Alfred Place Baptist Church

1:1-4 What is the Gospel?

Paul . . . set apart for the gospel of God – the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God, by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.
Romans 1: 1-4

What is the gospel? I’m not asking the meaning of the word ‘gospel’; that word is pre-Norman conquest, going back before 1066 to the old Anglo-Saxon and it means ‘good spell’, ‘good discourse’ – the news of a healthy baby being born, the English army being victorious, a family member has recovered from the plague – good news! The Greek word it translates has given us the words evangel, evangelistic, evangelical – a message of good news, a people who believe and bear witness to the good news. Ours is a good news church, meeting around a good news pulpit. So I am asking what is this good news? Don’t take it for granted that even church-goers know what it is. Is it, “You must believe in Jesus Christ.” Is that news? Is that good news? That is a commandment. Or again is it, “You must be born again”? Again I ask you is that news of what has happened that you are eager to share with someone else? Isn’t that an exhortation rather than a declaration? There doesn’t seem much good news in that, that my life is in such a state that I need a radical new beginning, a new birth. What does Paul tell us here? Three things…

  1. THE ORIGIN OF THE GOSPEL IS GOD.

Here is the phrase in the opening verse of the letter, “the gospel of God.” In other words the gospel doesn’t focus on us, on anything man has done or what we have to do. “Let me tell you about me, or my husband or my friend.” No. That is not the good news. The gospel focuses on the living God himself, and the whole of the letter to the Romans centres on him. It is all about God. That is the most common word in Romans by far, not ‘faith,’ or ‘sin,’ or ‘justify,’ or even ‘Christ’ – none of those words. The most frequently repeated word in this letter is ‘God.’ Everything concerning our need is related to the God who created us and the God who tells us what is right and wrong. Everything in understanding how things could come right for us is related to the loving achievement of God. Everything about how we should live relates to the God who tells us how we should live, and transforms us and energizes us to new life and gets us safe to heaven. The gospel is God’s gospel. It was not invented by the author of this letter, Paul. Rather, it was revealed to the prophets and to Jesus Christ and his apostles by God who entrusted them with it. So what we have to share with others is not, in John Stott’s phrase, “a miscellany of human speculations,” or a rule book, or a sharing of spiritual experiences, or another religion to add to the others. This gospel is from God; God’s good news for a lost world. It is good news for at least two reasons.

i] The gospel tells us that God is, that he is actually there, not the grim message that the world came out of nothing, and that God is the figment of primitive human imagination, and not that there is no purpose in life, or that after the mystery of our brief existence we are annihilated. No, not that message of atheistic despair. There is no good news to be found there in a socket without an eye. But that the living God is good and loving in all his ways and he’s the one who’s got the whole universe in his hands. It all came about because he decided it would, and he sustains it and he speaks to men and women who are made in his image through prophets and apostles in the Bible. That is good news.

ii] The gospel tells us that this God loves us and he has reached out to save us through the work of his own Son. We could not reach God by the labours of our hands, by keeping the law’s demands, by our tears for ever flowing, by our grief no respite knowing, by giving all our goods to the poor, by giving our body to be burned. None of that could reconcile God to us sinners, but God has done something in and through the life and sacrifice of his Son the Lord Christ. God sent him and willingly he came to deal with our guilt, to bear our sin in his own body on the tree, so that God could be just and yet justify those who are joined by faith to Jesus.

So stop and think for a moment. That is the way ahead. Please consider the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ – even for a moment. It is he who is our Creator, and it is against this God we have sinned, and yet this triune God brings good news to us of what he has done all by himself. It is this God we have ignored, whose love we have slighted, whose mighty blessings we have taken without a word of acknowledgment, yet he comes to us with good news. Men killed his Son by crucifying him; they mocked him in his terrible sufferings; they rejoiced that they had killed him. Why would God bother to give good news to such bad people? But God sent his servants to preach to them, to tell them that Jesus had risen from the dead, and if they repented they would receive the Holy Spirit, all their sins would be forgiven, even for killing the beloved one God cared for immeasurably. What extraordinary good news about God! Charles Wesley was amazed at this gospel being told to him:

“I have long withstood his grace, long provoked him to his face,

Would not hearken to his calls, grieved him by a thousand falls.

Depth of mercy! Can there be mercy still reserved for me?”

