The book of Romans has some scriptures that are so familiar to us like “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ” (Romans 1:16), and at the same time, we may sometimes find it hard to understand what Paul is saying beyond those scriptures we know well. Even Peter described Paul’s writing as “things hard to be understood” (2 Peter 3:16) Let’s dive in and see if we can unwind some of the mystery.
Welcome to Meridian Magazine’s Magazine’s Come Follow Me podcast. We’re Scot and Maurine Proctor and we want to have some fun for the next 30 minutes thinking about Paul’s writing. The title of the lesson is “The Power of God unto Salvation” and covers Romans chapters 1-6. The complete transcript for the podcast is at latterdaysaintmag.com/podcast . We also hope you are reading Meridian Magazine. It is updated daily with hundreds of gifted Latter-day Saint writers. Sign up for a free subscription that will come to your inbox every weekday.
Background on Romans
The epistles of Paul are his letters written to the congregations he formed through his missionary work. They sometimes answer questions, teach more doctrine, regulate matters and keep him touch with the people he loved, much like we sometimes have visiting General Authorities at our stake or district conferences today. The exception to this is Romans, because when Paul wrote this he had never been to Rome, though he wrote them that he had desired “these many years to come unto you” (Romans 15:23). He told them that “your faith is spoken throughout the whole world” (Romans 1:8) and he gives a long list of greetings to individuals.
This gives us a picture of the early world of the Church where there was at least some network of friendship and Paul said this, “without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers” (Romans 1:9).
It is also important to know that Paul’s epistles are arranged in the New Testament by length, not by chronology. In other words, Paul did not write Romans first, although it appears first. He wrote it from Corinth in the year 58 AD, and it is often considered his masterpiece. Though, we have to admit that saying something like that is like trying to name your favorite scripture. Where would you begin when you love so many?
So let’s begin with that scripture we know so well. Paul said, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek (Romans 1:16). Paul was not speaking idly here. He had already demonstrated that he was not ashamed of the gospel of Christ by declaring it with power and boldness in the most threatening situations to the point of being beaten and imprisoned. Nothing stopped his witness or cowed him or crushed him.
The reason it matters to see this example is because we live in an intolerant time when our allegiance to the gospel of Jesus Christ in all its particulars, including the Proclamation on the Family, will absolutely be challenged. Satan will invite us to hide our testimony in fear or timidity. He will tell us that being true to the gospel and declaring it openly will be threatening to our job or our friendships or our social standing. We may find that our social networks are full of people who do not want us to speak the truth and declare our devotion to God and his Son Jesus Christ. They may make you feel embarrassed or foolish. They may suggest that your standards or ideas offend them. The time will come, and you may have already experienced it in your own life that you will have to know what you believe and for what you are willing to take a stand. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ.”
Shame, of course, is one of the Adversary’s sharpest tools. He wants you to feel ashamed of the gospel so you will hide, so you will go along with the world, so you will abandon the truth you know to avoid being ridiculed or ostracized.
In those moments when you are tempted to be untrue or give up what you know because of fear or pressure, remember these two stories.
Lucy Mack Smith in Buffalo Harbor
When the early Latter-day Saints moved from New York to Kirtland, some of them floated along the Erie Canal and then became icebound in Buffalo Harbor. Lucy Mack Smith led one of those groups and she relates this story:
She said, “I inquired of the Colesville brethren if they had told the people that they were Mormons. They seemed surprised at the question and replied, ‘No, by no means-and don’t you do it for the world, for if you do, you will not get a boat nor a house, and here you must stay or go back.’
“I told them I would let the people know exactly who I was and what I professed. ‘If you,’ said I, ‘are ashamed of Christ, you will not be prospered as much as I shall, and we will get to Kirtland before you.’
“While we were yet talking with the Colesville brethren, another boat came up which had on board about thirty Mormon brethren, and Brother Thomas Marsh was one of the company. He came to me and, perceiving the drift of our conversation, said, ‘Now, Mother Smith, if you do sing and have prayers and acknowledge that you are Mormons here in this place, as you have done all along, you will be mobbed before morning.’
