Established in the Gospel
We cannot form a right judgment of what sin is in God’s sight until our eyes have been opened to believe the Gospel. Now of course it is true that the Holy Spirit makes us to feel our need of the Saviour before conversion—but it is also true that we learn more about what we are after having received the knowledge of Christ, than during our anxiety to be saved. Indeed, the further advanced we are in the knowledge of divine grace the more capable we are to assess ourselves in the light of divine holiness. It is for this reason that the apostle Paul was ready “to announce the glad tidings to you also who [are] in Rome” (Rom. 1: 15), not to convert those to whom he wrote, for they were already “called of Jesus Christ” (v6), but to “establish” (v11, my emphasis) them in the faith. That need is certainly no less pressing in our day.
God’s Righteousness and Wrath
According to the first chapter of Romans, two things are revealed in relation to the Gospel: the righteousness of God (see v17), and the wrath of God (see v18). Sadly, these are the two aspects of the message that are often downplayed by modern preachers. Great emphasis is placed on the love of God almost to the exclusion of everything else, but such an imbalance is clearly wrong in the light of Scripture. Before ever I can appreciate the fact that that God’s heart is towards me, I must understand that God is a judge, and I am a criminal, and that I am scheduled to appear in His court of inflexible justice.
Thus we are reminded that “there is revealed wrath of God from heaven upon all impiety, and unrighteousness of men holding the truth in unrighteousness” (v18)—that is, on both the open sins of the godless, and the more subtle iniquity of those who have a measure of divine light. This revealed wrath is not said to actually form part of the gospel, but is the necessary background to it. Regrettably, many so–called evangelicals avoid any such mention of divine judgment. And if they do speak of it, it is only in connection with a false presentation of God as a benign and lenient deity ready to overlook sin. By contrast, the true Gospel is marked by the fact that “righteousness of God is revealed therein” (v17)—a righteousness that is obdurate and unwavering—the very thing that the sinner dreads!
Certainly God has a perfect right to exercise judgment upon the world—Paul’s rhetorical question “Is God unrighteous who inflicts wrath?” (Rom. 3: 5) makes that unambiguously plain. However, the righteousness of God revealed in the Gospel is connected, not with wrath, but salvation, and in order, not that man might perish, but in order that “the just shall live by faith” (Rom. 1: 17, my emphasis). Now a righteous judge condemning the sinner is something man can understand—as is a soft–hearted judge ignoring justice and allowing the guilty to escape the penalty of his crimes. What the Gospel presents, however, is neither of these, but a God not only saving the sinner but acting in perfect righteousness in doing so. The Gospel is “God’s power to salvation” (v16, my emphasis), and the reason is because it enables God to save the sinner while staying true to what He is in Himself as holy and righteous. Without a righteous basis on which to act, God’s love would be unable to save, for He is “of purer eyes than to behold evil” (Hab. 1: 13). Certainly God’s love makes Him willing, but it is God’s righteousness that makes Him able. Both are seen in the cross of Christ. There, not only is God’s heart displayed, but divine justice is seen to be fully done. No wonder Paul can exclaim “I am not ashamed of the glad tidings” (Rom. 1: 16)!
The Gospel addresses two great needs of fallen man. First, man’s guilt as a result of his sins—the fruit of man’s tree. Second, his fallen nature—the root of man’s tree (that which produces the fruit).
As for the fruit, the first thing is to prove it bad, and to do this, Paul divides the field of the world into three portions, and surveys man and his crops in each. First, we have the uncultivated portion (see Rom. 1: 19–32), second, the portion tended by the hand of philosophy (see Rom. 2: 1–16), and third, that favoured part which was ploughed by the law and watered by the prophets (see Rom. 2: 17–3: 20). Now before the cross of Christ a large part of the world was allowed to grow on without any restraint. Another section of the world had civilizing hands to tend it, and was sown with human wisdom and reason. Yet another part of the world had been under the direct care of God, whose watchful energy over the Jewish nation we well know. However, when Christ died, the period of human cultivation ended, and in the Roman epistle all the fruits are brought in and examined.
