Preaching from Romans

Harold J. Ockenga  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 19 - Fall 1976

The book of Romans is a preacher’s gold mine. As the greatest theological treatise in the Bible, it is the mother lode of doctrinal topics. As a continuing rich vein, it opens up all major Christian experiences. As an exhaustless treasure it affords profound expository treatment of texts, paragraphs, chapters, and the book itself. As lustrous and brilliant ore, it suggests valuable topics. As metal coveted by human beings, it reveals the depths of human nature in biographical refer­ences. The preacher who neglects the book of Romans im­poverishes himself.

The essence of preaching is proclamation of the Gospel message. Romans communicates that message with logic, clar­ity, and persuasion. He who masters the teaching of Romans knows the content of saving truth. It pleased God by the thing preached (Kerygma) to save those who believe. Ro­mans is the New Testament hermeneutic of the Kerygma. Preached in this theological framework, the Kerygma saves. Conviction comes from Old Testament quotations, contem­porary illustrations, and careful reasoning of the author.

Practical action of Christianity finds its source in the re­vealed truths of Christian doctrine. An understanding of the theology of Romans will result in faith, consecration, perseverance in righteousness, and sacrificial work.


I – Central Theme

The magnificent theme of Romans is the Righteousness of God (1:17; 3:5, 22, 36; 4:3; 9:30; 10:3). Now that man has been shown to be unrighteous (1:17-3:23), “the righteousness of God . . . is manifested.” This is God’s great work set forth in bold relief. This is the righteousness to be obtained as a free gift from God, available to all. Because of this, God no longer winks at man’s ignorance, but calls upon all men to repent ( Acts 14:16; 17:30) . This reveals a new way of God’s dealing with man, no longer on the principle of law, but now of grace. God’s righteousness is exhibited in the cross of Christ. The preacher’s duty and privilege is to show forth the divine way of reconciliation through the cross. This necessi­tates three concepts of righteousness.

A. The Righteousness of God

There is a difference between the righteousness of man and the righteousness of God. With God it describes a quality of character, his holiness, his goodness, and his justice. With man it describes the free gift of God through atonement. God’s righteousness is manifested apart from the law. It is not a righteousness which man can produce from any principle of human obedience to divine law. The law had nothing to offer sinful men but condemnation. A new principle of grace and faith through Christ had to be introduced (Rom. 1:17). If man is saved at all, it must be in accord with God’s justice and righteousness. A way had to be found to satisfy the claims of justice in justifying sinful and guilty man. God’s righteousness applied to himself is his consistency with his own holiness in freely forgiving a sinner who believes in Christ (Rom. 10:4).

This righteousness was witnessed by the law and the prophets. Purposed by God from the foundation of the world it was revealed through Moses and the law,[1]Cf. the covering of skins of animals, Gen 3:31; the sacrifical victims in atonement, Num. 16; the symbolism of the tabernacle, by which man could approach God only by sacrifice. and evidenced in the prophets.[2]Cf. Jer. 23:6; Is. 53:11; Dan. 9:26. It was not incumbent upon God to save any, but to judge all. His purpose to save necessitated the cross, if he should remain righteousness.

The free gift of righteousness is received only by faith, not by works of the law. Faith is taking God at his word con­cerning Jesus Christ and the cross. Salvation, righteousness, and acceptance in the Beloved are freely offered to all in faith. All have sinned, hence all must believe. We are “shut up under faith.” Man fell short of God’s glory and now must be righteous on a new principle, grace.

B. The Righteousness of God in Christ

This was exhibited on Calvary by means of a redemption (apolutrōseōs) to deliver by paying a price through blood. On Calvary a more profound event occurred than the human mind can fathom. To call this an example, a martyrdom, or a persuasion is a terrible sin. Christ carried wrath, guilt, offended justice, and broken law. Only God himself could do this mighty work of redemption from sin.