Have you any understanding or appreciation or sympathy with those sentiments of Wesley? He had obviously seen himself as an unworthy and guilty sinner. He writes that when he considers the way that he had lived for so long – withstanding God and provoking God – it amazed him that God should show his mercy to such a man as he had been. Wesley was overwhelmed that there was good news from God for a sinner like him. I am asking you whether you understand the sense of wonder in those words of that great hymn-writer and preacher. Has the gospel come to you leaving you astonished?

I fear that many church-goers see the gospel as the reception class of Christianity, or the first baby steps which you quickly forsake for deeper things. Nothing could be further from the truth! The gospel is the ‘deep things’ of Christianity. Not the millennium, not the book of Revelation, not tongues-speaking, not predestination, but the gospel! You will never appreciate the glory of God unless you understand the gospel of God. The gospel is not for elementary disciples. Paul says, “If anyone thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet, as he ought to know” (Roms. 8:2). In heaven, when we’ve been there a thousand years bright shining as the sun, we shall still be overwhelmed by God’s gospel. We will be absorbed in its marvelous glory. We will be full of joy unspeakable and full of glory through the gospel. We’ll never get weary of it. Never, ever, ever! This gospel of God is not the infant’s school of Christianity, it is the post-graduate research of Christianity, it is rocket science, it gets the Nobel Prize for truth and beauty and glory and wisdom. It is the Pulitzer Prize, the knighthood, it is there on postage stamps. Royalty bows before it. It is number one. It is the Gold Medal. It is the best of all news, that God, the God who is the Creator of our wonderful world, who is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth – that he has good news for sinners like ourselves. So the origin of the gospel is God.

  1. THE TESTIMONY TO THE GOSPEL IS SCRIPTURE.

Paul goes on in the next phrase to say, “the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures” (v.2). In other words, though Paul and the apostles were going to preach the gospel, and explain the gospel, and defend the gospel more clearly than it had ever been preached and defended before, yet they were not the inventers of the gospel. The twelve apostles didn’t hold a council meeting after the resurrection and all of them made their contributions and they drew up a six point skeleton outline under the heading THE GOSPEL. There was nothing at all like that. When the gospel came to them then it was no absolute novelty, because the God of their fathers, the God of their nation, the God of the Scriptures had promised it beforehand; “this good news was going to be preached all over the world.” He had announced that often, centuries earlier, in the Old Testament. He had prepared them so that they knew already that God was one God – there is only one God – and yet without a hiccup they swiftly and seamlessly believed that Jesus Christ was also God, and the Spirit was also God. It appears that they all came to believe this without any violent church-splitting struggles at all. Think of it, zealous monotheistic Jews, all twelve of them, crying “Jehovah is one God”, hating and mocking idol worship. Their fathers had laid down their lives at the time of the Maccabeans in insisting that God was one. Yet when Christ arose, and Jesus breathed his Spirit on them they would fall before this man Jesus of Nazareth and cry out, “My Lord and my God!” God was one, and yet they sweetly came to believe that the Father was God, and the Son was God, and the Spirit was God. They believed it because it had been there already – they saw it so clearly – in the Old Testament Scriptures, and then it was there in the Word made flesh, the Son of God, before their very eyes. The testimony of the Bible was confirmed by the life of Christ.

That God was not simply one being is clearly there in the Old Testament. Genesis 1, “Let us make man in our image,” and to Isaiah Jehovah says, “Who will go for us?” Again, what is the identity of the Angel of the Covenant who appears to the patriarchs and to Hagar and to Joshua and Samson’s parents whom they call “Lord”? Who is the one David spoke of saying that the Lord had spoken unto his Lord? He is the one to whom God speaks – it is recorded in the book of Psalms, “You are my Son this day I have begotten you.” Who is this one to whom a virgin shall give birth to a son and his name will be called Wonderful Counsellor and the Mighty God? Who is the one of whom God says, “I have made you a light for the Gentiles that you should bring salvation to the ends of the earth”? Who is that one whom God addresses as bringing salvation? God alone can save men; to save is an incommunicable attribute of God. Who is the one Daniel sees coming on the clouds of heaven called the Son of Man?