“’Well, mob it is, then,’ said I, ‘for we shall sing and attend to prayers before sunset, mob or no mob.’
“Just then a man cried out from the shore, ‘Is the Book of Mormon true?’
“That book,” said I, “was brought forth by the power of God and translated by the same power, and if I could make my voice sound as loud as the trumpet of Michael, the archangel, I would declare the truth from land to land and from sea to sea, and echo it from isle to isle, until everyone of the whole family of man was left without excuse-for all should hear the truth of the gospel of the Son of God. I would sound in every ear that he has again revealed himself to man in these last days, and set his hand to gather his people together upon a goodly land…
“For every man shall have the desires of his heart. If he desires the truth, the way is open, and he may hear and live. Whereas if he treat the truth with contempt, and trample upon the simplicity of the word of God, he will shut the gate of heaven against himself.”
Then, turning to our own company, I said, ‘Now, brethren and sisters, if you will all of you raise your desires to heaven that the ice may be broken before us, and we be set at liberty to go on our way, as sure as the Lord lives, it shall be done.’ At that moment a noise was heard like bursting thunder. The captain cried out, ‘Every man to his post,’ and the ice parted, leaving barely a pathway for the boat that was so narrow that, as the boat passed through, the buckets were torn with a crash from the waterwheel… We had barely passed through the avenue, when the ice closed together again, and the Colesville brethren were left in Buffalo, unable to follow us.
As we were leaving the harbor, I heard one man on shore say, “There goes the Mormon company! That boat is sunk in the water nine inches deeper than it was before, and mark it, she will sink-there is nothing surer.” Our boat and one other had just time enough to get through, and the ice closed again and remained three weeks longer. The Colesville brethren were left in Buffalo, unable to follow us. The bystanders were so sure we would sink that they went straight to the office and had it published that we were sunk, so that when we arrived at Fairport, we read in the papers the news of our own death. https://latterdaysaintmag.com/lucy-mack-smith-leads-a-group-of-saints-from-new-york-to-ohio-the-miracle-of-the-breaking-of-the-ice-at-buffalo/
Another wonderful story is told of Joseph F. Smith who was not ashamed of the gospel of Christ
In the fall of 1857, the nineteen-year-old Joseph F. was returning from his mission in Hawaii, and in California he joined a wagon train. It was a volatile time for the Saints. Johnston’s Army was marching towards Utah, and many had bitter feelings towards the Church. One evening several hoodlums rode into camp, cursing and threatening to hurt every Mormon they could find. Most in the wagon train ran and hid in the brush. But Joseph F. thought to himself: “Shall I run from these fellows? Why should I fear them?” With that, he walked up to one of the intruders who, with pistol in hand, demanded, “Are you a Mormon?” Joseph F. Smith responded, “Yes siree; dyed in the wool; true blue, through and through.” At that, the hoodlum grasped his hand and said, “Well you are the [blankety-blank] pleasantest man I ever met! Shake hands, young fellow. I am glad to see a man that stands up for his convictions” Seehttps://www2.byui.edu/Presentations/Transcripts/Devotionals/2004_03_16_Dew.htm
May we be likewise. True blue, through and through, with complete integrity to be unashamed of the gospel of Christ.
Now in writing his epistle, Paul has two audiences—the Jews and the Gentiles, whom he will often call the circumcised and uncircumcised, but he said, “Glory, honour, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile: For there is no respect of persons with God” (Romans 2:10,11).
What does concern Paul, however, is sin, which particularly comes upon people when they know not God or substitute Him for something made of man’s hands. He lists a range of sin. People are vain in their imaginations. Their foolish hearts are darkened. They are filled with unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness, envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity. They are whisperers, backbiters, haters of God. Paul goes on and on, and you think, wow, those other people sure have a lot of problems and sins. Glad that’s not me.
Then Paul delivers this kicker, “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, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one” (Romans 2:10-12).
