The Gospel Is Good News
October 29, 2017 Speaker: Kit Johnson
Passage: Romans 1:16-17
This Tuesday will mark the 500th anniversary of what is traditionally considered the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to a door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. This seemingly insignificant call for dialogue about Catholic abuses reverberated out to create one of the most influential movements in human history.
You see, Luther grew up in a world where the RCC dominated a very dark religious scene. For most people God was very distant. It was illegal to read the Bible in a common language, and even if you could read the Latin Bible, the church taught that you couldn’t understand it. You needed the church to interpret it for you.
And when you came to church, your experience of God was very meager. The services were in Latin, so most people had no idea what was being said, and they learned very little about God. And the God they heard about was a distant judge. For the most part the RCC used fear of his wrath to motivate people to do they best they could to earn his favor. That’s not to say that grace was entirely absent. A common slogan of the day was, “God will not deny grace to those who do their best.” Of course, this slogan was intended to give reassurance, but it still left the responsibility with man to merit grace.
Therefore, the RCC urged people to take the Mass, confess their sins to a priest, and live a righteous life in hopes that they would only spend a relatively short time in purgatory where they would be judged for their remaining sins.
Martin Luther was raised on this theology, and he later became a monk in hopes of earning God’s favor, but never found any peace. The more he tried to please God, the more he realized how far he fell short. Then in 1512 he was sent to Wittenberg University where he taught Bible exposition. Through these studies, and especially his studies of Romans and Galatians, God began to transform his understanding of God and man’s relationship to him. Today, I want to consider the central passage that God used to open Luther’s eyes and to reignite the gospel light that had been hidden for so long (Read vv. 13-17).
As you can see, Paul was about to travel to Rome, but he wasn’t coming as a tourist; he was coming as an evangelist to preach the gospel. He knew that most of the people would consider the gospel foolish and weak. He had suffered dearly for preaching. But no amount of mocking or persecution would stop Paul from preaching.
He was not ashamed of the gospel, and vv. 16-17 proceed to tell us why. The first truth about the gospel is…
The gospel has the power to save anyone (v. 16b).
Clearly Paul assumes that people need some kind of salvation. But why?
Why do we need to be saved?
The answer to this question begins with a truth about God…
God is righteous.
Verse 17 mentions the “righteousness of God,” and this concept comes up over and over throughout the first 4 chapters of Romans. Folks, God is not a sinner like us. 1 John 1:5 states, “God is light and in Him is no darkness at all.” Therefore, he is holy or separate from sin. Habakkuk 2:13 states, “You are of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on wickedness.”
This is incomprehensible for us because…
We are sinners.
God is very clear that every person, even the most religious of us are still sinners (3:10-19, 23). No one can measure up to the righteousness and holiness of God. Now, very few people would argue with that.
I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who wouldn’t acknowledge that they fall short of God’s glory. We know we aren’t perfect. But many people have a hard time accepting God’s response to our sin.
God’s justice demands that he judge our sin.
Because God is righteous, and we are sinners, notice the conclusion in 3:19-20. God couldn’t be clearer. We can never be good enough to make ourselves righteous before God. And because God is just, he can’t merely ignore our guilt (1:18). A just God must punish sin. He certainly cannot have a relationship with a sinner. Remember what I read earlier from Habakkuk. God cannot even look at sin. And so there is no way a sinner can ever earn a relationship with God.
Martin Luther became more and more troubled by this reality during his time as a monk. When he read of the “righteousness of God” in v. 17, he assumed that the gospel meant he must achieve God’s righteousness if he had any hope of enjoying a relationship with God.
He worked very hard to make himself righteous, sometimes taking extreme steps. He would fast for days at a time, sleep without blankets during the winter, and spend hours trying to confess every sin and every wrong motive. He later said “I kept the rules so strictly, that I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by his sheer monkery, it was I. If I had kept on any longer, I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, reading, and other work.”
But the more he tried, the more he realized just how impossible it is to be righteous like God. He felt defeated and angry. Luther’s superiors tried to sooth his conscience but to no avail. When one of them urged him to love God, Luther cried out, “I do not love God! I hate him!”
It’s very sad to hear of Luther’s struggle, and yet the fact is that he was absolutely right. No matter what he did, he was still a sinner who deserved wrath. And so are you. You can never be good enough to earn a relationship with God. And you will never appreciate the glory of the gospel until you come to grips with this reality. You must realize that I am hopeless lost and condemned. I need salvation.
And thankfully God tells us that there is salvation in the gospel. Notice that…
The gospel has power to save.
I mentioned earlier that the gospel is foolish to many people. We value strength and power, but the gospel tells a story about a common man (from a human perspective) who died a humiliating death as a criminal. At first glance it’s a moving story of compassion, but it’s not a story of power. It sounds like a story of defeat. Except for the fact that Jesus didn’t just die. He rose again and conquered sin and death.
