Every great artist has his or her magnum opus. DaVinci painted the Mona Lisa. Bethoven wrote his Fifth. Martin Luther King had his Dream, Lincoln his Gettysburgh, Van Gough his self portrait.
The defining work for Paul, trained in the arts of ancient greek rhetoric, is unquestionably his epistle to the Romans. Church history is filled with the names of people who came to faith – or whose faith was dramatically transformed – because of the message of this book. Luther’s 95 Theses were probably birthed after he had immersed himself in this letter. Wesley’s conversion also reportedly owes much to Paul’s message in Romans. If one subscribes to the theory that, without Paul, Christianity would never have been widely accepted outside of national Israel, it could be argued that contained within Romans are the most influential ideas ever to have been expressed by man.
So what is it about Paul’s message in Romans that is so compelling? The answers vary, but if you ask me, the power of Romans is felt in its “good news” that God is acting toward us in a way that is both just and good. Paul does not flinch for one moment in telling us that, because of our wickedness, all people are accountable to God. But Paul also assures us that God is good, that he has not abandoned us to sin and death. In Jesus, God deals with our wickedness not by destroying us, but by declaring us to be “right” and then leading us out of it.
Not everyone likes this message. Those whose identities are invested in systems of religiosity do not want to believe that it is that simple. They want to think that things they do, or wear, or eat, or the people they hang out with, or that places they go, are the things that make them right with God. They want to think that God is against everyone who doesn’t follow their system. For those clothed in religiosity, the message of Romans is too universal, too “easy.” It is dangerous and scandalous, despirately in need of appropriate tempering and watering-down.
God really is good. It is a wonderful, dangerous message.