The Gospel Is the Power of God
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The Gospel Is the Power of God

Romans 1:16–17  (ID: 3567)

In a culture increasingly interested in therapy over theology, the Bible alone is able to make us wise for salvation. In this Reformation Sunday message, Alistair Begg highlights the Gospel’s power to reveal God’s righteous character and activity. If believers are to boldly proclaim the good news of Jesus to a world that would shame us into silence, we must be convinced of this truth: the Gospel alone is the power of God to save men and women from eternal condemnation.

Series Containing This Sermon

God’s Power for Salvation

Gospel Hope for a Romans 1 World Romans 1:16–32 Series ID: 28801

Sermon Transcript: Print

I invite you to turn to the Bible with me, to Romans, and to follow along as I read just two short passages, first from chapter 1 and then in chapter 3. Romans 1:16–17, and then in Romans 3 from verse 19.

Paul writes,

“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.’”

Verse 19 of chapter 3:

“Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”


Well, this is the one Sunday when I can legitimately bring to the pulpit with me Martin Luther—he spends his life alongside me and alongside a large version of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, but arguably, Luther had a far greater impact than did Spurgeon—but nevertheless, because some of you will be aware of the fact that today is, throughout the world, Reformation Sunday. And so it frames our study of the Bible, and it allows us to underscore the great, amazing impact that God brought to the world when he stirred up out of the darkness of the Middle Ages the light of the truth of the gospel.

It was 1505, when Martin Luther was just twenty-one years of age, that he became a monk. He wanted so desperately to please God, and he knew there was so much in his life that displeased God that he thought if he could become a monk, then perhaps that would take care of things. He was very, very diligent. He prayed consistently. He confessed his sins. He fasted. And he said at that time, “If ever somebody was to be accepted by God as a monk, then my monkery,” as he put it, “was surely as solid as anyone’s.” And yet, despite his religious activities, despite his engagement in these things, he continued to wrestle with a guilty conscience. He feared God, he feared death, he feared judgment, and he feared hell, as well he might.

And then, one day, the light came on. The light came on when he understood things that he had previously understood, in this sense: that although he had been able to read the Bible, and intellectually appreciate the truth that was conveyed, that truth had never actually laid hold of him in a life-changing way. It had been revealed to him in the Scriptures, but it had not become his own.

And in that respect, he is, if you like, a challenge and an encouragement to some of us who may find ourselves in a similar circumstance. The phrase that really troubled him was here in the seventeenth verse, the phrase “the righteousness of God.” “The righteousness of God.” Because in reading this, he decided that this was a righteousness that it behooved him as a man to produce. In other words, he struggled over it because he thought that it was a righteousness that he was himself to attain. And then the light came on, and he realized, no, it was actually a gift of God by grace through faith. And that changed everything. In fact, he said that that phraseology became for him from that point on a gateway to heaven.[1]

We are, the Bible says, suffering from a pathological virus that leaves us in the depths and out of which we cannot come. We are by nature the enemies of God.

Now, that’s a long time ago. That’s half a millennium ago. And we might even find ourselves, as you listen to this opening paragraph or so, saying, you know, from the vantage point where we live in an increasingly secularized environment, increasingly irreligious, increasingly self-serving, we might find ourselves amazed at a picture of Luther deeply troubled, understandably and horribly anxious, and anxious at the thought of standing before God. I don’t think if we were to go out this morning and just go into the surrounding community, we would immediately find people who are standing beating their chest with the prospect of standing before God. By and large, people say, “Well, I have a standing. I have a standing in the community. I have a standing here and there. I’m not sure I’m very concerned about that at all.”

And that would be one thing if it were true only in the environment into which the church goes. But increasingly, within the framework of recognized religion, many, many people have largely dispensed with theology—the theology of the Bible, the theology of the Reformation—and particularly because of the way it diagnoses the human condition. How does it diagnose it? Well, it says that we are by nature sinful, that we are guilty, that we are lost, and that we are responsible—that we are, the Bible says, suffering from a pathological virus that leaves us in the depths and out of which we cannot come. We are by nature the enemies of God.

