Ours is a day of departure from the Reformed faith, on the one hand, and ignorance of it, on the other hand. Under the conviction that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness (although it may be necessary to curse the darkness), I intend to present a series of brief, one-article explanations of some of the fundamental doctrines of the Reformed faith.
The explanations will be simple. Young people, even children, will be able to understand them; parents might want to see to it that their children do so. Your next-door neighbor, even though not Reformed or only nominally Reformed, should not find them incomprehensible; you might want to offer them to him. And, who knows, they may even refresh some of us.
The man who has his eyes opened and his ears attuned to what is going on in the world has to be aware that there is bad news everywhere. There is murder and violence on every hand. The basic elements of human society, marriage, home, labor, and government, are dissolving. In the background, always, is the threat of world war, as the great powers, armed to the teeth with the most destructive of weapons, lurch into confrontation with each other. Night after night, week in and week out, year after year, the gist of the evening news is: Bad news tonight!
If a man could somehow avoid all of this, could refuse to think about war and rumors of war, could banish from his mind every thought concerning the violence in his own society, could ignore all the suffering and grief of broken homes, there is one great and dreadful fact that he cannot escape. That fact is death. There is death in the world. From it, no man escapes. Although a man is not stricken with cancer, or some other disease; although he does not perish on a far-off battlefield; although he is not the victim of some murderer on a dark street; although he never becomes one of the grim statistics of highway fatalities; although he may live 70 or 80 years; he will die. This is bad news—of the worst kind.
Is it all darkness? Is it all bad news? Is there no light? Is there no good news? Well may man ask these questions, and he does. Many men come to the conclusion that there is no light in the darkness and no hope in a world where death reigns supreme. This is evident from the fear and despair that grip many people. Because of this fear and this hopelessness, many turn to drunkenness or drugs; and many immerse themselves in various kinds of pleasures. None of these things gives hope, but they do temporarily push the fear and despair to the background.
There is good news in this world of death. This good news is the gospel. The word, gospel, simply means ‘good news,’ or ‘glad tidings.’ This is what the angel joyfully announced that night long ago, when Jesus was born: “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” (Luke 2:10) “Fear not,” he said, “for I bring you good news.”
This good news is news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God Who came into our world as a man. The angel went on: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” It is the news of what He did: He died for the sins of His people on a cross, and He rose from the dead in His body. It is the news of what this risen Jesus, possessor of all power in heaven and on earth, does for them: He gives them eternal life, peace, joy, and hope. It is the news, the gospel is, of what Jesus will do: He will come again to destroy His enemies; to raise His people from the dead; to teach the nations peace; and to renew the world, so that it is a creation in which righteousness shall dwell.
The gospel presents this great, this astounding salvation as God’s free gift to men who are sinful and unworthy. The way in which He gives it, and in which we enjoy it, is not the way of our works, but the way of faith—and this faith itself is His gift to us. The gospel is the good news of grace, God’s free favor to the undeserving.
There is no news like it. The goodness of the news of the gospel surpasses anything man might dare to imagine.
But how do you know this, someone asks; where do you find this? The gospel is given in the Bible, Holy Scripture, which is from beginning to end the inspired Word of God. The gospel is not an invention of men. It is not another human theory, that probably offers some temporary relief to mankind groaning under its burdens—an opiate administered to wretched man by a crafty, or misguided, priesthood. It is the gospel of God. This is what Paul, a great preacher of the gospel, calls it inRomans 1:1: “the gospel of God.” God is the One Who conceived and counseled the salvation proclaimed in the gospel; God is the One Who worked it out in our world and history—sending His own Son; God is the One Who announces the good news. It is God’s gospel.
We are privileged to preach the gospel (by “we” I mean the Church). We are not ashamed of the gospel. We are ready to preach it to anyone and to everyone. This is what Paul said of himself in the same first chapter of the book of Romans. In Romans 1:15, 16, he said: “So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you that are at Rome also. For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ.”
This implies that there are reasons why one might be tempted to be ashamed of the gospel. It has actually happened, and it is happening today, that men who have had the gospel entrusted to them and who ought to preach it and defend it are ashamed of it. In their shame, they are silent about the gospel and teach other things. Or, they go to work on the gospel to change it into something that they like better. For the gospel in its pure, unadulterated form is offensive to men. Do not be too quick to deny this. For one thing, the gospel contradicts the wisdom of men in every age. The first chapters of the Bible, e.g., teach that man and the universe originated by being created by God in six days, each of which was limited by an evening and a morning. Each of the various creatures came into being by the power of the Almighty Word of God. At once, the gospel opposes the wisdom of the world in the theory of evolution. The gospel calls this bit of human wisdom a fraud, a lie.
