The Indispensable function of the Gospel in the Work of the Spirit
“The Gospel of Christ … is the power of God
unto salvation to everyone that believeth”
Have you ever watched any of the so-called “reality shows” which feature someone trying to survive in a hostile environment? Often the producers allow each person to choose one item to have with him at the start. To decide which single item to pick must be very difficult! What “indispensable” item would you choose? Thanks be to our gracious and merciful God for declaring to us in Holy Scripture all we need to know about “the indispensables” for our soul and eternal salvation (II Timothy 3:16-17)! We do not have to figure out what we might need, for our heavenly Father has given us the answers in clear declarations, in the clear, inerrant, infallible and authoritative passages of His book, the Holy Bible, “the Word of God” (I Thessalonians 2:13)! That very Word is fully sufficient for everything we need for our souls (John 20:31, 5:39). The Apostle declares to Timothy and to each of us that very sufficiency in these words: “From a child thou hast known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (II Timothy 3:15-17).
The Holy Scriptures also finish what the natural knowledge of the Law only begins (Romans 3:19). The natural knowledge of the Law is fully inadequate to reveal to man the full scope of his spiritual problem. The revealed knowledge of the Law, however, exposes man completely in his hereditary guilt and depravity from conception and the penalty thereof — not mere temporal death but eternal damnation in hell (Romans 5:12-21, 6:23a). The revealed knowledge of the Law also exposes man’s innumerable sins (of commission and omission) in thoughts, desires, words and deeds (I John 1:8, 10). Most importantly, the full revelation of the Law provided to man in God’s Word completely refutes any work-righteous ideas man holds to by condemning all his so-called, man-made “righteousness” (Galatians 3:10). For example, consider one primary passage in this regard, namely, Isaiah 64:6. God declares through the prophet: “But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.”
Consider specifically the three graphic and striking phrases used to describe the very best we can offer to God: “as an unclean thing;” “as filthy rags;” “fade as a leaf taken away [by] the wind.” Prepare to be disgusted and sickened by God’s holy Law! This is not a pretty picture! Since your immortal soul is at stake, God will not spare your social sensibilities in the least: “UNCLEAN THING” — You are entirely impure under God’s legal judgment, as unclean and as disgusting and vile as the leper of old who was law-bound to cry, “Unclean! Unclean!,” lest his disease spread to others! “FILTHY RAGS” — Your very best attempts, “all [your] righteousnesses,” every thought, desire, word and deed under God’s perfect Law is literally “like a garment of times,” namely, the times of the month which women experience. Thus your best works before God are as disgusting as menstrual cloths saturated with blood. “AS A LEAF” fades and is taken away by the wind — you have not one spark of spiritual vitality, in and of yourself, only inequities which turn you into dried, wind-blown debris fit only to fuel the furnace, God’s furnace in never-ending hell! This one passage is enough utterly to refute any idea that man can keep the Law “for righteousness” (Romans 10:4) and earn any merit before God whatsoever (Romans 3:20a, Galatians 2:16)! The Law of God in Holy Scripture thereby brings to man the knowledge of sin (Romans 3:20b; 7:7) and is the means whereby the convicting Spirit of God works real recognition of a sinner’s spiritual problem (Psalm 51:3-5)!
Through the Law, the Spirit of God works this recognition so that an individual feels totally ashamed of himself, completely guilty before God, and fully worthy of the just punishment which the curse of the Law and God’s justice demands: Eternal damnation, everlasting torment in hell (Acts 2:37; Psalm 40:12; Ezra 9:6)! At this point a sinner so convicted “dispenses” with everything he previously trusted in, as the Spirit of God, through the Law, destroys all such vanity. The Apostle expresses this inner conviction wrought in him by God’s Spirit in these words: “What things were gain to me, those I counted loss” (Philippians 3:7). “I count all things but loss…and do count them but dung” (Philippians 3:8), he says, and especially includes in that pile of manure anything and everything that he previously claimed as his “own righteousness” (Philippians 3:9) !