All these prophecies spoke of the coming Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, God of God and Light of Light. These promises of the coming one are all like signposts on the highway. You don’t sit on top of the bar that bears a certain place-name as if you have arrived. You don’t expect the sign itself to take you to your destination. Instead you trust the message of the signpost. You follow in its direction and you move to where it points. If the information is correct, and you keep moving in that direction, you will arrive at your desired destination. So Paul tells us that God promised the gospel beforehand and you follow the signs erected by Moses and David and Isaiah and Daniel and they all tell you about Christ. So you come across him in the New Testament and he is wonderfully fulfilling all that they said in their promises. Where he was to be born, that he was to be betrayed and for how many pieces of silver, that he was to die an agonizing death, that he rose from the dead, and so on. Look at the Old Testament signs, and then follow where they are pointing, and they will lead you to the promised Christ who appears in the fulness of time. Both seeing the signs, and also following their message, are essential. What have the modernists done? They have torn down the signs. What have the hypers done? They have gone to sleep under the signs. You need to read the words on the sign and to follow them to the Christ of the New Testament.

Those old prophecies such as the ones I’ve quoted to you from the Old Testament were seen in a new light when the Lord Jesus came into this world, and the apostles realized that they had been prepared by such Scripture for the coming of their beloved Saviour. The words were all there – like the furniture is all there in a dark curtained room in their shadowy outlines, but then the light is switched on. Nothing new has been added; nothing has been changed but the new light reveals what was there already. The manifestation of the light of the world, the Lord Jesus, lights up the Old Testament and its message of God incarnate coming. And that is the reason there were no splits among the apostles when they looked at the Old Testament and they also looked at Christ. They saw that their view of God had been far too small, that they had been Unitarian in their understanding, but that God of their Scriptures was a Triune God, that he was three as well as being one. When Paul preached in the synagogues it was from from the scrolls of the Old Testament scriptures and he showed the congregations that Christ must suffer and he must rise from the dead. He had died for our sins as Isaiah had predicted – “he was wounded for our transgressions” – and he was raised on the third day as David had also predicted in the Old Testament. The good news that if men would look to him from all the ends of the earth that they would be saved, was there in those Scriptures. The good news that though men’s sins were as scarlet they could be made as white as snow – that was the good news of those Scriptures. That David had confessed his iniquity, and broken his heart over his sins and that he had been forgiven for the dastardly thing he had done – that was the good news of the Old Testament. It all came about through the Messiah promised beforehand through God’s prophets in the Old Testament.

So the gospel is about the Christ of biblical and historical prophecy and fulfilment. The gospel is good news found in a book, the Bible, and the people and events in the Bible are real and historical. You cannot divorce the gospel from the Scriptures. You cannot understand the gospel without the Scriptures. We are talking about news, and it is particularly good news about what this Christ who was promised in the Old Testament actually did in space and time history. The New Testament speaks about ‘another gospel” and it speaks about “many false Christs.’ People can trust in someone they call Christ and be lost. There are a lot of phony Jesuses being peddled today. I remember a man saying to a deacon, “All we need is to preach Jesus.” The deacon said to him, “Which one?” Many people talk of a Jesus who has no resemblance to the Jesus promised in the Old Testament and appearing in the New. So the origin of the gospel is God, and the clear clarifying testimony to the gospel is Scripture.

  1. THE SUBSTANCE OF THE GOSPEL IS JESUS CHRIST.

The gospel is a person, who that person was and what that person did; “as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God, by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord” (vv.2-4).

So the gospel is not a set of commandments, “Believe! Repent! Be born again! Be converted and become like a little child. Fear God and keep his commandments!” There is no good news in those exhortations.

The gospel is not certain feelings we promise to our hearers. The gospel is not, “If you become a Christian you will feel great, you will be happy, you will have new power, you will have peace in your heart.” All those things may well be true, but they are not the message of the gospel. Accepting the gospel is not extending your repertoire of feelings. It is a person.

The gospel is not, “Come and join our church,” not taking a church membership course, not watching videos and having a meal together, not having a bishop put his hands on our heads, and not extending your hand to be shaken by the elders. We may even have joined the right group, but that doesn’t mean that we have come under the power of the gospel. The gospel is a person. Have you met this person? Do you know this person? So how can Paul help us here? He helps most of all by clarifying for us who is the Lord Jesus Christ. He says two things about him.

i] Jesus Christ as to his human nature was a descendant of David. Jeremiah promised this, “’The days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will raise up to David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land.’” And Isaiah also, “In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his place of rest will be glorious.” So the Messiah will be a real man of the kingly line. He will not be a phantom; he will be a human being. The Lord Jesus had a human nature. He took flesh; he became flesh, in other words he entered into a fully human mode and form of existence. He took humanness with all the implications of that humanness. He took on the one level a human physical constitution, a constitution that was available and open to the senses. John could say that we have seen him, and we have heard him and our hands have handled the word of life. Christ took a body with a chemical composition, and an atomic structure, and a physiological constitution similar to our own, a body which had its own genetic programme inherited from his mother, and all of his ancestors going back to David and back further to Adam. His body began at conception and it underwent the normal process of gestation, of foetal existence, and his birth was in the normal way. He entered into independent human existence at that point, of total dependence at that point, of infantile vulnerability at that point. And so throughout his whole lifetime he was subject to the same laws of external life-support systems, and stresses and frailties as we ourselves experience in our physical existence, meeting the trials and temptation they bring and overcoming them as a man.