So, that’s essentially the theology of it. “Oh,” you say, “well, we don’t really—we’re not interested in that kind of theology. But we would like a Christianity that has far more to do with therapy. It’s far more therapeutic—something that would ease our disappointments, that would soothe our sorrows, that would give us great prospect for self-improvement. That way, we would be able to go out feeling so much better about ourselves and assured along these lines.”

Well, David Wells, in his book The Courage to Be Protestant, highlights this predicament when he writes as follows:

Over a period of time our society has slowly exited the moral world and it now lives … in a psychological world. The difference is that in one [world] there is right and wrong and in the other there is not. In the other world, we[’re] [either] comfortable or not, psychologically healthy or not, dysfunctional or not, but we are never sinners.[2]

We’re never sinners.

Now, you can think that out for yourselves. In conversation tomorrow, you’ll run into it almost immediately. If you begin to talk about circumstances, about life, about the challenges with our children, about living our lives and so on, we’ll find that it is very easy very quickly to go to a therapeutic model. And yet the Bible challenges that. Not that the therapeutic value of the gospel is to be gainsaid. No, not for a moment! But you see, that is why we need our Bibles, because the Bible makes us wise for salvation.[3] And this is what Paul is emphasizing here as he begins this great book, writing to the church in Rome, a place that he has not yet visited but is looking forward to.

The gospel, he says, is “the power of God.” The gospel is “the power of God.” He says that he has been “set apart” for this gospel. If your Bible is open, you will see that. He begins this whole letter in that way: “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle,” and “set apart for the gospel of God.”[4] By verse 15, he’s now explaining that he is “eager to preach”[5] this gospel, and he’s aware of the fact that they, the recipients of the letter, need to hear about this and need to understand it.

Perhaps it’s important for us to recognize that he is not, in the first instance, proclaiming this in a kind of evangelistic way. This is not him gathering the people in Rome—outsiders, folks who are wandering willy-nilly through the world—and he’s saying to them, “I am not ashamed of the gospel. It is the power of God for salvation.” No, he’s actually writing to Christians. This letter is written to the Christians. He says, “I want you to know that I am eager to preach the gospel and that I am not ashamed of this gospel.”

Now, why is this? Well, it is because he recognizes that if the people are going to take the gospel to Rome, they’d better be clear about what the gospel is. If we’re going to take the gospel to Cleveland, we need to be clear about what that gospel is. And he recognizes—and we’ll see, but I think we will go on into verse 18 next Sunday—he recognizes that those to whom he writes need to be convinced of verse 18: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.”[6] This is the great verdict on a world that turns its back on God. And it is in that context that the good news of the gospel is proclaimed.

What this actually says, in a nutshell, is that men and women are not in need of a moral exemplar. They’re not in need of a life coach. We are in need of a Savior. In the penultimate book of the Bible, Jude, which is just a few verses, it speaks there, towards the end of that letter, about having mercy on those who doubt and “sav[ing] others by snatching them out of the fire.”[7] “Snatching them out of the fire.” You see what a different picture that is from the idea that Christianity just exists? If you want to have a relatively comfortable existence, if you want to feel about yourself and do something nice for other people and so on, what has that got to do with snatching people out of the fire? What has that got to do with the fact that the wrath of God is revealed against all the ungodliness and wickedness of men? Without that reality, then this gospel would seem somewhat superficial, if not actually irrelevant.

That’s why the hymn writers have often helped us. I wonder how long it is since we’ve sung Fanny Crosby’s old hymn,

Rescue the perishing, care for the dying,
Snatch them in pity from sin and the grave;
Weep o’er the erring one[s], lift up the fallen,
Tell them of Jesus, [he’s] mighty to save.[8]

Jesus saves. That’s why he’s called the Savior. Good news of great joy comes to the shepherds: “I bring you good news of great joy which shall be for all the people, for unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior. He is the Messiah. He is Christ. He is the Lord.”[9]

Now, Paul didn’t believe that for a moment. He was opposed to Christ, opposed to the followers of Christ, until for him the lights went on as well. And that may well be you too. You may actually be here this morning, and you have decided that the opening words that you’ve heard from my lips are abhorrent to you. Well, I wouldn’t be surprised. But Paul is commissioned to take this gospel. He is obligated, he says down in verse 14, “both to Greeks and to barbarians.”[10] In what sense is he obligated? He’s obligated in that he has been given this in order to give to them. And until he gives it to them, he has an obligation to do so.