Once the Spirit of God so convicts a person by the full revelation of the Law in all its truth, bitterness and fierceness, the Holy Ghost uses an entirely different tool, the indispensable tool of salvation, namely, the Gospel! Our theme verse reads: “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ; for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16).
What is the Gospel? The Gospel is the good news of our salvation graciously provided us in the work of God’s Son Incarnate, Jesus the Christ (John 3:16-17)! The Gospel is a free, full declaration of the universal righteousness imputed and pardon pronounced to “the world” of sinners, the declaration of complete justification and full absolution for the sake of the doing and dying of the Substitute for the entire fallen race, for all mankind (Romans 5:19; II Corinthians 5:19)! For God’s Son incarnate kept the Law of God for righteousness for every man and paid the full ransom price for every sin of every sinner (Romans 5:19; I John 2:2)! On the basis of Christ’s work in the place of everyone, God the Father fully and completely declares the world righteous in His sight and fully forgiven! Through “the Gospel,” “the power of God,” the Holy Ghost works “unto salvation.” How? “To everyone that believeth” the text clearly says! The Holy Ghost works in a sinner the saving knowledge of Christ through the Gospel; the Spirit of God also works saving faith in the heart (Ephesians 2:5, 8). Scripture teaches that conversion is a mighty work of God, a supernatural, gracious gift: “For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ…to believe on Him” (Philippians 1:29). We “believe according to the working of His mighty power” (Ephesians 1:19). We have “faith…[as the result] of the operation of God” (Colossians 2:12). Man is converted when God bestows saving faith upon him through the Gospel. It is by the work of the Holy Ghost through the Gospel that a man knows, accepts as true, and relies with firm confidence on the divine promise of salvation for Christ’s sake (Romans 10:17), totally apart from the works of the Law! The moment the Spirit of God grants a person faith, so that he believes, he is declared righteous and fully pardoned before God for the sake of Jesus’ holy life and ransom-blood sacrifice; he is converted (I Peter 1:23; John 1:12-13; I John 5:1; Galatians 3:26).
The Gospel has the indispensable function of being the means by which the Spirit of God works such saving faith in a sinner’s heart (I Corinthians 1:21; Galatians 3:2; John 17:20; I Corinthians 15:2; Acts 11:14). How indispensable is the Gospel (Romans 10:13-17)? Could God do it some other way? Such questions may be purely “hypothetical” or may be insidious (I Corinthians 2:14). To a purely hypothetical question, we answer God can do anything He pleases (Psalm 115:3). God did make one exception to the normal method of operation, namely, through the Means of Grace, when He filled the unborn John the Baptizer with His Spirit inside his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15). John had an entirely unique office never to be needed again, that of Forerunner to the Messiah; and his “witness” in the womb (his “leaping,” see Luke 1:44) provided a miraculous sign to the women in a unique, never-to-be-repeated, historical circumstance (Luke 1:44ff). But to use this exception as a norm is utterly indefensible on the basis of Scripture! To argue what God could do over against what He says He will do is rebellion against His divinely-ordained and -revealed order for us! The insidious nature of such speculation should also be spelled out. Heretics use speculation to deny the clear teachings of Scripture (I Timothy 6:35)! Anyone who teaches that the Gospel is dispensable to the work of the Spirit is a heretic and fully deserves the condemning action that Scripture enjoins (Romans 16:17-18). Dr. J. T. Mueller explains in Christian Dogmatics (pp. 346-347):
Though God alone is the cause of conversion, yet He does not convert men immediately, or by immediate operation, but through definite, ordained means. This truth our Lutheran Confession maintains against all forms of enthusiasm (Calvinism, Anabaptism, etc). The Formula of Concord declares (Thor. Decl., II, 4): “Moreover, both the ancient and modern enthusiasts have taught that God converts men and leads them to the saving knowledge of Christ through His Spirit, without any created means and instrument, that is, without the external preaching and hearing of God’s Word.”
