The following is a guest blog by David Rawls.
“If you believe what you like in the Gospel, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the Gospel you believe, but yourself.”Augustine of Hippo
Recently I was listening to a podcast and the speaker was sharing thoughts on the important role which the gospel plays in each believer’s life and in the life of the church. He used the term “gospel” repeatedly. I agreed with his assessment on the centrality of the (whatever we mean by the word) “Gospel,” but, though he said “gospel” repeatedly, I found myself questioning what he really meant when he used the term. “Gospel” has been used so much within evangelical Christianity that no one really thinks about its meaning. It is one of those buzz words which it is expected every Christian or church going person should know. But do we?
For many years I understood the gospel as simply the good news of Jesus making a way for me to go to heaven. I am guessing this is the view many others have as well. The book in the Bible which I thought best supported this view was the book of Romans. My understanding of Romans and the gospel came while I was in seminary. This gospel of going to heaven could be summed up in a popular approach to sharing Jesus called “The Roman Road.” For me the book of Romans existed to share how one could escape the punishment of hell and go to heaven.
The Roman Road goes something like this: We all have a problem, it is sin (Romans 3:23). The problem with sin is that it leads to death (Romans 6:23). God then steps in and makes a provision for us through his son who takes on our death and punishment (Romans 5:8). This is a free gift which we cannot earn (Romans 6:23b). If we want this free gift then we must confess Jesus as Lord (Romans 10:9). For many the Roman Road ends there, though I saw baptism as an essential part of the road as well, as Paul talked about baptism in Romans 6.
This is certainly a simplified look at the Roman Road, but I do believe it represents what many people think about when they think of the Gospel. They believe the good news is that we are doomed but thankfully Jesus died on the cross, so we don’t have to go to hell but can go to heaven. Yet, is this what Jesus meant by good news, and is this what Romans is claiming is the good news?
The heart of the Roman Road is a false understanding of what God desires and what he is trying to accomplish. Central to its thinking is the belief that God’s justice has been violated and that he must receive punishment for sin. This idea sets up a pagan belief that God’s anger must be avenged [sic, satisfied?]. Sin, if it is to be paid for by humans, will mean an eternity in hell. But instead, God allows Jesus (who is perfect) to take on the full wrath of the Father. Once the son takes on this wrath, he is able to impute his righteousness (his good deeds) on us. Inherent in this view is that our main problem is a judicial one. The Father is seen as a judge who is “righteous and holy.”
A verse in Romans which has been misused to support this view is found in Romans 1:17 which says, “For in the gospel the righteousness of 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 key word which has been misused is the word righteousness. To correct this misunderstanding, I will seek to show two things: First, I will define the word “righteousness” in the way Paul uses it. Second, I will show how this word takes on practical meaning in Romans 8:18-24. By looking at these two things I believe we will have a better picture of what the word “gospel” means.
The Greek word for righteousness which Paul is using in Romans 1:17 is δικαιοσύνη. This word can imply restorative justice as well as judicial justice. Paul uses it in the former sense, instead of the latter. Scholar N.T Wright when defining δικαιοσύνη uses the phrase “God’s covenant justice.” Covenant justice implies not that God must punish people for sin, but that God is committed to making things right in the World. This promise to make things right can be traced through the whole story of the Bible, including Genesis 12 when God said to Abram that he would bless the world through his seed. Any talk of “gospel” must include this idea of making the World right. Anything short of this will misinterpret what God is doing in the World.
When we turn to the book of Romans, we realize that this is the gospel message Paul has been presenting. Paul does not focus on people being punished because God must somehow appease his anger, but Paul shares how δικαιοσύνη is God being faithful to complete the task he has promised. There are many passages which we might turn to in Romans to show how covenant justice works but I want to focus on Romans 8:18-24. In this passage we get a beautiful glimpse of God keeping his covenantal faithfulness to fix the whole World. The passage reads:
18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved.
Paul says in verse 24 “for in this hope we were saved.” This is a key verse that tells us quite a bit about the gospel Paul is preaching. In chapter 8 Paul has been talking about those in the spirit and those in the flesh. We know that in Christ there is no condemnation. Those in the Spirit are those who are in Christ who have given their allegiance to him.
Earlier in this chapter Paul gives hope for those in Christ reminding them that even though their bodies will die they will be raised again. The resurrection becomes a focal point of the Gospel message. It is the good news which says, even when believers are going through difficult times they will rise again.
Now as great as our bodily resurrection is, we find that the human body is not the only thing which will be restored. In the section quoted we find that the Earth waits in eager anticipation for its own redemption. This redemption is one in which Paul says that after the saints receive their new heavenly bodies that the creation will receive its new cosmic body. In Ephesians 1:10 Paul says that Christ is bringing all things under him both in heaven and earth.
God’s plan has been to restore all things, things in heaven and things on Earth. The gospel message is not some bodiless experience separate from creation, but it is very much a physical presence on a renewed earth in a redeemed cosmos. Just as our bodies will not be subject to decay, so the earth will no longer be subject to decay. It is in this hope that we have been saved.
The picture which Paul gives of the gospel is one which is vibrant and multifaceted. It is a gospel which takes the creation project that went off track in the garden and puts it back on course again. Once we realize the true nature of the gospel road, we are able to give people hope and a way to live now. Our hope for a renewed and restored creation pertains to life now in this created order.