Some argue that the Gospel is not that we have been declared right before God, but that we are members of the church. They argue that the role of faith in justification is not simply to receive Christ and rest in His righteousness, but to cooperate actively with grace to keep what we have already been given in baptism. They argue that the Bible teaches a justification which can be lost if we do not keep the law.
The word “Gospel” is so familiar and frequently used that it is possible to lose sight of its genuine meaning, “good news.” This question is vital as we face a series of movements within our churches which seek to redefine the meaning of the Gospel. In each case we are being offered “another Gospel” (Gal 1:6). The Good News of Christ faces a threat on the order of that faced by the Galatian Christians.
What Happened to this Good News?
The fathers in the early church spoke the Gospel, but their concerns tended to focus on apologetics, the Trinity, Christology, the canon of Scripture and the church. As often as not the “Gospel” message among the early fathers was that Christ had come, and salvation is available to those who trust Christ and behave themselves. This was not good news for sinners.
By the thirteenth century the Gospel of grace was understood as a progressive transformation of a person’s moral life. The gospel equaled sanctification. People were thought to be morally sick and in need of an injection of a medicinal substance called grace. In this scheme, one is as justified as he is sanctified, and sanctification comes by cooperating with this medicine (grace) received in the sacraments. Their Gospel exclaimed: “salvation is available for those who cooperate with grace and obey the Law.” This was more bad news for sinners. Instead of Christ’s perfect righteousness earned for us, we were left with a partial righteousness worked in us.
The Reformation of the Good News
In contrast, Martin Luther and John Calvin believed the Bible contained “two words”: Law and Gospel.(1) “Law” describes anything in Scripture which says, “Do this and live” (Luke 10:28), while “Gospel” describes anything which says, “It is finished” (John 19:30).
“Do this and Live!”
The Law is God’s unbending moral will. This is why the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) 19.1 reminds us that God’s Law requires “personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience” before and after the fall. This was exactly Moses’ doctrine in Deut 27:26 and Paul’s in Gal 3:10: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the book of the Law.”
The Reformers taught that God revealed his Law to Adam in terms of a covenant of works, “the day you eat thereof you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17). The implicit promise to Adam of eternal blessedness was conditioned on his obedience as the representative of all humanity.(2) In his sin, Adam broke the covenant of works and all humanity fell with him.(3) As a result, regarding justification, the Law is bad news for sinners, accusing us that we “have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and [are] still prone always to all evil” (Heidelberg Catechism (HC) 60).
“It is Finished!”
The Good News is another thing however. It is the announcement that by his one act of obedience, Christ, the Second Adam, has kept the Law, fulfilled the covenant of works, and made a “new covenant” in his blood for sinners.(4) The promised Savior-King has come with his kingdom and covenant of grace.(5) While the Law says, “do,” the Gospel says, “done!” While the covenant of works says, “work,” the covenant of grace says, “rest!” This is why the Gospel is such “good news,” since it is about our justification earned for us by Christ and offered freely to us.(6)
According to Heidelberg Catechism 21, true faith believes that “everlasting righteousness and salvation are freely given by God merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.” Where the Law demands my perfect obedience, the Good News announces and promises that Christ has fulfilled the Law for me, cancelled the notice of debt against me and “imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never committed nor had any sin, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me; if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart” (HC 60).(7)
This is what Scripture means by Good News. In several places the noun for “Good News” refers to something which has occurred outside of me which benefits me.(8) In other places we are daily to “proclaim the Good News” of God’s salvation.(9) Most famous of all such Old Testament passages is Isaiah 52:7 which says, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’” (ESV).