Justification was made by a propitiation by blood.[3]Cf. hilasterion, the mercy seat, a place where a holy God can meet man in mercy. It was located under the wings of the cherubim, the agents of justice and judgment, and placed over the law and the testimony. The ground of mercy was the blood of Christ prefigured by the sacrifices. Only on this basis could God pretermit the sins of Abraham, Samuel, David, and others. This was accomplished once and for all by Christ in contrast to the yearly sacrifices of the law (Heb. 10:1-9).

The purpose is to declare God righteous and the justifier of sinful men. This retained a righteous God while providing the means. of forgiveness (Rom. 3:26). The moral universe is unshaken in the forgiveness of sin. The full demands of the law have been met. Unrighteous man is declared righteous before God’s moral tribunal because of the satisfaction made on the cross of Christ.

C. The Righteousness of Faith for the Believer

Man must recognize that there is no righteousness in himself, and only in Christ can he be righteous or saved. In the Adamic nature he is dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1-4). This flesh is under condemnation. The means of righteousness is to be crucified, buried, and risen with Christ by faith. Christ is now his righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21; Rom. 4:6; 10:4; Phil. 4:9). Only on the new ground of righteousness in Christ can he be saved, (2 Cor. 5:16). In Christ the believer is a new creature, has a new standing, and is righteous before God.

Renewal of the fallen, sinful, and condemned man is by the Holy Spirit. This is the positive, experiential aspect of salvation after the forensic phase is completed. This constitutes the believer “the righteousness of God in Christ” (2 Cor. 5:21). This free gift is received by faith.

Thus the righteousness of God in the abstract is the attribute or quality of deity, in the concrete it is Christ the righteousness of God, and applied it is the righteousness of the believer before a righteous God by the cross. Hence, we sing “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.”


II – Subordinate Themes

Once the major theme of Romans is grasped, it must be the framework m which subordinate themes are   understood and treated. These themes are many. Each theme is important truth and may be the subject of a powerful sermon. Such is the Doctrine of God” (Rom. 1:18-21). Here the great argu­ments for the existence of God may be presented to man’s reason; namely, the argument from sufficient cause (cosmological), in which the mind travels from effect to cause in a series which ends with an uncaused cause or unmoved mover; the argument from purpose (teleological), in which the mind sees a development in the structure of the universe, with order and direction; the argument from being (ontological), in which the mind moves from thought to existence; the argu­ment from the sense of ought or obligation (moral), in which the mind is aware of the necessity of the existence of a law­ giver because of the sense of duty. These may not be absolute proofs for the existence of God, as they were once thought to be, but they are strong pointers to his existence. Add to these the logical structure of thought, which demands infinite mind, the existence of personality, capable of feeling, thinking and willing, which presupposes an infinite personality, etc., and man is left without excuse if he denies God’s existence. Not only are evidences drawn from natural revelation, but from special revelation, such as the declarative propositions concerning God given in Scripture (Light, 1 John 1:5; Love, 1 John 4:8; Spirit, John 4:24; Fire, Heb. 12:29). The pre­requisite of coming to God is to believe that he is and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him (Heb. 11:6).

The next theme is “the Wrath of God” (Rom. 1:18-35). Introduction: “God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29). A puni­tive, purging, chastising force, symbolic of Hell and destruc­tion. Sodom-judgment. Pentecost-cleansing. The judgment day. I.Wrath manifested against: A. Ungodliness; B. Unrighteous­ness; C. Withholding the truth. II. Wrath justified: Because, the truth was revealed in them – innate ideas (Cf . Rom. 2: 14) ; and manifest unto them through general revelation; hence without excuse. III. Wrath instigated by not glorifying God as God, not being thankful, being vain in having hearts dark­ened, changing the glory of God unto an image made like to corruptible man. IV. Wrath in operation. Three times God “gave them up.” Terrible, for this means they have crossed the line of no return. A. To uncleanness. The corruption of the human heart was now released from restraint, expressed by lusts, licentiousness, perversion. Mark of degenerated Greece, Rome, and America. today. Man developed into the image of the beast he has been worshiping. B. To vile affections. This is unnatural vileness of homosexuality, lesbianism, sodomy, and bestiality, all of which are widespread in America today. C. To a reprobate mind to do some or all of the sins in this long catalogue (Rom. 1:22-32). Against such the wrath of God is treasured up to the day of judgment.

