What is the Gospel?

On October 31, 1517, after an arduous inner conflict concerning works-based salvation, Martin Luther pinned his 95 Theses to the doors of Castle Church in Wittenberg, hoping to have a conversation about his questions within the context of Roman Catholicism. In short, The Roman Catholic Church (RCC) reacted by excommunicating Luther and eventually standing on their position:

If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema (Council of Trent, Justification, 9; 1563).

The RCC made this statement in contradiction to Scripture, which plainly claims:

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).

As a result, the RCC anathematized (condemned to Hell by excommunication) all of those who believed the plain words written in the Bible. As much time has gone by, the false gospel of works is still prevalent in Roman Catholicism, majority protestantism, and in the word of faith movement. It is widely taught that if you do good, you will receive good and that you must choose to be good or give God something in order to please God or get something good for yourself. Today, I am going to show that God is not some divine slot machine who is out there so we can try to get something from Him (including salvation)—as if He can be used by us or works for us. He is God.

What is the gospel? (Romans 1:16-17)

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “But the righteous man shall live by faith.”

These two verses are the two verses that sent Martin Luther into his grace-frenzy and ignited the theological undercurrents which set the reformation ablaze in 1517. In a society that believed and taught that the righteousness of God was revealed from works to works and that the righteous lived by good deeds, the reformers read the plain teaching of Scripture—God’s righteousness is revealed form faith to faith. The New Testament even quotes the old to show that this is not a new idea or theology, “…the righteous man shall live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). This is the Old and New Testament view about the revelation of God’s righteousness and the way those who are in Christ live—never about works but faith.

What exactly does that mean? This is Paul’s thesis for the book of Romans. He spends the remainder of Romans making argumentation and clarifying his meaning. I simply want to cover the surface, today. I have not yet preached through Romans, but we will get the depth when we walk through it together at some point in the future.

The gospel begins with God’s wrath. (Romans 1:18-32)

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures. Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error. And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, ahaters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.

Paul lists quite a few sins, here:

  1. Homosexuality
  2. Wickedness
  3. Greed
  4. Envy
  5. Murder
  6. Deceit
  7. Malice
  8. Gossip
  9. Slander
  10. Arrogance
  11. Boastfulness
  12. Disobedience to parents

People do one of three things when they look at Paul’s list in Romans 1. Many use the list to point their self-righteous judgment at others and condemn them because they are sinners. Many try to justify themselves by trying to explain away what the text plainly states. Some sincerely measure themselves by the list, which is what Paul intends for his audience to do.

I am not a homosexual, but I have lusted in my life. I have been wicked, greedy, and envious. I have not taken another person’s life, but I have been angry with my brother—which is equivalent to murder according to Jesus (Matthew 5:22). I have been deceitful. I have had malice in my heart toward others. I have gossiped about and slandered others. I was arrogant and boastful. I disobeyed my parents. Out of the sins listed, I was personally guilty of them all in some form. Just a brief look at this paragraph shows us that God hands us over to the desires of our hearts. When we do the things we desire to do by the depraved nature within us, we earn death. Paul means to point out that all people are worthy of death, and I doubt there is a single person who escapes the list provided unscathed by its condemnation. On some level, we know what we do is wrong. In our depraved state, according to paul, we do what we want anyway and celebrate when others also do what we do.

Why are we worthy of death for doing these things? Why does God pour out His wrath upon people who do such things? As we continue to read, we read as people condemned by the words we have now read.

God is just and judges us according to our deeds (Romans 2:1-16)

Therefore you have no excuse, everyone of you who passes judgment, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things. And we know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who practice such things. But do you suppose this, O man, when you pass judgment on those who practice such things and do the same yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to each person according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation. There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For there is no partiality with God. For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law; for it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified. For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.

Those who use the list of sins in Romans 1 to condemn others are just like them, condemned. Jews are condemned under the Law (Genesis-Deuteronomy). Gentiles are condemned because of their sin without the Law. Those who perfectly keep the Law, whether or not they are under it, will be justified. If we could be perfect and without sin, we would be justified before God based on our merit. I am out of luck. I have sinned. If you have sinned either according to Paul’s list provided or by condemning those you believe live contrary to the Law, you are condemned along with me because of our sin. God is patient and tolerant toward us despite our sin, but He must judge sin because He is just. Because He is just, there must be recompense. All of our sin must be paid for. The price is death—the just judgment of God. Everyone wants justice. True justice demands we serve time for our sin against God. Because God is holy and infinite, one infraction earns a wretched and everlasting sentence—a price we cannot pay with any amount of time we have because God is timeless and eternal. There is no penance or amount of money that can redeem us if the recompense demands more than we can ever have. Such was Martin Luther’s burden as a Roman Catholic.