So, commissioned to take “my name before the Gentiles”[11]—Acts chapter 9. Obligated to the Greeks and to the barbarians, whether they are the intellectuals or whether they are like some of the rest of us. And at the same time, too, he is “eager to preach the gospel.”

Now, let’s not forget that he is speaking to those who were living in a unique setup. Rome and all the power of imperial Rome was represented there. And now these believers who are in Rome have received this, and they would have occasion to say to one another, “That is quite striking that Paul is as enthusiastic as he is, that he is eager to be able to bring this message to us here.” And it comes across with, just three times, the same word in Greek, which is translated here “for” (the word in Greek is gàr): “For I am not ashamed, … for it is the power God …. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed.”

Now, if tradition is accurate, Paul had really very little going for him in terms of his physical stature. I don’t know how accurate this is, but it tends to appear all over the place. They said that he was a relatively nondescript little man. Some described him as being ugly. He had beetle brows. He had bandy legs. He had a bald head, a hooked nose, bad eyesight, possessed no obvious rhetorical gifts—but apart from that, he was something really special!

What possible hope could such a character have? Such an epitome of very, very ordinary skills and gifts. What possible hope was there for him to be able to make it to Rome, the great center of imperial power, and to move amongst the wise and the influential of his day? What was it? Well, look at what he says: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel.” “I’m not ashamed of the gospel.” He was aware of the weakness, the poverty of the message that he proclaimed. When he writes to the Corinthians, he says, “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing.”[12]

So in other words, it wasn’t that he had this amazing message that everybody wanted to tune in on and understand. No, he came to tell them about this Galilean carpenter who had lived this life and who had died this death and who had been raised and was ascended and was a returning King, and people said, “Oh, forget it! Please, let’s have something other than that.”

Furthermore, it was a stumbling block to Jewish people, and to the gentile people that just regarded it as absolutely ridiculous.[13] That’s our message. You understand that? The message is a message that it would be understandable if we felt ashamed of it. You go back to work tomorrow, and you tell people that the only Savior in the entire world is Jesus of Nazareth. You say they’ll laugh you out of your lab. They’ll throw you out. They’ll say, “Where did you come up with such bigoted nonsense? Who have you been listening to, teaching you these superstitious myths and silly ideas?”

Well, Paul understood that. He understood it in the living of his life, in the proclaiming of his story, and he understood it as he passed it to the next generation. The key to the future of the church lay in this gospel, of which he is not ashamed, being passed carefully into the next generation. And as he transitions it, if you like, to Timothy, notice what he says to him: “So do not be ashamed.”[14] “Don’t be ashamed.”

Well, you don’t have to tell somebody not to be ashamed unless their temptation is to be ashamed. When he says, “I am not ashamed,” some people say it’s just litotes: it means the antithesis of that, that he is really bold about it. No, I don’t think we have to go there. I think we have to recognize that he was aware of the fact that when he came, he came “in weakness and in fear and [in] much trembling,”[15] and his proclamation was not in powerful and rhetorical, influential words and so on. No! “Don’t be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but join in suffering for the gospel.”[16]

Now, again, let’s remember that these Roman Christians who were reading this letter were living with the pressures of a Roman culture, and particularly a culture that had the place for all gods, all kinds of gods, all stripes and sizes and styles—hence the Pantheon in Rome. And the Roman culture was perfectly prepared to include Jesus in the mix. What it was unprepared to accept was that Jesus transcended all other substitute gods, that Jesus is the Lord and the King.

Now, you don’t have to go very far to recognize that the same is true in our day, is it not? People are perfectly happy, if you get in conversation with them, to say, “Well, I’m into a kind of form of Hinduism. I’ve been into yoga for some time, and I like to make the ‘om’ noise when I’m doing my thing. And when I go ‘om’ and you go ‘hallelujah,’ I mean, you have your ‘hallelujah’; I have my ‘om.’” You say, “Well, I’m sorry, but no. I know you do ‘om,’ but Jesus is Lord.”

