Romans: it’s one of the most intimidating, confusing, and powerful books in the entirety of Scripture. In its 16 chapters, the apostle Paul casts a sweeping vision God’s redemptive purposes—”how God in the gospel makes sinners righteous, but also how this most precious gift of God is enjoyed in our lives,” writes Tim Keller in Romans 1-7 For You, “how it produces deep and massive changes in our behavior and even in our character.”
In his typical irenic fashion, Keller unpacks the message of the first seven chapters of Romans, helping us see the beauty of the gospel and our desperate need for it.
The gospel is for everyone
One of the most challenging issues we face reading Romans—and indeed, all of Scripture—is Paul’s emphatic decree that all of humanity is lost in when confronted by the justice of God.
That we are all, “without excuse,” with no hope to be found in moralism or pleas of ignorance. “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, Paul wrote in Romans 3:22-23. But he doesn’t leave us without hope. For while all have sinned and continually fall short of the glory of God, all who are saved “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24). Moralism doesn’t justify, nor does ignorance. Instead, it is only God’s grace, the gift of redemption found in Jesus. And this is such good news for all of us:
God does not set his justice aside; he turns it onto himself. The cross does not represent a compromise between God’s wrath and his love; it does not satisfy each halfway. Rather, it satisfies each fully and in the very same action. On the cross, the wrath and love of God were both vindicated, both demonstrated, and both expressed perfectly. They both shine out, and are utterly fulfilled. The cross is a demonstration both of God’s justice, and of his justifying love (Romans 3:25-26).
Who is the man in Romans 7—believer or unbeliever?
Although all of Keller’s examination of Romans 1-7 is sound and edifying, perhaps no portion was more helpful to me personally than reading his view of the “wretched man” of Romans 7:7-25. Paul’s exposition of the effects of sin, the desire to do what is right, but being confounded by sin, has left many scratching their heads. Was he talking about Paul the unbeliever or Paul the believer?
Keller believes—and I would be inclined to agree—that Paul was writing of his then-present experience as a Christian, and the conflicting desires we all wrestle with. He writes:
We have, in some sense, “multiple selves.” Sometimes we want to be this; sometimes we want to be that. Morally, most people feel “torn” between diverse selves as well. Freud went so far as to talk about an inner “libido” (filled with primal desires) and a “superego” (the conscience filled with social and familial standards). The great question we all face is: I have divergent desires, different “selves.” Which is my true self? What do I most want?
This is helpful for so many reasons (and not simply because of confirmation bias). The point of Paul’s writing about these truths, that he continued to struggle with sin—and if anything, as he grew older, became increasingly aware of his own sinfulness—is to push us toward deeper dependence upon the Lord Jesus.
We are not justified and then left to our own devices to grow in holiness. If, to borrow an analogy, the gospel merely reset our righteousness back to zero, instead of giving us Christ’s, we’d still be damned. We do not do the things we want to do, and we do the things we don’t want to do. Paul’s point is simple, Keller says: “The unbeliever cannot keep the law (v 7-13); but neither can the believer!”
When we read God’s law properly, and when we look at our own lives honestly, we can only conclude that we are “wretched.” Without accepting this, we will never grasp the glory of the gospel. We will never truly appreciate the gospel of received righteousness. Only if our hearts truly cry at our wretchedness can we then know the hope and liberation of looking away from ourselves and to what God has done. Who will rescue Paul, and us? “Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (v 25).
For the good of your soul
Like the other volumes in the For You series, Romans 1-7 For You is not an exhaustive study of Paul’s epistle, nor is it intended to be. As I described the recently released Judges For You, this is a devotional commentary. Use it like one.
Allow Keller’s insights in Romans 1-7 For You to inform your study. Glean helpful insights and illustrations to use in sermons or small group studies. But even as you do, read it with the good of your soul in mind, recognizing afresh all Christ has done on your behalf, and grasping anew the glory of the gospel in Romans.
Title: Romans 1-7 For You
Author: Timothy Keller
Publisher: The Good Book Company (2014)