Of the wild, uncivilized part, we read “and according as they did not think good to have God in [their] knowledge, God gave them up to a reprobate mind to practice unseemly things” (Rom. 1: 28), though they had the witness of creation to “render them inexcusable” (v20). Of that which man’s intelligence had cultivated, God asks “thinkest thou this, O man, who judgest those that do such things, and practicest them [thyself], that thou shalt escape the judgment of God?” (Rom. 2: 3). Of the religious, Jewish part, the record is, if anything, more condemnatory than ever: “All have gone out of the way, they have together become unprofitable; there is not one that practises goodness, there is not so much as one” (Rom. 3: 12). Then the condition of the whole world is summed up with those solemn and terrible words: “under judgment to God” (v19). Wherever God looked at man’s works He found them utterly bad—the fruits of the tree were hopelessly evil. Jew or Gentile, philosopher or savage, none were righteous, none understood, none sought after God (see vs 10, 11). Such was the fruit borne after four thousand years of testing.
Our Guilt Addressed
Having proved man’s fruit to be irredeemably bad, the apostle turns back to the grand truth revealed in the Gospel: “But 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” (Rom. 3: 21, my emphasis). If all “have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (v23), then God has provided a way whereby every guilty one who believes can “be justified freely by his grace” (v24). How so? Because the righteousness of God has been upheld in the Gospel. It has not been moderated or diluted in any way—indeed every demand of God against sin has been met in the death of Christ. The blood is on the mercy–seat as a witness of justice done, for the “shewing forth of his righteousness … so that he should be just, and justify him that is of [the] faith of Jesus” (v26). We have seen the awful charges that have been laid at the door of the sinner. There is no question that he is guilty, and that he must be punished. His guilt calls for righteous judgment—but the wonder of the Gospel is that the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son is the righteous answer for that guilt.
Man’s own efforts can bring about no improvement in the bad crop. Attempts to keep the law—any law—only prove man’s incapacity to please God, for “by works of law no flesh shall be justified before him; for by law [is] knowledge of sin” (v20). Rather than producing good, the law only brings out the propensity of man to evil. God now demands nothing of man, except he believes what He has said about the work of Christ. None of us were there to see Christ die—and yet the Bible tells us that simply through “faith in his blood” (v25), all the believer’s sins are dealt with, the punishment having been fully borne by that blessed One. Will all be saved then, seeing as it is so simple? Sadly, no, for the “righteousness of God by faith of Jesus Christ” is “towards all”, but only effectual “upon all those who believe” (v22, my emphasis). The unbelief of some, however, does not detract one iota from the marvellous message of the Gospel.
Yet dealing with our sins is not all. Paul has spoken of God’s righteousness being upheld in the Gospel, but there is also a righteousness that God, in the Gospel, reckons to the believer. Now in Romans 4: 8, Paul quotes David speaking of the blessed position of the man “to whom [the] Lord shall not at all reckon sin”—that is, the man’s sins are not put to his account. However, David also speaks of “the blessedness of the man to whom God reckons righteousness without works” (v6)—whereby righteousness is put to a man’s account. Man is incapable of doing anything of merit, for “by works of law no flesh shall be justified before him” (Rom. 3: 20), and yet the Gospel presents a God who “justifies the ungodly” (Rom. 4: 5). This is more than acquittal of all charges, for removal of guilt makes a man innocent not righteous. The Lord Jesus has not only been “delivered for our offences” but “raised for our justification” (v25). In the former it is so that sin is not put to our account, in the latter it is to give us a righteous standing in the sight of God. We have been “constituted righteous” (Rom. 5: 19).
The way to be justified is eminently simple, and Paul uses another OT saint to illustrate it: “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Rom. 4: 3). He believed what God had said. God told him something, and he believed it. There was no effort involved, no work to be done—he simply placed his faith in God and believed what God had promised him. The language used in relation to Abraham is quite exhilarating: “who against hope believed in hope … not being weak in faith … and hesitated not at the promise of God through unbelief … being fully persuaded that what he has promised he is able also to do” (vs 18–21). Abraham having thus believed God, “it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (v22). Transfer this truth to the Christian. Who have you and I believed? The same God “who has raised from among [the] dead Jesus our Lord” (v24). Were we there to witness the resurrection—that proof that God had accepted the sacrifice of Christ (see Rom. 6: 4)? No, but we have believed the testimony of God about it in the Scriptures. That being so, the apostle can go on to say that Christ “has been raised for our justification” (Rom. 4: 25, my emphasis).
