Message 18, The Transforming Power of the Gospel:

The book of Romans outlines for us what the Apostle Paul calls “the gospel of God.” This gospel is not simply about God; it belongs to God. The gospel is God’s design. It was not the product of Paul’s ingenuity or of any other Apostle or prophet. God alone is the author and goal of the gospel. The same God who spoke the world into existence by the word of His power is at work for the salvation of His people through His gospel. In this session, Dr. R.C. Sproul explains why the gospel of God is both true and transforming.

Message Transcript

Well, I’m so glad to see you all. So many of you for several times having been here and to be able to look together with you into the Word of God. And so I’d like to begin this morning by reading the first few verses of the introduction that Paul gives us to his epistle, to the church at Rome.

Beginning in chapter 1 verse 1 and reading through verse seven. “Paul,” excuse me if I change the translation a little bit, “a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle set apart for the gospel of God, which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, who 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, through whom 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; to all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” 

And then, let me move down to verse 16 where the apostle writes these words, “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. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith; as it is written, the righteous shall live by faith.”

Let’s pray, shall we? Our Father and our God, we have read and heard these words countless times in the past, and that each time that we hear them, our souls are pierced by their beauty and by their truth, and by the promise that we hear from God Himself in these words. We pray now that as we explore the significance and transforming power of this gospel to which Paul was called to preach, that You would give us understanding of Your words by the illumination of the Holy Spirit who is indeed the Spirit of truth. For we ask it in Jesus’ Name. Amen.

At the very beginning of this magisterial epistle, Paul’s magnum opus, his letter to the Romans, he introduces not only himself and describes himself as a servant, one who has been purchased by Christ, but he indicates the significance for his ministry, where he says, “Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God,” comma. Let me pause for a moment at the comma, where he says that he has been sanctified, consecrated, ordained, set apart for a particular task, and that task is for the gospel of God.

Now, when we read those words in the Greek, we know that they are capable of being interpreted or translated by more than one way. When Paul speaks about the gospel of God, he could be referring here simply to that message, which is about God or concerning God, that being as it is written here, in the genitive, I think that a better translation or interpretation would be this: that when he says that he is set apart for the gospel of God, what he is declaring is that this gospel belongs to God. It’s God’s gospel. God has initiated this message.

He has composed this message. He has called the apostle and their followers to proclaim this message. But in the first place, he is telling us whose gospel, whose message, this is. And if it indeed is understood that the gospel is God’s invention, by His composition, and that which He owns by Himself, the first thing we need to understand, therefore, is that whatever else we do with this gospel, we must never, ever, ever, ever, ever mess with it, because — I’ll wait. We are going to make the Reformed faith great again. We simply must never mess with this gospel because it’s His gospel. He owns it. We respond to it, but we don’t ever mess with it.

Now, when Martin Luther preached his last sermon in February of 1546, just a few days before he died, he mentioned in that sermon that of all the beings in the universe, the one who is the most impoverished as a teacher is God Himself because he said it seems as if everybody wants to be His guidance counselor. Everybody wants God to be their student because everybody wants to improve on this gospel that is declared, possessed, and owned by God.

And, in a sense, that statement was a recapitulation of the entire history of the church because in every generation, there are those who are simply not satisfied with God’s gospel, and they would prefer to give us another gospel. Paul referred to those Galatians who were endeavoring to do just that as being foolish and bewitched, that they would so soon be removed from that gospel that they had heard from the apostle Paul to what Paul says is another gospel. And then, as if the Holy Spirit superintending his comments at that point, corrects himself by saying that there is not another gospel.

And then he warns us that if anyone preaches any other gospel that you have received from God, let him be anathema, ‘anathema,’ ‘damned,’ ‘cursed.’ And then he repeats himself by saying, “If anyone preaches any other gospel than that one which you have received from God Himself, even an angel from heaven, let him be anathema.” That apostolic ‘anathema’ fills the church in our age because we hear so frequently messages that claim to be the gospel that have nothing to do with the gospel because we continue impenitently to mess with the gospel of God.

And God will not hold us guiltless when we seek to improve on His gospel. There is only one gospel. It’s God’s gospel, and it is our duty to believe it and to proclaim it in a pure and unvarnished fidelity to it.