The cultural pressure faced in Rome is a cultural pressure faced in Cleveland. And the cultural pressure is really strong. The prevailing wind is blowing not at our backs as we affirm the basics of Christianity, but it’s blowing, actually, in our faces. And the real challenge is how we then take this great news—how we’re able to say, “I am not ashamed.” The pressure is “Just keep your thoughts to yourselves. Just keep your thoughts to yourselves! Why do you have to be so outspoken? Why do you have to suggest these things? I kind of like you, but I wish you would just shut up. That would be perfect.”

And some of you have been out this last month, and you’ve been saying to people, “Do you know that Jesus said, ‘I am the door’?[17] Do you know that Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life,’ and that ‘no one comes to the Father but by me’?[18] Do you know that Jesus says, ‘I am the light of the world, and he that follows me will not walk in darkness’?”[19] You’ve been saying that to people in conversation. They say, “No, no, no, no, this cannot be.” That’s where they were. That’s where we are. And the message seems weak. It seems almost pathetic. And that’s why when Paul writes of it in his letter to the Corinthians, he reminds his readers that the weakness of God, the apparent weakness of God, is stronger than men.

I find that people say to me, “Well, you, Alistair, you deal in the realm of faith; we deal in the realm of facts. You deal in the realm of values; we deal in the realm of verities. We deal in the realm of science; you deal in the realm of fiction and mythology.” Well, no, actually, we don’t. When the facts of the gospel are disintegrated, there is no gospel left—the fact of the resurrection, the dramatic fact of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, and so on. “This is why,” he says, “I am not ashamed of the gospel. I am not ashamed of the gospel. For it is the power of God for salvation. There’s no reason to be ashamed of this,” he says. “This is the way that God accomplishes his purposes.”

God does not save through the sacraments. God does not save through the sacraments. If you have been brought up to believe that that is the case, then you’ve been fed a lie. He does not save through the sacraments. If he saved through the sacraments, there would be no Martin Luther here this morning. Because Martin Luther could have relaxed. He could have said, “As long as I do what I’m supposed to do, as long as I receive what I’m supposed to receive, then all will be well with my soul.” But he knew inside of himself that it wasn’t. He confessed his sins, but he never had a sense of forgiveness. He went through the exercises, but he never enjoyed peace. He was in great agony of his soul until the light came on.

“It is the power of God.” “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom…” Think about that for just a moment. This is Paul again, in the Corinthian letter. “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom”—in other words, we couldn’t think our way through to it—“it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.”[20] People say, “But you know, there’s so many, many wonderfully clever people in my university. There’s people in my office. There’s a girl in my office; she’s so smart.” I mean, I get that. But there is no intellectual road to God. Because even the way we think is messed up as a result of our state before God, because we are rebels before him.

“It is,” he says, “that I am not ashamed of the gospel, and I’ll tell you why I’m not ashamed of the gospel: because it is the power of God.” Every person God rescues—which is another word for saving—every person God rescues, he rescues through the gospel. Through the gospel! No one anywhere at any time, including all through the Old Testament, was rescued by any other way. All of the sacrifices of the Old Testament are pointing forward to “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,”[21] so that Old Testament believers were saved in prospect of the coming of Jesus, and we then are saved as we find our satisfaction and our solution in the work that Jesus has accomplished.

It is “for salvation.” You remember the story of the Salvation Army girl who gets on the train in London, and she sees a bishop get in. And he’s dressed as a bishop: he has one of those special hats, and he has a crook with him. And being a Salvation Army girl, she assumes, “Nobody dressed like this could ever possibly understand the gospel. Nobody like this would ever know anything about it.” And so she says to him, “Excuse me, bishop, is you saved?” And Bishop Westcott, who was the leading Greek scholar of the time, said to her, “Do you mean have I been saved, am I being saved, or will I be saved?” Now, we don’t know what she said in response. But what Westcott was pointing out there was the reality of salvation. And if you never understood this before because you weren’t in the right Sunday School class, then get it now.

