Some of you are probably familiar with the work of J. I. Packer—most likely his book Knowing God, if nothing else. I had the privilege of taking several classes from him at Regent. You had to pay attention, and no mistake. His lectures were dense—he always said, “Packer by name, and packer by nature”; plus, he’s a Brit of the old style, very formal, very reserved, and even by English standards his sense of humor is dry as bone. If you appreciate that, though (and I do), he’s really quite funny. At first glance, he might seem all intellect and no heart, but that’s nowhere close to being true. You can see that quite clearly in Knowing God; we saw it in many ways in his lectures, and perhaps most of all in his favorite saying, which was sort of a purpose statement for all his theology classes: “Theology leads to doxology.”
In other words, we don’t just study about God so that we know more stuff, or so that we can win arguments or tell people what they’re supposed to do; nor is this about our own empowerment, or getting us what we want. If those are the kinds of results that our theology produces, we’ve gone very wrong. What we do as we read the Bible, as we pray, as we study together and teach one another, isn’t primarily about us, and it isn’t determined by our goals, our desires, or our ideas of how things ought to be. It’s about God, and seeing him as he truly is, not as our passions and fears drive us to imagine him; and not just so that we know things about him, but so that we come to know him, as we come to know our family and closest friends. And the more that happens—the more clearly we see him and the more truly we know him—the more we’re moved to worship.
It’s fitting, then, that as Paul closes his longest and most theologically dense letter, he does something that he doesn’t do anywhere else: he ends with a doxology, with a song of praise. That’s ultimately what all this is about, what his whole letter has been for, that the Roman church—and all others who would hear or read his words—would understand God’s holiness and glory and goodness and grace somewhat better, and would be inspired to bow before God and worship him.
It does matter that we believe what is true about God, so that we worship him truly; thus we have this digression in verses 17-19. His greeting in verse 16 from the churches he founded brings to mind the fights he’s had in those churches, and so he warns the Romans: there are false teachers out there, and they’ll be coming after you. Be wise enough to see through their lies, and avoid them. But again, this isn’t about being able to out-argue false teachers. We counter their lies with truth, but not so that we can win the argument; we don’t want to focus on the argument. The point is to keep our focus where it belongs: on God the Father, Jesus Christ his Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Thus Paul ends with praise “to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ.” What is Paul’s gospel? It is exactly the preaching of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen from the dead, seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty. It is the triumphant declaration that Jesus has done the impossible, and has saved us when we could not be saved any other way. This isn’t about Paul; he calls it “my gospel” not because the gospel belongs to him, but because he belongs to the gospel.
This is how God strengthens us; this is how he gives us hope and peace to stand firm—through the relentless and joyful proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ. The world tries to create them through symptom control, on the personal level (through self-help programs and medications) and on the national level (through laws and programs), but those aren’t enough; and if the church just offers Christianized versions of the same, we’re selling everyone short. Those things have their place, but they only deal with the effects of sin; they can’t address the real issue, the heart of the matter. At every level, at every point, by every means, we need to be proclaiming the gospel. Only that truly strengthens us and enables us to stand firm because only the gospel goes to the root of the problem. It’s God’s answer to sin—and he’s answered it once and for all.
This is, Paul says, “according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God.” Those prophetic writings were centuries old; why does he say the mystery is nowrevealed through texts written long before? The answer has to do with the nature of mystery. In the biblical sense, it doesn’t mean God was concealing his plan, or the truth about himself; mystery is something hidden in plain sight, not by any effort of God to disguise it, but by our inability to understand it—or, even more importantly, experience it. The prophets pointed to the mystery and proclaimed what God would do, but no one really understood them; but when Jesus came and fulfilled the prophets, the world saw what they meant, and their message became clear for the first time.
Why? “So that all nations might believe and obey him.” The gospel is not just one way to God, for one culture or one sort of people; it’s the one way God has provided for salvation for all people. His plan is broader than just Israel, and broader than any other nation or group we might name; his purpose is for the whole world, and indeed for all creation. And it’s his purpose that matters in the end, not ours, and his plan that carries through, not ours, because he’s God, and we’re not. It’s his to decree, and ours to obey.
The one who has done all this, and is able to do all this, is the only wise God. It’s his wisdom that formed a plan for the redemption of the world after our rebellion broke it and shrouded it with darkness, and his wisdom that set the plan in motion and brought it to completion. His wisdom is fully expressed—is incarnated, made flesh and bone—in Jesus Christ, and it’s in Jesus Christ and him alone that we have been saved, or can be saved; thus it is through Jesus Christ that we give him glory. His glory is forever, as he is forever, as his wisdom is forever, as his gift of life is forever; and so our worship is forever, for he deserves nothing less. He has saved us, he has set us free from darkness and shadow, he has delivered us from death and given us his life; he has given us hope in a world of despair, peace in a world of anxiety, joy in a world of grief, and love in a world of bitterness and hatred. To the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen. Let’s pray.