Tag Archives: the gospel

As When Prophet Moses Raised

Let me encourage you to use your hymnal in your daily devotions. Along with the joyful songs of praise, the hymnal supplies a much-needed freshness when our prayer life has become stale. It’s full of themes worthy of our spiritual mediation.

One of the hymns I’ve recently pondered is Isaac Watts’ “As When the Prophet Moses Raised.” It’s a reflection on the words of Jesus in John 3:14-15. Jesus says, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

In light of Christ’s precious words, Watts composed these:

“As when prophet Moses raised the brazen serpent high,
the wounded looked and straight were cured, the people ceased to die.
So from the Savior on the cross a healing virtue flows;
Who looks to him with lively faith is saved from endless woes.”

The Old Testament background is found in Numbers 21:4-9. During the wilderness wandering, the children of Israel complain against God and Moses. The Lord sends serpents as an act of judgment. Many are bitten and die. When the people confess their sin and beg Moses for his intercession, the Lord gives Moses a solution. He tells him to make a pole with a fiery serpent on top. Then God says, “Everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” According to Jesus in John 3, this bronze serpent is a type of Christ. As Moses raised the serpent on the pole, so Jesus would be raised up on a cross. As everyone who looked to the serpent pole was healed, so everyone who looks to Jesus on the cross is saved.

The typology fixes our attention on Christ on the cross. This is where our faith looks. We turn away from ourselves and cast our eyes on Christ and his finished sacrifice. This is where “a healing virtue flows”; this is where we are “saved from endless woes.”
The “endless woes” to which Watts refers certainly include hell in the hereafter, but it also refers to the woes we experience as long as we remain in an unconverted state. Such woes include a defiled conscience, a burdened spirit, an enslaved will, and a life devoid of meaning.

The good news is that we are delivered simply by looking to Jesus! Can anything capture the free offer of grace better than to speak of faith as a mere looking? Looking is really doing nothing. It’s simply a matter of opening our eyes and seeing what is already there. It’s turning our attention to the virtue and merit of another. Can we not look? Is it really too much for us to cast our eyes on the One who shouldered the cross for us? All has been done! God has made the perfect provision for sin! We are only told to look and live.

Watts continues:

“For God gave up his Son to death, so gen’rous was his love,
That all the faithful might enjoy eternal life above.
Not to condemn the sons of men the Son of God appeared;
No weapons in his hand are seen, nor voice of terror heard:
He came to raise our fallen state, and our lost hopes restore;
Faith leads us to the mercy seat, and bids us fear no more.”

When we turn our eyes to Jesus, we see God’s generous love. We should never cease to be amazed when we hear those simple words: “God so loved us that he gave us his Son.” We deserve no good thing from God, but he gave us the best he had to give—his only begotten Son. But there’s more—keep looking to Jesus! What do we see? Jesus is not there to accuse or condemn but to lead us to the mercy seat and banish all our fears. The longer we look to Jesus, the more we see; the more we see, the more we enjoy. Let’s continue looking and drawing in the healing streams flowing from this precious fountain!

Justice and Mercy

Amazing Grace

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:1, ESV)

The church, in some places, has truncated the presentation of the gospel. The gospel is the good news of God’s redemption of men. Paul defines it as “the power of salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” (Rom. 1:16). This “power of salvation” is often translated into, “God will forgive my sins because of Jesus.” That is part of the gospel message. However, it is important for the church to consider more fully what this “power of salvation” is.

The power of salvation is more than a simple fix of my sin problem. To properly understand the significance of sin, the nature of God and man must be understood. God must be seen as the Creator of all things visible and invisible. His ownership over all the world must be recognized. Next, man’s rebellion against his Creator must be seen with all its lethal implications. Man’s sin leads to his death. These lines of thought are the first to be established in the accounts of the Bible. It is within that context that the gospel message is declared. God, who is just, has been sinned against, and justice should be expected.

However, though justice is right and should be applied to men, something different happens. God in his grace and mercy, sets apart some to be redeemed from their guilt. Though they are dead in their sins and trespasses, God makes them alive. He gives to them faith that they might to find salvation in Christ. He gives them repentance that they would not continue in sin. And one of the most amazing parts of the gospel follows out of this grace from God: where justice should be given, mercy is given instead.

Instead of condemnation, man is given justification. But I want to be clear about what happens in man’s justification. The good news of the gospel is found in the hopeless condition of man. What man is unable to do because of sin, God does on his behalf so that he may be justified.

To give clarity, it is important to define justification. I prefer the definition given in the Westminster Shorter Catechism. There justification is defined as: “an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.” This definition divides justification into two parts, one negative in that it removes something from man and the other positive, in that it adds something to man.