What Paul is saying here is that we are all sinners, maybe not quite in all the ways he lists, but in some ways. We have found ourselves in a very interesting predicament. No unclean thing can enter the presence of God, but we have been born into a fallen world. It is not that we are punished for Adam’s transgression, but that being born into mortality puts us in a place where blindness, “carelessness, inadequacy, and an entire range of mortal bitterness” is our inheritance. Sometimes we commit sins knowingly, sometimes we stumble in ignorance or just don’t see, but nonetheless, we find ourselves divided from God.
In one of our favorite books, “The Broken Heart”, Bruce Hafen notes “that the scriptures may use the term sin with different meanings in different contexts …Bible scholars have established that our Old Testament uses the English word sin to translate Hebrew phrases that should more precisely have been interpreted as “missing the right point,” or as describing “those who had lost their way” or those who “even with the best intentions were in difficulty. Similarly, our Old Testament at times uses sin to describe what in Hebrew could be either willful “rebellion” or intentional “error” that is misguided but not unconditionally negligent or culpable.” In other words, the term sin, is a broad one that encompasses much of our human condition from acts we do willfully, to mistakes we make that have painful consequences for others, to blindness when we don’t see a need. So much. (Bruce Hafen, The Broken Heart) http://www.gospelink.com/library/document/10660
President Russell M. Nelson echoed Paul in a recent conference, Recently I have found myself drawn to the Lord’s instruction given through the Prophet Joseph Smith: ‘Say nothing but repentance unto this generation.’1 This declaration is often repeated throughout scripture.2 It prompts an obvious question: ‘Does everyone need to repent?’ The answer is yes.
“Too many people consider repentance as punishment—something to be avoided except in the most serious circumstances. But this feeling of being penalized is engendered by Satan. He tries to block us from looking to Jesus Christ,3 who stands with open arms,4 hoping and willing to heal, forgive, cleanse, strengthen, purify, and sanctify us.
“The word for repentance in the Greek New Testament is metanoeo. The prefix meta- means “change.” The suffix -noeo is related to Greek words that mean “mind,” “knowledge,” “spirit,” and “breath.”5
Thus, when Jesus asks you and me to “repent,”6 He is inviting us to change our mind, our knowledge, our spirit—even the way we breathe. “ President Russell M. Nelson, “We Can Do Better and Be Better”, April 2019 conference https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2019/04/36nelson?lang=eng
We don’t live in a time where we use the word sin much. We don’t think of ourselves as sinners. It sounds like a pejorative and doesn’t make us feel good. Instead, we try to build ourselves up and try to appear to ourselves and to others as a finished product. We protect our dignity at all costs. It can become a full-time preoccupation. But there is something really freeing about giving up the hustle to look so good and acknowledging that we are not yet whole, or even very close to it, when you consider the end goal is to be like the Savior.
Instead of seeing ourselves in a courtroom, where God is a judge and we have to present ourselves well or be penalized, we see ourselves instead as not yet whole, incomplete. We are on a journey, learning, as we travel with the Lord as our companion, our support, our strength and the one who opens our eyes as we will let Him. With His help, we leave behind all the ways we “miss the mark” and break eternal law because breaking the law always brings with it misery.
Bruce Hafen noted that, “King Benjamin taught that the Atonement applies fully to ignorant transgression as well as to deliberate transgression, even though the degree of wrongful motive varies so widely between these two categories that they hardly seem sinful in the same sense: “His blood atoneth for the sins of those . . . who have died not knowing the will of God concerning them, or who have ignorantly sinned. But wo, wo unto him who knoweth that he rebelleth against God! For salvation cometh to none such except it be through repentance and faith on the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Mosiah 3:11-12. See also 3 Nephi 6:18.)
So this includes all of us. Willful or blind, ignorant or just careless, whether we have inclinations we need to change or whether we just don’t get it yet, we’ve broken eternal laws—and it is vital to see that.
Seeing how much we really need Christ opens our eyes to how we have created much of our own misery and how we can leave that behind.
