The Heart of the Gospel and the Message of Romans

What is the gospel?  Remember that “gospel” means “good news.”  The gospel, therefore, is primarily news.  Now news can be instructions to carry out.  But generally news is information about what is going on in the world around you.  If you watch the nightly news, you probably do so not so much to get instruction as to get information.  Of course, you can react to news, and sometimes there are right ways and wrong ways to react to certain varieties of news.  

For example, if you are over 20 years old, you can probably remember where you were at and what you were doing when you received the news that the Twin Towers in New York City had been attacked.  And most of us can remember how we responded to that news.  At the time I was taking some classes in a junior college.  One of my professors had a daughter who lived in NYC, and he was clearly pretty shaken up by the whole thing (his daughter was safe, thankfully).  That was his response to the news.  

In the same way, the gospel is news.  There is a right way and a wrong way to respond to this news.  The right way is to respond to the good news of the gospel is faith and repentance.  Theologians call this conversion.  There are also wrong ways to respond to the gospel, as in ignoring it, despising it, and rejecting it. 

The point I want to make here is that it is important to distinguish between the gospel and its appropriate response.  The call to faith and repentance is a call to respond appropriately to the news that is the gospel.  But that call for response is not itself the news.  Conversion is not the gospel.  This is important because sometimes people confuse the response to the gospel with the gospel itself.  As important as faith and repentance are, they are not the gospel; they are predicated upon the gospel.

Now why is this important?  It is important because unless we get the gospel right, we are never going to respond appropriately to it.  Going back to September 11, 2001, when I was first told by a classmate that a plane had flown into a building in NYC, I imagined a small Cessna plane.  Of course that would have been bad enough, but that was nothing like what really happened, and so at first my response to the news did not correspond to that terrible event because I had a wrong idea of what had in fact taken place.  In the same way, if we do not understand what the gospel is, our response of faith and repentance is likely to be far less than what God actually requires of us.

What then is the gospel?  This is an important question in terms of our exposition of Romans, because, as we have seen, this is what this book is all about.  The fact that the apostle would spend an entire epistle expounding the gospel must mean that it is central to what it means to be a Christian.  It is in fact God’s message to the world.  It is the good news that God has come in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ, and that he has by his death and resurrection made a way for us to be saved from our sins.  That is the good news.

And as we pointed out in our exposition of Romans 3:21-26, the gospel is primarily the gospel of the righteousness of God, which among other things means that the gospel is something that God has accomplished for us; it is his saving activity to rescue his people by giving them a righteous status, justifying them and accepting them into his favor and fellowship.  It is “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ” (22).  It is about how justification can come to us “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (24).  It is something God has done through Jesus Christ who was “put forward as a propitiation by his blood” (25).  What we see in this central paragraph is that whatever the gospel is, it is something that centers on the work of Jesus Christ, which is described for us as a redemption and propitiation.  Therefore, if we would truly understand the gospel, we must really come to grips with what Jesus Christ has done for us in the categories by which it is represented to us in the Scriptures.

Now at this point in our exposition of Romans, I think it is important that we stop and do this.  I have tried to give a good exposition of the first four chapters without getting too bogged down in theological minutiae or going down all the doctrinal rabbit trails that presented them to us along the way.  That is why I have tried to preach by paragraphs, instead of just focusing in on a single verse each time.  I don’t want you to lose the forest for the trees.  However, before we proceed any further, I think it is important that we stop and really focus on what is the central issue in this epistle.  And that is, what exactly did Jesus Christ accomplish on the cross?  For that is at the heart of the gospel.

This is also important because the work of Christ has been misinterpreted many times throughout the history of the church, even by people who are sometimes thought to be otherwise generally orthodox.  There have been many theologians who have wanted to interpret the work of Christ along the lines of a martyr, or as one who by his death merely wanted to influence others to do what is right.  Or sometimes his death has been interpreted as an act by which God showed the world just how much he hates sin, and hopefully by this demonstration you too will be led to hate sin and turn from it.  These are all, in one form or another, moral influence theories of the atonement.  They are very popular in certain circles of the Christian world, but they are not Biblical at all, and end up turning the gospel into something that it is not.  They are in fact dangerous and damning deviations from God’s sacred and saving truth.

What then did Christ do to save us?  I will argue that the saving work of Christ centers on the cross, and that he went there as a servant of his Father and a substitute for his people.  And as our substitute, his work can be described in four different ways: sacrifice, propitiation, reconciliation, and redemption.[1]

The work of Christ is primarily connected to his death on the cross.

