A Letter that Changes Everything
In 386 AD, a young man paced back in forth in a garden, deeply troubled. He had retreated to a secluded place where he could be alone with his troubled heart. Moments away from being converted to Christ, he was at war with himself.
Aurelius Augustine was born to a pagan father and Christian mother, but turned his back on the faith. He sought truth elsewhere, devoted his life to immorality, and fathered a child out of marriage. Lust and sexual immorality were his vices. But while living in Milan, he sat under the powerful preaching of Bishop Ambrose and came under conviction. Trying to shake off what he heard, he headed to a garden.
Years later, Augustine described his private struggle in that garden, using words like, "soul sick and tormented,” with “a maimed and half-divided will.” He was afraid—fully aware that God was calling him to turn his back on a life of reckless sexual immorality, but fearful of the deprivation. His account honestly reads like a man suffering from withdrawals. “Twisting and turning in his chains,” he was terrorized of what God might do to him, but in bondage to what sin had already done.
It’s difficult to read his story and not feel empathy:
My old mistresses tugged at my fleshly garments and softly whispered: "Are you going to part with us? And from that moment will we never be with you any more? And from that moment will not this and that be forbidden you forever?”…Let your mercy guard the soul of your servant from the vileness and the shame they did suggest! …they delayed me, so that I hesitated to break loose and shake myself free of them and leap over to the place to which I was being called--for unruly habit kept saying to me, "Do you think you can live without them?"
Augustine was struggling to part with pornography. His memory and flesh were teasing him, tearing his soul to pieces. He was longing for freedom but powerless to achieve it on his own. Freedom called to him:
“‘Why do you stand in your own strength, and so stand not? Cast yourself on him; fear not. He will not flinch and you will not fall. Cast yourself on him without fear, for he will receive and heal you.”
He “hung suspended” but finally, in a shower of tears, cast himself down under a fig-tree and cried out to God, “How long? How long, Lord, will You be angry for ever? Remember not our former iniquities.” And then, “How long, how long, ‘to-morrow, and tomorrow?' Why not now? why not is there this hour an end to my uncleanness?”
And then it happened! In his biography, Augustine says he heard the voices of children playing a game outside. They were saying “Take up and read. Take up and read.” He looked nearby and found a copy of the New Testament. He picked it up and opened to this passage in Paul’s letter to the Romans.
“You know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires." -Romans 13:11–14
Reflecting on that moment, he wrote: “I neither wished nor needed to read further. At once, with the last words of the sentence, it was as if a light of relief from all anxiety flooded into my heart. All the shadows of doubt were dispelled.” Powerful paragraph.
Augustine grew into one of the most formidable theologians, prolific writers and gifted teachers of the church. Some argue he was the greatest teacher in the first 1,000 years of the church. Like many others, he came to Christ through a mother’s faithful prayers, a pastor’s faithful preaching, and most importantly, God’s Word—Paul’s letter to Rome.
We call Romans a book, but that’s not really accurate. It’s a letter contained within a larger book called the Bible. And like any letter, it has an author, a subject, an audience, and a purpose. But unlike any letter, it carries divine power—power for change. This is a letter that changes everything. As one man said, it’s “a letter that repeatedly changes the world, by changing people.” He’s right. Augustine’s testimony is hardly unique.
He was afraid of God. Martin Luther was angry at God. John Wesley was confused about God. And Elyse Fitzpatrick was sad about God. This letter changed them, empowered them, and motivated them to share that power with a world in need.
That excites me, because I need to be changed, too. But like Augustine, I often find the power to change elusive. Maybe you do too. Like the Romans, we need the explosive truths found in this letter. Paul knew that. He writes in the introduction:
“So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” -Romans 1:15,16
Paul was an unashamed, happy recipient of the message he bore—proof of its power to change. Once an angry terrorist seeking to kill Christians, he instead found Jesus on the road to Damascus. His opening lines to the Romans bear witness, “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God.”
Like many first century authors, Paul identifies himself as the writer, but he wastes no time in naming his master. “Hi. I’m Paul. I serve King Jesus. I’m his willing slave.”
So whether you’re afraid of God, angry at God, or anxious about God, get a Bible, turn to Paul’s letter to the Romans, and feast your soul on some good news. Like Bob Dylan said, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody.” And as Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless O’Lord until they find their rest in You.”