In justification, God removes the guilt of my sins. He provides a pardon. He does that because the guilt of my sin has been laid on Christ. On the cross he bore this curse for his people. As the apostle Paul says: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). This curse of condemnation is removed by Christ because, though he was perfectly obedient to God and committed no sin, he became the object of God’s wrath in my place for my sin. So the guilt of my sins is removed.

However, something more is happening in the gospel than a simple removal of guilt. God does not move me from a position of condemnation to one of neutrality. God gives something positive to the believer in justification. The righteousness of Christ is imputed to me. Imputation is an accounting term that transfers something from one account to another. In justification, the righteousness of Christ is transferred from his account to that of his children. Again, Paul says, “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5:19). Part of the gospel is that I am counted righteous in the sight of God because the merit of Jesus’ perfect works is credited to my account. Man moves from a position of eternal guilt to one of eternal favor.

So man, who rebelled against his Creator, and deserves punishment is given mercy instead. That is not because God ignores his justice. Rather, he satisfied it by pouring his wrath for sin out on his Son. With guilt removed, he now extends mercy to all those set apart for his mercy. That is a deeper understanding of the work of redemption. It shows the greatness of God’s gift of salvation more abundantly. This perspective gives God’s people far more reason not to take their salvation for granted, but to rejoice before the Lord all their days for his goodness and kindness to them in the gospel.

Regeneration and the Depth of the Gospel

the Bible

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17, ESV)

To be able to articulate the gospel properly, the Christian must consider all of the parts of his salvation. To truncate the gospel by presenting only a part of it as the whole is a distortion of the truth. God does not only justify, but he also adopts, sanctifies, preserves and glorifies. However far before discussions about these various results of Christ’s work can begin, it is necessary to consider the work of God in salvation that precedes these parts. For example, election shows salvation is a result of God’s will, not dependent on any work in the creature. Election shows how man’s total depravity is overcome in the gospel. Total depravity teaches man’s nature is so effected by sin that all his parts are corrupted in such a way that there is no path for him to God without some saving, intervening work. It heightens the sense of God’s grace, kindness and mercy in the work of redeeming some of his creation for his own mysterious purposes. But the work of salvation also includes the regeneration of the Christian.

Not only does God choose, but he also regenerates the one he is saving. The Bible shows the fatal effect of sin in mankind. In the build-up to the account of the fall, God explains Adam’s obligation to the Lord. Adam is to obey him fully in not eating the forbidden fruit, and if he does he will surely die. The account is well-known. He does eat, and through this sin death enters the world. However, Paul shows us the grace of the gospel in describing God’s regenerating work: “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” (Eph. 2:4-5, ESV). Life under the tyranny of sin is death, but life in the service of Christ is life. Herein is the work of regeneration: moving a soul from death to life.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism refers to regeneration using another term: effectual call. Though different terminology, the meaning is the same. The catechism defines effectual calling as a “work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.” (WSC #31). Before the Spirit’s work in regeneration, there is no reaction to spiritual life because man is dead. However, God, because of the work of the Lord Jesus Christ, through the reviving work of the Holy Spirit, awakens in his creatures an awareness of sin and its consequences. He also breathes into a previously dead heart a saving knowledge of Christ and his substitutionary work with a corresponding desire to follow him.

The gospel message is greatly enriched by looking at all the parts of how God works salvation in man. Far beyond a simple declaration of righteousness in justification, the gospel contains those evidences of the warmth and mercy of God toward his creation. More than simply the process of forsaking sin and loving obedience, the gospel shows man’s position of complete dependence on God. The regenerating work of God in Christ creates a depth of understanding only attained when all the parts of man’s salvation are considered.

So God’s grace is seen in his work of choosing some from among his rebellious creation to belong to him. He takes men and women who are dead in sin, and gives to them life in Christ. Salvation is not just a legal declaration of innocence of sin. Through the doctrine of regeneration, God’s grace and kindness for his people is clearly seen in that fact that he makes them alive again. He performs the miraculous, enabling us to comprehend the significance of the work of Christ and to flee to him for salvation.

Does Election Clarify the Gospel?

“But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.” (2 Thessalonians 2:13, ESV)

One of the difficulties with having theological discussions is definitions. For example, justification means two very different things depending on if you are speaking with a Roman Catholic or a Protestant. The same is true, albeit in a less formalized way, about the word “gospel.” In Scripture the word is used as a place-holder, to summarize all the teaching of Christ. Today’s meaning for the word is often a truncation, or a partial meaning of the good news of salvation. In many cases, the word is used to describe justification, that part of salvation where the sinner is legally declared righteous before the Lord, and the guilt of his sin against God is removed because Christ has satisfied divine justice in his place. Certainly that is good news, but that is not the totality of the gospel. It is part of the story of salvation, but it is not the whole.