Robert Millet wrote, “One cannot fully appreciate the need for medicine until one is aware of a malady. One does not pant after the cooling draught until one has nearly died of thirst. In the same way, as President Ezra Taft Benson observed, people do not yearn for salvation in Christ until they know why they need Christ, which thing they cannot know until they understand and acknowledge the Fall and its effects upon all mankind.” Robert L. Millett, “Walking in the Newness of Life: Doctrinal Themes of the Apostle Paul” http://www.gospelink.com/library/document/19925#fn-8
This is why we can acknowledge that all of us are sinners, because it merely means that we have finally recognized that we have great, indispensable, overwhelming, daily, continuous need of the atonement. It is the Lord’s arm extended to us while we stumble.
An interesting note here is that the only time the word “atonement” appears in the New Testament is in these chapters in Romans, while it appears in the Book of Mormon more than 55 times. As Elder Hafen said, “Beyond word usage, the Book of Mormon contains without any question the most profound theological treatment of the Atonement found in any book now available on any shelf anywhere in the world.”
Now Martin Luther, who in the year 1517 tacked his 95 theses on a church door in Wittenberg and started the Reformation, turned to these chapters in Romans and other writings of Paul. He wanted to come up with an answer to that question, how can we become righteous and obtain eternal life? He was one who was a most dedicated monk, fasting for days, going to great lengths to obtain righteousness, and he finally came up with the idea that it just wasn’t possible by your own merits. All that spiritual work seemed to leave him empty. It was in searching Paul that Luther arrived at a new conclusion—that is, that eternal life is not earned by good deeds, but received only as the free gift of God’s grace through the believer’s faith in Jesus Christ.
This, of course, turned into the age-old debate about whether we are saved by faith in Christ’s atonement or instead by our works. Faith vs. works. Martin Luther would have said by grace only, and “only” there is the important word, implying that our works don’t matter, only our confession of Christ.
You can see where Luther could have gotten some of this idea if he focused on only part of what Paul said. In many of his words, Paul is clear that faith and works are required for salvation. Still, Paul does sound the limitations of the law in scriptures like this:
17 Behold, thou art called a Jew, and restest in the law, and makest thy boast of God,
18 And knowest his will, and approvest the things that are more excellent, being instructed out of the law;
19 And art confident that thou thyself art a guide of the blind, a light of them which are in darkness.
27 Where is aboasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith.
What Paul refers to here is the law of Moses. Obeying every performance of that law would not be enough to save a person. He or she would still be incomplete and always insufficient without the Savior’s atonement.
We think Martin Luther got it wrong here that it is just enough to confess Christ, but in our practices as Latter-day Saints sometimes on a personal level we can think that it is our works that save us, not understanding what a small part they play compared to the gift of the atonement.
Nephi gives us a clearer view on how we are saved and what we in the gospel believe, “For we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23). Salvation has two parts—our part and the Lord’s part. Sometimes for Latter-day Saints that idea “after all we can do” is misunderstood to be the most important part of that equation. It is not.
Is it, “by grace we are saved after all we can do?”
Or “by grace we are saved after all we can do?”
We are not going to be granted salvation mainly because of our works. In fact, that over-emphasis on works can have some negative effects in our lives, making us believe the lie that we are earning our way to heaven or hustling to heaven or working on a point sheet and if we get enough points we will win the game. That is erroneous, discouraging thinking that robs us of our hope because life is tough, and all of us come to the point when we wonder if we can measure up in all the areas of life that matter in this demanding world. We have limited time, limited emotional resources, limited insight, and sometimes contrary inclinations. We make mistakes. We sin.
The question that nags us, when we somehow think we are saved by works alone, is can we ever be good enough?
This does not mean that we don’t have to learn and seek with all of our hearts to obey the law. Of course, we do. We have made covenants that are dependent on our obedience. Millet said, “Of course we must receive the ordinances of salvation. Of course we must strive to live a life befitting that of our Christian covenant. Of course we must do all in our power to overcome sin, put off the natural man, and deny ourselves of all ungodliness. These things evidence our part of the gospel covenant. They allow us, in fact, to remain in the covenant with Christ, even as we occasionally stumble and fall short of the ideal. The question is not whether good works are necessary—they are. As we have already observed, they are not sufficient. The harder questions are, In whom do I trust? On whom do I rely? Is my reliance on Christ’s works, or do I strive to save myself?”
