Tuesday, March 26, 2013

"I am not ashamed of the Gospel ..."

"I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.  For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: 'The righteous will live by faith.'" -  Romans 1:16-17

This week, as many around the world celebrate what is called the "Christian Holy Week," I wonder how many people could explain what Jesus did on the cross and the significance of His resurrection and ascension for all who believe.  We use the word "gospel" a lot in the church.  Jesus said, "This gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come" (Matthew 24:14).  But what IS the Gospel?

A quote from long ago says something like this:  "Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words."  That fits with today's definition of the gospel:  that it is good news of the kingdom of God, the reign of God, and as such it invades our world and overcomes the effects of sin and evil.  Doing good deeds in the name of Jesus, as the Holy Spirit guides and empowers those who are followers of Jesus, is what the "social gospel" is all about.  The Bible talks about the importance of doing good deeds.  Jesus said, "Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and praise your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:16).  But is THIS the Gospel?  Can the Gospel, whatever it is, really be "preached" without speaking?  What is this "gospel" that must be proclaimed as a testimony to all nations?

One need not look too far to find the answer.  Jesus said, "God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3:16).  Following His resurrection from the dead, Jesus said, "This is what is written:  The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in His name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem" (Luke 24:46-47).

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not just ANY proclamation of God or of some spiritual kingdom.  Those who declare that they preach the "full gospel," then point to speaking in tongues and miracles and healing as the "full gospel" misunderstand at best, and misrepresent at worst, what the GOSPEL really is.  Does God do miracles? Yes!  Do you have to "sow a financial seed to prove your faith" first? No!  God hears His children when they pray and answers according to His will, in the way that will bring Him the most glory ... sometimes bringing healing through various means, sometimes giving strength to endure and to testify to His faithfulness to those in need.  God may also, at times, give people a supernatural ability to speak another language in order to communicate the Gospel.  But none of these IS the Gospel - certainly not the "full gospel."  In fact, they may be and are oftentimes a distraction from the real Gospel of Jesus Christ.

In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul wrote:  "I am not ashamed of the Gospel ..."  Why did he say that?  If the Gospel is doing good deeds, or even doing a miracle, you certainly wouldn't be ashamed of that, so why did Paul, inspired by the Spirit of God, feel the need to say, "I am not ashamed of the Gospel?"

It was because the MESSAGE of the Gospel contradicted what Paul had been proclaiming as a Pharisee, as a religious teacher of the Jews.  He had taught that the way to approach God was through a rigid obedience to the law.  One could only be justified, declared righteous before God, be GOOD ENOUGH to earn eternal life, through good works.  The Pharisees believed their own righteousness was a model for the people to follow and that they were righteous in the sight of God.  This is why Jesus made them angry when He told them that their righteousness was not enough.  "Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:20).

The message Paul preached, the true Gospel, was a new message, a different message - a message that stood opposed, contrary to the message of the Pharisees and of every religion known to mankind.  As it turned out, the Pharisees had misunderstood the message of the Old Testament.  The Law of God was never intended to produce a righteousness that could stand before God.  Rather, through the law came the knowledge of sin and the need for a Savior.  "Therefore, no one will be declared righteous in His sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin" (Romans 3:20).  "The law was 'put in charge' to lead us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith" (Galatians 3:24).

The Gospel, then, has to do with righteousness.  The good news is "first for the Jew and then for the Gentile" (Romans 1:16).  Everyone needs the same thing:  "In the Gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written:  'The righteous will live by faith'" (Romans 1:17, Habakkuk 2:4).

How can this be?  How do those who believe in Jesus become "righteous by faith"?  Paul uses the example of Abraham in Romans 4:3-16, pointing back to Genesis 15:6:  "Abraham believed, and it was credited to him as righteousness."  The Gospel has to do with righteousness - a righteousness that can stand before the judgment seat of God!  God provided a substitute for those who believe in Jesus Christ.  Paul would say to the Corinthians, "I preached Christ and Him crucified" (I Corinthians 1:23, 2:2).  He explained further in his second letter, "He became sin, who knew no sin, that in Him we might become the righteousness of God" (II Corinthians 5:21).  And to the Galatians, "We ... know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Christ" (Galatians 2:16).

Paul said of his fellow Israelites:  "I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge.  Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to GOD's righteousness.  CHRIST is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes"  (Romans 10:2-4).

THIS is why Paul said, "I am not ashamed of the Gospel," and why he devoted his life to proclaiming this gospel to the whole world.  By faith in Jesus and His sacrifice on the cross those who believe are righteous before God and heirs of eternal life!  The perfect righteousness of Jesus is "credited" to those who believe.  Amazing grace!!  Believers are the "children of Abraham," grafted into the root, saved by grace through faith.

This, then, is the Gospel that must be proclaimed to the world.  While the Holy Spirit produces good deeds in God's children through His Word and Spirit, these are a response to God's love and grace in Christ, not the way to earn a righteousness of our own that will stand before God.  This Gospel is good news because it produces a sure and certain hope based on God's promise to save all who believe and to complete the work He has begun in them.

Do YOU believe THIS Gospel?  Are you proclaiming it to the world, offering forgiveness and life to all who believe in Jesus?  This week we thank God for the sacrifice of His Son in our place and we celebrate His resurrection and rejoice in His reign from His throne in heaven, even as we anticipate His return.  I am not ashamed of the Gospel ... and I pray that you can say the same!!

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