distracted by reading eternal issues into chapter 9, altogether beyond what the apostle intended, and endeavoring to bring heaven and hell into it as though these were here the chief questions at issue, whereas God is dealing with the great dispensational question of His sovereign electing grace toward Israel, and His temporary repudiation of them nationally, while in a special way His grace goes out to the Gentiles. I only mention these instances at this time in order to impress upon each student the importance of having an “outline of sound words” in studying this or any other book of the Bible.
I add an additional suggestion or two. It is good to have “catch-words” sometimes to fix things in the mind. Someone has aptly designated Romans as “The Epistle of the Forum.” This, I think, is most helpful. In this letter the sinner is brought into the court room, the forum, the place of judgment, and shown to be utterly guilty and undone. But through the work of Christ a righteous basis has been laid, upon which he can be justified from every charge. Nor does God stop here, but He openly acknowledges the believing sinner as His own son, making him a citizen of a favored race, and owning him as His heir. Thus the challenge can be hurled at all objectors, “What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us?” Every voice is silenced, for “It is God that justifieth,” and this not at the expense of righteousness, but in full accord therewith. This view readily accounts for the use of legal and judicial terms, so frequently found in the argument.
A dying sinner was once asked if he would not like to be saved. “I certainly would,” he replied; “but,” he added earnestly, “I don’t want God to do anything wrong in saving me.” It was through the letter to the Romans he learned how “God can be just and the Justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.” You will remember how Socrates expressed himself five hundred years before Christ. “It may be,” he said, addressing himself to Plato, “that the Deity can forgive sins, but I do not see how.” It is this that the Holy Spirit takes up so fully in this Epistle. He shows us that God does not save sinners at the expense of His righteousness. In other words, if saved at all, it will not be because righteousness has been set aside in order that mercy might triumph; but mercy has found a way whereby divine righteousness can be fully satisfied and yet guilty sinners justified before the throne of high heaven.
The apostle John suggests the same wondrous truth when in his first epistle, chapter 1, verse 1 John 1:9, he says, “If we confess our sins He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” How much more natural the sense would seem to our poor minds before being divinely instructed, if it read, “He is merciful and gracious to forgive.” Although the gospel is in the most marvelous way the unfolding of the mercy of God, and exalts His grace as nothing else can, yet it is because it rests on a firm foundation of righteousness that it gives such settled peace to the soul who believes it. Since Christ has died, God could not be faithful to Him nor just to the believing sinner if He still condemned the one who trusts in Him who bore our sins in His own body on the tree.
It is, therefore, the righteousness of God that is magnified in this Epistle to the Romans, even as David of old cried, “Save (or deliver) me in Thy righteousness.” It was as Luther was meditating on this verse that light began to dawn upon his darkened soul. He could understand how God could damn him in His righteousness, but it was when he saw that God can save in righteousness that his soul entered into peace. And untold myriads have found the same deliverance from perplexity when through this glorious unfolding of the righteousness of God as revealed in the gospel, they saw how “God can save, yet righteous be.” If we fail to see this as we study the epistle, we have missed the great purpose for which it was given of God.
I would add one other thought, which I believe is of moment, particularly for those who seek to present the gospel to others. It is this: In Romans, we have the gospel taught to saints, rather than the gospel preached to unsaved sinners. I believe it is very important to see this. In order to be saved it is only necessary to trust in Christ. But in order to understand our salvation, and thus to get out of it the joy and blessing God intends to be our portion, we need to have the work of Christ unfolded to us. This is what the Holy Spirit has done in this precious epistle. It is written to people who are already saved to show them the secure foundation upon which their salvation rests: namely, the righteousness of God. When faith apprehends this, doubts and fears are gone and the soul enters into settled peace.
the Fourth Week after Epiphany