Preaching the Gospel in Absentia

Robert Wurtz II

“I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to wise and to unwise. So, as much as is in me, I am ready to preach the gospel to you who are in Rome also. For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.” (Romans 1:14–16 NKJV)

Many commentators and Bible students read Romans 1:14-16 and are met with a mystery. Why would Paul preach the Gospel to people who had already heard it? In fact, he rejoices because word of their faith was said to have reached the “whole world.” Why did they need to hear the Gospel again? Some suggest that Paul was asserting his authority over the saints at Rome (particularly the Gentiles) because he was “an apostle to the Gentiles” and that task had been committed to him.

Many Greek scholars agree that the church at Rome came about through the preaching of the saints sent out from the “mother church” at Jerusalem. This means there was likely a Jewish emphasis. If this is true it would follow that Paul would address the believing Jews in the manner that he did. Yet perhaps Paul felt responsible for making sure that all the saints at Rome fully understood the Gospel. Having never met them face to face and having nothing to go on but what he had heard concerning their faith — I think he played it safe and re-preached the Gospel to them all over again. Indeed, the book of Romans is an example of Paul’s Gospel message as it would have been preached to people who he had no way of knowing where they stood with God.

When Paul met up with the first believers at Ephesus he asked them if they received the Holy Spirit when they believed. He soon found out that they had received only John’s baptism — which by that time had already expired and was no longer effectual. Their response was to be rebaptized in water. The Greek word for re-baptism is ἀναβαπτισμός (anabaptismos). This is ἀνα (ana or “Re”) and βαπτισμός (baptismos or “baptism”) We get the name Anabaptist from this word. With this event in mind, I suggest that Paul was re-preaching the Gospel to the saints at Rome — in much the same way the early Ephesians needed a re-baptism. Paul simply could not risk the possibility that there was some defect in their understanding or experience. The only way to be sure was to re-preach the Gospel to them.

There is one Greek word that translates the English words preach the Gospel, and it’sevangelisasthai. We get our word evangelize from the cognate of this Greek word εὐαγγελίζω (evangelizo). So if ἀναἀναβαπτισμός is used for anabaptism or re-baptism; perhaps we need to coin a new word Anavangelism and Anavangelist. Instead of re-baptizing folks, we re-preach the Gospel to make sure that the people heard the right message. Many false Gospel messages have gone out into the land. Would it be fair to say that if Paul was concerned enough to pen a message such as Romans that we ought likewise to be concerned about what people are hearing, believing, and responding to today?

Can you imagine being in Rome and picking up the message of Romans and reading it for the first time? Our attention would be arrested when we read, “I am ready to preach the gospel to you who are in Rome also…” Many sermons have been published over the last 500 years. Sometimes when I read one of John Wesley, George Whitefield, or some other dear saint — I’m transported to the time and place. I can almost hear them preaching to me. I get the same feeling when I read Romans. Did you know that the entire book of Romans can be read aloud in just over an hour? I have sat through sermons that were two hours long. I have a hunch that Paul could have preached the entire message of Romans in one sermon. As good of a grasp as Paul had of the Gospel, I believe he could have done it extemporaneously.

What did we think Paul meant when he said plainly, I am ready to preach the gospel to you who are in Rome, and then went on with his message? He was preaching the Gospel in Absentia. That is to say, he was not present physically but nevertheless he preached to them. Modern scholars get all tied up debating whether it’s a letter (epistle) or a didactic teaching, etc. They wear themselves out trying to find a category for the book because it is so unlike the other epistles in the Pauline corpus. They want to know why he comes off so strong thundering against sin.

Some almost complain that it’s not soft and as easily entreated like the epistles. Of course, it’s not like the epistles, those were written to the saints. Not knowing where the people at Rome stood with God, he took it for granted that he needed to preach to them the “whole lot” as if they had never heard the Gospel. And that’s why we have it in its completeness.

What did Paul preach to the Jews, Greeks, Barbarians; both to the wise, and to the unwise…” (Romans 1:14 KJV)? Why does Romans sound resoundingly like Paul’s preaching at Mars Hill? Why does it agree with Acts chapter 26? I suggest quite simply that Romans was a sermon preached in Absentia. It contained within its body the essential message necessary to “… open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me.” (Acts 26:18 NKJV) It even contains an “invitation” towards the end, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” (Romans 12:1–2 NKJV)

What a difference it would make if all ministers took Paul’s approach to making sure the people heard the Gospel properly.

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