Then having a human nature was more than that having a real body. It wasn’t only a physical nature, it was surely also a fully human psychological existence. On the one level, a true body, on the other level what the Catechism refers to as a reasonable soul, and that meant that our Lord entered upon a fully emotional life. Now there are many points at which our range of human emotions are also registered in the life of God himself because we are made in his image. God loves and God is angry and God pities and God rejoices and so do we. But when Christ took a human nature he entered upon emotional possibilities that were quite beyond the range of his divine existence. For example, the emotion of sorrow, the emotion of fear. He could have known none of these in his divine existence, and yet he knows such emotions as a man. Consider the marvel of God saying, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful . . . he began to be sore amazed and very heavy.”

We also know that Jehovah Jesus formed very close ties of human affection with particular individuals, like his ancestor David had been particularly close to Jonathan. We are told of the closeness of their friendship. We learn that David and Jonathan’s souls were knit together. And wasn’t it like that with the apostle John and Christ? They were bosom friends. Jesus loved him especially. We love all women as we love ourselves, but we love our mothers and our daughters in unique ways. We are told that Jesus chose twelve for this reason, that they would be “with him.” He treasured the companionship of a group of men; there were emotional needs that he had, and there were good and proper ways of satisfying those needs, in warm, pure, personal cameraderie with other men. That speaks of the rich affections of the man Christ Jesus.

Then he takes three of them into the agony of Gethsemane. They are there because he needs them to watch with him. What pathos! The one who is both son of David and the son of Mary must them with him at that time. “I just want you to be close to me in the next hour. I want to know that you are there. I want you to pray for me and also keep your eyes open while I pray. We are going to have visitors!” It was the greatest indictment to which those men were open, that at that point they failed him. “Couldn’t you watch with me for a single hour?” So there was the emotional existence on which Jesus the descendant of David entered.

There was also the human intellectual existence that he took. He grew in wisdom as we all do through infancy and childhood and adolescence to manhood, growing all the time as a human being in his thinking, and in learning about himself and about the world and about God. He learned the human way of making decisions and choices and evaluations, sometimes in all their agony, needing to pray for hours before choosing the twelve who would be his apostles. So as to his human nature he was a descendant of David. Why did he need to be a man? Couldn’t God have redeemed us without the incarnation of his Son? The answer, of course, is in order to give up his life as a sacrifice for us on the cross. He became a man that he might die for men. In our place condemned he stood, bearing our guilt, feeling our punishment. A sinner will sigh when he hears it. A sinner will surely shake his head saying, “The Son of God paid far too high a price to save a nobody like me! I wasn’t worthy of what you did for me.” It’s true. The gospel of God is very good news for very bad people.

ii] Christ Jesus “through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God.” He was also the eternal Son of the eternal Father. He was there in the beginning. When the unbegun God lived and moved in the beginning then the Son was also there living and moving. The Father was never alone, because the Son didn’t come into being. He didn’t begin in the beginning as everything else did when God spoke and said, “Let there be light.” He was already eternally there, so that no matter how far backwards we project the line of time there never was a time when the Son of God was not. Here is a person who is unoriginated, unbegun, without any beginning of his own days. His being did not begin to function when he lay as a crying baby, red from the womb, on the straw-covered floor of a stable in Bethlehem. Way back beyond that, back into eternity there is the everlasting existence and functioning of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus Christ is God in the most unqualified sense. To him there belongs the name that is above every name, a name at which every single knee of the seven million people in the world today would immediately bend, bowing to him – should he appear – every one of their mouths stopped. He is Lord. He is Jehovah. We ascribe to the Son of God every divine designation, every distinctive Jewish designation like Jehovah, every great Semitic designation like Elohim. He is both of those. Every divine attribute, every divine function, every divine prerogative are his, because he is unqualified deity. That is where all our thinking begins when we say that Christ is God, or Jesus is God, then we are not saying that he is another God or a second God besides Jehovah, but that he is the one God, and he is unique as the only God there is.