The next theme is “Judgment of God” (Rom. 2:1-16). Since God is to Judge the world in righteousness, we must know the principles of that Judgment. This will remove all false security and and delusion from man. I. The certainty of judgment. “We know, Divine revelation and natural reason agree. Scripture supports this (Matt. 7-22; 11:24; John 12:48; Acts 17:31; Heb. 9:27). II. The standard of that judgment, truth. According to reality, or facts, not appearance; the fact of God’s right­eousness, the fact of man’s sinfulness, the fact of God’s love Christ. III: The principles of that judgment. According to light, according to works, according to justice. IV. False security concerning judgment: expectation to escape (v. 3), despising of God’s goodness (v. 4), ignorance of the purpose of God’s goodness. V. The punishment in the judgment: treasured up wrath (v. 5); outburst of wrath (v. 8); the day of wrath and Judgment (v. 5). In the light of this, how long can we defer our life choice?

Other themes should be treated contextually and with the analogy of Scripture, receiving a sermon devoted to each. These themes are: the depravity of man (Rom. 3: 10-23); justification by faith (Rom. 3:24; 5:5); federal representation (Rom. 5:6-21); sanctification in Christ (Rom. 6:1; 8:13); adoption to sonship (Rom. 8:14-25); the assurance of the Spirit (Rom. 8:26-28); perseverance (Rom. 8:29-39); elec­tive race (Rom. 9: 1-33); the universal call (Rom. 10:21); the doctrine of the remnant (Rom. 11:1-12); God’s covenant people (Rom. 11:13-36).


III – Christian Experiences

Experiential preaching finds its great heights in the book of Romans. From Romans alone the preacher can declare define, describe, and demand decisions which will induct his people into life transforming Christian experience. Didactic preaching which does not influence the will to decision and action is sterile. Some experiences offered to the believer are: Redemption through the Blood (Rom. 3:21-31); Justification by Faith (Rom: 5:1-5); Deliverance through Christ (Rom. 7: 24, 8: 6); Healing through Hope (Rom. 8:16-25); the Spirit’s Help in Prayer (Rom. 8:26-30); Transformation Through Surrender (Rom. 12: 1-2); Principles of Christian Conduct (Rom. 14:1, 15:3).

For example, let us treat the Benefits of Justification by Faith (Rom. 5:1-11). Introduction: What it means to be right with God. The most important question man can ask and answer is, “Am I right with God?” This question involves my present condition and my future state. Does God look on me with displeasure and wrath so that death would place me in Hell? If there is a way to be right with God in spite of my sin and evil, this outweighs all other considerations. The an­swer is available through belief in what God has said his Son did for us on the cross.

