READ : Romans 1:1-7
There have been many attempts to define the essence of the Christian faith throughout the centuries, but the one that really counts is the apostle’s definition, such as in Paul’s letter to the Romans.
We have been considering the nature of the Christian faith by looking at the opening chapters of the book of Romans in a series of programs entitled “The Problem Only God Could Solve.” This problem, as we have seen, is the universal fact of human sin, which has rendered us liable to the judgment of a holy God, judgment that can be seen all around us in the results that follow our rebellion.
But that’s not all. The disorders of our society and our lives and, in fact, our very natures all offer compelling testimony to the truth that God’s wrath is real and is operating in the world. But the worst is yet to come. For divine judgment upon sin isn’t just tasted in the present consequences of sinful choices, it’s also future. So Paul goes on in the second chapter of Romans to warn those who, because of their hard and impenitent hearts, “are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (2:5). He says that “for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil” (2:8-9). So the biggest problem of all is not what happens to us here in this life, but what awaits us afterwards, as sinners when we will face the full and final judgment of God.
Needless to say, this picture of things isn’t very popular. It probably never was, but it’s especially rejected in our age and culture. It’s rejected by those who deny the whole fact of human sinfulness, preferring to view people as basically good, or even as divinities in the making. It’s rejected by those who deny the consequences of human sins and disbelieve in the reality of divine wrath, preferring to view God as a benevolent power who would never punish anyone for anything. But Paul’s view in his letter to the Romans of the nature of the ultimate problem of sin and judgment is accepted by those who believe that the Bible speaks the truth, both about God and about ourselves. And it is accepted by those who also accept the gospel, because the gospel is the answer to the question, “How can I be saved from the wrath to come?”
The Gospel of God
As important as it is to get the true nature of our problem as sinners fixed in our understanding, it’s even more important to understand its solution. Most churches and preachers today are in no danger of over-emphasizing sin and judgment. Note that while Paul devotes about two chapters of Romans (1:18 – 3:20) to a thorough explanation of the problem of sin and God’s wrath, he spends his other 14 chapters focusing on the gospel solution. So let’s shift our focus there. What exactly is the gospel? We could start with the word itself. Gospel is the English translation of a Greek term that means “glad tidings” or “good news.” It was used in the ancient world for royal pronouncements. Modern governments still have such messages; they call them press releases. But in the first century in Greek they were called euangelia, “gospels,” and that’s the word the New Testament writers chose to use for their stories of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
Paul takes up this term in the opening sentences of his letter to the Romans:
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord . . . .
Now that is a very unusual salutation. Paul begins properly enough by introducing himself. Next, though, he should name the recipients of his letter. But when he gets to the part of his self introduction where he mentions that he was “called to be an apostle” or messenger and “set apart for the gospel,” it’s as though he can’t stop himself. Paul is so eager to share with these people what he knows and understands of the gospel that he interrupts his own salutation to insert a whole paragraph about the gospel. And the first thing he says about it is that this gospel, this good news, is good news from God. He calls it “the gospel of God” (v. 1) which means the gospel that comes from God, God being its source or origin. And that’s why the gospel truly is good news.
Isn’t there a kind of dull sameness about our news? I mean, turn the television or radio on, open the newspaper, and only the names and places seem to change, but the stories are always the same. And they’re all stories about one expression or another of the depravity of the human race. The sad old story of our world is full of evil and suffering, much of it self-inflicted. The truly new thing, though, is what God has done and is doing through Jesus Christ to change all that.
So the Christian story is good news, first of all, because it comes from God. It’s not a human religion; it’s a divine revelation. It isn’t the fruit of philosophical investigation or the distilled wisdom of earthly sages and holy men. It doesn’t offer the best suggestions from a select group of ethical teachers. No, Christianity is the announcement, in God’s very words, of the action he has taken to rescue us from our moral and spiritual helplessness. It’s the gospel—the good news—of God.
The next thing Paul tells us about this gospel is that God has “promised [it] beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures” (v. 2). Clearly Paul is talking here about the Bible, specifically the Old Testament. He says that the gospel was promised ahead of time in the writings of the Old Testament prophets. This means that the message of Jesus was never a novelty, even when it was brand new. It was all there from the start for those who could see it, spelled out in the promises and prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures. The gospel message doesn’t begin with the first four books of the New Testament—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the books we call the four gospels. No, the gospel message was already there in the Bible, hundreds of years before in Isaiah and Jeremiah and the rest of the prophets. In fact, you can trace it all the way back to the beginning of the book of Genesis, where God promises that someday the child of a woman would destroy the “evil one.”
One of the common criticisms of Christianity is that it was all made up by Jesus’ followers. It is, some say, an idea “cooked up” by the first apostles and served to an unsuspecting world. Often today you’ll hear people complain that they can admire Jesus and could accept his gentle religion if only it hadn’t been taken over and distorted by those apostles, like Paul, with all their harsh ideas. But that’s the sort of criticism that could only be leveled by someone who hasn’t read the Bible. The apostles’ own confession is that not only have they faithfully reflected the teaching of Jesus himself but what they preached and wrote is also the essential message of the Old Testament as well. The gospel did not originate with Jesus’ disciples. Its origin was in eternity in the mind of the God who first revealed it in shadow form through the events and ceremonies and words of the Old Testament. The Bible, Old and New Testament together, is one book with a single theme, the gospel. There is one God in the Bible, one story, one faith, one people, one covenant, one message of salvation!
Concerning His Son
The third piece of information Paul gives us in his definition of the gospel is the most important one of all. The gospel is the message concerning God’s Son, he says (v. 3). It’s all about Jesus. Jesus is the heart of it; his nature and the events of his life are its substance. Paul tells us that Jesus is “the Son” in a double sense. On a human level, he is the son of the Jewish King David, which means he is the Messiah, the promised fulfillment of all the promises of God. But Jesus is also the Son of God, which means he himself is God in a unique and absolute way. This truth was declared publicly, Paul writes, through Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. The Son of God had lived in humility for thirty years or so, his identity largely hidden even from those around him. He voluntarily consented to every sort of indignity, accepting the limits of human existence even including the final horror of death itself.
He was revealed at last with power and great glory in his true nature as the Son of God when he rose triumphant from the grave.
This is the gospel. It’s the good news about him, about Jesus, David’s son and Son of God. It’s the announcement that God became a man, that he was born, that he lived and died for us, and that he has risen from the dead with power for our salvation. The gospel is the good news that God’s Spirit now lives within anyone who puts their faith in Jesus, and that one day he will raise us from death just as Jesus was raised.
So this gospel is the solution. It’s the answer. Do you understand the question?