I know that we have slipped into thinking of Christ as having some kind of secondary and some kind of derivative role in the Godhead, and I think we ought to remind ourselves that the Son is absolutely and co-equally and underivedly God. It is one of the great New Testament phenomena that the order of ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’, is not sacred. In the New Testament exhortations and in the New Testament doxologies and benedictions we have tremendous variations in that order. It is sometimes Father Son and Holy Spirit. It is sometimes Son, Father and Spirit, and sometimes the Spirit comes first, and so we must school ourselves into this mental habit of seeing Jesus of Nazareth as absolutely and unreservedly God. He is the God we worship; he is the God to whom we pray; he is the Creator of heaven and earth; he is the Judge of all mankind and angels too. He is God without any reservation and with no qualifications whatsoever.

Paul writes here of Jesus that “through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God, by his resurrection from the dead” (v.4). Why does Paul use this unusual phrase ‘Spirit of holiness’? I like John Piper’s suggestion. He says, “Dealing with the dead was dirty business. When King Saul wanted to commune with the dead he went to the Witch of Endor (1 Samuel 28:7ff), and it was a furtive and illicit visit. Mediums and diviners and sorcerers were an abomination in Israel. When the dead are dead, you leave them alone and don’t have dealings with them. Seances were and are unlawful for believers. Dealing with the dead has been a kind of black magic, not a beautiful, clean, holy thing. Anything but. Talk of an executed dead man being raised from the dead must have sounded to many ears absolutely horrible and gross and dirty and unclean, like dark sorcery and black magic. Over against this Paul lays stress on the exact opposite: Christ was raised from the dead in accord with the Spirit of holiness, not a dark spirit or an evil spirit or a defiled spirit, but the very Spirit of God himself who is marked above all by holiness. He was not defiled in raising Jesus. It was a holy thing to do. It was right and good and clean and beautiful and God- honoring, not God-belittling. It was holy.”

Then there is the problem of the verb translated by ‘declared’ because it does not usually mean that. It means ‘appointed’. Is Paul actually saying that God appointed, or established or installed Jesus as the Son of God at or by his resurrection? Nowhere does the New Testament say that. He was the Son of God eternally and he often called God his Father during his life, and the Jews were angry with him at his doing that, accusing him of blasphemy. He was never installed as God the Son when God raised him from the dead. So how do we interpret this phrase? We do it like this, we attach the words ‘with power’ to the phrase Son of God. In other words, “he was appointed Son of God in power” or “he was appointed to be the powerful Son of God” at his resurrection. You understand that before that time he was in our lowly condition. He needed to sleep and to eat and drink and have friends around him. He could be punched in the face and mocked. He faced death and so experienced it in the rending asunder of his body and his soul. He had been the Son of God in weakness and lowliness, but through his resurrection he was appointed the mighty, omnipotent Son of God with power. He would never display strong cryings and tears and sweat blood in his intercession again.

So Paul is telling us that before the resurrection he lived according to the flesh with all its limitations, but after the resurrection he lived according to the Spirit in all his omnipotence. Here Paul is recording his humiliation, but here he is also recording his exaltation. He shows us Jesus’ weakness and also he shows us our Lord’s power. And he tells us who he is, and he is telling us what the gospel is at the same time. It is Jesus Christ our Lord. That is how our text ends (v.4). He is Jesus, and though that is his given name it is also a name that means Saviour, Jehovah saves, salvation is of the Lord. Only God can save, and so that is a divine title. He is Christ, that is, he is Messiah, the anointed prophet, priest and king sent by God as he promised to deal with our ignorance, our guilt and our vulnerability. He is also Lord. He is Jehovah, the covenant keeping glorious God of the Bible. He is Lord of lords, Lord of Caesar and Pilate, and Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin. The Almighty Lord, great Jehovah is Jesus, and that is good news, the best news of all, that this is no wild fancy, no phantom, no myth or fairy-tale that we tell you about, but the living, resurrected, powerful Jesus Christ is our Lord, the one worthy of your devotion. He will save you in your bowing low in repentance before this throne. Then receive this good news. Believe it, O sinner, believe it. It’s true. Bow to him! Will you? Will you do this costly thing? Will you bow before the Lord Jesus?

Worthy O Lamb of God art Thou, that every knee to Thee should bow

6th October 2013  GEOFF THOMAS