As one writer said striving to save ourselves without Christ is like struggling to be good without the energy, joy, and power of the Holy Spirit. Without Christ, we are “lamps without oil, cars without gas, and pens without ink, baffled at [our] own impotence in the absence of all that alone can make man functional.” Paul taught what James taught—that true faith is always manifest in righteous works (James 2) and that one who relies wholly on the merits of Christ, who has faith in him, will evidence that faith through noble actions and Christian conduct.” (see Millett article.)
Ammon in the Book of Mormon got it right, when he said, “I know that I am nothing; as to my strength I am weak; therefore I will not boast of myself, but I will boast of my God, for in his strength I can do all things (Alma 26:12).
So let’s talk about two parts of the process important to Paul and to any understanding of the atonement. Justification and sanctification.
Justification is the part we often think about when we consider the atonement. We can understand it simply. Through Adam and Eve’s transgression, though it was a noble and important choice, we have entered a fallen world. Though we are not punished for Adam’s transgression, it introduced us to a place where we have sinned, and put ourselves in a terrible dilemma. No unclean thing can enter the Father’s presence. This seems impossible. We would be stuck forever, stained and fallen, broken and bruised by our own bad or blind choices without the Savior.
It is like the college girl who went to her professor very distraught because she, was, completely straight-A, 4.00 student had received a B. She wanted to know how many A’s she had to get to ever have a 4.00 again? The answer was devastating to her. The professor said no matter how many A’s she received going forward, she couldn’t ever bring her grade point average up above 3.9999. That B would always be averaged in.
That is where justification comes in. I like the way one Protestant theologian, John MacArthur said it: “Justification may be defined as an act of God whereby he imputes to a believing sinner the full and perfect righteousness of Christ, forgiving the sinner of all unrighteousness, declaring him or her perfectly righteous in God’s sight, thus delivering the believer from all condemnation…It is a divine verdict of ‘not guilty’.
So now we come to the idea of sanctification. It is an astonishing gift to be able to be cleansed from our sins through justification. In addition, as we give Christ our sacrifice of a broken heart and a contrite spirit, he takes this gift further and sanctifies us. As Millet said, “Through the atonement of Christ we do more than enjoy a change of behavior; our nature is changed. Paul said, “Therefore, if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold all things are become new (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Elder Hafen said that the Atonement is “the process by which we move from the messy slate of sin through the clean slate of forgiveness to the beautifully full slate of divine nature.”
We are talking about a transformation that is much more than skin deep. Through the Lord’s atonement, He leads us along to be born again, becoming new as old things inside us pass away.
One writer said, “We may be quite sure that Christ-centredness and Christ-likeness will never be attained by our own unaided efforts. How can self drive out self? As well expect Satan to drive out Satan! For we are not interested in skin-deep holiness, in a merely external resemblance to Jesus Christ. We are not satisfied by a superficial modification of behaviour patterns. . . . No, what we long for is a deep inward change of character, resulting from a change of nature and leading to a radical change of conduct. In a word we want to be like Christ, and that thoroughly, profoundly, entirely. Nothing less than this will do.” (as quoted in Millett).
This is not something we achieve on our own strength. Or even our own vision. I don’t know how celestial beings act or think or perceive things. We all need the Lord to carry us there and make us new through our daily and deep communion with Him. Going through the motions of spirituality or just keeping a very demanding list of good things to do will never cut it. We are talking about something much more radical than that.
One writer described the spiritual transformation the Lord will work upon us as being like that of a caterpillar—an earthbound worm—into a glorious butterfly. It is a complete metamorphosis achieved because the caterpillar completely and totally immerses himself in the cocoon.
In the same way, if we will completely and totally immerse ourselves in the gifts of Christ’s atonement, then He can do His work upon us. This writer said, “If you were to see a butterfly, it would never occur to you to say, ‘Hey, everybody! Come look at this good-looking converted worm!’ Why atonement? After all, it was a worm. And it was ‘converted.’ No, now it is a new creature, and you don’t think of it in terms of what it was. You see it as it is now—a butterfly.” (as quoted in Millett.)