And because of that, the gospel is not just a good story; it is infused with the power of God. Specifically, God says that it has the power to save sinners. But what does that mean? There are two incredible sides to this salvation (5:9–10). Verse 9 states God saves sinners from the wrath we deserve. In other words, the gospel provides hope that we can avoid the judgment we rightly deserve. But not only that, v. 10 says that it reconciles us to God. The gospel gives hope that we can live with God in heaven for all eternity.
Folks, in light of how sinful we are and in comparison to the fear-driven faith Luther experienced as a young man, this is truly incredible. The gospel provides hope that fallen sinners can be saved from wrath and be made the friends of God.
But the good news doesn’t end there. Verse 16 adds that…
The gospel is available to anyone who believes.
Paul really emphasizes this point because before Christ came, God worked exclusively among the Jews. But when Jesus died and rose again he changed everything. Paul acknowledges that there is a sense in which the Jews will always be a priority in God’s plan; however, the gospel is equally available to the Greek, or to all nations not just the Jews.
And Paul wiull argue in chapters 1–3 that it’s not just that it is for all nations; it is for all kinds of sinners. The gospel has the power to save really religious people who have lived a relatively good life, but it is also able to save people who have committed terrible sins. No one has strayed so far or sinned so badly that they are beyond the reach of the gospel’s power.
Maybe there is someone here who doubts that. You look at the holiness of God, then you look at your own sinfulness, and you have a really hard time believing that God would ever accept you. That’s a fair question because you don’t deserve his love. But the Bible tells us over and over that God loves all people. Romans 5:8 states, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” And our text couldn’t be clearer. The gospel is available to anyone who believes, including you.
And so if you have never been saved, I pray that you will see today that you can never save yourself, but Christ’s death and resurrection has the power to save you, and God invites you to come. And I pray that you will not leave today without getting that settled.
But the question remains. How can God do this? Wouldn’t it compromise the justice of God for him to leave our sin unpunished? The answer is found in v. 17. Notice the second truth about the gospel…
The gospel gives the righteousness of God as a gift (v. 17a).
Let’s talk about this phrase, “the Righteousness of God,” because it is very important. Remember that I said earlier that in his younger years, Martin Luther assumed that this phrase referred to God’s attribute of righteousness. God is righteous, and Luther believed he was obligated to meet this standard if he had any hope of enjoying a relationship with God.
But as Luther studied Romans during his time at Wittenberg, he came to understand that v. 17 is saying something very different. The good news of the gospel is not that I am responsible to achieve the righteousness of God. Rather, the good news of the gospel is that God imputes or gives his perfect righteousness to me. In other words, when I believe the gospel, I am credited with the righteousness of Jesus so that when God looks at me he doesn’t see my sin; he sees the righteousness of Christ.
Luther came to understand this reality because the rest of Romans makes it clear that this is what God means. Notice 3:20. God is very clear that I can never be justified before God or declared “not guilty” by my own good works. But notice vv. 21–22. The righteousness of God is something God credits “through faith” not through works.
But how can God do this? How can he declare a sinner righteous and not judge us for our sin? The answer is in vv. 24–26. The word propitiation describes how Jesus died, he bore the punishment for my sin in his body. He endured the wrath of God that 1:18 said that I rightly deserve and that you rightly deserve.
And in so doing, v. 26 states that God declared his justice. Folks, the greatest demonstration of God’s justice is not that sinners endure the just wrath of God in hell. No, do you want to know how just God really is? Look at the cross. At the cross God demonstrated his justice by punishing his only Son for the sins of mankind. God hates sin, and he must punish sin.
But because God punished Christ, the cross makes it possible for God to also demonstrate his grace. Notice in v. 26 that God isn’t only just; he is also “the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” The concept of justification brings to mind a courtroom. I have a real problem if I try to appear in the courtroom of God in my own righteousness, but the glory of the gospel is that I am no longer judged based on my righteousness.
Jesus bore my judgment on the cross, and I have been united with him. I now stand in his righteousness. Therefore, when God looks at me, he doesn’t see my sin; instead, he sees the righteousness of Christ. Therefore, he can declare me “justified,” or “not guilty.”
Now, I want to be clear, that I am still a sinner (4:5). This is verse is clear that God justifies us while we are still ungodly. And Paul will go on to say that once I am saved, I must work to obey him and to become godly. But those works do not make me right with God, and they never could, because I will be a sinner until the day I die. But I am still secure, and I always will be because I stand in the righteousness of Christ.
Folks, this is the good news of the gospel, and when Luther discovered the true meaning of the phrase “the righteousness of God” it changed everything for him. He later recounted, “I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, ‘the justice of God,’ because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him. Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.
Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that ‘the just shall live by his faith.’ Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the ‘justice of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven…
If you have a true faith that Christ is your Saviour, then at once you have a gracious God, for faith leads you in and opens up God’s heart and will, that you should see pure grace and overflowing love. This it is to behold God in faith that you should look upon his fatherly, friendly heart, in which there is no anger or ungraciousness. He who sees God as angry does not see him rightly but looks only on a curtain, as if a dark cloud has been drawn across his face” (quoted in Bainton, Here I Stand, p. 48).
