“ 1 Paul, a bondservant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated to the gospel of God 2 which He promised before through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures, 3 concerning His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, 4 and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead. 5 Through Him we have received grace and apostleship for obedience to the faith among all nations for His name, 6 among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ . . . 16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.”” (Romans 1:1-6, 16–17, NKJV)
Last February, Jeannette and I had the privilege of attending the Ligonier conference in Orlando, Florida. The conference was a great blessing and I would recommend going if you ever get the chance. The speakers were all excellent and the venue was amazing. The speakers were not overly academic and the worship times were very uplifting. We also met a number of interesting people and made new friends. The conference topic was “The Gospel”. This sermon is a compilation of ideas from several different conference speakers as well as other sources. I will try to do justice to both them and the topic. There are 3 points, 1. The Gospel is God’s, 2. The Gospel is Jesus, and 3. The Gospel demands our response. The Scripture reading is Romans 1:1-6 then dropping down to verses 16 and 17.
The Gospel is God’s
The book of Romans, of course, is actually a letter written by Paul sometime around the year 55 A.D. It was written to the Church in Rome which was already established, though not by Paul himself. Like many of his other letters it has an opening, which we just read, a main body of the letter, and a conclusion. Unlike most of Paul’s other letters, Romans is long. Dr. Sproul called it Paul’s “magisterial epistle,” his “magnum opus,” or his greatest work. It is Paul’s fullest, grandest, and most comprehensive statement of the gospel.
In the introduction, Paul identifies himself as the author and the Church in Rome as the recipient (in verse seven). He also identifies himself as a bondservant or slave, someone who is totally at the disposal of his master. The master, in Paul’s case, is Jesus Christ. He also states his calling or mission in life. He is called to be an Apostle, an official messenger of the gospel.
We are familiar with the term Apostle. To be an Apostle you had to be personally appointed by Christ and an eyewitness of the resurrection (or one who received a special revelation of the risen Jesus, which was the case with Paul). Apostles were given authority to teach and to write.
The Apostles were Christ’s ambassadors. An ambassador is someone who has been officially called and sanctioned to represent his master, the one who called him. They may speak in his name and proclaim the master’s message, as if the master was actually speaking himself. An ambassador is not speaking for himself, he is to relay faithfully his master’s message. He is not free to alter it. He has not been given the authority to alter the content. He is to be a faithful representative of his master.
Apostles were also “separated to the gospel of God.” We have all learned, probably as children, that the word gospel means “good news” or “good message.” We will discuss the content of this good message shortly. The last two words in the phrase “separated to the gospel of God,” could mean a message about or concerning God, but in this case the word is most properly interpreted as implying ownership. This gospel, this message, belongs to God. He authored it. He composed it. He originated it. He ordained it to come to pass. It is His. Why make a point of such a small distinction? Well if the good news truly belongs to God, then man, fallen man, has no right to change it. We are not allowed to alter or mess with it in any way. But history tells us we are very prone to mess with the Gospel, even though it does not belong to us but to God.
In 1546, Martin Luther preached his last sermon just a few days before he died. In this sermon Luther said that the most impoverished being in the world must be God Himself because everyone wants to improve, or edit God’s message. Since the message was first revealed to man in Genesis 3:15, and then progressively revealed throughout the pages of Scripture, through the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the wondrous gospel message has been rewritten, changed, or edited in countless ways. It is as if the good news was not quite good enough, could be made better, or more palatable to modern man. In the Sunday night Bible study (of our congregation) which we finished last Spring, we were reminded of the main theme of the Book of Galatians. It was an appeal to the Galatian Christians to not be fooled by an alternative gospel, a gospel of faith plus something else. The real Gospel message is that justification is a free gift of God’s grace; it is not earned or deserved. We must be aware of what the true gospel message is.
This Fall, the adult Sunday school class will start a study on Church History. The Consistory made that decision for several reasons. One reason is that 2017 marks the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. A lot of history led up to the Reformation, a great desire of the Reformers to return to the simple truth of God’s Gospel, and a lot of history has occurred since the Reformation. We can learn from a study of Church History. Most people, including myself, are ignorant of much Church History. I am looking forward to the study. The second reason for choosing to study Church History is that most or all of the current attempts to alter God’s gospel have already been done in the past in various ways. We should be knowledgeable about them so we can recognize error today when we see it or hear it.
