Monday, February 14, 2011

What Is The Gospel?

A Look at Romans 1:1-7...

Empty fields, racked with scarcity and bombed to smithereens, with only the dead, spiked stumps of trees stretching in broken shards up to an overcast, sunless sky. A wreaking, wasteland full of large pits, surrounded by barbed wire, full of dead bodies and dying horses. Mustard gas, smoothing over the ground in slow death, chokes the life out of what remains in this empty, zone of death. Then there are the bullets and the bombs, and the screams of men behind masks that look like the faces of insects….

Such was the scene that led one German theologian in his youth to cast away the liberal Protestant idea of the Fatherhood of God, and the brotherhood of man. The idea was that Jesus, while not the unique son of God, served only the purpose of showing us a better way to live. He saw German nationalism, war, and the failure of this “brotherhood” idea, and his commentary on the book of Romans in 1918 rocked the theological world as well as the Church, in his affirmation of the resurrection of Christ. And while he didn’t go all the way to orthodoxy, Karl Barth saw an anchor in the hope of the gospel just as a rope tolls a bell.

What is the gospel? Let's look at three other people for a moment...

Still in Germany, another young man, 500 years ago, trained as a lawyer, but renouncing his training, takes a vow as a monk to earn his favor with God, and yet agonizes over his sin, finds freedom in reading the words, “the righteous shall live by faith.” Martin Luther, who once said, “If ever a monk were to gain heaven by his monkery, it was I” now declared the beauty and freedom he felt and enjoyed in the hope of the gospel in the book of Romans.

What is the gospel? How would you explain it?

Second, one young man, around 350 A.D., after living a licentious life of immorality and parties and trading one religion after another, finds himself sitting in the back yard pondering the meaning of life. His mother, Monica, a faithful Christian, held out hope for him through her constant, incessant prayers. The young man hears children in the background singing “take up and read, take up and read.” He picks up the book of Romans his mother had given him, and reads chapter 13:13-14: “Let us walk properly in the day time, 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.” St. Augustine believed in Jesus and became one of the greatest thinkers—one of the greatest Christian writers—of all time. It all started from Romans.

I ask again, “What is the gospel?”

Third and last, we can tell stories of John Wesley, the failed missionary to the American Indians in Georgia who found freedom in the words of the book of Romans, that declares the free grace of God in Christ, which “strangely warmed his heart” in his conversion from a dead religion based upon his own obedience and good works to earn favor with God. And it happened after reading a sermon by Martin Luther on guess which book? That’s right…Romans.

So, what is this gospel we find in Romans? And again I ask you, if you were to talk with a total stranger, or even a family member and they were to ask you, “So…tell me this gospel.” What would you say?

There are many voices today as to what the gospel actually is. There’s no doubt about that. Some think the gospel is that

1) we are to live good, moral lives that reflect the love and example of Jesus.

2) Or, the gospel is that if you believe in Jesus, you will be healthy, wealthy and live an exciting, fulfilled life.

3) Or, the gospel is a list of doctrines to believe about God, man, Christ, sin, salvation, and so on. One recent book titled, “What is the gospel?” does just that. It’s a systematic theology about God, man, Christ, sin, salvation and so on.

4) But maybe there is a more simple way. Let’s take a look at Romans 1:1-7

Romans 1:1-7: Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, 3 concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 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, 5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, 6 including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,

7 To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul writes to the Roman Christians because he has preached the gospel all over the eastern Mediterranean region, starting in Jerusalem and all the way to Illyricum (just across the sea from Italy). Paul is a missionary. Paul wants to plant churches as far as the oceans and seas will take him, and as far as the Roman roads will travel. Paul wants to bring this “gospel” to the ends of the earth, and he wants to preach in Rome and plant a missionary base there to help him go to Spain. He never made it. He was killed in Rome in some time around 64-67 AD.