Being right with God means to be declared righteous in his sight by faith. This is a declarative act before God’s tri­bunal setting the sinner forth as righteous. It is “through faith,” not “on account of faith.” This is the basis of our future relationship with God. The means of becoming righteous is the setting forth of Christ as a propitiation for   our sins by his death. This experience results in seven-fold benefits: peace with God, access to grace, hope of glory, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the love of God in our hearts, salvation from wrath, and reconciliation. Summarize them in four categories: I. We have peace with God. A sense of enmity precedes this, pro­ducing soul turmoil. Illus., Martin Luther’s struggle. The bless­edness of finding peace through Christ’s expiation of the guilt of sin. The end of conflict, of dread of wrath, of estrange­ment. Peace with God brings the peace of God (Phil. 4:7). It is obtained through faith in what Christ has done on the cross. What is objectively accomplished is subjectively ex­perienced by letting Christ enter the soul. II. We have access to grace. Grace is the place of favor, a state of   relationship to be entered and to be contrasted with the enmity of wrath. The way of access is by faith in Christ the mediator (cf. John 14:6, 10:1). Through Christ we “stand” in grace; we are firmly established. Like Enoch we may walk with God (Gen. 5:24), or like Elijah we may stand in God’s presence (1 Kings 17:1). III. We Rejoice in the hope of Glory. The natural result of justification. Self felicitation and exultation in view of the exaltation Christ has obtained for us. The privilege of sharing Christ’s glory (Rom. 8:17; John 17:22). The necessary coun­terpart of this is tribulation. It is like the wilderness expe­rience of the Israelites after the glory of deliverance from bondage. It comes from Satan and should be the cause of re­joicing because it produces steadfastness, approvedness, and hope. No shame is compatible with such hope achieved in Christ and the Gospel. Love for God is wrought in us by the presence of the Holy Spirit who is received at justification. God s demonstration of love in Christ’s death for us. IV. We shall be saved. Salvation is present and future. The most im­portant item is salvation of the soul at the Judgment. We are saved by his death, his enduring of justice, wrath, and Hell in our place, thus revealing God’s inexhaustible love. But we are much more saved by his life. We are saved by his earthly life. Christ gave an active obedience to the law of God. Now we are in him and subject to death no longer. We are saved by his glorified life. Living in us he brings life and victory. We are saved y the life of Christ in us. As he abides in us by his Spirit, his desires, love, and purposes work themselves out in us mak­ing us like him, all of which is due to our reconciliation to God through Christ’s death. God is propitious in spite of our sins because of the atonement. Hence, we exult in God. All that we could ask God to do or to give, he has done and given.


IV – Expository Messages

Expository preaching is the most effective pulpit method for edifying a congregation. It opens the Scripture to an inquiring mind. It familiarizes the new believer with the development of the Word of God, the revealed doctrines, the fundamental truths, the ethical principles, the evangelistic responsibility, and the spiritual experiences which he should know. A Christian who has sat under expositors of the Word knows the guideposts of faithful teaching and is able to evaluate the quality of preaching.

The advantage to the preacher of using the expository method is that he never lacks a subject for his next sermon. The book selects the sermon topics for him. True exposition depends upon the outline of the book. True exposition depends upon the outline of the book. This analysis is made first. G. Campbell Morgan read the book fifty times before determining its major and minor divisions. Where possible, this reading should be done in the original language. Once made, the outline guides in the selection of topics, whether by major division, chapter, paragraph, or verse. Each complete thought is worthy of a sermon. Donald Grey Barnhouse published three volumes of expositions of the book of Romans. What a comfort to the preacher to know always what his next subject is. This eliminates all casting about for a topic on Monday morning. Moreover, all study in the book will be cumulative. Each preparation contributes to the facility with which he handles the remaining topics of the book.

Expository preaching is not mere running comments on verses of a book of Scripture. An expository sermon should handle a section of the book which is complete in itself, however large or small this may be, a clause, a verse, a paragraph, or a chapter. the section must be analyzed into the component parts, outlined in a logical form, compared with other Scriptures on the subject supported by theological thinking, illustrated from literature, history, science, or life, and then applied to present day circumstances. The message should be complete in itself so that the hearer will understand it, whether he has heard the previous exposition or will hear the following expository message. Yet the series is joined by the general outline of the book so that the interest of the listener is stimulated and he does not wish to mass a single message on the book. I followed this method on Sunday mornings and at the midweek service for forty years and found it the most effective method of building a congregation.[4]The Minister should use all types of sermons, especially in the evening, for variation, but the basic method should be expository. In this way every possible subject is covered, without forcing a particular teaching at a particular time, such as tithing, missions, devotional practice, consecration, family life, divorce, moral standards, etc.