I made a very short list of some of these attempts to alter God’s message in preparation for this sermon a week or so ago. It didn’t take long, 5-10 minutes. Any one of you could make a similar or even more complete list. Time however doesn’t allow us to make an exhaustive study, but here are a few: The book of Galatians refers to the historical existence of heresy. We mentioned before that the main theme of Galatians was that Christians are not to be fooled by a false gospel. It was written by Paul somewhere around A.D. 55. Think about that! People were alive then that were eyewitnesses. They saw Christ, perhaps ate with Him or travelled with Him. Maybe they heard Him speak. The ink was hardly dry on the original Gospel copy and already a counterfeit copy was being brought forth.
Later, in A.D. 140, Marcion was an early church heretic. He rejected all of the Old Testament and most of the New, all except the Pauline Epistles. He emphasized God’s love over and above all of God’s other attributes. Could that idea possibly be relevant to the Church today?
Then there was Mohammed and his followers in 570, Joseph Smith in 1830, and Charles Russel and Joseph Rutherford, the founders of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1870. Here’s a few token atheists to complete the list: Karl Marx, 1883, whose famous quote was “religion is the opium of the masses” and Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, modern examples of prominent intellectuals who were not content with their own atheism but wanted to convince the world that there is no God, and that belief in a higher power is actually harmful to mankind. That has to be the ultimate rejection of the gospel, to reject the good news and the Giver at the same time. Psalm 14 however, tells us “the fool says there is no God.”
This list of changes, or outright rejection could go on and on, couldn’t it? Man is not content with the faith once delivered to the saints. We are arrogant enough to change it. However, Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, told those believers in Galatia something else. Turn with me to Galatians 1 while I read verses 6 to 10. “ 6 I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, 7 which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed. 10 For do I now persuade men, or God? Or do I seek to please men? For if I still pleased men, I would not be a bondservant of Christ.” (Galatians 1:6–10)
Powerful words! Sobering words! If anyone, even an angel from heaven, anyone who would dare to edit God’s word, let them be accursed. Do we really believe that God will hold us guiltless when we pervert, alter, or change His message?
The Gospel is Jesus
On that sobering word, we will move on to point number two, which is: What is the content of the Gospel of good news? In Paul’s opening paragraph, (I am back in Romans 1 again), he summarizes the Gospel. He points out that the Good News of Christ has been promised before, through the prophets of the Old Testament. That it is about God’s Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Our Messiah, Redeemer, King, who was born of the lineage of King David. Everything foretold by prophecy, revealed partially in type, shadows, or symbols has been made reality in Jesus. What God has promised has come to pass and this Jesus is declared to be the Son of God. He, Jesus, has been given power according to the Spirit of Holiness, says verse 4.
Here is a very clear example of the Trinitarian nature of God, what God has purposed is carried out by Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus was born of the seed of David, to fulfill prophecy and to share in our weaknesses and frailties. He is transformed by the Holy Spirit in the resurrection. This is a reference to the two stages of Christ’s ministry: His humiliation followed by His exaltation and enthronement at the right hand of His Father. This Scripture also reminds us of Christ’s dual nature. He is one person, with two natures, a human nature and a divine nature. He has a human nature, because only a human would be an appropriate sacrifice for human sin. He has a divine nature in order to be able to survive such a sacrifice. The wages of sin is death, the Bible teaches us. Through one man, Adam, sin entered the world and through another man, Jesus, sin is atoned for. This is the good message. This is God’s gospel.
Man, through his fall into sin is separated, alienated from his Creator. He is dead spiritually in his sin. He is in desperate shape, hopeless without divine intervention. And what has God ordained? He has a plan, a plan conceived before the foundations of the world were laid. A plan to reconcile fallen man with Himself. A costly plan. Since the wages of sin is death, someone will have to die. Since man is already dead spiritually, man cannot do it. The death of a sinful man would also not atone for other sinners. We need a sinless man, able to withstand the rigors of our just punishment. Only God’s Son will do. God will have to sacrifice His own Son, His only Son, His Beloved Son, in order to redeem us.