Paul hasn’t been to Rome, but he knows many of the Christians there, and he wants to preach to them and lay out a systematic message of the gospel for them. So, he writes Romans, the most magnificent letter (according to many) of all time. It’s the letter of the Reformation, it’s a letter that changed the world of Luther and Calvin and the western world as we know it. It’s a letter that Luther is known to have said “Every Christian should read Romans every day.” You can never get enough of Romans. Eat it. Chew it. Swallow it whole. Digest it. Repeat.

Paul begins his letter by stating his name in verse one, and identifying himself; in verse seven, he says “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” What is in between those verses is a theological statement that pretty much summarizes the rest of the letter. What’s in there? It’s all about Jesus. Who he is, what happened to him, what he did, what he’s doing now and what’s going on in the future. It’s all packed in tight like sardines in a tin can. And this is what Paul is going to say to us. The gospel is that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. The gospel is that Jesus Christ is Lord. He says this in verses 1, 3 &4: from verse one, Paul strings it together, “The gospel of God…concerning his Son…Jesus Christ our Lord.”

The gospel is: Jesus is Lord. There is no other. Jesus is the Lord of heaven and earth. But let’s get back to verse one…

Paul says he is a slave, or a servant of Jesus Christ. That Paul is a slave would have been an insult to the Romans. Romans were conquerors (which by the way, I find a bit odd, because Italians are so little). It is said that in Rome, 30% of the population was slaves. While slaves had rights, earned money, had great responsibility and could buy their freedom, a slave was not a soldier or a powerful Senator. He was still a slave. But Paul says he is a slave, a doulos of Christ Jesus, and the same title recalls the servants of God in the OT: Abraham, Moses, Joshua, David, and the prophets. As a Jew, Paul would have known that Moses, for example, as a servant/slave of God was a servant/slave of YHWH—the covenant name of Israel’s God. By saying he is a slave of Christ Jesus, Paul is drawing a close relationship between Jesus Christ and YHWH.

Paul was a convinced Jew, and a Pharisee. He called himself a Hebrew of Hebrews: he kept the law of God perfectly (or so he thought). He murdered Christians for blasphemy, but on the way to Damascus, Jesus changed everything. He gave Paul “grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith to all the Gentiles” as it says in verse 5.

The gospel is that Jesus is Lord, and Jesus changes lives. Jesus makes servants of people to serve him, and Jesus in turn serves them by giving them his love, and by giving them a new life. I know a guy who told me that many years ago, he was steeped in alcohol addiction. He had tried to quit many times. He would wake up in the morning and drink himself into oblivion. Finally one day, crying on his kitchen floor, he cried out to the Lord for help. Jesus help me! Save me from this mess! And Jesus did. He saved him from that mess. My friend hasn’t had a drink in 8 years, and has no desire for it. That’s not to say that every man’s drinking problem is always resolved so quickly. But it is to say, that Jesus is Lord of all, and Jesus changes lives. Paul calls himself a slave of Christ Jesus, and Paul is a passionate man about one thing: the gospel. Paul wants to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth, to “all the Gentiles (literally, the ethnic groups”). Why does Paul want to do this? He tells us in verse 5. “For his name’s sake.”

It is for the sake of Christ’s name that we preach the gospel. It is not just to “get people saved,” but for his name’s sake, to bring about the obedience of faith among all the nations, people groups, tribes, and tongues on the earth. This is why we support missionaries in their endeavors. Did you know that there are over 340 million people on the earth who have never heard of Jesus and have no Bible in their own language? There are over 2,100 languages on the planet that have yet to have a Bible in their native tongues.1 God wants all the nations to come to him, to receive Christ, to believe in Jesus and to live for him, and he brings that to pass through the preaching of the gospel. The gospel message, that Jesus is Lord, and, according to verses 2-4, that Jesus is the following.

