If You Had One Book to Read…

For years I owned the complete 54-volume set of the Great Books of the Western World published by the Encyclopedia Britannica. On occasion I would read samplings from  some of the renowned poets or philosophers whose works are preserved in the collection. But not like I wanted to. And not like I intended to.

I am embarrassed to admit I neglected to discipline myself to undertake a systematic exploration of these volumes. One of the thoughts I had held in the back of my mind was that in retirement I would finally have time to use “The Syntopicon,” the topical index to the Great Books edited by Mortimer J. Adler. It is a guide and introduction to the entire collection, making the great ideas of Western thought accessible to people like me.

Alas, I gave the set away when we moved to Georgia. There simply is not room in our apartment for all the books I wish I could have kept. Before we moved I gave away over 15 boxes of treasures, books that have shaped and enriched my life. I also gave away my set of the Harvard Classics and the multi-volume set of Will and Ariel Durant’s Story of Civilization. I miss them every day.

Sometimes as I scan the remnants of my library, looking for a particular volume, I remember that I had had to let it go. “Why didn’t I keep that one?” I ask myself. I am consoled by the knowledge that many of the books ended up in the libraries of churches, younger pastors, missionaries, and my adult children.

If I were going to keep only one book, which one would it be? I could enumerate here some of my favorite authors and their works, but let me cut to the chase. If I were marooned on a desert island, and could have only one book with me, I would want it to be the letter of Paul the apostle to the Romans.

The reason for this choice is the book’s supremely important subject. It is about the righteousness of God and how human beings may be given a right relationship to him. It is an exposition of the gospel of grace for all people, Jews as well as Gentiles. Its themes include guilt and forgiveness, justification by faith, living as a Christian, Israel’s ultimate restoration, the security of believers in Christ, and the priorities of missions and evangelism.

If it has been a while since you read Romans, I urge you to take it up again and read it thoughtfully. Please do not neglect it as I neglected the Great Books. Its subject is too important to ignore. It is (I say this seriously) a matter of life and death.

If you read Romans, you will see that the themes of death and life appear in Romans 6. Paul answers questions from an imaginary critic who misunderstands and distorts his teaching. Doesn’t Paul’s teaching on salvation by free grace promote sinful behavior? “Emphatically not!” the apostle answers.

A believer’s experience in Christ is a spiritual resurrection from death. Paul says we should conclude that in Christ we have died to the life we lived before conversion. And we are raised with Christ to a new life (Romans 6:1-14). Christ died to sin (Romans 6:10) in the sense that he bore sin’s penalty and condemnation on our behalf. God’s moral law is satisfied and we believers are the beneficiaries.

This truth obligates us to think of ourselves as servants (slaves) of God, not of sin. Grace liberates the believer from slavery to sin. That same grace prompts voluntary servitude to God (Romans 6:15-23). All humans are either slaves to sin, Paul says, or slaves to God. The service of God is the true freedom for which Paul erupts in praise and thanks to God (Romans 6:17).

This is practical. What Paul is talking about is how a believer is set apart for God. In theological language we call this sanctification, living to please God as we grow in grace and knowledge. Romans 6 has to do with how we may avoid doing wrong, especially since we live in bodies that are prone to sin, in a world that promotes sin, and against a spiritual enemy called the devil, the tempter, who pressures us to sin.

The answer in Romans 6 is the believer’s identification with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection. For success in the Christian life we must “lean into” that truth every day. We may benefit from this daily attitude toward life: Recognizing that we died with Christ to the old way of life and we are raised with him to a new way of life; Relying or trusting in that truth; Releasing ourselves into the service of God, surrendering ourselves, not to law, not to rules, not to resolutions, but to his Holy Spirit.

Can you see why I say that Romans is an essential book? I think it is greater than all the Great Books put together. Read it again as if for the first time.

Pastor Randy Faulkner