In salvation, we have been saved from sin’s penalty, we are being saved from sin’s power, and we will be one day saved from sin’s presence. How, then, can a man or a woman be made right with God, so that the penalty and the guilt of sin which lays upon our shoulders as a reality… Because we haven’t loved God with all our hearts. We haven’t pleased him in every way. Our very life is in rebellion against him—either a casual indifference or manifold rebellion. How, then, is that penalty removed? Well, Paul says, “I’m not ashamed of this gospel, because it is the power of God”—for everyone!—“to everyone who believes,” whether Jew or Gentile.

The salvation provided in the gospel is the need of every single person in the entire world.

Back in verse 5, if your Bible is open, he talks about having “received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations.”[22] “Among all the nations.” People say, “Well, why would you go and send intelligent people to Central Asia this morning? Why would you encourage people to spend their whole lives interpreting difficult heart-languages of the Bible? Why?” Because the gospel is the power of God. The gospel is not an idea. The gospel is God’s power.

That brings us to the third “for”: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed.” There’s a progression here. You will see it. He says, “I’m not ashamed”—so, he’s explaining his eagerness; “for it is the power of God,” explaining why he’s not ashamed; “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed,” explaining how it is that it is the power of God.

Now, Paul is not suggesting that this is a peculiar story for a unique group of individuals. No, it is comprehensive in its appeal. The salvation provided in the gospel is the need of everybody in the entire world. The salvation provided in the gospel is the need of every single person in the entire world. Everyone that lives up your street and up my street, every person that we went to university or college with, everybody in the entire world needs the truth of the gospel. And so why are we ashamed? Are we convinced that it is the power of God? That the gospel actually saves? Do we actually believe that by nature we’re all guilty? That none of us possesses in ourselves the ability to do enough good things to make ourselves acceptable to God? That we’re actually the subjects of God’s wrath?

Well, this salvation, he says, is enjoyed by those who appropriate the righteousness of God by faith: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith [to] faith.” Now, the righteousness of God—which is not just a New Testament concept; it runs all the way through the Psalms and through the Old Testament—the righteousness of God comes to us both as an attribute of God but also as the activity of God. And it is in this active sense that he’s mentioning it here: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed.” In other words, the righteousness of God is not unconditionally and universally known, so that everybody doesn’t go, “Oh yeah, the righteousness of God. I got that, yes. That’s fine. Yes. It’s been revealed.” No: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” So in other words, we have to believe. We have to believe. When the Philippian jailer says to Paul and to Silas, “What must I do to be saved?” he doesn’t say, “Well, just try your best.” No, he says, “Believe [on] the Lord Jesus [Christ], and you will be saved.”[23] For the gospel is the power of God.

What does that mean? Well, it means that God saves through the message of the gospel as it is proclaimed. “Faith come[s] by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”[24] “How will they hear if nobody tells them? How will they believe if they have not heard?”[25] It’s obvious. It’s straightforward. It’s not the job of religious professionals. It’s the entrusted job of the entire church. If your friends don’t hear, and they’re your friends, presumably, you didn’t think it was important to tell them. And the same would be true for mine. It would really call into question whether I actually believe the gospel itself and whether I believe that it is sufficient for this.

Paul, of course, drives this home again and again. For example, in Philippians and in chapter 3, it’s there for us, in a way that is perfectly straightforward. He’s recounting the fact that he was a religious person before. He did all these things. He has had a radical change in his life. He used to find his significance and his identity in them, but he said, “[I wanted to know Christ] and be found in him”—here we go—“not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ [Jesus], the righteousness from God that depends on faith.”[26]

Now, this is a big story, and it is important that we bow down underneath it. When a person believes this, when a person entrusts themselves to this, when a person recognizes that “in your righteousness there is life,”[27] there is an instantaneous change takes place in the life of that person. It is not an inner, moral transformation that takes place. It is a change of status. A change of status. By nature, I am under God’s wrath. I have no possibility of extricating myself from the predicament, save that the power of the gospel breaks into my life, is revealed to me, not simply as an intellectual capacity, not simply as an idea, not simply as a notion, but as a life-transforming reality.

