A little over a week ago, many churches celebrated Reformation Day–the day when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door, calling for a debate on the theology and practice of indulgences. This call for debate ultimately sprang from his concern for the message of the gospel itself. We here a lot of talk about the gospel from all manner of places in Christianity today. We have Coalitions around the gospel, supposed holes in our gospel, even callings to have our very lives connected to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Although the attention on the gospel itself has increased over the last few years, it isn’t hard to see why: the message of the gospel is central to the Bible, and to Christianity itself.
But that raises the question, ‘how do we ensure the centrality of the gospel is maintained?’ If there was ever a part of the Bible that dealt with the task of guarding the gospel, it’s Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Even in the opening verses of the letter, Paul provides some essentials for guarding the gospel; essentials we should follow today.
He says, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen. 6I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 9As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. 10For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. 11For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. 12For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:3-12).
Looking at the first part of this passage (1:3-5), Paul reminds us that essential to guarding the gospel is knowing the gospel. He opens his letter by giving us, in summary form, the good news: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen” (1:3-4).
Three emphases emerge from this gospel summary. First, we see that Christ died for sins. This is really at the very heart of the gospel. Specifically, Paul says “gave himself for our sins” (1:4). This is essence of the work of Christ on the cross— his death was substitutionary; he died, not for his own sins, but for ours. Why did he do this? Later in Galatians 3, Paul will explain that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (3:13). The curse of the law is the death sentence we receive for failing to keep God’s moral law. Yet, through his public execution—through his death on the cross—Christ himself became accursed in our place. The result is that, through Christ’s death, his people were delivered from evil.
This is second emphasis: Christ died to deliver his people. Specifically, Paul says, “[Christ] gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age” (1:4). This is the intent of the Christ death on the cross—a delivery. The cross was, in every way, a mission of divine rescue for sinners. This theme of delivery, or redemption, isn’t anything new, but is rooted in God’s redemption of his people from Egypt through the Exodus (Exodus 1-12). There, God redeemed his people from enslavement to Pharaoh. And he did so by commanding the people to offer up a lamb in sacrifice to himself. When the Israelites sprinkled the blood of the lamb on their doorposts in faith, it served as their ransom. It saved them from the judgment that came upon all of Egypt.
In the same way, Christ is our Passover Lamb. In fact, he is the fulfillment of the redemption those first Passover sacrifices pointed forward to. And more than mere slavery to a person, Christ achieved the redemption of his people from sin, which so characterizes this evil age. And how did all of this happen? It happened exactly as God intended.
The last thing we see in Paul’s overview of the gospel is that Christ died according to God’s will. Later, in chapters 3-4, Paul explains how Christ stands at the center of God’s plan of redemption for sinners, not the Law. The Law served its purpose, but part of that purpose was to point us to Christ. So, in chapter 3, Paul says: “the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (3:24-26). Then later in chapter 4, he says that “ when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (4:4-5). You see, the cross wasn’t an accident, it wasn’t plan B, it was the very will of God, which Christ joyfully took up and fulfilled that sinner might be saved.
This means that Christ work doesn’t come by what we do, even the good work of keeping God’s law. Instead, sinners do just believe. Salvation doesn’t depend on us doing anything. It doesn’t depend on us being anything. We need only trust in Christ’s work for us to find ourselves forgiven by God, even justified—declared righteous—before him. Thus, Luther says, “these words are very thunderclaps from heaven against all righteousness.” What he meant was that Paul’s explanation of the gospel destroys any attempt on our part to bring something to offer God in exchange for our salvation. Self-righteousness is the enemy of the gospel and a hindrance to salvation.
That is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Now what do we do with it?