The essence of the gospel is the focus of this month-long sermon series and associated devotional writings. A summary statement could be the following, as oft-spoken by the well-known New York City pastor Tim Keller …
The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed than we could imagine … Yet more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.
I underlined accepted in Jesus Christ. That is because our acceptance is truly “in Christ — due to what HE has done.” It is not because God just can’t stop loving us a humans because he’s a sucker for how cute we are, as if he sees us like a bunch of little puppies and kittens tumbling all over each other in the most adorable fashion, or like a grandfather in his dotage who can’t see anything wrong in his grandkids. No, it is by his grace that he loves us, based upon what Jesus has done.
In this series we will focus on two elements: human sin and God’s love—the latter explained through the forgiveness of the cross (week two), the righteousness imparted to us (week three) and the promise of new life in him (Easter Sunday and week four). But we open this week with the first element that sets the stage: human sin.
And to talk about the natural condition of man as fallen into sin and hence under the pending judgment of a righteous God, we of course turn to the opening chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans. We will read this week from Romans 1:1—3:20.
Our primary interest today as we open in chapter one relates to the final verses of this section through verse 17. But let’s begin with Paul’s opening greetings to the Christians in Rome. He too begins to talk about the gospel immediately in his opening sentence, noting that the gospel is not a Johnny-come-lately teaching, but is rather sourced in the promises of the prophets of old …
1:1 — Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God— 2 the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures 3 regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, 4 and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. 5 Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake. 6 And you also are among those Gentiles who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.
Paul continues with basic greetings, expressing his thanks for them and his longing to be able to personally be with them.
7 To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his holy people:
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. 9 God, whom I serve in my spirit in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you 10 in my prayers at all times; and I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you.
11 I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong— 12 that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith. 13 I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles.
Paul is writing to Christians, to “brothers and sisters;” but then he goes on to speak of the obligation of his calling: to preach the Gospel to them in Rome. But wait, these people already know the gospel, right? They are already believers.
But here is something to understand, the gospel — the good news — is more than the basic entry information packet that gets you saved and in right standing with God, it is the defining message that is pervasive throughout everything that defines faith in Jesus Christ. It is the big picture of it all, not just “Roman numeral #1 about Christianity.”
14 I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. 15 That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome.
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” [from Habakkuk 2:4]
Verses 16 and 17 are those of greatest interest for us. In any study of the Book of Romans, these verses are identified rightly as stating the theme of what Paul is writing about: the gospel message of the righteousness of God that brings salvation to all who trust in it through faith.
Any of you who are reading this who have also at some point over the years attended one of my community groups … you have gone through the following exercise …
Let me ask this question: what is the one most important thing that you need to be saved?
I ask that, and then receive the answers. What invariably comes back is first something like “faith.” And I’ll say that yes, we need faith for sure, but there is a better answer. And the next person will say “grace.” After all, it says in the Bible that we are saved by grace through faith … but I’ll again say there is a better single answer. A few other suggestions will be offered, but seldom does someone give the very, very best answer. And that is “righteousness.”
God is perfect; that is what righteousness is — perfection. God’s justice demands judgment on anything in his presence that is not perfect and pure. So, if we are to be saved and to be with God and not face his judgment, we have to be perfect; we have to have righteousness. And there is the great problem. We do not have it, we cannot earn it, it has to come from somewhere else, only one person has ever had it, and we therefore need to get it from him.
So the book of Romans will talk about how all of that happens. And the first item is to make the case that, indeed, all mankind is totally lost and justly in line for God’s judgment. Paul will prove that whoever you are — Jew, Gentile, a really fine person compared to everyone else — you are a condemned sinner in a heap of trouble.
This shouldn’t be hard to do, right? Everyone knows they’re a sinner. But obviously, since the vast majority of people are not worried about this by being keen to see the issue of their pending sentence of judgment nullified, we have to spend time talking about the underestimated gravity of the sin situation.
And the situation is, as we said in the summary above, worse than we imagined.