That’s why when we sing—for example, the hymn writer:

O perfect redemption, the purchase of blood,
To every believer the promise of God;
The vilest offender who truly believes,
That moment from Jesus a pardon receives.[28]

No longer now under the wrath of God. Now under the righteousness that has been provided.

Now, I want us to make sure we grasp this as I draw this to a close. When Paul is saying here that this righteousness is “revealed,” it’s not simply that it is made known so that it might be understood by us intellectually but rather that it is actively and dynamically made known to us. It is brought home to us in our own sinful condition, so that we suddenly realize, “Oh, this is something that I need. This is something God has done.”

When he writes to Titus, encouraging Titus to be a good pastor, reminding his people to be decent and not to be unkind to people, reminding them that they, “we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others … hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared,” when the gospel showed up, when the good news came, when the righteousness of God was actively, dynamically made true in our experience, then we realize that “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy.”[29]

Faith, you see, is not the condition. Faith is the conduit. If I listen to people speak, they say, “Well, you know, the condition used to be in the Old Testament, you did it by works. But the condition now in the New Testament is that you do it by faith,” thereby making our faith somehow or another operative in the process itself. So we might say, “If only Tom and Tina would believe, they would experience the power of the gospel.” But in actual fact, without the power of the gospel, Tom and Tina will never believe. So you see, it’s not that faith produces this. Faith is the conduit. That’s why we say with our children, isn’t it, “Forsaking All, I Trust Him”?

At a very base level of understanding, what this actually means, and the dividing line for us, is this: either I trust God to save me, or I continue to think that I can save myself. You see, why would you ever need a gospel, if Christianity is simply “Try your best, clean up, quit that, start this, do that, do the next thing, hold the line, and so on, but you don’t really need any outside help; you can make a good stab at this”? Either we walk out of this building this morning trusting God entirely or trusting ourselves.

That’s why Paul says, “I’m not ashamed of this. Because the gospel itself is the power of God.” And the reason it’s the power of God is because the righteousness of God is actively and dynamically revealed when the gospel is preached. You say, “Well, everybody can hear this. Is everybody saying, ‘Oh yes, I’m going to make that my own’?” No, because, you see, you hear my voice, but you may not hear the voice of God.

The story is of God reaching out to rescue all who trust in Christ by giving them an undeserved gift: a right standing before him. Think about it. What was it that got Luther out of his predicament? Anybody who would have looked would have said, “Oh, he’s got it made! I mean, he’s a monk. He’s doing commentaries on the book of the Psalms. He’s now studying the book of Romans. If ever there was a person who was in a right position before God, it surely must be Luther.” But if we saw him, sometimes it says in his journals that he confessed his sins again and again and again and again, as much as six hours in a day. He was so agonized by everything! What changed? The gospel changed! Up until that point, he was a religious zealot, but no assurance before God, until he realized that it wasn’t the labor of his hands that made it work; it was the grace and goodness of God.

The story is of God reaching out to rescue all who trust in Christ by giving them an undeserved gift: a right standing before him.

Let me give you—and with this I will stop—but let me give you a quote that I have kept for a long time in one of my little books here. And it’s from the fellow who was at Princeton Seminary, and then he went with others to begin Westminster Seminary. His name is Gresham Machen. And Machen in this little dialogue is conducting a dialogue between, if you like, the law of God and the grace of God. Just listen as best you can, and we’ll just finish up with this.

This is Machen writing now. He says,

Those who have been saved by the Lord Jesus Christ are in a far more blessed condition than [Adam was] before he fell. Adam before he fell was righteous in the sight of God, but he was still under the possibility of becoming unrighteous. Those who have been saved by the Lord Jesus Christ not only are righteous in the sight of God but they are beyond the possibility of becoming unrighteous. In their case, the probation is over. It is not over because they have stood it successfully. It is not over because they have themselves earned the reward of assured blessedness which God promised on condition of perfect obedience. But it is over because Christ has stood it for them; it is over because Christ has merited for them the reward by His perfect obedience. …

“Man,” says the law of God, “have you obeyed my commands?”