Wouldn’t it be cheaper for God to kill us all and start over? He came close to doing that in Noah’s day. Why not just start over, it would have been way cheaper. Yet, God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son. It is a wonder, is it not? All of us from time to time wonder, “Why me, Lord?” You could have easily passed me by and bestowed your saving grace on someone else. But do we also ponder why God so loved this sin filled world? And yet He did love the world so much that He was willing to sacrifice the most precious, eternal blessing in all the universe, His own Beloved Son. God didn’t offer redemption for fallen angels, yet He did for us. How astounding, how baffling, how wonderfully wise, and how very humbling!
The gospel message is also summarized well in the words of Romans 5:8, “But God shows His love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” It is a simple message. It is full of profound truth that we may ponder for a lifetime. Yet it is so simple that even a child can understand it. How could we possibly improve on it? What needs editing? Who would dare to alter such a perfect plan? At bedtime there is a little ritual that always happens at our house, involving who loves who more. The parent says, “I love you to the moon and back,” and the child responds with “I love you to Jupiter and back,” and so on until we get to “infinity plus one.” God’s love is much more profound than even that. Here is another summary of God’s gospel: At the cross, man stood before God and said “I hate you this much,” and God stood before the world and said, “I love you this much.”
The Gospel Demands our Response
That brings us to the final point this morning. God’s gospel demands our response. How do we respond to such love? Well, to be very brief, I could say, “believe it, live it, and proclaim it, Amen! Let’s stand for prayer.” However, I would like you to stay seated for just a minute or two longer. When we believe the gospel truth, we believe all that it implies. I am a sinner, I deserve to perish in my sinfulness, I can’t save myself, I can’t lift myself up to God. I can only receive the gift that God freely gives to me and to you. And that gift is His Son. I will cling to Jesus. When I worry about the strength or weakness of my faith, I will cling to Jesus. When life is difficult, uncertain, or frightening, I will cling to Jesus. My salvation does not depend on my pitiful, wavering faith. My hope and trust is in nothing less than Jesus’ perfect love and righteousness. I will cling to Jesus.
That is the good news and our response. All our hope and trust is in the person of Jesus Christ our Lord. It is all outside of ourselves (extra nos, in Latin). Outside of ourselves. “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling.” One of the things I took away from several of the conference speakers, but especially Dr. Ian Hamilton, was that we Reformed believers are well-versed in doctrine. We like doctrine. I like doctrine. I like to read about it. I like to study it. Doctrine is important. We are to worship God in spirit and in truth, so doctrine matters. But in the end, we are not saved by any specific doctrine on its own. We are saved by a Person, Jesus, and His perfectly obedient, sinless life and atoning, sin-vanquishing death. We cling to Jesus. Here is a sobering thought to ponder. Do you realize the only disfigured body in heaven will be Christ’s? Our glorified bodies will be whole, not ravaged by disease, age, accident or injury. But Christ’s glorified body still bears the marks of His sacrifice for you and me.
“Amazing love! How can it be that Jesus would die for me?” What is our response? Humble gratitude and confident trust in this life. The God Who has already given the most precious gift in the universe to me, that God the Father, my Father, will work out for good everything that happens to me. So to the best of my ability, I will give God my best. I will be obedient in this life as the sometimes painfully slow process of sanctification is worked out in me. Finally, having been given such a precious gift, extra nos, I will share the good news. I will be an evangelist. J. I. Packer’s definition of an evangelist is this: “an evangelist is a Christian living as a Christian.” Amen.
“Heavenly Father, forgive us for doubting Your Word. Forgive us for thinking that we could possibly improve upon it, or not completely put our hope and trust in it. Grant us a full measure of faith, faith in our faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. When we are anxious, fearful, or full of doubt, remind us that You love us, loved us so much that You presented to us the most precious gift in the universe. Give us humble gratitude and a confident trust in Your goodness to us. All because and through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.”
Elder Don Oliver
Grace RCUS, Rapid City, SD