Above all, men are tempted to be ashamed of the gospel because it begins by passing a devastating judgment upon man, upon every man. It declares that men are sinners and that men’s sin is the cause of all their misery. It finds men guilty before God and, therefore, worthy of the death that a righteous God inflicts upon them.
The gospel exposes every man as totally depraved and all his deeds as only evil. It destroys all man’s pretensions of his own goodness and worth. It dashes all his fond hopes of delivering himself from his miseries. The gospel points out one way of salvation for men, and that one way is the way of the cross of Jesus. But this also is a truth that one is tempted to be ashamed of. As the same Paul wrote in I Corinthians 1:23: “But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness.” The truth of salvation by way of the crucifixion of a Man once upon a time is contrary to the ideas of religious people and nonsense to the learned heathen. So, one is inclined to be ashamed of the gospel; to water it down; to change it; to smooth its rough edges; to make it palatable to men; to revise and update it for modern, 20th century men and women.
But we are not ashamed of the gospel. Why not? “Because,” as Paul goes on to say in Romans 1:16, “it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth.” When the good news of Jesus Christ crucified and risen from the dead is preached, the Almighty power of God Himself operates, through the gospel, to save men. There is power in the gospel. This power is the glorious power of salvation. Through the gospel, God delivers those who believe from sin and death—our terrible misery. God takes away their guilt, which exposes them to the wrath of God and makes them fearful and ashamed, and declares them righteous. He changes their hearts, so that they no longer practice wickedness, but obey His law. He gives them eternal life, the end of which will be life and glory in the new creation, body and soul. Shall we be ashamed of the gospel, then? God forbid. We glory in it and in the cross that it proclaims. We are ready to preach it everywhere and to anyone.
There is another reason why we are not ashamed of the gospel, nor allow ourselves to be silenced by the opposition and the ridicule of those who find the gospel offensive. This is the dreadful fact that, apart from the gospel, there is on earth only the most disgusting, ruinous wickedness of men and, burning over all, the wrath of God revealed from heaven. Apart from the gospel of Christ, outside of the sphere of salvation enjoyed by believing the gospel of Christ, there is the spiritual, death of immorality and the eternal death of God’s terrible wrath. This is our experience. This has been man’s experience throughout history: read any good history book. This is the testimony of all the bad news that our world is full of. This is what Paul goes on to say in Romans 1: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness.” (vs. 18) Then, he exposes the wicked behavior of mankind. It reads like a description of our society: sexual filth, particularly homosexuality; covetousness; murder; deceit; backbiting; hatred of God; pride; disobedience to parents; and, at the very end, the wickedness of people who take pleasure in other people who do these things, that is, the wickedness of loving to watch these things, read these things, and listen to these things for entertainment and of making folk heroes of the vilest sinners.
Who can challenge this indictment of the world? of our society? This is the life of men apart from the gospel.
But matters are still worse. For this corruption, although it comes out of man’s own evil nature, is a judgment of God upon man. God’s wrath falls upon men because they have changed the truth of God into a lie and worship and serve the creature more than the Creator, Paul writes in verse 25. In His wrath, God gives men over to sin; “God gave them up unto vile affections,” according to verse 26. Our troubles and woes and wars and even our astounding increase of sin are our just punishments from God for our ungodliness, our refusal to glorify and thank God, and our denial of the truth of Him. The end of it all is death, physical death and everlasting death in hell.
This is man’s life (death, rather!) apart from the gospel. From this, the gospel, and only the gospel, saves those who believe. Therefore, we are not ashamed of the gospel.
The Church must preach the gospel. This is her one, great task. Our great need, as sinful men, is to hear the gospel, to heed it by a true and living faith, and to be saved by the power of God.
When this Word of God is proclaimed, there are some who believe, and receive the Word with gladness unto the saving of their souls, in distinction from others who put it from them and judge themselves unworthy of everlasting life, even contradicting and blaspheming. This is due solely to God’s gracious, eternal ordination of them to eternal life. (Acts 13:44-48) The gospel is the gospel of grace.