Let us consider a single expository topic, “A Plea for Christian Conduct Based on Divine Mercy,” from Romans 12:1-2, a most familiar passage of Scripture. Though this is part of a concatenated series of expositions, it can be preached as a single sermon on most any occasion. Introduction: The pleadings of God with man as revealed throughout the Bible (Isa. 1:18; 55:3; Matt. 11:28). A. Made by means of ambassadors (2 Cor. 5:20). The wonder of this, considering who God is and what he has done, can do and will do. Yet the wisdom of placing responsibility of destiny upon each man. Hell, as the awful alternative to eternal life. B. Based on the mercies of divine grace as revealed in Romans, chapters one to eight. If you do not know these, go back and learn them. Justification, identification with Christ in death and life, sanctification by the indwelling Spirit, election to Christ’s image, and preservation in love. C. “Therefore” becomes a plea to offer to God a high worship or liturgy, a high standard of life and a high level of labor or service. I. The high liturgy or worship which God asks, “your reasonable service.”[5]5. Greek word for service is latreia, meaning worship The liturgies of worship used by man from the beginning, such as sacrifices, incense, and forms, have been abrogated and ended because Christ made a final propitiation for sins (Heb. 10: 1-14). God requires them no longer. Worship is now in spirit and truth, not in these forms. Instead, God asks us to present our bodies a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to him. The body carries the whole person including mind and soul. This must be holy for only an unblemished offering was acceptable (cf. Ex. 12:5; Lev. 21:16; 1 Peter 1:19). This holiness is wrought by the cleansing of the blood and the indwelling Spirit. This must be a “living” sacrifice, that is, a continuing dedication to God. It must be a reasonable sacrifice. What can be more logical for us to do when we consider the sacrifice of Christ for us? The worship must be a liturgy of love, out of gratitude for all God has done for us (cf. Rom. 1-8). God never compels us but pleads with us by his overtures of love.

II. The high life for which God asks. A. The precept – Be not conformed but be transformed.” Conformity means to “fashion or appear or make an external show.” It is adapta­tion to some custom, tradition or standard, even when our hearts are opposed to the matter. Root word in Greek is skema from which comes the word “scheme.” For a Christian to con­form to the world is as hypocritical as for an unbeliever to conform to Christian standards for an ulterior reason. Con­formity may be a good or bad thing, depending on the objects to which one conforms. Conformity to the world is forbidden. This means the world system as opposed to God (Gal. 1:4; Eph. 2:2; 1 John 5:18), not the world of nature or material things. No thing is good or bad in itself , but only as it is related to our hopes or fears (Titus 1:15). Transformation is urged upon us. The word is metamorphosis, metamorphoo. The best biblical illustration of this is the transfiguration of Christ (Matt. 17:2). He was “metamorphosed” before their eyes. In like manner, we are to be changed unto that same image by the Spirit of the Lord (2 Cor. 3:18). This is the blessed privilege of the believer now. B. The power of this process, “by the renewal of your minds.” God does not expect us to do this by our own power. This is to be wrought in us by his Spirit. The passive voice is used, ”be transformed.” Here is regeneration viewed mentally. Man is renewed in knowledge as God makes him over (2 Cor. 5:16; Col. 3:9-10). Nevertheless, the degree of renewal depends upon the surrender and consecration of the believer.  We are to present (parastesal), “yield, consecrate, dedicate” ourselves to him. This describes a critical, completed, punctilar action. It refers to critical sanctification where we accept our position as cruci­fied with Christ to old tastes, habits, and desires. Every be­liever in order to live an acceptable spiritual life must not only believe on Christ for forgiveness but also be identified with Christ in death to sin and resurrected to righteousness. C. The pattern in this is Christ. We are to be changed unto his image (2 Cor. 3:18). By the Spirit every though must be brought into captivity to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). This is progressive sanctification.