Salvation is applied to the believer through a process. This process is all in the hands of God, and he directs the redemption of a lost soul in such a way that it is perfectly accomplished in him. In theology, this process is called the Ordo Salutis, Latin (I’m told) for the Order of Salvation. This logical order of how God coverts a soul, protects the gospel from abridgement and mutation.

Louis Berkhof, in his systematic theology, describes the reformed view of the order of salvation as beginning with regeneration, followed by conversion (including faith and repentance as sub-headings), which leads to justification, adoption, and sanctification. The order is concluded by considering God’s preservation of his saints, and his glorifying them. These theological categories give a much richer understanding of the relationship between God and his people and the way in which he reconciles them to himself. However, these categories are not all neatly found in just one verse. They are found in the breadth of Scripture.

So, thinking through these different parts of God’s work of redemption in his people, what does regeneration add to the definition of the gospel? Regeneration describes the awakening of a dead human spirit. Ezekiel describes regeneration as he speaks of the return of Israel out of exile: “And I will give you a new heart, and a hew spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezek. 36:26). A stone heart has no life in it, but God makes the heart of his people alive. This truth defines the helplessness of man and heightens the sense of his dependence on God for salvation. This truth is not intended to run man down, or simply to make him think ill of himself. Rather it is intended to help him to think with greater joy about God who saved a wretch like him.

The electing work of God is seen as a reason for great gratitude in the verse at the top of this article. There Paul states that the electing, or “chosing” work of God in salvation is cause for constant thankfulness. It is like the man who is being swept way in the rapids, but who is snatched out of it by rescuers on the shore. He will be more grateful to those who saved him than a person who is able to swim to the side and only requires a hand up. Man’s dependence on God for his salvation sets the stage for how he views the rest. With God’s work of regenerating, or making alive, the human heart we begin our understanding of the gospel by giving praise to him.

Against a Truncated Gospel

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” (Romans 1:16, ESV)

The central question Christianity answers is: “How does God reconcile man to himself after sin enters the world.” The passage above from Romans is one of many passages in Scripture that shows the centrality of salvation. Paul certainly thought the declaration of the salvation to men as central to his apostolic task. He describes this message of reconciliation as “the gospel.” It is a beautiful label meaning “good news” and good news it is.

There is nothing that could be better news for man destined for eternal judgment than that salvation has come to him. But what is all included in the gospel? To what part of Scripture would you turn to define the gospel? If you are one of those people who sits behind home plate at televised baseball games, you might suggest John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” That is a beautiful verse, but it contains only part of the gospel. Therein is seen the danger of trying to make too brief a summary of the gospel. Summaries are prone to leave parts out. And when parts of the gospel are left out, the presentation becomes an incomplete picture at best, or a destructive error at worst.

I often travel south of Augusta as part of my responsibilities within the church. As I do so, there is a small church I pass.  I am not sure what the name or denomination of the church is. I can never get past the banner they proudly display by the entrance of their property. This sign has been there for years, and boldly announces: “God is not mad at you no matter what.” That is exactly the kind of unbiblical theological nonsense that leads to the eternal destruction of many human souls and flows from an incomplete understanding of the gospel.

I’m sure this church is sincerely trying to declare the gospel, but their “gospel” message is truncated. They are putting forth a message that, instead of bringing salvation, will give a false sense of security leading to destruction. If God is not mad at me, no matter what, sin makes very little difference. However, Psalm 11:5 says, “The LORD tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.” This verse must be held hand-in-hand with John 3:16 and shows the church’s banner for what it is: man’s idea. Psalm 11 is part of the gospel. That is because the gospel is not contained so much in a handful of verses lifted out of the Bible. Rather the entirety of the Bible contains this good news.

I understand the desire to boil the gospel down to a very short phrase. However, giving a faithful representation of God’s plan of redemption via summary is a difficult task. Jesus, when explaining the events around his own crucifixion and resurrection, did so not using one phrase or verse. Instead, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:17). Christians have to include the whole breadth of Scripture when it comes to explaining the gospel. Otherwise the gospel will be presented in a truncated, inaccurate form.

So what is God’s plan of redemption? What does he do to bring salvation to men? Again, a simple verse will not suffice, but the same Paul who speaks of the gospel in Romans 1:16 says, “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” a few chapters later (Romans 8:30). The picture of what happens in redemption according to this verse includes predestination, calling, justification, and glorification.

All of these, and other parts described in other places of Scripture, work together to give a complete picture of redemption. These heighten the sense of good news. So I want to take some time to consider the different parts of the gospel over the next few weeks, in the hope of presenting a faithful gospel message to the praise of God.