The son of David. Jesus is the son of David according to the flesh. This means that Jesus is the promised king of old that God told David would sit on his throne. God promised the gospel—that Jesus is Lord—in the Old Testament Scriptures, through his prophets. The Old Testament is the source of the gospel—the good news—of God. God promised a coming king who would rule the nations, and that king is Jesus. Our hope is not in presidents, our hope is not in diplomats, our hope is not in government solutions, our hope is not in judges or governors. Our hope is in Jesus Christ. Jesus is Lord! Jesus is the Christ! Jesus is the one upon whom we put our trust and hope. Jesus is Lord! That is not to say that government is not needed, but what is our focus? Our focus is Christ.

Jesus is also the Son of God. Paul says here that Jesus was “appointed Son of God in power according to the spirit of holiness through the resurrection of the dead.” Paul may be encouraging the Romans a bit here by taking a little jab at the city of Rome. In Rome, sat the son of god, Caesar. “Caesar son of god” said early Roman coins. When Caesar would make a proclamation throughout the empire, heralds would come to town holding a piece of paper as it were, declaring the “gospel” of Caesar. The good news of Caesar! The proclamation of the king of kings and lord of lords, Caesar! But Paul says that the gospel of God, which was promised long ago in the Scriptures through the prophets is that there is a Christ, there is a Lord, there is a Savior and there is a King. His name is Jesus. We know this because God raised him from the dead, thus giving him the victory over sin, death, hell and satan. Jesus, the Son of God, crucified, and risen in glory. Jesus is Lord, and there is no other!

Lastly, Paul says he is given grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith to all the Gentiles. The obedience of faith is a way of saying that the gospel message calls people to see their brokenness and cry out to God to heal them of their brokenness. The Bible calls this repentance. Crying out to God in our brokenness and realizing that we have sinned against him and that he has the right to punish us for our sin is repentance. The obedience of faith means that when we have faith in Jesus Christ, we have a real faith. It’s a faith that trusts in him and obeys his commandments. It’s a faith that values Jesus Christ above all else. The first Christians were taught that when they believed in Jesus Christ that they were to be baptized and follow the teachings of Jesus and of the Apostles. The obedience of faith is a faith that is true and not hypocritical. We have all known people who say, “Christians are a bunch of hypocrites.” And we have all known people who say they are Christians and who live duplicitous lives. Christians are to live in obedience to Jesus’ loving lordship—not to earn his love or favor, no.

Here’s what happens: Jesus joins himself to us. He joins us to himself at the hip. He welcomes us to himself in love and in union with him. It’s like two flames coming together. We therefore want to be like him, and change our lives and live lives of repentance and faith. Martin Luther said, “All of life is repentance.” This is called sanctification, where we die to ourselves and we become more like Jesus, in newness of life.

Paul wraps up his introduction in verse seven with “To all who are in Rome loved by God, called saints, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Those who are of the “obedience of faith” in verse five are “loved by God” in verse seven. They are loved by God. Have you internalized that God loves you? I mean, in your quiet moments, do you feel, deep down, that God loves you? It says here that the Roman Christians are beloved of God. Have you allowed God to love and serve you? Have you allowed yourself to love and serve God?

They are also called “saints” in verse seven. The word “saints” is literally “holy ones.” God loves us and calls us to himself in Christ to be holy. We are to be pure. We are not to look like and act like and be like the world. We are to reach the world, but we are called to be “holy.” Briefly, that means living in loving relationship with Jesus Christ and God the Father through the grace and power of the Holy Spirit. Being a saint of God should affect our whole lives, just as an obedient faith should affect our whole lives: how we dress, how we talk, how we spend our money, what we hope for, what we give our lives over to, how we spend our time. Being a saint means being concerned about the gospel—that Jesus is Lord, and getting that gospel to “all the nations” so they too, can live “the obedience of faith” in Christ. That’s what it means to be a saint. And that’s the gospel: Jesus is Lord—and we respond to him in loving submission to his Lordship.

Works Consulted: Sermon by Gary Inrig (stories of Augustine, Luther, Wesley and Barth), available at the Gospel Coalition and here.

1)Read the stats at Wycliffe Bible Translators

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