The first thing I want to point out is the Biblical fact that when we talk about the saving work of Christ, we must center our ideas about it on his death on the cross.  Why?  Because this is what the NT does.  Some of the early church fathers focused as much or more on the incarnation as on the atonement as the means by which we are saved.  However, the NT spends relatively little time on the birth of Christ and almost all the time on the death of Christ.  You can see this in the gospel narratives themselves.  Of the four, only Matthew and Luke talk about the birth of Christ.  All of the gospels spend an inordinate amount of space, however, talking about the weeks just before and leading up to and including the death of Christ.  That was clearly the most important aspect of the gospel news.  

And it was the focus of our Savior himself.  His “hour” as he refers to it over and over again as recorded in the gospel of John, is the hour of his death.  As he put it in John 12:27, “Now is my soul troubled.  And what shall I say?  ‘Father, save me from this hour’?  But for this purpose I have come to this hour.”  The whole reason Jesus came into this world was for the hour of his death.  On the Mount of Transfiguration, what was it that Elijah and Moses spoke of with Christ?  We are told that they “spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31).  Here was a dramatic picture: here was the embodiment of all the Law and the Prophets united in pointing to the death of Christ.  

When we turn to the epistles, it is no different.  In Romans, when Paul wants to talk about what Christ has done for us, he speaks in terms of “propitiation by his blood” (3:25), as we have already seen.  The reference to his blood is of course a reference to his death.  He saves us by his death.  In 1 Cor. 15:3, where the apostle gives us a brief synopsis of the gospel, he does it like this: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.”  

Paul is not alone in this.  Peter reminds us that “you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Pet. 1:18-19).  And, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (1 Pet. 3:18).  The apostle John writes that, “By this we know love, that he [Jesus Christ] laid down his life for us” (1 Jn. 3:16).  And the author of the epistle to the Hebrews writes, “But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:12).  And we could go on and on like this.

The point, again, is that we cannot conceive of the saving work of Christ on our behalf without focusing on his death as the primary act by which he saved us.  The question then is, why this focus?  And why did he have to die?  And that leads us to our next point.

Christ came as a Servant.

This is the preeminent description of our Lord in the prophesy of Isaiah.  The one who is prophesied to take the sins of his people in Isaiah 53 is described in the previous chapter as the Servant of the LORD (Isa. 52:12).  This fits in exactly with how our Lord describes his mission: “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me” (Jn. 6:38).  

It is for this reason that our Lord’s work is sometimes framed in terms of obedience.  For example, Paul writes that “being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8).  And note that his obedience is specifically tied to his death on the cross.  Also, the book of Hebrews says that “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.  And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Heb. 5:8-9).  

It is important to point this out because sometimes Jesus is pictured as coming to earth in order to get the Father who is angry with us to love us.  Seen in this light, Jesus and the Father are at cross-purposes with each other until somehow on the cross Jesus wins the Father over to the side of love.  But this is a gross distortion of the Biblical portrayal of our Lord’s mission.  Our Lord didn’t sneak down to earth in order to win the Father over to the side of love; rather he was sent by the Father himself out of love.  Both the Father and the Son are seen as acting together out of love in order to save sinful people.  “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (Jn. 3:16).  This of course doesn’t mean that the wrath of God is not real; but it does mean that God out of love has averted his own wrath by willingly sending his Son who also willing gave his life for this purpose.

Christ died as a Substitute.

Most people who take the Bible seriously have to say that on the cross Christ did something for others.  But the question is, how did he act for others?  In what capacity did he act?  And the answer of the Scriptures is that he acted as a substitute. 

When we say that, we are saying something very profound.  We are saying that on the cross Jesus didn’t die as a martyr for a cause and he didn’t die as a cheerleader for change.  Rather he died in order to pay the sin debt that we all owe to God.  He took our place and our punishment so that we might be forgiven and accepted with God in the bonds of fellowship and family.

Now some people say this is a legal fiction; that there is no way a person can take someone’s sins and pay their debt.  They argue that though this might be possible with monetary debt (we all recognize that), yet it is not possible with moral debt.

But it is not a legal fiction if God so constituted the human family so that we could be represented in just this way by one man.  We will have to await the details, but that is precisely the way the apostle argues in Romans 5.  Again, this is precisely how the NT authors describe the death of Christ.