But why is it that we are so eager to improve on this gospel? I’m sure there are many reasons that motivate us to try to change the gospel because we perceive the gospel to be not good news, but bad news, or at least if it’s not good news, it’s not the best news, and we can improve it and make it better than the gospel that it is. Maybe that’s what motivates us. Maybe it’s because the gospel reduces us to shame, and we can’t stand that shame, and so we want to change it.

Or we see it as a stumbling block, and people are hostile to it, and so we figure that a little spoonful of sugar might make the medicine go down and so we soften it. We delude it in our attempt to improve upon it. There are many reasons for this, but I think the biggest problem we have with the gospel is the part that he states in verse 16, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it’s the power of God to salvation.” I don’t know what the exact numbers are. I’m just making a guess. It’s an educated guess. It’s not one that’s just taken out of thin air. It has some experience behind it.

But I doubt very much if there are five percent of ordained ministers in this country who believe that the gospel is the power of God for salvation. This is the place where we really seek the improvement. We don’t think the gospel works. We don’t think that God has endowed power into this gospel. As Luther complained in 1546, he saw that the people were returning from their fresh understanding of the gospel to their old habits of trusting in relics and the pants of Joseph or milk from the breast of the Holy Mother, and Luther said if you really want power in your ministry, go to Aachen or Trier.

Where they have the pants of Joseph, there is the power, because it certainly isn’t in the gospel. So we seek methods and programs hoping that we’ve been able to find where the real power is to transform the lives of our people. And again, going back to percentages, I really doubt if there is as many as five percent of preachers in this country who believe that where the power is is in the gospel of Jesus Christ. In fact, I would be willing to bet that if we had five percent of preachers in America who believed that the gospel was the power of God unto salvation, that an unprecedented revival, awakening, and reformation would come to the shores of our country and throughout the world.

But we don’t believe that that’s where the power is, and so we mess with the gospel and try to find a more powerful tool for changing lives. But when we look at the concept of the gospel, we have — we know whose it is. It belongs to God. We know where the power is. It comes from God. But then we have to ask, “What is the gospel?”

And when you look at that word ‘gospel,’ euangelion in the Greek New Testament, you know that it simply means a message that is described as being a good message. We use that prefix ‘eu’ from the Greek language where we talk about that which is ‘euphonious,’ it sounds good, or ‘euphorious,’ makes us feel good, but here in this case it’s a ‘euangelion,’ a good message.

But when we see how that word is used in the New Testament, there are at least three different ways in which the term ‘gospel’ is used in the Bible. The obvious way is when we refer to a particular literary genre. We talk about the Gospel of Mathew, the Gospel of Mark, the Gospel of Luther — just wanted to see if you were listening. The Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of John, we talk about these biographical statements about the person and work, the life, of Jesus that are given in a synoptic way for the most part.

And we refer to those as Gospels, books that are written about Jesus. But there are two other ways that the term gospel is used and we often overlook the primary way in which God’s gospel or God’s message is introduced on the pages of the New Testament.

The first one who introduces this gospel publicly, by way of public ministry, is John the Baptist. Some like to think that he was a Presbyterian, but the New Testament calls him the Baptist, and that’s good enough for me. But notice how John the Baptist comes on the scene initially in world history with an announcement of a message, and that message is defined in terms of the gospel of the kingdom.

It is the gospel, the good news, about the kingdom of God. And shortly thereafter, when Jesus begins His public ministry, He borrows that same introduction from John, where He says, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” And throughout the earthly ministry of Jesus, He preaches and focuses that preaching and teaching on the gospel of the kingdom, where frequently by use of parable and other devices, He will say, “the gospel,” or the kingdom of God, “is like unto this,” and gives us all kinds of parabolic illustrations that we might understand the content of the gospel. But initially, the descriptive term is that it is the gospel of, and in this case about, the kingdom of God.

And if there is any strand or theme that ties both Testaments, the Old Testament and the New Testament, together it is that single message of the coming and the future promise of the kingdom of God in its earthly manifestation. Now, before I go any further, let me say that before John the Baptist announces this gospel of the kingdom and before Jesus announces the gospel of the kingdom, both of them preface their announcement by an imperative, which imperative comes ultimately from God.

You know what it is: Repent because the kingdom of God is at hand. It’s on the very edge of history. It is a time of profound urgency. John the Baptist comes and he says, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand. The axe is laid at the root of the tree. His fan is in His hand.” There is this immediate urgency in the announcement that the kingdom of God is about to break into time and space and you’re not ready for it. And the necessary condition to respond to this gospel is repentance.