In these words the Formula of Concord points out the means by which the Holy Spirit works conversion, or regeneration, in the human heart, namely, by “the external preaching and hearing of God’s Word.” As aforesaid, conversion in its proper sense is nothing else than that a person, terrified by the Law on account of his sins, becomes a believer in Christ, trusting for salvation in the divine promises of the Gospel. The Gospel is therefore the object of converting faith; but it also is the means of conversion. Through the same means by which God offers to man the merits of Christ …He also works in man faith in the proffered grace … This truth is clearly taught in Holy Scripture, e. g., Rom. 10, 17: “Faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the Word of God”; Jas. 1, 18: “Of His own will begat He us with the Word of Truth”; 1 Thess. 1, 5: “Our Gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Ghost and in much assurance”; 2 Thess. 2:13, 14: “God hath chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth, whereunto He called you by our Gospel”; 1 Thess. 2:13: “Ye received the Word of God…not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the Word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe.”
Satan uses every means at his disposal to instill false doctrine into a sinner’s heart (John 8:44; II Corinthians 2:11; Revelation 12:9; II Corinthians 11:3). In a sense, Satan invented “enthusiasm” when he deceived Eve by telling her not to trust what God revealed (his statement being a lie to cover up the truth —Genesis 3:4-5) and, instead, to deal with God directly by her own method, a “new” method of independent (and contrary) action, or act instigated by Satan himself and offering direct reward (deification, Genesis 3:4-5). Ever since the fall, man loves the enthusiastic method, a Satanic substitute for the true Means of Grace, through which God reveals and provides!
The danger to the soul is real. The Apostle tells the Corinthians: “I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ” (II Corinthians 11:3). The many false prophets and teachers extant in the world today are pleased to scratch the itching ears of people who have already “received not the love of the truth” (I John 4:1; II Timothy 4:3-4; II Thessalonians 2:9-12). The popularity of “subjectivism” in all forms has led many to substitute all sorts of human philosophy and methodology for the clear preaching and proper division of Law and Gospel.
In 1932, The Brief Statement of the then-still-orthodox Missouri Synod, was published with this warning:
Since it is only through the external means ordained by Him that God has promised to communicate the grace and salvation purchased by Christ, the Christian Church must not remain at home with the means of grace entrusted to it, but go into the whole world with the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments, Mat. 28:19, 20; Mark 16:15, 16. For the same reason also the churches at home should never forget that there is no other way of winning souls for the Church and keeping them with it than the faithful and diligent use of the divinely ordained means of grace. Whatever activities do not either directly apply the Word of God or subserve such application we condemn as “new methods,” un-churchly activities, which do not build, but harm, the Church. (Paragraph #22).
Untold harm has been done by the Satanic substitution of anything and everything for God’s Truth!
Thanks be to our gracious God for granting us faithful pastors who, unmoved by the fear or favor of men, preach the unadulterated Word in our midst, rightly dividing the Word of Truth for our eternal, spiritual benefit (II Timothy 4:2, 1:15, 2:2). Thanks be to our gracious God that He converted us by His Gospel (II Corinthians 4:6; I Corinthians 3:5) instead of by the word of men! Thanks be to our gracious God that we have been given the knowledge of salvation by the Gospel, the proclamation of the remission of sins in the blood of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ (Luke 1:77). Thanks be to our gracious God that we live under Gospel-grace: “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ that we might be justified by the faith of Christ and not by the works of the Law; for by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified. But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is therefore Christ the minister of sin? God forbid! For if I build again the things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor. For I through the Law am dead to the Law, that I might live unto God. I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live. Yet not I, but Christ liveth in me. And the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:16-20). “Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in His blood, to declare His righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God” (Romans 3:25). We live with the same God-wrought confession as did the Apostle: “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ; for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith’” (Romans 1:16-17).
God ever grant us such saving faith through the hearing of the Gospel for Jesus’ sake.
—-E. J. W.