In relation to the Gospel it is important that activity is combined with accuracy. Some seem to think that to be active in the Gospel is all that is required, but unless accuracy underpins what is preached then souls will be left ill–established in the faith or possibly not even saved at all. How interesting it is that Paul did not write his great treatise on the Gospel to sinners but to saints, and it was to them that he was “ready to announce the glad tidings” (Rom. 1: 15). Building can only be carried out effectively on a solid foundation, and if people are not clear on the basics, then this can only hinder their spiritual progress. Sadly, many preachers have increased their activity in the Gospel at the expense of accuracy in what they preach. I am as glad as any to see an increase in evangelical activity but one fears for the results when the message seems only tenuously connected to God’s Word. Indeed, there are significant numbers in so–called evangelical circles who have only the vaguest notions of what they profess to believe and this can be traced back to the defective Gospel they heard. Someone wrote a tract called “Safety, Certainty and Enjoyment” and the title is as pertinent now as ever. Persons professing Christianity ought to be in the enjoyment of their faith, should be certain about what they believe, and, above all, need to be actually saved. Are today’s Gospel preachers delivering on this? I think that is an open question.
Great emphasis is placed today on the love of God in the Gospel. Is it not striking then, that apart from a cursory reference in Rom. 1: 7, the first four chapters of Romans do not mention it? So did Paul get it wrong—or is the mistake with the modern preacher? Now of course the very source of the Gospel is found in the love of God, and without such love there would be no Gospel, but it is also true that love alone is no basis for salvation. Preaching that “God is love” (1 John 4: 8) is to draw attention to a most wonderful fact, but to leave the message there is to do a gross disservice to the listener. Certainly God loves the sinner, but that love, if viewed as an abstract concept by itself, can do nothing to procure my salvation. It needs a basis on which to act. I am a sinner and God is holy and no amount of love by itself (divine or otherwise) can bring the sinner into God’s presence. Sadly, the preaching of some seems to have degenerated to such an extent that it amounts to presenting God as a benevolent deity proffering an amnesty to the sinner. Not only does God thereby cease to be holy, but the results for those ‘converted’ in such a system can only be ruinous. Others are so fixated with God’s forgiving nature (as they see it) that they seem reluctant to mention sin and sins in the Gospel for fear of putting off the unconverted. How different was the approach of the first gospel preachers! Peter did not hesitate to charge his listeners with guilt (see Acts 2: 23, 36) and stress their deep need of repentance, while Paul was not afraid to devote several unpalatable pages (see Rom. 1: 18–3: 20) to proving the guilt of the sinner. If all, as the apostle says, have sinned and come short of the glory of God (see Rom. 3: 23), then sin and sins must be at the forefront of what is preached.
Yet if Paul does not straightaway bring before us the love of God, what does He present to us? Let us hear him: “For I am not ashamed of the glad tidings; for it is God’s power to salvation, to every one that believes, both to Jew first and to Greek: for righteousness of God is revealed therein, on the principle of faith, to faith: according as it is written, But the just shall live by faith” (Rom. 1: 16, 17, my emphasis). Paul does not say that the love of God is revealed in the Gospel (though it is), but the righteousness of God. Why? Because righteousness and not love is the basis of the Gospel. Now this statement of the apostle is worthy of our close attention, particularly in the light of the scant attention that God’s righteousness receives in today’s evangelism. Why was he not ashamed of the glad tidings—such that he was even ready to announce it in the capital of the then mightiest empire on earth? He tells us: “for it is God’s power to salvation” (v16, my emphasis). And how is the Gospel God’s power to salvation? Again, he gives us the answer: “for righteousness of God is revealed therein” (v17, my emphasis). Now many take these verses to mean that because the Gospel is founded on divine righteousness, God’s power is expressed in the Gospel through the salvation of precious souls. As a statement of doctrine this is blessedly true, but is it the sense here? The real meaning is that the Gospel empowers God to save—again, because it is founded on divine righteousness. It is the difference between God giving power to the Gospel, and, extraordinary as it may sound, the Gospel giving power to God.