Our Sinful Nature
Having received the free “gift of righteousness” (Rom. 5: 17), blessed though that is, does not, however, deal with what we are. In Adam, every one of us “have been constituted sinners” (v19), and we sin because of our inherited sinful nature. It is a great thing when a man comes to see that his sins need to be dealt with, but he soon realises that the question of his sin nature must also be addressed. For it is in the roots of a tree that its strength lies—for the fruit is the outbursting of what is within. Pluck off all the fruit, and another crop of the same kind as before will grow, for the root is still there. Our actions are thus the outcome of our nature—as bitter waters flow from a bitter spring, so bad actions result from a bad nature. Now it frequently happens that the new convert, after having being assured of the forgiveness of his sins, quickly becomes distressed and burdened on discovering a “law of sin which exists in my members” (Rom. 7: 23), and “what I hate, this I practise” (v15). All the efforts put into being a better person only prove more definitely than ever that “in me, that is, in my flesh, good does not dwell” (v8).
Our Crucifixion with Christ
The blood shed upon Calvary cleanses us from all sin, but it does not change our nature. God forgives our sins, but he does not forgive the evil nature from which they originated, a nature which is incapable of pleasing God. God has “condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom. 8: 3, my emphasis). Now it is a comparatively straightforward thing to believe that “Christ has died for us” (Rom. 5: 8), but that is not all we are asked to believe. Scripture also declares that “our old man”—what we are as in fallen Adam—“has been crucified” with Christ (Rom. 6: 6). Clearly, there is no return from crucifixion. God has, therefore, passed sentence on the very spring of our being. Here then, is the beginning of the solution as to what is done with the root of the tree. If it was when we believed God’s word about the blood of Jesus Christ that we obtained peace respecting our sins before God, then it is when we believe what God says concerning the death of Christ in connection with our nature that we will have peace about ourselves.
Instead of trying to bring a clean thing out of that which is unclean (see Job 14: 4), we need to realise that if God expects nothing from “this body of death” (Rom. 7: 24), then nor should we. If we cultivate the old man, then bad fruit is the inevitable result. What God has done is to crucify our old man with Christ in order that “the body of sin might be annulled, that we should no longer serve sin” (Rom. 6: 6). Sin ruled over us when we were alive in the energy of our fallen wills. But who rules dead men? We obtained our discharge from the old ruler by death. Thus “he that has died is justified” (or discharged) “from sin” (v7). He is out of the dominion of his former master. We are not said to be free of sin as if the tendency to sin were no longer in us, but we are said to be freed from the dominion of sin. It no longer rules us.
Now if we have been freed from the dominion of sin, then it is to our shame if, as believers, we commit sins. As Paul says, “We who have died to sin, how shall we still live in it?” (Rom. 6: 2). The Apostle reminds us that we took up the Christian profession by baptism—“Are you ignorant that we, as many as have been baptised unto Christ Jesus, have been baptised unto his death?” (v3). How quickly we forget this—if we ever understood it in the first place. In baptism, we take sides with God against ourselves, and instead of trying to get the old man to please God, recognise that his only place is in the grave. In Christ’s death, faith sees the end of that man before God, and by baptism, owns that “we have been buried therefore with him by baptism unto death” (v4).
Yet if we begin our Christian pathway rising out of the waters of baptism, we need to go on as we have begun. Thus Paul says: “reckon yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (v11, my emphasis). This is a life–long matter. To reckon means that faith counts things that are not as though they were. If our “old man,” our fallen nature, were actually gone, we should not have to reckon ourselves to be dead, for the old nature would not exist. However, because Christ “has died to sin once for all” and now “lives to God”, so also we are to count ourselves “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (vs 10, 11). It is an act of faith. We are not told that there is no sin in us, nor that the flesh is not in us, nor that “our old man” is taken out of us, but we are told that we are in Christ, and are to live as those that are alive to God. The practical results will follow, hence: “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body to obey its lusts. Neither yield your members instruments of unrighteousness to sin … for sin shall not have dominion over you” (vs 12–14). As “bondmen to righteousness” (v18), we are therefore to yield our members “in bondage to righteousness unto holiness” (v19).
This then is how God has dealt with sin and sins. The subject is a large one, and I have only been able to provide a brief and incomplete outline of what is involved in the gospel—Paul devotes eight full chapters to the subject in Romans alone. However, despite its shortcomings, it is my prayer that what has been written will have stimulated the reader to search out Scriptures to see if these things are really so, and that praise might result to the One who is “able to establish you, according to my glad tidings and the preaching of Jesus Christ” (Rom. 16: 25). May it be so.