Memorizing the Book of Romans

This is Part 7 of a series about my effort to memorize the entire book of Romans. Read the rest of the series here.

On November 18, 2017, my friend Dave texted me out of the blue: “Hey, do you want to memorize a whole book of the Bible together?” Now, most people attempting to  memorize an entire book of the Bible would probably start small; say, Philemon. Or 3 John. Maybe Obadiah. But Dave is not most people. “How about Romans?” he asked.

Thus began a life-changing five month journey.

Fast forward to early April, as I typed the final words into my Verses app: “To the only wise God by glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen.” The glory of those words– always weighty but somehow more so now that the preceding 16 chapters were carried along with them– made my spirit soar. What a fitting capstone to a project that has stirred my love for Bible, dazzled me with the majesty of God, and opened my mind and heart to “the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God” (11:33) in ways I hadn’t experienced before.

As I look back on this journey (and look ahead to what’s in store), here are six lessons I’ve learned. Some are practical, others are theological. My prayer is that my experience will encourage you to dive more deeply into God’s Word, and experience the riches there for yourself.

BETTER TOGETHER

I’m so thankful that my friend Dave challenged me, because I probably never would have stirred myself from my smartphone-induced mental slumber to attempt something like this otherwise. It’s good to have friends alongside you who spur you on in your walk with Christ. It’s also good to have friends with whom you can exchange random, crazy taunts over text message at all hours of the day and night. Dave is one of the rare friends who falls into both of those categories. Number one lesson of this entire endeavor: find a friend who encourages you to love Jesus and also makes fun of you when they’re doing a better job than you, and memorize a book of the Bible with them.

YOU CAN DO THIS

Seriously, you can do this. Memorizing an entire book of the Bible might seem like a daunting challenge reserved for the super-spiritual, but let me put that notion to rest. Because if I can do this, anyone can do this. As I’ve written before, I am the most forgetful, absent-minded, mentally incompetent numbskull to walk the planet. I can’t remember my children’s birthdays or what I had for breakfast this morning. My wife would really like to know how I can remember sixteen chapters of Romans and not remember to unload the dishwasher (which might actually be a different issue). So I consider myself to be living proof that anyone can memorize long portions of Scripture. Again: If I can do this, anyone can do this. You can read more about my memorization process here and here. The main takeaway should be, “This isn’t as hard as it looks.”

THE POWER OF THE WORD

As a preacher and writer, I’m constantly fighting the temptation to trust in my own counterfeit eloquence over the simple power of the living and active Word of God. When crafting sermons or writing books, I’m often pulled in by the gravity of a word or phrase, sometimes to the detriment of clear and faithful exposition. It’s a never-ending balancing act between seeking fresh new ways to say old beautiful truths, and the danger of trusting in those fresh new ways rather than in the old beautiful truths. Because only the old beautiful truths are truly powerful, and the fresh new ways to say them are only helpful insofar as they bring those old truths up to the surface and help others see their beauty.

This is a lesson I have relearned in memorizing Romans. A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of preaching Romans 1-8, reciting all eight chapters from memory on a Sunday morning. That was the entire content of the sermon. No exposition, no main points, no illustrations. Just eight chapters of Scripture, proclaimed.

And it was one of the most powerful sermons I’ve ever experienced (yes, it was an experience even for me up at the pulpit). I think I can truly say that without boasting or pride, because the sermon wasn’t about me at all; it was just God’s Word, unfiltered and heralded. On that Sunday morning, the Spirit accompanied the proclamation of his Word (as he has promised to do), and the weight of his glory lay heavily on the hearts of the whole congregation. It was a powerful and holy moment.

I learned again that morning that preaching is not about the preacher, nor the illustrations, nor the fresh and new ways to say things, nor the insights I bring to the text. Those all have value, sure. But it’s the Word of God that has power. My job as a preacher is to get out of the Bible’s way and let the Spirit do his thing. He does it better than me.

ROMANS AND RESURRECTION

I had never noticed before how prominently Easter is featured in Paul’s theology. But slowing down to meditate and memorize my way through Romans, I couldn’t escape it: resurrection is everywhere. In fact, the empty tomb is even more prominent in Romans than the cross. From the opening line (“his Son… who was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead,” 1:4) to the foundation of justification (“he was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification,” 4:25), to the ethical implications of the gospel (“We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again… so you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus,” 6:9-11), to the central Christian hope (“we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies,” 8:23) to the assurance and hope of glory (“Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died– more than that, who was raised!” 8:34), to the definition and content of saving faith (“If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved,” 10:9), to the end goal of history (“What will their [the Jewish people’s] acceptance mean but life from the dead?” 11:15), to the universal lordship of Christ (“To this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living,” 14:9), Easter is everywhere in the book of Romans. I’m just starting to wake up to the theological and missiological implications of the resurrection, and Romans has been instrumental in opening my eyes. I know there’s a lot more to see here.

JEWS AND GENTILES AND JUSTIFICATION

Two of the primary Protestant attempts to understand Paul’s teaching on justification by faith fall into the camps of classical Reformation theology (Luther, Calvin, etc), and what’s often referred to as “the new perspective on Paul” led by scholars like N.T. Wright. Classic Reformed theology says that Paul is primarily interested in reconciliation between God and man, and that justification is the legal decree of “Righteous!” that God pronounces on sinful people. The “new perspective on Paul” argues that Paul is primarily interested in Jew and Gentile unity, and that justification is the new covenant relationship that God now invites all ethnic groups into.

