(69) But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us – Romans 5:8

Acts describes the growth of the early church and gives us glimpses into how it operated but we get much more insight into what it means to be a Christian from the New Testament letters. There are twenty-two, thirteen from Paul and nine from other apostles. The first nine of Paul’s letters are to churches while the other four are to individuals. They are roughly arranged in size order – see the Bible Bookcase.

Paul’s letters to churches tend to follow a similar pattern. He introduces himself and tells them how he is praying for them. He expounds doctrine – explaining who Jesus is and what he has done – before moving on to practical application and final remarks. Different letters have different themes depending on the need of the specific church he is writing to.

The first letter in the New Testament is Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. It was written before he visited them so does not contain some of the corrective challenges found in the letters to churches he knew. Romans provides a comprehensive explanation of God’s plan of salvation as fulfilled through Jesus.

Salvation is about being saved from God’s wrath. This is an unpopular idea today but Paul describes people’s wickedness in turning our back on God’s righteousness – his perfect standard – which is inexcusable given the evidence of God’s character and nature as seen in the creation around us. We all judge right and wrong in others, and are keen to see justice done on those who do bad things, but this means that we are without excuse in our own behaviour which we know often falls short of the standards we set, let alone God’s perfect standard. Paul summarises our position by saying that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

This is a bleak assessment but it is only half of the sentence. The good news is that all “are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24). ‘Justified’ is a legal term meaning that we are declared right. That takes effect immediately, but it does not mean that we suddenly become perfect. That is a process of continual improvement, called sanctification, which takes the rest of our lives.

The reference to redemption would have reminded people in Paul’s day of the slave market where slaves could be set free for a payment. When Paul says that Christ redeemed us, he means that he paid the price for our sins so that we could go free from the punishment we deserve. This is available to all, but it is not forced on us: it has to be received by accepting that we need to be set free and that Jesus has died to make that possible.

The extent of God’s love for us is shown in that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Paul is supremely confident in the power of God’s love for us and says, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

Some saw this as an opportunity to live as they pleased as God will love them whatever they do. Paul strongly dismisses this idea and insists that we must not live to please our sinful nature but live in tune with the Holy Spirit who lives within us and who equips us to live as God’s children. He exhorts us “to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God” (Romans 12:1). We do this by avoiding taking on the world’s way of thinking and being transformed by the renewing of our minds through reading God’s word and walking in step with the Spirit.

Paul concludes with a number of instructions on how to live. These cover the different gifts we each have, our relationship to the state, and being kind towards those who have a different approach to their faith on practical matters. Paul is very clear that we cannot earn our salvation by keeping the law, but that if we truly appreciate the extent of what God has done for us in his love then our response will be that we will keep the law by loving others. “Love is the fulfilment of the law” (Romans 13:10).

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