III. The high labor for which God asks – Service. The evi­dence of dedication is in experience. A. Prove this to ourselves. The word prove (dokimazo) means “to test, to learn by ex­perience.” God has a will, a desire, a plan for each of us. It is good, acceptable, and perfect. Nothing can be higher for any man. But this can only be known by experience. As one obeys today, the new light for tomorrow will come. It is step by step learning by experience what is God’s will (John 7:17; Col 4: 12). Fear not to follow it, for God’s will is the best pos­sible plan for his children. B. Prove it to others. No use talking of regeneration, transformation, or sanctification unless we demonstrate the changes to the world by a real break from sin and by bearing the fruit, gifts, and witness of the Spirit. There are far too many dishonest, envious, impure, unkind, greedy Christians to convince the world of the truth and power of the Gospel (John 16:8). C. Prove it to God. God knows the plan he has for your life. Are you in the position, doing the work God wants you to do? Can God depend upon you? The unfolding of life should have divine approbation. Is this too much for God to ask? This is your reasonable service or worship. Render this worship, life, and service to him now.


V – Great Texts

For a textual preacher, Romans is replete with great texts. These declare the whole gamut of Christian truth and merit separate treatment. They may be treated in series or indivi­dually, as occasion demands. As expositions are made and texts impress the preacher which are richer and fuller than can be treated at that time, notes should be made for them to be treated separately. I refer to Romans 1:4, the Duty of Christ Declared; to Romans 3:25, The Remission of Sins; to Romans 4:20, Waxing Strong in Faith; to Romans 5:10 Saved by Christ’s life; to Romans 6:6-9, Crucified and Living with Christ; to Romans 7:24-25, Delivered from Death by Christ to Romans 8:16, The Witness of the Spirit; to Romans 8:37. More than Conqueror in Christ; to Romans 9:3, A Burden for Souls; to Romans 10:9-10, The Prerequisites of Salvation; to Romans 10:13-17, The Duty. Beauty, and Fruit of Preaching; to Romans 11:5, the Doctrine of the Remnant; to Romans 11:33-36, Fathoming the Riches of the Knowledge of God; to Romans 12:19-21, The Christian’s Victory in Conflicts; to Ro­mans 13: 11-14, Time to Awake, Arise, and Act; to Romans 15:8-21, the World Missionary Goal; to Romans 15:29, the Fullness of the Blessing of the Gospel of Christ; and to Ro­mans 16:25, Establish According to the Gospel. This only suggests some of the many textual opportunities for preaching in Romans.


VI – Biographical Sermons

People enjoy biographies. They lighten the heavy fare of doctrine an exposition. Moreover, in the experience of the person studied they may see themselves and identify with the character. Scripture is always faithful in depicting the failures and sins of its characters as well as the victories and achieve­ments. Romans 16 refers to a long list of persons. Some of these are referred to in other parts of Scripture and some are recorded here only and then very briefly. Sufficient informa­tion is given for a few to afford separate sermons. Paucity of information for others necessitates the grouping of them to­gether. Groups could include: Paul’s kinsmen at Rome and Corinth, Romans 16:7, 11, 21; Unsung prisoners for Christ’s sake, Roman 16:7; Friends, beloved in the Lord, Romans 16:5; 8-9; Women’s place in the Church, Romans 16:1-2, 12; Lay Workers’ importance in the Church, Romans 16:3-5. Indivi­duals may be treated according to other references in the Bible: Timothy, apostolic associate minister Romans 16:21 Gaius, host of the Church, Romans 16:23. Almost every character is worthy of a sermon, dealing with some facet of church life or of individual character and conduct.

Thus, Romans is seen as a treasury of homilectic material. Not all is to be displayed at once lest the preacher be accused of ostentatiusness. Rater, let it be approached frequently as the repository of precious jewels to adorn one’s preaching ministry and to be appreciated and admired by God’s people.


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