This was the sixty-second of Martin Luther’s ninety-five theses of 1517. Five hundred years later it is a thesis we still need to embrace for ourselves daily as believers and weekly as preachers and congregations. It’s still a thesis we must assert against all works-centric religion.
One of the places in Scripture where we see the gospel on display in such a powerful way is Romans. Luther said Romans was “the very purest Gospel, and is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul. It can never be read or pondered too much, and the more it is dealt with the more precious it becomes, and the better it tastes.”1
Romans was written by Paul, the savage persecutor turned bondservant of Christ Jesus, that is, one who “belonged to” Jesus Christ. Even before calling himself apostle, that is, one sent out by Christ himself as an ambassador, he calls himself servant (Rom. 1:1). How different is Paul from the pope, who gives lip service to being “servant of the servants of God” all the while claiming to be “the representative of Christ on earth”? How different is Paul from those charlatans today who run around calling themselves “apostle” or “bishop” or “prophet” with their bodyguards, with their entourage, with their designer suits—all the while pasturing themselves on their sheep? Paul was formerly a Pharisee, that is, one set apart from the Israelites as a cut above the rest in terms of external obedience to the law (Phil. 3:5–6), but later he was “set apart for the gospel of God” (Rom. 1:1). This gospel is the true treasure of the church for several reasons according to Paul in Romans 1.
It Is Centered in Jesus Christ
You may think Christianity is right-wing politics. But this is cultural Christianity. You may think the gospel is loving God; loving neighbor; doing unto others as you would have them do to you; feeding the homeless. But these are not the gospel—the good news of God to sinners. These are the fruits and results of the gospel. What is the gospel? And why is it the true treasure of the church? It is centered in Jesus Christ. The gospel that Paul was set apart for and that the prophets promised long ago is “concerning [God’s] Son” (Rom. 1:3). John Calvin therefore said, “The whole Gospel is contained in Christ.”2
As Christians we talk a lot about the gospel in such impersonal, third-person ways. “The gospel saves.” “It’s the gospel that sanctifies.” “He’s a gospel preacher.” But what do we mean by these statements? We get closer to the truth when we speak of the gospel as being the good news about Jesus Christ. But Paul says here that the gospel is Jesus Christ. As he says elsewhere, it is “him we proclaim” (Col. 1:28). “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him whom they have never heard?” (Rom. 10:14). “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him” (2 Cor. 1:20).
Why is Jesus Christ the gospel? Jesus “was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 1:3–4). Paul makes this interesting contrast between “flesh” and “Spirit” not between what is physical and immaterial or between Jesus’ humanity and divinity, but to speak of two phases of his life. As the eternal Son of God he came down and took to himself true humanity being “descended from” the ancient Jewish line of king “David according to the flesh.” This is what we call in theological terms his state of humiliation. But in his being raised “according to the Spirit of holiness he was declared to be the Son of God in power.” This is what we call his state of exaltation. That word declared is used for appointing. As the Son of God in human flesh he was appointed to an authority he did not have in his humiliation; he was appointed to the place of power as “the Son of God in power.” That’s his title now! In Philippians 2 we read of this humiliation and exaltation:
who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him. (Phil. 2:6–9)
Why is Jesus the gospel and therefore the true treasure of the church? Because he’s done everything I cannot do to save me! He’s God; I’m not. He was a perfectly obedient man to God’s commands; I’m not. He died an unjust death that I might be justly acquitted by God; I’d hardly die for another. He rose again to newness of life; I couldn’t do that with all the money in the world. What is the gospel? Jesus!
It Is Revealed from God
But where did this gospel come from? I know if you watch History Channel or network news specials during the time of Christmas and Easter you’ve been fed a diet of Jesus Christ being a myth based on ancient religions. Others say a bunch of men gathered in ad 325 A.D. to condemn everyone but themselves and determine orthodoxy.