“No,” says the sinner saved by grace. “I have disobeyed them, not only in the person of my representative Adam in his first sin, but also in that I myself have sinned in thought, word and deed.”

“Well, then, sinner,” says the law of God, “have you paid the penalty which I pronounced upon disobedience?”

“No,” says the sinner, “I have not paid the penalty myself; but Christ has paid it for me. He was my representative when He died there on the cross. Hence, so far as the penalty is concerned, I am clear.”

“Well, then, sinner,” says the law of God, “how about the conditions which God has pronounced for the attainment of assured blessedness? Have you stood the test? Have you merited eternal life by perfect obedience …?”

“No,” says the sinner, “I have not merited eternal life by my own perfect obedience. God knows and my … conscience knows that even after I became a Christian I have sinned in thought, word and deed. But although I have not merited eternal life by any obedience of my own, Christ has merited it for me by His perfect obedience. He was not for Himself subject to the law. No obedience was required of Him for Himself, since He was Lord of all. That obedience, then, which He rendered to the law when He was on earth was rendered by Him as my representative. I have no righteousness of my own, but [clothed] in Christ’s perfect righteousness, imputed to me and received by faith alone, I can glory in the fact that so far as I am concerned the probation has been kept and as God is true there awaits me the glorious reward which Christ [has] earned for me.”[30]

Either we’re being saved on account of what Christ has done, or we’re going to go out and save ourselves. We sang it: “No fear in death.”[31] Really? Luther was scared to death of death—till he realized what Paul was saying: “I’m not ashamed—not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God. It’s for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed, faith from beginning to end, a hundred percent grace and a hundred percent faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous by faith shall live.’” “The righteous shall live by faith.”

Father, out of an abundance of words, we long that we might hear your voice. I pray that the solemnity of these things might lay hold upon our hearts and minds. Some of us are just young and thinking, “There’s plenty of time later on to get all this sorted out. I don’t need to hear this today. I don’t need to believe this today.” Lord, remind us that the Bible always speaks in the immediacy of things—that “now is the accepted time,” that “now is the day of salvation.”[32] What a wonder it is that you do this for us in order that we in turn may take this message to others. Write your Word upon our hearts, we pray. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

[1] Martin Luther, preface to Latin Writings (1545).

[2] David F. Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant: Reformation Faith in Today’s World, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017), 25.

[3] See 2 Timothy 3:15.

[4] Romans 1:1 (ESV).

[5] Romans 1:15 (ESV).

[6] Romans 1:18 (ESV).

[7] Jude 23 (ESV).

[8] Fanny Jane Crosby, “Rescue the Pershing” (1869).

[9] Luke 2:10–11 (paraphrased).

[10] Romans 1:14 (ESV).

[11] Acts 9:15 (ESV).

[12] 1 Corinthians 1:18 (ESV).

[13] See 1 Corinthians 1:23.

[14] 2 Timothy 1:8 (NIV).

[15] 1 Corinthians 2:3 (ESV).

[16] 2 Timothy 1:8 (paraphrased).

[17] John 10:7 (ESV).

[18] John 14:6 (paraphrased).

[19] John 8:12 (paraphrased).

[20] 1 Corinthians 1:21 (ESV).

[21] John 1:29 (ESV).

[22] Romans 1:5 (ESV).

[23] Acts 16:30–31 (ESV).

[24] Romans 10:17 (KJV).

[25] Romans 10:14 (paraphrased).

[26] Philippians 3:9 (ESV).

[27] Proverbs 12:28 (paraphrased).

[28] Fanny Jane Crosby, “To God Be the Glory” (1875).

[29] Titus 3:3–5 (ESV).

[30] J. Gresham Machen, “The Active Obedience of Christ,” in God Transcendent and Other Selected Sermons, ed. Ned Bernard Stonehouse (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), 173–74.

[31] Stuart Townend, “In Christ Alone” (2001).

[32] 2 Corinthians 6:2 (KJV).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.