I think too many of us are satisfied to be very busy caterpillars, trying to do our best, but somehow staying on the edges of becoming the butterfly God intends us to be.
We are being invited to be born again which means becoming entirely new as we let the natural man fall away like an ugly mask we’ve been wearing.
Paul describes this new life like this in Romans 6
4 Therefore we are aburied with him by bbaptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the cdead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should dwalk in enewness of life.
5 For if we have been planted together in the alikeness of his bdeath, we shall be also in the likeness of his cresurrection:
6 Knowing this, that our aold man is crucified with him, that the bbody of sin might be cdestroyed, that henceforth we should not serve dsin.
Walking in newness of life. What a really glorious vision that is. Walking in newness of capacity for love. Walking in newness of gratitude. Walking in newness of strength and patience and hope. I want that.
Elder Hafen said, “The Atonement in some way, apparently through the Holy Ghost, makes possible the infusion of spiritual endowments that actually change and purify our nature, moving us toward that state of holiness or completeness we call eternal life or Godlike life. At that ultimate stage we will exhibit divine characteristics not just because we think we should but because that is the way we are.
“The Savior’s victory can compensate not only for our sins but also for our inadequacies; not only for our deliberate mistakes but also for our sins committed in ignorance, our errors of judgment, and our unavoidable imperfections. Our ultimate aspiration is more than being forgiven of sin—we seek to become holy, endowed affirmatively with Christlike attributes, at one with him, like him. Divine grace is the only source that can finally fulfill that aspiration, after all we can do.”
Grace is needed for overcoming limitations (which by the way I want more than I can say.) These opportunities are closer and richer than we might ever imagine.
Elder Hafen said, “The truth is not that we must make it on our own, but that He will make us His own.”
Paul encompasses both justification and sanctification in Romans 5:
2 By whom also we have access by afaith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.
4 And patience, experience; and experience, hope:
Paul gives us an unforgettable and stirring example of Abraham’s faith in Romans 4. Paul reminds us that Abraham was given promises that included posterity and a promised land. He wrote of Abraham’s faith:
That faith referred to is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and the grace that comes through His atonement. This was something that Abraham could absolutely and totally count on. Then when Sarah had passed the child bearing years and no posterity arrived, it could have been easy to Abraham to sicken with disappointment and curse God.
17 (As it is written, I have made thee a father of many nations,) before him whom he believed, even God, who aquickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were. (So Abraham believes God’s power. He has this faith:)
19 And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years aold, neither yet the deadness of Sara’s womb:
20 He astaggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God;
21 And being fully persuaded that, what he had apromised, he was able also to perform.
22 And therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness.
I love that phrase, “who against hope believed in hope.” This demonstrates his complete commitment and utter trust in what God is doing with him and that with God nothing is impossible.
Like Abraham, our mortal experience will give us the chance to exercise great faith in the Lord’s plan for us and His work on us. There will be times when it seems He is distant or that He has forgotten His many promises to you made in scriptures. He hasn’t. He has given you your journey in life with all its twists and turns to sanctify you. He is the only one who can help you develop a divine nature. Trust that. Through the Savior’s atonement, you can be strengthened for that journey, directed on that journey, expanded through that journey, and have the natural man replaced as we as we are born again and given new life.
I have to say how much I have loved thinking about this for this podcast. In my life, I have really learned that growth is not a do-it-yourself experience. I just can’t do it. I don’t want to be hobbled by my limitations forever. They hurt. What kindness the Lord has to extend His grace and strength to us. I feel so completely my dependence on the Lord’s atonement and grace. We do not yet see or understand what we will be. What we know is that with a broken heart and a contrite spirit from us, his grace is sufficient.
Thank you for joining us today. We are Scot and Maurine Proctor and this has been the Come Follow Me podcast. Full transcripts of this broadcast are at latterdaysaintmag.com/podcast. We have so many of you say, “I told a friend about the podcast,” and we thank you for that. If you haven’t done that yet, tell your friends about the podcast.
Next week’s lesson is “Overcome Evil with Good”, which covers Romans chapters 7-16. Thanks to Paul Cardall for the beautiful music that begins and ends this podcast. See you soon.