I mentioned in the Q&A yesterday a couple of things about this whole idea of repentance. I have a good friend who’s a pagan. He’s as pagan as they come. He’s one of the most profane individuals I’ve ever known. His vocabulary would make a sailor blush. And even his pagan friends sometimes are annoyed and frustrated by his unending stream of profanities. And this year, he decided to change his ways and to stop using the profanities for which he is so famous, and he decided to turn over a new leaf.

And I find that somewhat interesting because in one sense we may think that that’s an indication of repentance because the New Testament defines repentance, metanoia, as a change of mind. “My mind used to work in this way. I used to believe in this way. I used to act in this fashion, but now I’m going to change my mind, and therefore I’m going to change my ways,” and therefore we understand that repentance has to do with a resolve to act and to behave in a different way.

Well, it does include all of those things, but that doesn’t get to the heart and to the soul of what real repentance is. When we study the concept of repentance, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament, we see that not only must there be a resolve to change, to turn over the new leaf, but that resolve must be accompanied by a heartfelt godly sorrow for how we have behaved yesterday and the day before.

So when we hear John coming and saying, “Repent, because the kingdom of God is at hand,” and we hear Jesus echoing the same message, “Repent, because the kingdom of God is at hand,” he is calling us to contrition, not simply to seek a ticket out of hell or find a way of escape from the wrath that is to come, a repentance that is motivated by a fear of punishment, but godly repentance begins in the soul and in the heart with an awakening to the severity of the way in which we have offended a Holy God.

One of the things my wife likes to do is to watch these TV programs that have to do with property renovations and, like the Property Brothers, those twin guys that make all kinds of renovations. And there is this one program where the people go away for so many days and the workers come in and destroy all the stuff that was there and make a magnificent change and redo the whole house. And then the surprise moment comes when the husband and the wife are able to look for the first time at the beautiful renovations that have been made.

And you can take it to the bank that the woman is going to say, 95 out of a hundred times on television, their first words out of their mouth — we even have a shorthand version for Facebook, OMG! Oh my God! And you know what, when I hear that, I know — I just know that those people have no idea how offensive that is to God. They’ve no thought or awareness that they have just violated one of the top ten laws that God has legislated. Or the very first petition that our Lord taught us to pray for in the Lord’s prayer, when He said, when you pray, pray like this, “Hallowed be My name.” My name is Holy.

And Jesus had to listen to people every five minutes, in a casual, cavalier way saying, “Oh my God!” Not because they were trying to curse, not because they were trying to commit blasphemy. And the very fact that they weren’t conscious of committing blasphemy underscores the severity of that offense.

I know there are hundreds of people in this room right now that had this offense before God everyday and think nothing of it. My friend that I mentioned to you a few moments ago will say on a regular basis, “God damn it!” And then he’ll look at me and feel guilty because I’m a preacher, and he’ll say, “Oh I mean, God darn it.” He doesn’t have a clue. Cursing, vulgarities are nothing compared to blasphemy. But we’re inured, we’re immunized to the severity of offending the holiness of God by how we talk about Him in our daily conversation, and that daily conversation reveals more clearly and manifestly the seriousness of our sin more than we can imagine.

But if we’re going to repent, we start with repenting about how our souls have fled from reverence and adoration for God. Hallowed be His name. Not because names are magical, but when Jesus said what I want you to pray for first of all is that My Father’s name may be treated with reverence and awe because He is Holy. But nothing reflects how little attention we have to the divine holiness than how we speak about God. But again, this is not just something new in our generation.

It’s just the same thing that was going on in the first century. And when John says, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand” in Matthew’s Gospel, it’s different. It’s “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” because Matthew was so sensitive and so concerned as a Jewish person to not ever in any way use the name of God in a flippant manner that they invented what’s called periphrasis or circumlocution, and rather than to speak of the kingdom of God, they would speak of the kingdom of heaven, lest they would be guilty of taking the sacred name in vain.

But how many of us have agonized in our souls about how we use the name of God? You know, as I said yesterday, when David was pouring out his soul in contrition, he said, “If You desired sacrifices, the Lord doesn’t desire sacrifices else I would give them. But the sacrifices of God are a broken and contrite heart.” I know I have never in my life, to this moment, reached the level of contrition and godly sorrow that God’s command of repentance demands. And I don’t expect to reach that level anytime before glory.

