Nothing is more important in any generation than to maintain the truth of the gospel. Romans 1:16 is this declaration of the apostle and of the entire church throughout all the ages: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation.”
The word “gospel” in the Bible means “good news.” Very often in the Bible it is used in a very broad sense, to include all the good news revealed in all of the sacred Scriptures. So it is called the “gospel of God.” It is the good news about God. It is called the “gospel of grace,” the good news of God’s free grace. It is the “gospel of Jesus Christ,” for He is the One who brings about this good news. It is the “gospel of the kingdom,” it is the “gospel of peace.” The gospel is good news because it is the full-orbed news of God, of His works, of His Son, of His purposes, and of His glory.
But more specifically, the gospel refers to the good news of how the holy God has made the way by which sinners can be made right with Him. The gospel, then, refers to the doctrine of the Bible, the teaching of the Bible, of justification by faith alone. Justification by faith alone means that a man is made right with God only on the basis of what Jesus did for him on the cross, and that he receives this assurance through faith alone.
That was the theme of the glorious Reformation of the church in the sixteenth century with Martin Luther and those who followed him. It was the recovery and restoring to the church of the gospel, of the good news, of the only way whereby a man may be made right with his God, only on the basis of what Christ did once on the cross, received by the gift of faith. Justification by faith alone, as we read in the Scriptures: “Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24). There the apostle is arguing (in Romans 3 and following) that one’s standing before God cannot be determined from his works, the works of the law. Though God has given us the law, the Ten Commandments (and we are to obey and do that law), our own life and our own works of the law cannot make us righteous with God. They will condemn and damn us, for in all of our works is sin. No, there must be another righteousness, a perfect work. That perfect work that the apostle describes in the book of Romans is the work of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, according to Romans 5, was the representative of all those who have received abundance of grace, all those whom God out of mere grace gave to Him out of a fallen world — the elect. Jesus Christ suffered and died for their sins and performed a perfect work of righteousness, not only enduring the wrath that their sins deserved, but rendering to God (paying to God) the love and the life that we owed Him, so that Jesus Christ obtained righteousness, a right standing with God. Therefore, this right standing of God is conferred, is legally reckoned to us as our own. That is what the Bible means when it speaks of the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ.
The gospel is this: that God, out of grace, grants to me the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ. And He does this without any merit of my own, but out of mere grace, so that now I appear before Him in Jesus Christ as if I had never committed any sin and as if I had fully accomplished all obedience to His law.
That is the gospel.
And it was this truth of the gospel that both Martin Luther and John Calvin (and the Reformers who followed) said was the article on which the church would stand or fall. Martin Luther wrote: “The article of justification is the master and the prince, the lord, the ruler, and the judge over all kinds of doctrines. It preserves and governs all church doctrine and raises up our conscience before God. Without this article, the world is utter death and darkness.” The Reformers understood that the church must hold fast to the biblical gospel that we are righteous before God only in the work of Jesus Christ — that this is the treasure of the church.
John Calvin wrote this: “Whenever the knowledge of this gospel (justification by faith alone) is taken away, the glory of Christ is extinguished, religion abolished, the church destroyed, and the hope of religion utterly thrown down.”
You might ask, “Why? Why is there nothing so important as the maintenance of the truth of the gospel by the church?” The answer is this: Because the gospel is the exclusive divine remedy for man in his sin and condemnation. I quoted Romans 1:16. It stands as a beacon light, reminding us of this basic truth. There the apostle says, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth.” It is the power of God. The gospel alone is the answer to man in his sin and damn-worthiness. There is no other answer to man in his state in this world of sin. The gospel is not one among many. Christ is not one among many. He is the only way. And His gospel is the only power to salvation.
Because that is so, there is nothing so important as that the church know and maintain, teach and defend, this gospel at all hazards and all costs. In Paul’s day there were those who were tampering with the gospel. According to the book of Galatians, they were tampering with the gospel in the following way: they would say, “Yes, what Paul said about Jesus Christ as being so important and being the Savior—all of that is true. But he didn’t tell you everything. You need to supplement, you need to add yet to what Christ did by observing this Old Testament ritual of circumcision. Then, when you are circumcised, when you perform that work, then you really know that you have been accepted with God.” To those in his day who would tamper with and add to the gospel and say that Christ is not exclusively our righteousness but that other things must be added, the apostle comes with these words: “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.” Anathema, cast away! The apostle Paul there comes with a holy invective: “Let him be damned who dares tamper with the gospel.” Why? Why does he use such severe, such pronounced language? Because only the gospel, maintained in its undiluted truth, is the power of God unto salvation.
We are called as children of the Reformation, as Protestants, heirs of the Protestant Reformation, to maintain the gospel, to maintain the truth of justification by faith alone, and to teach exactly what that means. For this is the holy deposit from God. We read in II Timothy 1:13, “Hold fast the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me, in faith and love.”
We must maintain it, or rather, Protestantism today must recover it. Protestantism today must recover it because a gross blasphemy is again rearing its head. We have a creed in the Reformed churches called the Belgic Confession of Faith. In Article 22 it speaks of a “too gross blasphemy,” that is, a blasphemy that is almost unimaginable. What is that too gross blasphemy? It is this: that Christ is not sufficient, but that something more is to be regarded besides Him. This, the church confessed, was a great blasphemy. Something more than Christ upon which we are to base our salvation? This cannot be!
Protestant churches today are engaged in a battle for the gospel. Protestant churches, by the grace of God, must recover the biblical gospel.
But, you might say, is that true? Is not all well in Protestant churches, at least on this issue? Is not the truth of justification by faith alone synonymous with Protestantism? Surely every Protestant knows that we are saved by Christ alone, do they not? At least every informed Protestant ought to know that, right? And would not you say to me, “Yes, we’ve listened to all you have had to say so far but, what’s the big deal? What is all the fuss? What soul in their right mind would want to go back to the teaching that salvation is based upon works, a work-righteousness? Don’t people have that straight in Protestant churches?” You say to me, “Well, we understand, of course, that there are many differences among Protestant and Reformed churches, especially differences today about liturgy—how they worship — some more progressive, some more traditional. So, yes, there are all kinds of differences. We even know that there are all kinds of differences concerning doctrine. Many churches don’t believe in creation in six days, and some do. So there are all kinds of different teachings about the way of salvation and creation and how the church should worship. But are not all Protestants one on this point, that we all believe the truth of justification by faith alone? Can you not go to any evangelical church and lustily sing with them, ‘On Christ, the solid Rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand’? Will you not hear recited with great emotion in those churches the words of Toplady: ‘Not the labors of my hands could fulfill Thy laws demand. Could my tears forever flow, could my zeal no respite know, these for sin could not atone. Thou must save and Thou alone’? Is not Protestantism clear on this today?”
The answer to this is, No! Protestantism is not at all clear on this today. If you take the approach that all is well in Zion on this issue, then you are burying your head in the sand. Then you are crying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. If that is the approach we are going to take on this issue today, and we are not going to be concerned with a diligent, careful maintenance of this truth of the gospel, then in the last day we are going to have to answer to the Lord of the church for treason. And the blood of our generation will be upon our heads because we did not defend and teach the gospel.
Yes, it is true that gaining an impetus in Protestant circles is the teaching that a man is justified by faith and works; that a man’s standing with God is determined not just by what Christ has done for him, but by his works that he has performed; that faith-produced works add to our righteousness; and that Christ attained most of our righteousness, but now the works that we do add to that righteousness and enhance our place with God. There is even the teaching that the grace of justification can be lost. And there is the teaching circulating among Protestant churches today that the covenant of fellowship with God, of having God as our friend, is a matter of keeping conditions—it is an agreement and not a bond of exclusive grace.
You ask me, “How did that happen?” Perhaps you will remember what is called ECT, Evangelicals and Catholics Together, which began a number of years ago. Men drew up a statement on the gospel, talking also about justification—of how a man can be made right with God. This statement was formulated in such a way that respected leaders of the evangelical churches and of Lutheran churches could sign alongside the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church, referring to the Reformation’s doctrine of justification in fine print.
The Romish doctrine of justification is that we are made righteous by the works that we perform — that Christ has done some, but the church does the rest. The believer, by his works, earns his righteousness with God. Evangelical churches, that is, Protestant churches, churches heir to the Reformation, are to teach the truth of the Word of God, the gospel that our works do not earn our place with God, but all of our works can only be the result of thankfulness. Christ’s work alone is our righteousness. But there is the desire in the movement Evangelicals and Catholics Together to push this issue to the periphery and to find a statement in which both the evangelical and the Protestant and the Roman Catholic may believe. On the basis of that statement, some may hold that they are accepted of a holy God without any personal merit of their own; others may believe that they are accepted as a result of their own cooperation with God and with His grace. They can have both.
Then there is the willingness of evangelicals and Protestants to concede that the truth of justification as a purely gracious declaration, based on an imputed righteousness, is not central to the understanding of the gospel. Today more and more, in Protestant churches, it is being taught that a man’s standing with God is based not simply on what Christ has done, but also upon what he does.
Now, understand that the issue is not that the Christian faith does not teach what we are to do. We are to obey God and live to God and do good works. That is not the point. The point is this: do the good works of the Christian and does the faith of the Christian earn his salvation or add to his salvation or contribute to his salvation? Or is our salvation solely based upon the work of Jesus Christ once done on the cross? That is the question.
The answer of the Bible is clear. Christ alone. I am the way, the truth, the life; no man comes to the Father but by me (John 14:6). Read the book of Hebrews, especially chapter 10:10-14, the clear declaration that one man, by one offering, once offered upon the cross has perfected forever those who are of God.
But now the thinking so often in the church is this, that the sinner can, by his own efforts or by the power of the Holy Spirit in his life, do some works that also enhance his salvation. Specifically, there is the notion that the good works or the deeds of faith affect our legal standing with God. That is, how God views me and how I appear before Him is in some way influenced by my works, by my obedience and my faith. This is to deny the completeness of the work of Jesus Christ. It is to say that Jesus Christ is not sufficient for full salvation.
There is a need today for the recovery of the biblical gospel. There is a need today for Protestant churches to stand clearly, unmistakably in this gospel. There is a return to the gospel. Our standing with God, our legal standing before God, is based only upon the work of Jesus Christ.
That is the gospel. Is that gospel preached in your church? Do you understand that gospel? Do you love that gospel? Is that gospel in your heart? You say, “Yes, I want to live a holy life, I want to live by faith, I want to do that which is pleasing to God,” but do you understand that none of your works is the basis upon which God will accept you. For even in those works you have committed much sin. It is not a perfect work. Do you base your only hope upon the perfect work of Jesus Christ once offered upon the cross as the only ground and the only foundation of all your salvation? Do you believe that personally? That is what it means to say, “I am not ashamed of the gospel! For it is the power of God unto salvation!” That was the gospel that was restored to the church in the days of the Reformation. That is the treasure of the church.
Hold on to it. Understand it. Believe it. Confess it. And live in its comfort.
We will return to this topic next week, the Lord willing. Until such time, may the Lord bless you and keep you in the comfort of the perfect work of Jesus Christ.
Let us pray.
Father, we thank Thee for Thy Word. We pray for its blessing upon our hearts and souls. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.