What is Gospel

We’ve heard already this evening an emphasison the recovery of the gospel. And so, it’s almost an unscientific postscriptfor me to ask the very simple question, what is the gospel? What is this gospel that was so important,so vital, and so controversial in the 16th century? Let me begin by saying what the gospel isnot. The gospel is not our personal testimonies. Our personal testimonies may be of interestto people and may be used of God to introduce a conversation about the gospel. We may have methods of evangelism that we’velearned, such as the evangelism explosion, diagnostic questions—”have you come to theplace in your thinking where you know for sure that when you die, you’re going to goto Heaven?” And then it’s followed by “if you were todie and stood before God tonight and God said to you, why should I let you enter my Heaven,what would you say?” Those questions aren’t the gospel.

They’re a wonderful introduction to discussionsand conversations about the gospel. Or you may have heard the idea that God lovesyou and has a wonderful plan for your life. That may or may not be true, in the finalanalysis. The reprobate won’t find the plan so great,but in any case, that also is not the gospel. What is the gospel is found on the pages ofsacred Scripture. And there are two distinct aspects about thegospel. And those aspects are what I would distinguishbetween the objective content of the gospel, and then secondly, the subjective appropriationof the gospel. In very simple terms, the controversy of the16th century did not focus on the first part, on the objective gospel. The objective gospel simply is this: it’sJesus. Who He is, and what He has done. His life of perfect obedience, sinless-ness,His substitutionary atonement, His resurrection, His ascension into Heaven, His promise ofHis return. But when we get to the subjective aspect ofthe gospel, that’s where the controversy raged. And that’s this question: “How does the lifeof Christ, how is the work of Christ and its benefits, appropriated to us?” Now the Roman Catholic Church had a very complexanswer to that question. And it tried to answer that question. They went back in history to use the languagethat was first formulated by the philosopher Aristotle. In antiquity, Aristotle was concerned aboutmany questions of science, many questions of physics and metaphysics, and one of thequestions that really puzzled the philosophers of that day was: “what is motion?” Some even questioned whether motion was actuallyreal, there were skeptics who challenged the very notion. But Aristotle applied his keen mind to thequestion of motion, and what he was looking about was he noticed that everything in theworld was subject to change, mutation. And so, he tried to analyze the motion ofchange. He realized that change itself was motion. And so he, in his analysis, distinguishedseveral different causes for motion. And to simplify his analysis, as he did himself,he used the illustration of a statue. How is it that a statue comes into being?

A statue is something that results from tremendouschange from the original matter out of which the statue is made. And so he spoke about the material cause ofstatues. And he defined the material cause as thatout of which a thing is made. But then he discerned several other aspectsof the causality involved in the production of the statue. He said what’s the efficient cause of thestatue? The answer is simple, the efficient causeof the statue is the sculptor, who moves and changes and forms the matter, and turns itinto a beautiful piece of work. And that efficient cause also requires a sufficientcause, that cause that was able to do the actual work and bring it to completion. But in addition to that, Aristotle noticedeven different causes. He spoke of a formal cause. And he described the formal cause as the planor the blueprint. It was either written on paper or it was simplyin the mind of the sculptor. Later on, Michelangelo, perhaps the greatestsculptor of all time, had a series of unfinished statues that he called the Prisoners, becausehe would look at a block of Carrara marble and he would see, before he would even pickup his tools, the finished product. And he thought that his task was to chiselaway at that block of stone and release the form that was already contained within it. And Aristotle also noted what he called thefinal cause—the purpose for which these changes take place. And in the case of sculpture, he said thatthe purpose of the sculpture may be to beautify the gardens of a wealthy merchant, or to adornthe property of a pope.

But then in all that definition of differentkinds of causality, he focused on another kind of causality, which he described as theinstrumental cause. The tools or the instruments that the sculptoruses to form, shape, and change that block of wood into the finished product. Well, you didn’t come here to hear about Aristotle. But the language that was used by Aristotlein this regard was incorporated into the church. And so, the church used all these differentdefinitions of causality. And at the very heart of the dispute in the16th century was this question: What is the instrumental cause of our justification? What is the means by which our salvation andour justification takes place? And Rome was very clear in their definitionof what the instrumental cause of justification was. They found the instrumental cause of justificationin the sacraments—two most importantly. Initially, the sacrament of Baptism. This is why we speak of the Roman Catholicview as being sacramental and sacerdotal, something that is accomplished through theworking of the priests who used the instruments necessary to bring people to a state of grace. And the first instrumental cause of our justification,they said, was the sacrament of Baptism. Which Baptism worked “ex opera operato,” bythe sheer “working of the works” that the person who was baptized in this sacramentreceived the infusion of justifying and saving grace. And that grace put them, at least temporarily,in a state of grace, in a state of justification, until or unless that person committed mortalsin. And mortal sin was defined as sin so egregious,so severe, that it killed or destroyed the grace of justification in the sinner, so thatthe person who was baptized, if he died in mortal sin, would go to Hell. But there was a recipe to recover justificationfor the person who committed mortal sin, and that was called “The second plank of justification,(comma) for those who have made shipwreck of their souls.”

And the second plank of justification, accordingto Rome—and I don’t mean to use a pun—it was a cardinal issue of the doctrine of justificationin the 16th century, because the sacrament of Penance included various parts: confession,absolution, acts of contrition, absolution from the priest, and then finally—the controversialpart—works of satisfaction. And one of the works of satisfaction couldbe the giving of alms for the poor or to the church, which was the foundation for the wholeprocess of indulgences. And so, the paying of indulgences was to makeuse of one of the ways in which one could achieve congruous merit, merit that wouldmake it congruous for God to restore the sinner who has lost the grace of justification toonce again be in a state of justification. And so, Rome stood firm on this principle,that the instrumental cause of justification is found in the sacraments. First the sacrament of Baptism, and then inthe sacrament of Penance.

That was the clash. Because when Luther came to his understandingof justification by faith alone, the affirmation of the Reformers was this: that the instrumentalcause of justification is not found in the sacraments, it’s found in faith. Faith is the instrument, indeed the sole instrument,by which people are justified. And that was the battle. That was the fight. And again, the question justification, themeaning of justification by faith, as it’s already been intimated to you this evening,was only shorthand for justification by Christ. When we say that justification is by faith,we are talking about the instrumental datum—the means by which a person is justified. And justification by faith simply means thatthe instrument of our justification is that with faith and by faith and through faith,we are linked to Jesus, so that all that He is, and all that He has done, is given tous. Justification is by Christ alone. You know, again, in terms of this languageof causality, the Reformers used another term that Aristotle never thought about in hisday, and that was the meritorious cause of our salvation. And when the Reformers spoke of the meritoriouscause of our salvation, they spoke of the merit of Jesus Christ alone. Solus Christus—justification—the meansis the instrument by which we’re linked to Jesus and His righteousness is given to usby faith. That’s what Paul was saying in Romans 1. That’s what Luther was repeating in the Reformation—thejust shall live by faith. The alone instrument by which we are justified. Amen.

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