In his letter to the Christians at Rome, Paul looks back over the 4000 years of Old Testament times, showing the lost and sinful condition of Gentiles (nations as a whole) and Jews, and traces the steps whereby men, through the grace of God, may be delivered from the bondage of evil and given the highest place of honour as sons of God.
The early nations of men possessed some inner knowledge of God; they ‘knew God’, Rom. 1. 18; 2. 16. God had placed them on earth that they should ‘seek after him’ and hopefully find Him, Acts 17. 21. They had no specific commands given to them by God as to how they should live, 2. 14, 15, but they had a conscience, 2. 11, and knew the difference between right and wrong. God left them free to make their own decisions.
The nations, however, treated their privileges with contempt; they suppressed the truth that God had given them, Rom. 1. 18, 19, and made lifeless gods of their own. As a result of this they became self-deceived fools, Rom. 1. 22, their natures and passions corrupt and vile, Rom. 1. 24-26. Violence and wickedness of every kind became their normal way of life, Rom. 1. 29-32. An evil power known as the law of sin and death, Rom. 7. 23, and the old man, Eph. 4. 24, held them in captivity and bondage. Sin reigned in their bodies of flesh, Rom. 7. 13, 14, 17, 20, and they lost their knowledge of God. ‘The Gentiles’, writes Paul, ‘walk in the vanity of their mind, having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart’, Eph. 4. 17-19. ‘Whosoever committeth sin’, said Jesus, ‘is the servant of sin’, John 8. 34.
About 2000 years after Adam, God turned from the nations as a whole and through Abraham and the fathers He separated a special, chosen family of people (generally known as the Hebrews) , to whom He gave numerous promises, covenants and laws. The laws He gave were holy, just and good, Rom. 7. 12, and in them the people had an opportunity to prove their love for God and show kindness to their neighbours; there was no excuse now to make wrong decisions; here was the way to obtain the blessing of God. ‘If thou wilt enter into life’, said Jesus to a young man, ‘keep the commandments’, Matt. 19. 16-18.
But what happened? Instead of bringing deliverance and life to the people, the law merely increased their guilt and brought them into a state of bondage from which there appeared to be no way of escape. ‘By the law’, said Paul, ‘is the knowledge of sin’, Rom. 3. 20; ‘I had not known sin, but by the law; for I had not known lust, except the law had said thou shalt not covet’, Rom. 7. 7. ‘The commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death’, Rom. 7. 10.
Jesus not only upheld the authority of the law, but he intensified its demands; the desire to commit sin was as great as the act of sin itself, Matt. 5. 28. Sin lay in the heart and mind rather than in deeds and words, Matt. 15. 19.
The Hebrews were proud of their law, but in experience they were no better than the Gentile nations about them. ‘We have before proved’, says Paul, ‘Jews and Gentiles that they are all under sin … there is none righteous, no, not one: there is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way … what things the law saith, it saith to them that are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God’, Rom. 3. 9-19.
Ultimately, both Gentiles and Jews united in their final rejection of the light of truth by demanding the death of the Son of God, Acts 4. 27. The free-living Gentiles and the law-keeping Jews were alike corrupt in their inner nature and under the wrath and judgment of God, Rom. 1. 18.
God, however, in His great love and goodness, saw the lost and helpless state of all men and He sent into the world His own Son to provide a way of escape; ‘The Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world’, 1 John 4. 14.
Christ came with the express object of restoring Jew and Gentile to the favour and fellowship of God - to remove the barrier of guilt that they had created, and to save them from wrath and judgment. This He did by offering up to God a life of perfect holiness and righteousness and taking upon Himself the actual sin of the people. ‘Christ… suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God’, 1 Pet. 3. 18; He who knew no sin, was made sin for us, 2 Cor. 5. 21; He made peace by the blood of His cross, Col. 1. 20.
The immediate result of His sufferings and death brought to all believing people the forgiveness of sins, Eph. 1. 7, and a new righteous standing before God that was received, not by human works of any kind, but by simple faith in the work of Christ and in the faithful promises of God; ‘The righteousness of God without the law is manifested … even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe’, Rom. 3. 21, 22. By the precious blood of Christ and by the grace of God alone sinners are saved and accepted by God freely and for ever; all who believe can rest and rejoice in these unchangeable facts.
But God does more for believing Jews and Gentiles than forgiving their sins and declaring them to be righteous in His sight: He takes them into His own family circle and calls them His children and sons, ‘But as many as received Him (Christ), to them gave he power (right) to become the sons (children) of God’, John 1. 12. ‘As many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God … the Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God’, Rom. 8. 14-16. ‘God sent forth his Son … to redeem (set free) them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons … Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; then an heir of God through Christ’, Gal. 4. 4-7.
To be a child and a son of God means that God imparts to us something of His own life and character referred to as ‘the divine nature’, 2 Pet. 1. 4, the ‘law of the spirit of life’, Rom. 8. 2, and ‘the new man’, Eph. 4. 24. The Holy Spirit enters into the believers’ hearts and produces in their lives the very likeness of Christ Himself; thus are set free from the slavery of sin and the accusing finger of the law. God is their Father and they serve Him because the love of God is shed abroad in their hearts by the Holy Spirit, Rom. 5. 5.
God’s goal of salvation is not merely to redeem people and take them to heaven, but to change them into the very likeness of His Son. God called me, said Paul, ‘to reveal His Son in me’, see Gal. 1. 15, 16, and he prayed for the Christians at Galatia ‘until Christ be formed in you’, see Gal. 4. 19. God in His grace not merely saves and forgives sinful men, but He sets them free from the power of sin within them, sanctifying and purifying their hearts, making them fit subjects to enter His heavenly kingdom.
What then is your response to these remarkable things. If you are a Gentile (a non-Jew) living under the slavery of sin, God requires you to confess your lost and helpless state and accept God’s salvation freely in Christ. If you are a Jew living under the bondage of the law, God requires you to turn from the ‘law-righteousness’ and accept freely by faith alone the righteousness offered to you in Christ, Rom. 3. 20, 28; 4. 1-5.