The good news (Romans 3:21-26; 6:23)

But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:21-26).

Paul contends that the Law and Prophets testified about justification by faith in Jesus Christ. They did so by showing that people could not be good enough or give enough to earn the blessings of God or justification. All have sinned. Therefore, all fall short of the glory of God. So, living by faith is diametrically apposed to living by works. By our works, we are condemned because God is just. Somehow, when we have faith in Jesus Christ we are justified as a gift. How are we justified? Christ was punished on behalf of the one who believes. Paul refers to Christ as our redemption and propitiation. This only works if Christ is eternal, one with God and God, and can therefore pay such a price and justify us.

Why did God do this? Paul says God did this in order to demonstrate His own righteousness; so, like He said in Deuteronomy 30-32, God would be the one who is both just and the justifier. The only thing we contribute to our justification is the sin that makes it necessary. God alone saves because God desires to put Himself on display—to be the only one worshipped and glorified so we cannot boast in our works, only in Him. Our salvation is not about us. God created. God maintains. God wants to be on display. He has chosen to be on display by being the only savior of His chosen people, who by their own wills sinned against Him and earned death.

In the great exchange, our sin was imputed to Christ, God the Son, and punished. In Christ, the price was fully paid. There is nothing else required of us for justification. Paul clarifies his argument in Romans 6:23:

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

If our religion is one of earning a place with God or blessings from God like in the RCC, many protestant churches, the Word of Faith movement, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnessism, Islam, Hinduism, or any manner of man-made religion, know that we earn death by our works. If we are earning anything, it is death. Eternal life is a free gift, and we cannot contribute anything good. God alone is glorified. Scripture promises:

But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart”—that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation. For the Scripture says, “Whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him; for “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:8-13).

Again quoting the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 30:14; Isaiah 28:16; Joel 2:32), Paul clarifies that all those who believe Jesus was raised from the dead and confess He is Lord will be saved. Righteousness does not result from works but belief—which means belief itself is a gift from God and not a work of man. Salvation results from confession—which means to profess with Christ about His own Lordship. We do not make Christ Lord, for that would be works-righteousness. Christ is already Lord, we simply recognize it, which must be a gift from God, and profess His Lordship which is already established. Whoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved—just as the Old Testament promised.

In light of Christ’s work, which is perspicuous in Scripture, I want to ask a few questions in line with Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. I want to frame them for the modern world.

  1. Why do we teach that people must contribute to their salvation by praying a prayer, being baptized, speaking in tongues, partaking in the eucharist, confessing their sins to priests, doing evangelism, or otherwise working to please God?
    1. If salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone, no religious work contributes to human salvation. Baptism is not required. One does not have to walk an aisle and pray a “sinner’s prayer.” No one must speak in tongues, observe the sacraments, confess to priests, do evangelism, or please God. We have established that we cannot please God by nature and by His design by our works. He alone saves and receives all glory for the salvation of His people. Simply call upon the name of the Lord. 
  2. Why do we teach that, once coming to Christ, people must do good enough or give enough money so as to not fall from grace or so as to earn blessings from God?
    1. Since salvation is a work of God alone (monergism), there is nothing we can do to separate ourselves or be separated from God (cf. Romans 8:38-39). Nothing is required, according to Scripture, for us to maintain our salvation. Period.
  3. Why does the church major on buildings and budgets and minor on the work of the Gospel as already completely finished in Christ alone, as if we need anything more?
    1. We really like to build for ourselves rather than for God. This is proof of our selfishness and arrogance even in our religion. Building and budgets are not inherently sinful, but when we major on those things, we major on ourselves rather than God, who is to receive all glory.
  4. Why does the church provide security in the works of people rather than the work of Christ?
    1. If we have a list of simple things we can do to be righteous or to be good Christians, we don’t have to have faith that God will save us because we’ve checked off a list we think holds us secure. As we have seen, our works damn us rather than secure us. Only if God has mercy on us will we be saved in Christ. He has mercy according to His will, not ours (cf. Romans 9).

I already know the accusation that will doubtless be brought against this Gospel presentation. So, to my accusers, I want to clarify that we do not believe works to be entirely unimportant. We simply believe that we cannot contribute to our salvation and that our works do not justify us. I believe that, once in Christ, there is such a transforming of the heart that we walk in the good works God has prepared for us from before the foundation of the world (cf. Ephesians 2:10). In fact, I believe we were saved to walk in those good works by faith alone in Christ.

My prayer for those who read this blog, watch the sermons from Douglas Reformed Church, listen to Blacktop Pulpit, or listen to The Ninety-Five, is that you find rest in the grace of God alone, which is more secure than anything provided by ourselves or the man-made religions of our day.


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