What does Paul say? He says the gospel is “the gospel of God” (Rom. 1:1). The gospel is the true treasure of the church because it is revealed from God. The gospel is God’s gospel. God is the author of the gospel. God is the origin of the gospel. God is the source of the gospel. Our gospel is not the religion of Paul but of God himself. And coming from him it is good news to us that he—a holy God—saves us—sinners. The gospel is God’s revelation of grace, not law; acceptation with God, not condemnation from God.
It Is Promised by Prophets
“But how can I know Paul was telling the truth? I mean, he says the gospel is from God, but why should I believe him?” What if I told you that you were the heir of an ancient kingdom in Africa? That would be a stupendous claim! But what if I then showed you your family tree, tracing you back and back, and then I showed you pictures and documents chronicling this kingdom and how it all led to you? The New Testament makes a stupendous claim about Jesus. But it doesn’t just make it up. He is traced back through ancient prophets who preached and wrote of a Savior to come. The gospel is the true treasure of the church because it is promised by prophets: “which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures” (Rom. 1:2).
Jesus Christ is the most verifiable figure from the ancient world. The New Testament manuscripts are the most abundant and verifiable of the ancient world. But it goes farther back than that. Beginning at the beginning of the world, there have been promises and prophecies that all come to fruition in Jesus Christ. The Creator spoke to Adam and Eve of a son to come who would crush the serpent that led them into sin (Gen. 3:15). Enoch prophesied of the coming of the Lord with ten thousands of his holy ones (Jude 14). To Abraham the Lord spoke of blessing all the nations through his family line. To Israel the Lord made his promise of salvation tangible in the sacrifices of lambs—pointing to one final sacrifice of a perfect lamb; in the priesthood of men—pointing to one final high priest who was no mere man; in the tabernacle and temple that housed God in their midst—pointing to God’s becoming human and dwelling among us. To David the Lord made a promise of a son to sit on his throne forever. Through the prophets specific promises were made of where he would be born in Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2), how we would be born of a virgin (Isa. 7:14), how he would die by crucifixion (Ps. 22; Dan. 9), and the list goes on and on and on.
You might be thinking, “Jesus isn’t relevant to my life.” God has orchestrated the millennia of human history to bring his Son, Jesus Christ, to this world for exactly your problem: you are separated from God by your sins against God’s commands. There is nothing more relevant!
It Is Offered to You
This true treasure of the gospel that is centered in Jesus Christ, that is revealed by God himself, and that has been promised by prophets for thousands of years is offered to you. Paul says “that through Jesus we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ” (Rom. 1:5–6).
The gospel Paul offered to the Romans is the gospel offered to you today in Jesus’ name. It does not matter where you are from. It does not matter the color of your skin. It does not matter how rich or poor you are. It does not matter what you have done or have not done. God speaks to you and says, “Trust in Jesus, and when you do I will regard you as obedient to me.” When you do this you will know the blessing of being loved by God (Rom. 1:7). When you do this you will know the blessing of being called to be a saint (Rom. 1:7). When you do this you will know the blessing of God’s grace in your life (Rom. 1:7). When you do this you will know the blessing of being at peace with God (Rom. 1:7). When you do this you will know this true treasure of the church.
1. Martin Luther, “Preface to Romans,” Commentary on Romans, trans. J. Theodore Mueller (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1976), xiii.
2. John Calvin, Commentary, 15. See also Institutes 2.9.2, where Calvin contrasts the general sense of “gospel” being “all the promises by which God reconciles men to himself” with the proper sense: “By the Gospel, I understand the clear manifestation of the mystery of Christ . . . Paul . . . claims for the Gospel the honourable distinction of being a new and extraordinary kind of embassy, by which God fulfilled what he had promised, these promises being realised in the person of the Son . . . he has in his flesh completed all the parts of our salvation.”
Rev. Daniel R. Hyde is the pastor of Oceanside United Reformed Church in Carlsbad, CA.