So how does the fact that the Gospel is based on divine righteousness empower God such that He can save? Now we know that God loves the sinner, but we also know that He is “of purer eyes than to behold evil” (Hab. 1: 13). There is thus no way that a holy God can save us simply because he loves us. Without the Gospel, He cannot do anything about our lost condition—He cannot act, except to judge us. But in the Gospel we see that God is empowered to save because the ‘righteousness of God’ is revealed therein—God has devised a way in which His love to the sinner can be expressed that is perfectly in keeping with His righteousness. Nor is ‘the righteousness of God’ simply the fact that God is righteous, for that could hardly have been said to have been revealed in the Gospel when it was abundantly evident from many OT passages (see Ps. 35: 28; Dan. 9: 7 etc.). No, ‘the righteousness of God’, as Paul speaks of it here, has special reference to the sacrificial work of Christ. It is because of that work that God can reach out in love to the sinner and save him, hence: “now without law righteousness of God is manifested, borne witness to by the law and the prophets; righteousness of God by faith of Jesus Christ towards all, and upon all those who believe … being justified freely by his grace through the redemption which [is] in Christ Jesus; whom God has set forth a mercy–seat, through faith in his blood … for [the] shewing forth of his righteousness in the present time, so that he should be just, and justify him that is of [the] faith of Jesus” (Rom. 3: 21–22; 24–26). God not only loves the sinner, but he can also save the sinner, because He has established a righteous basis on which to do so in the death of Christ. There are some things that God cannot do, one of them being that He cannot lie (see Tit. 1: 2; Heb. 6: 18). At root, this means that He cannot act in a way that is inconsistent with His character. He is the Almighty God, but without righteousness, His love is powerless. The Gospel, however, enables God to act in accord with both His love and His righteousness. It is not about God ignoring sin, but about God dealing with sin, and doing so in such a way that the sinner can be saved. Indeed the very idea that God turns a blind eye and simply lets people off is disproved by Romans 3: 25. There we see that God’s righteousness is not only shown forth in the present time, but also in respect of “the passing by the sins that had taken place before” the death of Christ. God was not lax about sin in the OT, but was able to save sinners then because He ever looked on to the Cross where a righteous basis for man’s blessing would be established.
All this of course, is God’s side. What about man’s side? “Therefore” says the apostle, “having been justified on the principle of faith, we have peace towards God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5: 1). Thus if the Gospel gives God power to save man, then it can also give man peace with God. Why then do so many of today’s professing Christians lack peace? Because they have an inadequate understanding of the Gospel. They are either hoping that God’s good nature can be relied on in the day of reckoning and that they will be excused, or they are placing their security in law–keeping—what they themselves can do to maintain their salvation. Certainly they believe in God, but the ‘Christian message’ that has been presented to them has been so inadequate that they can scarcely be said to have believed God’s Word.
Now just as God’s power to save flowed from the fact that His righteousness was seen in the Gospel, so my peace with God is dependent on my being reckoned righteous—justified. Many can grasp how Christ has been “delivered for our offences” (Rom. 4: 25, my emphasis)—what we might call the negative side of blessing—but struggle with what is meant by justification. This is not surprising when they are glibly told that it means just–as–if–I–never–sinned—a gimmicky play on words that is inadequate and misleading. Just–as–if–I–never–sinned takes me back to Adam. Adam was innocent before he sinned but he was never reckoned as righteous. Justification is not just a question of pardon. The Gospel not only shows me how my many offences against God are no longer to be charged to my account, but also how that same account can have righteousness reckoned to it, (even though I, as a sinner, am not righteous personally). How is this justification brought about? On our part, by faith. Thus “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Rom. 4: 3). Again, “being fully persuaded that what he has promised he is able also to do; wherefore also it was reckoned to him as righteousness (vs 21, 22). Of course, God can no more justify the sinner than a judge can declare a criminal upright—unless there is a proper basis for doing so. To pardon a proved offender is one thing, to justify him (that is to declare him judicially right) is quite another. Thank God then, that there is such a basis, for “God commends his love to us, in that, we being still sinners, Christ has died for us” and being “justified in [the power of] his blood, we shall be saved by him from wrath” (Rom. 5: 8, 9, my emphasis). Do we deserve this? Not at all. Hence we who are justified by faith (on our part) are justified by grace (on God’s part—see Rom. 3: 24).
However, if it is a judicial righteousness that is conferred upon the believer when God saves him, then that same salvation teaches him to “live soberly, and justly, and piously in the present course of things” (Tit. 2: 12, my emphasis). Practical righteousness in everyday life is thus the inevitable result of coming into divine blessing. Such righteousness is not given to me, but it is expected of me, as having received the Spirit. Indeed, the apostle John tells us that “Whoever does not practise righteousness is not of God” (1 John 3: 10). This is a very solemn consideration when many persons today are claiming a judicial cleansing without the accompanying moral change that must follow. As the apostle Paul asks “We who have died to sin, how shall we still live in it?” (Rom. 6: 2). Sadly, many seem to think that they can get baptised and then go on as before.
As Christians, we are to faithfully and minutely fulfil every obligation of life, whether towards God or towards man. We are to think what is right, say what is right and do what is right—not in a legal way, but in the sense of pleasing God in all things. Where do we learn this practical righteousness? In the Word of God. Only there do we find our practical duties as Christians fully unfolded, with Christ as the motive and the Holy Spirit as the power. Thus when persons show little interest in the Scriptures, a question–mark must be placed over the reality of their faith. This should not surprise us when we consider that many of today’s preachers make only scant reference to what is written. Modern techniques on how to win people’s attention may boost numbers but they count for nothing in fitting persons for eternity. The results are sad but predictable, for a sound faith only flows from having heeded a sound Gospel. Let us ensure then that we are marked by “the fruit of righteousness”, are genuinely waiting for “the hope of righteousness”, and are endeavouring to “pursue righteousness” in all things (Phil. 1: 11; Gal. 5: 5; 2 Tim. 2: 22).