It is the way our Lord himself understood his own death: “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt. 20:28).  It was no mistake that our Lord used the word “ransom” to describe what he was about to accomplish on the cross.  His words do in fact assume that what is true about monetary debt is also true of moral debt in terms of his ability to stand in for us and pay it.  We owe a moral debt to God because of our sins and this debt can only be paid by the punishment for those sins.  What our Lord is saying is that he will take that debt, the guilt and the punishment owed to God, and pay it himself.  He will ransom us.  And he will do this “for many” – the word “for” here means “instead of, on behalf of.”  He did this in our stead and in our place, as our substitute.

It is what the apostle is getting at when he wrote, “For our sake he [God the Father] made him [God the Son] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).  How can Christ be made sin?  Not by becoming sinful, for he knew no sin.  The only way this is possible is by taking upon himself the guilt of our sins and the penalty arising from that guilt.  He stood in our place as our substitute.

This is the meaning of the apostle Peter in 1 Pet. 3:18, where we are told that “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.”  It would be to do these passages immense injustice to interpret them to say that Christ died for us in some general way so that some good might come to sinful men as a result of his death.  No, he died for us in the sense of taking our place before the tribunal of God.  That is the plain meaning of each of these texts.

If that is not enough, then we need to be reminded of the OT background of the apostles’ thinking.  All the apostles recognized that Christ died in a way analogous to the sacrifices of the OT ritual.  But that ritual was clearly meant to convey the idea of substitution.  The one who brought an animal sacrifice to the altar would place his hand on the animal which was then killed.  Atonement was made by substituting the animal for the worshipper (e.g. Lev. 1:4; 3:2, 8, 12; 4:4, 15, 22, 29, 33; 16:15-22).  On the Day of Atonement this was accomplished by two goats, one which was killed and whose blood was sprinkled on the altar and one which was chosen to bear the sins of Israel to the wilderness.  It is in this light that the apostles understood the work of Christ, for he was the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world (Jn. 1:29).

This is just as clear in a prophesy about the Messiah 700 years before he came.  Isaiah writes, “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.  All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – every one – to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:5-6).  That’s substitution as clearly and succinctly stated as anywhere in the Bible.  

Now how does this tie in with message of Romans?  Well, we see substitution behind verses like 4:25, “who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”  But more to the point, it is the foundation of our justification, which is the main thing Paul has been laboring to explain.  Remember that justification is God’s just yet gracious declaration that we are righteous.  But how can a person who is in fact unrighteous be declared righteous without violating God’s own justice?  How can this be?

It can be because God has imputed the righteousness of his Son to the unrighteous so that they become in fact legally righteous before God.  Our sins have been paid for by Christ; they have no more demands upon us if we belong to Christ.  But more than that, we receive the righteousness of God so that we can be declared righteous.  This could not happen without receiving a righteousness that was not our own, for our righteousness is as filthy rags.  It can only happen when we receive the righteousness of God which is imputed and reckoned and counted to us freely and graciously by God himself.  God can do this because as our substitute Christ fulfilled all the requirements of God’s law in our place – he fulfilled the law’s precepts completely in his perfect life of obedience and he satisfied the law’s penalty fully in his perfect death upon the cross.  United to Christ, God sees his Son’s perfection, not our sins and imperfections.  

Another way to put this is that the imputation of my sins to Christ is inextricably linked to the imputation of his righteousness to me.  And that is the foundation of all our comfort.  I am reminded of the last telegram that J. Gresham Machen sent shortly before he died.  It was sent to his friend and colleague John Murray, and it said simply this: “I’m so thankful for the active obedience of Christ.  No hope without it.”[2]  What he meant by “the active obedience of Christ” was the perfect life of obedience that Christ lived for us – not simply as a pattern for us but as our perfect substitute who fulfilled all its requirements in our place.  Indeed, no hope without it.

However, to understand more fully what he did as our substitute, we should consider four ways in which he stood vicariously for us on the cross.

1. Jesus died as a sacrifice for sins.  

This is implied when Paul describes the saving work of Christ in terms of his blood (3:25; 5:9).  We are saved because Jesus Christ sacrificed himself for us.  But again, we have to remember that OT background or this language (cf. 3:21).  Sacrifices were made because of sin; more particularly, because of the guilt arising from that sin.  A sacrifice enabled the worshiper in Israel to be rid of the guilt.  Of course, this was only figurative and a type.  But Jesus Christ is the one who fulfills all the types and shadows.  As our substitutionary sacrifice, he has rescued us from the guilt of sin.