Amen! Praise God that he isn’t just a God of righteousness and justice. The cross brings together God’s justice with his grace and mercy. Praise God that I can have a relationship with God that is rooted in grace!
So the question is how do we receive this grace? This brings us to the third truth about the gospel.
The gospel is applied by faith (v. 17b).
It’s very clear throughout Romans that this gospel does not belong to everyone. Otherwise, God would not have wrath toward sinners, and Paul wouldn’t need to preach the gospel in Rome. And maybe you are sitting there today asking, how can I go from being under the wrath of God to enjoying the grace of the gospel? The answer is there in both vv. 16 and 17.
Verse 16 declares that salvation belongs to “everyone who believes.” And v. 17 states, it is “from faith to faith.” This phrase is a little unclear, but the simplest way to understand the Greek phrase is to take it as an emphatic statement. We are saved “by faith and by faith alone.” My works add nothing to what Jesus already accomplished. And so the only way that man can be saved is to simply place his trust in what Jesus already accomplished.
I want to be clear that this faith is not a saving work. You are sitting in a chair. When you sat down, you trusted that chair to hold you up, and then you just rested. And you aren’t working right now; you are resting. And that’s what saving faith is. To be saved, all I must do is rest in Christ.
That means I trust in him alone. After all, if you are still trying to hold up part of your weight with your legs, you aren’t actually resting in your chair are you? And folks, the Book of Galatians is clear that if I try to trust in the gospel plus my works, I lose the gospel entirely.
This is the fundamental problem with every religion in the world except gospel Christianity. Most religions believe that we need some level of grace, but they also teach that I must earn a right standing with God. And the Bible would say to them, that they don’t have the gospel at all. By trying to add something to what Jesus did on the cross, they ultimately dishonor Jesus and arrogantly claim that they can add something to what he accomplished.
God won’t have any of that. And so maybe you are understanding the gospel today like you have never understood it before. You see the justice of God and that you deserve judgment. But you also see the love and mercy of God in the fact that God judged your sin in the body of Christ, and you want to be saved. Then I would urge you to simply sit down in the chair. Maybe you think your sin is too great. Why would God forgive me? Again, just rest in Christ. You can pray to God right now and say, “Lord, I am a sinner and my sin is so wicked that it put Jesus on the cross. I acknowledge that I cannot save myself, but I believe that Jesus’ paid for my sin and that he is sufficient to save me. I want Christ to be my Savior, and I want to live my life for him.”
God promises that if you seek him with that kind of faith, he will save. Romans 10:13 states, “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” I pray that no one will leave today without knowing that he or she has been forgiven and that Christ is your Savior.
But what about those of us who are saved? The fourth truth about the gospel is…
Christians must rest in the gospel and proclaim the gospel.
I’ve met a lot of Christians who continue to feel the weight of their sin and who struggle to rest in God’s grace. And on the flip side, I’ve talked with a lot of Christians who take advantage of the grace of God. They don’t fight hard against sin because, “Why does it matter if I know I’m going to heaven.” The answer to both struggles is to meditate often on the gospel. If you struggle with guilt, remember that you stand in the righteousness of Jesus. Because of that, as we will sing in a moment, you have “no guilt in life, no fear in death.” Just rest.
And if you struggle with apathy, you also need to meditate on the gospel. If Jesus hung on a cross for my sin, how dare I dishonor his death by living a selfish life? How dare I take his commands lightly? How dare I put my own comfort ahead of serving him?
All of us need to meditate often on the gospel. Martin Luther got this. He said in the Preface to his commentary on Romans, “This Epistle is really the chief part of the NT and the very purest Gospel, and is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul. It can never be read or pondered too much, and the more it is dealt with the more precious it becomes, and the better it tastes.” Rest in the gospel.
But don’t just rest. We also must be challenged by this text to proclaim the gospel. Paul says in v. 16 that he is “not ashamed of the gospel,” but far too often we are. We don’t want people to get offended, so we don’t tell them that they need a Savior. Or we want people to think we are intellectual, so we hide our faith. Ultimately, we value our comfort more than we do the souls of family and friends. It’s selfish and wicked.
Or maybe we don’t think they will ever get saved, so what’s the use? But that’s not what Paul thought. Paul understood that the gospel possesses the “power of God to salvation.” He knew that no heart is so hard that the power of God can’t break it.
And notice also in v. 17 that Paul understood that when the gospel is proclaimed, “the righteousness of God is revealed.” The idea behind that verb is so much more than the communication of facts. When we share the gospel it opens blind eyes, and it transforms hearts. And in so doing it shows people the righteousness of God that can be theirs through faith.
Folks, the gospel is powerful. It changed Luther, and through the Reformation, it changed the world. It has changed me and it has changed you. And so let’s not be ashamed of the gospel. Let’s commit to proclaim the “power of God to salvation.”