Though it has sadly become a dirty word in evangelical circles, every bit of scripture that can be applied to anyone’s life is in some way related to “doctrine.” Although you could classify all scripture loosely as “doctrine”, even if we use a common evangelical understanding of “doctrine” it could be easily shown that you cannot learn about how to be a good husband, or how to avoid anger, or how to have joy, or how to fight depression, or how to parent your kids, or how to vote, unless you learn about “doctrine.” So it is not a surprise that when Paul writes his deeply application-oriented letters to different people and churches, that he focuses heavily on doctrine. In fact most of his letters are front loaded with doctrine and only afterword does he move to application. Paul’s letter to the Romans is no exception. Today we are going to briefly survey how the doctrine in Romans connects with and undergirds how we view fellowship in our churches.
Doctrine of Sin
Paul makes very clear from the first chapter of Romans that all people are sinners who deserve God’s wrath. He starts by describing how Gentiles are fallen and morally responsible (Romans 1:18-32; 2:12-16) for they “failed to live in accord with [their] creatureliness, failed to acknowledge [their] dependence on God, [and] have sought to usurp the role of the creator.”1 Paul then explains that Jews are just as sinful and deserving of God’s wrath (Romans 2:1-11, 17-29). He ends his initial assertion of the depravity of man by quoting a plethora of Old Testament passages that show the wickedness and sinfulness of humanity (Romans 3:9-18). Everyone is sinful and everyone deserves God’s just wrath.
This doctrine helps enable fellowship in the local church because it humbles every individual. We cannot be filled with divisive pride when we understand that we were just as messed up and deserving of eternal punishment as anyone else in our congregation.
Doctrine of Salvation
Romans shows us that we are saved through faith and faith alone, for people are “justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28). Trying to get to heaven by our own goodness is a damning deception (Romans 10:1-4), and only by grace alone, in Christ alone can we be saved, for we “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24).
This doctrine also humbles us as we come to realize that we have not done anything to earn our way into God’s kingdom or His church, but that we (like all believers) have received salvation only by the infinite grace of God and the incredible sacrifice of Jesus Christ. How can we look down on others when we have been saved the exact same way as they have? Also, the doctrine of salvation teaches us to be forgiving, for how can we not grant others forgiveness when we have been granted so much from God? (cf. Ephesians 4:32)
Doctrine of God’s Sovereignty
Romans teaches us that our salvation is completely dependent on God’s foreknowledge, predestination, calling, and justification (Romans 8:29-30). These are all things that God has sovereignly done for us. We have come into a relationship with God solely because God decided to have mercy on us rather than harden us (Romans 9:14-18). Not only that, but God is the reason why we are set free from sin (Romans 6) and are presently being “conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29). He is the one who saved us, He is the one who is sanctifying us, and he is the one who will preserve us to the end (Romans 8:31-39).
Like the doctrines before this, God’s sovereignty should completely humble the proudest of hearts and enable Christians to fellowship and serve together in humility. The unity that Paul describes in Romans 12:3-8 can only be accomplished when we recognize that we have no right to be proud, because God is the one who has given us our faith and gifts (Romans 12:3).
Humility is Chief
Though there are many other doctrines we could discuss, I believe that these humbling truths are the foundational doctrines that make fellowship in the church possible. No one can have Christian fellowship if they are holding on to their pride. If you think you are better than others, than you are not going to focus on loving others (Romans 12:9-10) or being generous (Romans 12:13). If you are focused on yourself, then you will not “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15), or be willing to “bear with the failings of the weak” (Romans 15:1). If you are filled with pride then you will not be forgiving (Romans 12:19-20) or peaceable (Romans 12:18). Humility is the foundation of everything related to proper Christian fellowship, and humility will not be present if the doctrines of sin, salvation, and sovereignty are not understood.
Suggestions for Your Church
- Make sure that the gospel is present in every one of your church services. The gospel (which by necessity will include the doctrines of sin, salvation and sovereignty) humbles us, destroys our pride, and will be an ever present reminder of our weakness and need to depend on God. This humility will in turn lead to better interactions among the people of the church. One helpful way to make sure the gospel is present in your services is by doing communion more often. If your congregation thinks you are doing communion too much, then you are either doing it wrong or your congregation needs to be taught more about the purpose and meaning of communion.
- Sing songs that are saturated with deep truth. A deeper, higher view of God leads to more authentic worship in singing. People who have a bigger view of God and are authentically worshiping him will have more meaningful fellowship with one another. Old hymns, music by the Gettys and Sovereign Grace are a good place to start.
- Make sure the preachers and teachers are diving headlong into the great doctrines of the faith and not spending all their time wading through a pond of application-only material. All true doctrine will lead to application. “All application” will not lead to true doctrine. A helpful way to facilitate this is by preaching/teaching through books of the Bible. Topical teaching is not always bad, but it can very easily fall into shallow application and only fluff, whereas moving expositionally through books of the Bible has less of a tendency to fall into that trap.
1“Romans, the Letter of” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship 1st edition, eds. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, Daniel G. Reid (IVP Academic, 1993)