Scholars and saints from every age have agreed that St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans is a theological and spiritual masterpiece.
It is clear enough to serve as a starting point for many an evangelistic conversation, but it is also rich enough to sustain a mystic’s prayer life for years. With its soaring themes about God’s promises, the Holy Spirit’s power, and Jesus’ cross, Romans is Paul’s crowning literary achievement. Not only is this letter a window into Paul’s prayer life, it also gives us a clear presentation of his theology and experience as a missionary and a pastor.
So why is it that the first three chapters of this so-called masterpiece seem to be filled with nothing but old-fashioned doom and gloom? In verse after verse, we hear about God’s wrath, our sinfulness, and the fact that no one has the right to stand before God’s judgment seat.
This was Paul’s way of setting the stage for the heart of his letter. In a sense, he had to paint as dark a picture as possible because of the surpassing glory of the gospel he was proclaiming. Yes, the picture of a world without Christ is bleak, but everything changes with two simple words: “But now.” The dark clouds have passed, and pure light has broken through. “The righteousness of God” has been revealed in a new and definitive way (Romans 3:21). Things were bad before Christ, “but now” God’s love, his healing, and his mercy have taken control. These two words are the hinge for all of Paul’s gospel, and from this point on, Paul will spend his time demonstrating the extent of God’s love and his deep desire to share that love with us.
Knowing how much God loves us is at the heart of the gospel. In fact, the call to holiness, to repentance, and to loving others really makes sense to us only as we grasp God’s love. Without love, the commandments become a burden. But with his love, they are a joy. Without love, new life is impossible. But with love, it is inevitable. Without love, there is no need to repent. But because of love, we want nothing to separate us from the Lord.
This month, let’s take a closer look at the love that God has for us. Let’s ask the Holy Spirit to reveal that love to us more deeply.
Boundless Love. One of the most popular Scripture passages that expresses God’s love comes from the Gospel of John. It is one simple verse that is quoted not only in churches but at sports events, on bumper stickers, and on huge placards throughout the world: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (John 3:16).
While these words were written around the year a.d. 90, they point all the way back to the beginning of time itself. The creation story in the Book of Genesis tells us that at the very beginning, God “looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good” (Genesis 1:31). That goodness includes all of us—men and women, whom he created in his own image and likeness, sons and daughters whom he commanded to rule the earth, to be fruitful, and to multiply. It includes us as the crown of his creation, the only ones who have the dignity of free choice and the promise of divinization.
Did God have to create the world? Was there some necessity driving him to make men and women and to offer them a share in his divine life? Not at all. God created simply because he loved. He created because he wanted to share his love with a people who could freely love him in return.
How does God love us? With the love that longs for a relationship. Listen to the prophet’s words: “I have called you by name: You are mine. When you pass through the water, I will be with you; in the rivers you shall not drown. When you walk through fire, you shall not be burned; the flames shall not consume you. . . . ?Because you are precious in my eyes and glorious, and because I love you, I give men in return for you and peoples in exchange for your life” (Isaiah 43:1-2,4).
How does he love us? With faithfulness and constancy: “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him? . . . Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:31-32,38-39).
How high is God’s love for us? How wide? How deep? It is so high, wide, and deep that when we receive it, we feel as if we are filled with all the fullness of God—filled with something that is beyond us, yet that speaks to our deepest longings and needs. God’s love is constant, unconditional, and boundless. It is given freely as well, simply because he wants to share his life with us.
Testing God’s Love. The true measure of a person’s love comes out during a time of trial. It’s easy to love when everything is going well, but true love is revealed when it is tested. And when put to the test, God showed how permanent his love is. When our first parents turned away from him and chose self-centeredness instead, God could have abandoned us. After all, he had given us everything. He poured nothing but love and special attention on us. And we rejected him. He would have been well within his rights to walk away and disavow us.
But he didn’t. In the midst of the chaos unleashed by our fall into sin, God showed us that he is both loyal and loving. Scripture illustrates his faithfulness in the words of warning that Yahweh gives to the serpent in Eden: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; He will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel” (Genesis 3:15). God promised that an “offspring” of the woman would ultimately triumph. He promised that sin would not have the last word; his grace would defeat sin. His love would overcome any separation between him and his people. He would come to our rescue!
This promise from Genesis confirms to us that God’s love is constant. It doesn’t diminish in the face of sin, and it doesn’t fade in the face of our rebellion.
Looking back on this passage with Spirit-inspired hindsight, we can see that this promise of God points us toward Jesus. He is the promised “offspring” who came to save us from our sins. “The Christian tradition sees in this passage an announcement of the ‘New Adam’ who because he ‘became obedient unto death, even death on a cross,’ makes amends superabundantly for the disobedience of Adam. Furthermore many Fathers and Doctors of the Church have seen the woman announced in the Protoevangelium, as Mary, the mother of Christ, the new Eve” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 411).
A Constant Outpouring of Love. The Hebrew Bible is filled with examples of the way God reached out to his people in love: through the stories of people like Abraham, David, Esther, Ruth, and Nehemiah.
For example, when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, God worked mightily to set them free. The story of the exodus, with all of the plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea, and the entrance into the Promised Land, is one epic story of God’s faithful love. Day after day, despite their reluctance to trust him, God fed them with manna in the wilderness. Over and over again, he forgave their quarrels, their complaints, and even their occasional rebellion against Moses, his chosen servant. God stayed with them, giving them his Law and bringing them into the land of Canaan, settling them and helping them establish themselves as a holy nation.
Years later, after centuries of ups and downs, the people suffered a crushing military defeat, the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and those who survived were sent into exile. All hope seemed lost, but God reached out to them again. Through the prophet Jeremiah, he promised to restore Israel. He promised to heal all their wounds and to bring them back. He swore to them: “With age-old love I have loved you; so I have kept my mercy toward you. Again I will restore you, and you shall be rebuilt, O virgin Israel” (Jeremiah 31:3-4).
Everything Begins with Love. When we look at God’s work of creation, at his response to the fall of our first parents, and at the way his hand guided the Israelites, one characteristic stands out: love. We see that God will never abandon his people because he loves them—because he loves us.
Love is at the heart of who God is. Everything he does flows from love. When God pours out grace, it is rooted in his love. When he offers mercy, it is because of love. When he gives us wisdom, guidance, and peace, it is because he loves. Everything comes down to love.