2. Jesus died as a propitiation.

We have already come across this word in Romans 3:25 as it describes the saving work of Christ.  It also appears in 1 Jn. 2:2, 4:10 (it is a different though related Greek word, hilasmos).  As John Murray explains, “to propitiate means to ‘placate,’ ‘pacify,’ ‘appease,’ ‘conciliate.’  . . .  Propitiation presupposes the wrath and displeasure of God, and the purpose of propitiation is the removal of this displeasure.  Very simply stated the doctrine of propitiation means that Christ propitiated the wrath of God and rendered God propitious to his people.”[3]

A lot of people over the years have found fault with seeing the word this way, because they think this makes God look like a vengeful ogre, not a loving Father.  However, we must remember that the primary attribute of God in Scripture is his holiness and that one aspect of his holiness is his absolute purity and hatred of sin.  This does not make God arbitrary or wicked.  Rather, it is part and parcel of his holy nature and he wouldn’t be perfect without it.  It is essential to the infinite glory of his nature and being.  Yes, God is loving, but God’s love is a holy love – any other type of love would not be worth having, much less worshiping.  

That being the case, the wrath of God against sin is not something that God would need to be ashamed of.  God’s wrath is his holy and just and right response to our sins.  So if we would be saved, God’s wrath must be satisfied.  And what Paul is saying is that on the cross Jesus Christ satisfied God’s wrath by taking the penalty due to our sins.  Because of this, we can, through Christ, find God as our friend instead of our enemy, as our Father instead of our Judge.

3. Jesus died to reconcile us to God.

In the next chapter, Paul will say this: “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (Rom. 5:10).  Here Paul describes what our Lord accomplished on the cross in terms of reconciliation.

We must not, however, miss the implications of this term.  Being reconciled to God here doesn’t refer to our laying down our hostility towards God, though that is a result of the death of Christ.  Rather, it refers to the alienation that exists between God and ourselves because of our sins, and the removal of the cause of that alienation.  Note that the verse wouldn’t make sense if we read it like this: “If while we were hostile to God we laid down our hostility . . .”  Clearly you can’t lay down your hostility toward someone while you are still hostile! 

In other words, we shouldn’t interpret “reconcile” here in subjective terms.  Rather, it simply refers to the removal of the cause of the alienation that exists between man and God.  And that cause is of course our sin.  “Behold, the LORD’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear; but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear” (Isa. 59:1-2).

As our substitute, Jesus died for our sins so that they no longer remain a barrier between us and God.  The gospel message is that Jesus has done this for us, and our response is to take advantage of that reconciliation. Isn’t this what Paul is getting at in 2 Cor. 5?  “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.  Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.  We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (ver. 18-20).

4.  Jesus died as our redeemer.

In Romans 3:24, the apostle tells us that we “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”  We all know what redemption is: it means being freed from bondage.  That is what Christ did for us on the cross as our substitute.  He died to redeem us from bondage to sins.  In particular, he died to redeem us from bondage to its power and bondage to it penalty and finally to its very presence.

With respect to its penalty, Paul writes to the Galatians: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’” (Gal. 3:13).  The law here is God’s law, a law which we have all broken.  And the curse is the just penalty for our breach of that law.  Christ took it for us.  Note again the clear reference to Christ being “a curse for us.”  This is a curse that by all rights should fall on us, and yet our Lord intercepts it by standing in our place and takes it away.  

With respect to its power, the apostle writes to Titus that our Lord “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Tit. 2:14; cf. 1 Pet. 1:18).  Christ didn’t just die to save us from the guilt of our sins but also to save us from its grip.  The power of the cross does not just show up in terms of forgiveness but also in terms of repentance.  That is why it is always faith and repentance that are called for as the appropriate response to the gospel message.

But redemption in Scripture is far more inclusive than just “getting saved.”  It involves ultimately the entire renovation of the universe.  It involves our redeemed bodies as well as our souls and implies the resurrection.  All this was purchased for us on the cross.

May the Lord bless all of us to see what a perfect Savior Jesus Christ is, and to place our fullest trust in him as Lord and Savior.

[1] I am heavily indebted here to John Murray’s wonderful book, Redemption Accomplished and Applied.  See esp. chapter 2, “The Nature of the Atonement.”
[2] Collected Writings of John Murray, Vol. 3 (Banner of Truth, 1982), p. 64.
[3] Redemption Accomplished and Applied, chap. 2.


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