That may sound like esoteric theological nitpicking, but this is actually very personal to me. The “new perspective on Paul” almost derailed and destroyed my faith in college, as I was confronted in Bible classes with an alternate reading of the gospel that was simply not big enough to save a sinner like me. If the “new perspective” is right and the Reformers were wrong, then I’m lost, because my problem is bigger than God’s solution.

I still believe that, and stake my life on precious truths like propitiation and the imputation of righteousness. But as I’ve worked through Romans, I’ve started to understand some of the insights that “new perspective” people have been pointing out, insights that my theological blinders had been screening out. Paul is intensely interested in Jew and Gentile unity. It is his overriding preoccupation for 16 chapters, and is the scaffolding on which he constructs the doctrine of justification. Paul does not conceive of justification by faith outside of the context of Jews and Gentiles united as one people of God. This is, I’ve come to believe, the primary focus of the book of Romans.

My new understanding– which is still very much being worked out– is that the solution is not either Reformed justification or “new perspective” justification, but both/and. Both are vital, central components of the gospel message. Substitutionary atonement and imputed righteousness are the “how” of the gospel, and the unified new covenant people of God is the “what” of the gospel. The death and resurrection of Jesus has, as its primary aim, a reconstituted humanity that is forgiven, righteous, and reconciled to God and one another. “Every nation, tribe, people, and language” ransomed by Jesus and brought into the kingdom to reign with Christ is what the gospel is all about. I’m still working through everything this means, but this is definitely a category that Romans has blown wide open for me.

A PERSONAL NOTE

Perhaps the most surprising part of my entire journey in Romans was how much I was moved by Paul’s personal greetings in chapter 16. This list of names– longer than most of his other letters– is the kind of thing that I (and most readers) usually skim over. “Greet Prisca and Aquilla, blah blah blah, etc, etc, skim, skim” until something more interesting comes along in the text.

However, as I’ve slowed down (which is probably the primary benefit of memorization), I’ve been forced to meditate on these names and greetings in Romans 16:1-16. And what I’ve seen has affected me deeply. Paul’s greetings here– to a church he has never visited!– overflow with warmth, affection, admiration, and gratitude. His impressive recall of 27 different names proves that when he said in chapter 1, “I mention you always in my prayers,” he was telling the truth. These distant believers are precious and beloved to him, carried on his mind and his heart, constantly in his prayers. He not only knows their names; he knows their stories, their successes, their ministries, their families. He thanks them individually, commends them individually, and praises them individually. Even more astounding, 10 of those 27 names are women (which would have been utterly unheard of in the first century), turning Paul’s simple greetings into a radically countercultural application of the very gospel unity that he had been preaching for 15 chapters.

Paul’s example inspires and convicts me. Romans is one of the greatest letters ever written, and probably the greatest theological treatise of all time. Paul was a brilliant theologian and rhetorician. His commanding intellect on display throughout this letter is breathtaking, and not a little daunting. And yet Paul was also deeply, affectionately personal. In an age where papyrus scrolls were extraordinarily expensive, Paul “wastes” precious inches– a full 16 verses– at the end of his letter greeting faraway believers by name. How deep must his love for these people be!

I’m reminded of one of the most convicting verses in the Bible (at least, convicting for me), 1 Thessalonians 2:8. Paul writes, “Being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.” This verse is so convicting to me because it’s so different from the way I usually operate. I love sharing the gospel; I love preaching and teaching. But sharing “my own self?” Opening up not just my mouth, but my heart and my home? Loving not just the gospel, but people? I confess, even as a pastor, that I frequently feel very different than Paul. I’d often rather sit in my ivory tower and read theology and write sermons than get down to the dirty business of genuinely loving people. And so Paul’s example of warm, heartfelt love for people constantly inspires and convicts me. I want to love people like that. Lord, help me be more like Paul.

WHAT’S NEXT?

I’ve finished memorizing 16 chapters of Romans, but I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface, and only taken the first few steps in a lifelong journey. This process has reawakened my desire to know– really know— God’s Word, to hide it in my heart, to make it the mental landscape I live in, to press the Bible into my brain until I start to think along its grain. And so memorizing Romans isn’t an end, but a beginning.

In fact, if I want to hold on to what I’ve memorized, I’ll need to keep returning to Romans frequently (for a while at least). Experts in memorization suggest that at this point, I’ll probably have to recite it once a month for a year until it’s truly, permanently locked down. That’s a long-term homework assignment I’ll gladly give myself to.

I’m also working on transforming this effort into a monument that will hopefully inspire and encourage others to love God’s Word. I’m in the process of shooting and editing a video reciting Romans 1-16 (with some music and other footage to help keep people’s attention on the text). So far I’ve completed filming and editing the first eight chapters, and am working on the next eight. You can see the project here:

 

So what’s next? In the short-term, I’m returning to Colossians. I memorized this little book a couple years ago but didn’t stick with it, so it didn’t get lodged in my brain like I wanted it to. So I’m brushing up my recall of Colossians (it’s coming back pretty quickly) in order to lock it down permanently.

The next big project that Dave and I plan to tackle is memorizing the book of John (21 chapters!). It will be interesting to see how memorizing narrative compares to memorizing an epistle, and whether it turns out to be easier or harder. I’m not sure what to expect. But the prospect of spending 9-12 months (estimated) soaking in the fourth gospel’s account of Jesus’ life is exhilarating, and I’m eager to dive in. The only thing that could be better than memorizing the greatest letter ever written is memorizing the story of the greatest Person who has ever lived, who loved me and gave himself for me, and who is alive and reigning today.

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