Sometimes deeply troubled.
That the simple message of the Gospel is so muddled in the minds of so many people.
Are we saved by grace alone? Or is it grace plus something? And if it’s grace plus something, and somehow that something helps us keep grace, then grace isn’t grace. Why? Because grace is never earned. We can’t do anything to get it, nor can we do anything to lose it.
So, then, does it matter what I do? Does anything I do matter? Absolutely. But not to get God’s love or to keep it.
When we are born again, we become God’s children, and that’s why he loves us. It’s the same reason you love your children. Not because they are always perfectly obedient, but because they’re your kids.
The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 8:15-16, “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.”
Ah, yes, Romans. The crown jewel of the Bible. It’s the only book of the Bible that explains logically and comprehensively why we need to be saved, how to get saved, and how to stay saved. Martin Luther called Romans “the true masterpiece of the New Testament and the very purest gospel.”
So let’s let Paul unmuddle our minds. To simplify something that should be simple, I’d like to highlight four key words in the first four chapters of Romans.
Romans Chapter 1. Gospel
The first is gospel. It’s Paul’s main theme in his epistle:
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).
Romans is about the gospel. The New Testament Greek word euaggelion means good news. What is the gospel and why is it such good news? First, the gospel is the life-changing power of God, not just an excellent or novel religious concept.
Second, the gospel brings salvation. According to one Greek dictionary (Souter), the term in the New Testament means “bodily health, welfare, deliverance from every calamity, victory over our enemies, and complete recovery of health from the disease of sin and release from captivity to it.” The gospel saves you from hell and from your own self-destructive behaviors.
Third, the gospel is for everyone who believes. It’s the Good News that we don’t have to depend on our own religious efforts and good works to reach God. In fact, that’s simply impossible. Relationship with God is not about doing your very best, having the best of intentions, or trying harder. It’s about being perfect.
Paul makes this clear in Galatians: “I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law (5:3). James agrees: “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (2:10). As my friend Dean Sherman puts it, “You have do all the right things at all the right times for all the right reasons.”
So how does anyone on earth do that?!
It’s simple. It’s the simple gospel. It’s really Good News that someone has done all the right things at all the right times for all the right reasons. Jesus. And when you ask him into your life, his life in you makes you perfect! The writer of Hebrews announces, “By one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (10:14). “Made perfect” is exactly the same Greek term Jesus shouted on the Cross: tetelestai. It’s translated, “It is finished,” but it’s more than the English language is able to express. The Greek work means “complete, accomplished, fulfilled, perfect,” which is the way it’s rendered in Hebrews 10.
At the end of each of the days of creation God looked back on his work and declared, “It’s good!” At the very end of Jesus’ life, he looked back and proclaimed, “It’s done. It’s perfect!” And to emphasize his finished work, what’s the first thing he did after he ascended to the right had of the Father? He sat down.
Where are you on the righteousness scale?
Religion says do. Keep doing. Grace says done. Done perfectly. Done forever. Let this be your cornerstone:
But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:4-7).
Consider again this extraordinary statement Romans 1:17: “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last.” The gospel is righteousness (1) “from God” (not from you), (2) “by faith” (not by human effort), and (3) “from first to last” (forever and ever, amen). In other words, when Jesus comes into your life, he not only forgives your sins and takes them away, he gives you his righteous, his absolutely perfect life, which sustains your relationship with God forever. We are not saved by our own righteousness, but by his.
Romans Chapter 2. Wrath
Romans 1 leaps from amazing grace and hope in verse 17 to utter hopelessness in verse 18:
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.” The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.
In other words, the gospel is such happy news because God is not a happy camper. Some people don’t like the idea of an angry God. They are quick to say, “I don’t believe in that kind of God.”
Hey, God isn’t fuming like you were yesterday when some idiot cut you off on the freeway. It’s more like how you feel when your children, those people made in your image, when they disrespect you instead of being grateful you gave them life. When in their hormonal years they do really stupid things that cause pain for themselves and others.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote, “Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence.” It’s what gives God ulcers. It makes me angry, too. Having been a pastor to thousands of people, I can tell one story after another about how people have destroyed their lives. And dragged their families with them.
I believe in a righteously wrathful God because I believe in righteously wrathful human beings. I also believe in a kind God, a God who in spite of his wrath loves his enemies so much he sent his only Son to rescue them—us—from sin and its consequences. This takes us back to Ephesians 2:4-5, “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.”
Romans Chapter 3. Law
The righteousness of God is blazing bright. The darkness of our sin is as black as a deep cavern at night. But we don’t get that. Mostly, we think we’re pretty good people. At least halfway up the righteousness scale. Haven’t you heard something like this? “I’m not perfect, you know. Who is? But I’m not a pervert! I’m at least as good as most people.”
This is why God has given us his Law, his moral absolutes embodied in the Ten Commandments and written in the human conscience. And he’s done this for two simple reasons: to reveal his character and to reveal our character.
The law of God is like an x-ray. It has the power to expose, but not the power to heal. The law of God shows the unreachable distance between what we are and what God originally made us to be. God’s law is like a spotlight on a cockroach. We sing about that:
Amazing grace how sweet the sound
That saved a roach like me.
The extent and power of sin are awakened through the law. Look at Romans 3:19-20.
Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.
Romans Chapter 4. Abraham
In Romans, Paul’s primary example of salvation by faith alone is Abraham, the father of the three great world religions. His life illustrates how we are saved because righteousness and right standing are given to us in exchange for our faith, not because we earn it by our works.
We read about this in Romans 4:
What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God (1-2)
“Justified” (or “justification”) is one of the most important terms in the Christian doctrine of salvation. It is a word with legal overtones and refers to God the Judge declaring us right and righteous. He doesn’t overlook our sinful nature. He pronounces us forgiven and free—acquitted, because our sin was placed in Christ who died to pay sin’s penalty. I am crucified with Christ, and there is now no condemnation from God.
Remember this: “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).
In this regard, Paul argues that even the father of the Jewish nation, beloved Abraham, did not earn favor with God. He was justified–acquitted–by faith. But there’s more. By faith, Abraham was also made perfect: “What does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness’” (Romans 4:3).
Faith, like credit, is the evidence of things not seen. Faith gives you righteousness even when you are not even slightly righteous, and in the end, this is why you’re saved, because the perfect righteousness of Christ is put into your account. At the moment you are justified, your bankrupt righteousness account is filled to overflowing with the righteousness of Christ.
Like Paul, whose life was changed completely and forever by a personal appearance of the risen Christ, when Jesus comes into your life, your old nature is condemned, crucified on the cross with Christ. Your old nature is killed, and you are resurrected inside, regenerated.
Crucified—sinful old nature condemned
Regenerated—reGENErated—given a perfect new nature, born again
This is why Paul can announce, “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
Regarding Abraham, whose righteousness was not earned but given, Paul adds,
Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness. David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him” (Romans 4:4-8).
This is captured marvelously by the classic hymn,
My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
The blood of Jesus washes away my sin. I think most Christians are pretty clear about that. But there’s more. Much more. His perfect righteousness in me and on me keeps me right with God forever.
I can’t do that. It’s impossible. Saving myself is like people in a retirement community getting pregnant. Yeah, Paul writes about that, too:
Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead–since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.” The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead (Romans 4:18-24).