I’ll be honest. When I found out I was scheduled to speak to my Sunday school class about the the first four chapters in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, I was less than thrilled, as I didn’t know if I could find a relevant, practical message that could have an impact on those listening. Four chapters, 60 minutes. How?
I just finished giving the lesson and I must say, as I went along the journey of preparing for it, I was delighted to find deep, core Orthodox Christian messages that I was able to share, and that may be easily missed. And this was just the first four chapters!
I began my preparation by hearing the epistle read to me in audio (see this great and free resource here), which I found quite useful! As I listened to the chapters continuously, themes and ideas kept coming to me. I then turned to His Grace Bishop Youssef’s commentary on this epistle for guidance and additional substance. It was quite fulfilling, and so allow me to share with you a few of the key messages that really stood out:
First, to understand this epistle, you need some context. Here’s a slide that lays it out for you.
Put yourself back 2,000 years and think about how imbalanced things look to you as Jew and the way you see godliness. For generations you’ve been doing everything right, and non-Jews had been doing everything wrong. Then Christianity comes and tells you this:
Really? All these laws I’ve had to follow as a Jew, and all that I’ve done, and these Gentiles are treated as if they are on the same playing ground, and they don’t have to do any of the stuff God commanded us in the law?
Now it will make sense why this is, in H.G. Bishop Youssef’s view, the main theme verse of this epistle:
So St. Paul, who was previously a staunch follower of Judaism, proclaims why he is not ashamed of this gospel, that the power of God’s salvation is offered to everyone, Jew, and non-Jew, and the law is not needed as a prerequisite to be justified before God.
So now, let’s get to some of the core Christian messages relevant to us today:
1) Baptism is not enough for salvation on its own. It opens the door and lets you in, but you can walk back out, by living in a manner contrary to God’s commandments.
2) We are not justified to go to heaven by our deeds, or by the laws of the Old Testament. Christ justified us by covering our sins with His blood. We don’t earn justification by “doing good.” Doing good simply keeps the benefit of this justification accessible to us. It is a free gift of God’s grace. We can discard the gift if we do not abide in accordance with God’s commandments.
3) Baptism (and Chrismation) is not just a declaration signifying your Christian faith. Baptism, although its precursor was Circumcision, IS NOT THE SAME. In addition to it being a sign and seal of your Christian faith, it is much more, and it is accomplished by action of the Holy Spirit. And such action, according to the Bible, the early Church, and as maintained in the Orthodox Church, requires one who Christ gave authority (or the successors they chose) to administer this mystery.
There’s a lot of other beautiful messages and depth in this epistle. If you’d like an introduction to the epistle, or would like to speak about it with others (for a lesson, bible study, or any other purpose), feel free to download and utilize the PowerPoint lesson I created in whatever manner you wish.