Finally, the gospel of the kingdom in the letters, in the epistles, particularly in Paul’s epistles, morphs from the gospel of the kingdom to the gospel of the King, to the good news of the gospel, the person and work of Jesus Christ. Let me tell you what the gospel isn’t. The gospel is not your personal testimony. I think personal testimonies are a good thing and we are called to testify to the greatness of Christ and what He has meant for us in our lives.

It’s a wonderful thing. But giving your personal testimony is pre-evangelism; it’s not evangelism. Evangelism is proclaiming the gospel. And to say that God loves all people unconditionally is not the gospel; it’s not even true. Or to say that God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life; that’s not the gospel. The gospel in the New Testament is the gospel about Jesus, His person, who He is, His work, what He has done.

For many, many years I’ve taught in the seminary and taught, among other courses, courses on the gospel. And in order to work in the Doctor of Ministry program of seminaries, usually it’s required that a person will have been — finished their basic seminary training and be ordained, be in the ministry for at least five years before they can enter into a Doctor of Ministry program. And when I teach on these questions, it would be my custom to stand in front of the room with the chalkboard and a piece of chalk in my hand with the first class of our students and say, “Let’s start here, the ABC’s.

How many of you’ve been ordained to the gospel ministry?” and they all raise their hands. I’ll say, “Okay. Let me write on the blackboard the definition of the gospel. What is the gospel?” And these are usually conservative pastors, evangelical pastors. In my experience, it’s anecdotal, not absolute, not scientific, not one in ten have been able to give an adequate definition of the gospel. They’ll say the gospel means that I can be forgiven of my sins. Yes, it does. The gospel means that I can have a meaningful life. Yes, it does. But those are consequences, the results of it. They are not the gospel.

The gospel is a clearly defined message. If you want to see what it is, go to the sermons in the preaching of the book of Acts and notice and underscore the content of those sermons. And there you will discover what the gospel is. It’s about Jesus who was born according to the Scriptures and who lived a sinless life and who died an atoning death on the cross, and for our righteousness God raised Him from the dead and carried Him in glory to heaven for His coronation as our King and for His installation as our great High Priest, who ministers for us everyday and who will come again at the end of history to bring the fullness of His kingdom, which has begun already, but will not be completely manifested and consummated until His return.

Those — that’s the objective data of the gospel, but it’s only part of the gospel. The rest is the question of the subjective appropriation of the benefits of Christ that accrue to us. So the objective data is the data concerning the person and work of Jesus that is to be received savingly by faith and by faith alone.

Rome understood the data, the historical data, believed in the virgin birth, believed in the atonement, believed in the miracles, believed all that, but in the 16th century, when it came to the subjective side of the appropriation of the benefits of the person and work of Christ, they condemned the gospel, anathematized the gospel and stopped being a church. What greater sin is there than to deny how we are saved by and through the gospel?

That’s why Paul said, “There’s no other gospel.” And that gospel has its fullness that includes how we’re justified by faith and by faith alone. As he concludes this passage here when he speaks of the righteousness of God, not that righteousness by which God Himself is righteous, but that righteousness by which we are justified in His presence. Therefore, he comes to the conclusion at the end of this prologue, the just shall live by faith. Therein is the transforming power of the gospel, which begins in the mind of God, accomplished by the Son of God and applied by the power of God in His Holy Spirit.

How can you possibly improve on that gospel? If there ever was a fool’s errand, it was the errand that people chase when they think they can come up with a better gospel. It’s the gospel of God. He composed it and He commanded it for us and for our people and our children forever. It’s His gospel, empowered by His Spirit that transforms our lives that must be received in repentance and in faith.

Let’s pray: Our Father and our God, what a great gospel it is. If you would mark iniquities, who would stand? We know the answer to that question. Not one of us could possibly stand by Your judgment, but for us and for our salvation You have, as the prophets told in antiquity, You have sent Your Son, Your only Son, the Son in whom You are well pleased, through whom and by whom we can be reconciled to You that we may be saved now and forevermore. Father, raise up Christians who believe Your gospel, who know Your gospel and take assurance in the power of that gospel. And forgive us for ever imagining for a second that we could ever improve on it, for we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen!