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” (Romans 1:16–17).
Quoted above is the paragraph that Paul used to set up his theological magnum opus (we call it Romans). Its final phrase launched the Reformation in the heart of Martin Luther, and makes the heart of every Gospel-believer sing. Amidst its awesome virtues nestles this great insight – we can no more change ourselves than save ourselves. Fortunately, the righteousness of God is by faith from beginning to end, which declares a Gospel as able to change us as to save us. The same dynamics of grace and faith that save are those that transform.
Before pursuing our opening line of thought, three matters are best borne in mind regarding Christians and their behaviour. Firstly, Christians are not under Law, but they are also not lawless. Under grace, they belong to Christ, and are under His governance. As such, our actions should rather obviously bear appropriate witness to our faith. None of us can represent Christ perfectly, but licentious or lawless living is simply not concomitant with those who are His.
Secondly, although Christians have a new nature and are indwelt by the Spirit, personal transformation towards godliness is not automatic. If that were so, then the New Testament would carry no instruction on behaviour appropriate to the faith, and no discipleship would be necessary in the church. While new nature and indwelling Spirit inevitably work towards Christlikeness, the flesh (the remnant of our in-Adam-ness) leans towards sin. Christians are left with choices to make and allegiances to decide, and should be encouraged and instructed in order to facilitate their choosing wisely.
Thirdly, the most common error regarding behaviour and personal change is for believers to come to the conclusion that it is all up to them. The Galatian churches had fallen into this by-our-own-efforts trap. Having started in the Spirit, they were continuing in the flesh. This migration from grace to law has remained a perennial problem amongst believers throughout church history, and is strongly in evidence in the twenty-first century church also. Programmes proliferate, be it in the name of vision, growth or change. Meanwhile, the saints become busier and busier, and more and more tired. This continues despite the fact that the whole treadmill of self-effort is doomed to fail. Yet many believers blindly forge on, trying harder and doing more, until they grind to a disillusioned, burnt out halt. The lesson in it all: we cannot change ourselves, and we cannot change others.
It’s the Gospel that is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. This salvation, Biblically speaking, is a broad, all-encompassing notion. It certainly includes salvation from sin, but also includes healing, deliverance and provision. It is even used in reference to resurrection on occasion. In other words, any kind of saving we could ever possibly need is part and parcel of our salvation, including the wherewithal to save us from ourselves. In it is all of the grace we could possibly need for personal transformation. There is grace to forgive the unforgivable, love the unlovable, and endure the unendurable. In the Gospel is the answer to every dilemma, strength for every weakness, wisdom for every occasion, and freedom from all bondage. The Gospel is the power of God for freedom and fullness in Christ. Period!
All God’s promises are “yes” in Christ Jesus (in Christ we qualify), and it is through these that we receive that which God has provided for us through the cross. As the Gospel produces faith in us, so that faith unlocks the deluge of God’s goodness, already stored up and just waiting for us to receive. As we believe, in rushes the Lord, Word and Spirit, to do in us and for us, just as He said He would. Here’s the key! The Gospel is not only the news of salvation, but by the Holy Spirit’s power, it is the power of God that works that salvation in us. The news believed is its benefits received. This is how God has decreed it to be; the Spirit and Word are inextricably linked. Creation demonstrated this magnificently – God (Father) willed, and the Spirit wrought as the Word (Jesus) spoke the world into being. In the same way, the Spirit and the Gospel are inextricably linked. It was the Spirit who revealed Christ to us when we first heard the Good News. It was the Spirit who immersed us in Christ when we believed, and who made us alive in Him. Everything else that the Gospel does is accomplished in this same way. It is all by the Spirit. Christians are therefore by definition spiritual people – of the Spirit, indwelt by the Spirit, empowered by the Spirit and led by the Spirit.
Word and Spirit working in tandem transform us from glory to glory. Finding this counterintuitive, our greatest temptation remains reverting to our own efforts, earnestly seeking the Spirit’s enabling on those. Obedience to the Scriptures, Christlikeness in all things, and a lifestyle marked by the disciplines of the faith – these are virtuous notions all – but pursuing them carries the danger of attempting to transform ourselves. The dynamic is entirely different when we put our focus on the perfect, finished work of Christ, and unleash its power to work within us. From His work within emerge obedience, Christlikeness, and disciplined living. These things might sound similar, but they could not be more different.
Repentance is how the Bible describes our aligning of our thoughts with the Gospel. A lifestyle of so doing equates to the renewal of the mind. As we repent (change our minds) and align our thinking (belief-systems) with the Gospel, the Gospel effects transformation from within. The obedience of faith is a fruit of the Gospel, and not its precursor, or its requirement. Scripture consistently distinguishes between our own efforts and Christ’s work. Salvation is by the latter; self-righteousness, disillusionment and bondage by the former. These are lessons well relearned in our day, for too many church activities are focused on what we should do, and too few celebrate what Christ has done. If we gave the focus to celebrating Him, so much more would be accomplished, for it is His working we need, and not our own. There are no limitations in the equation from God’s side. The restrictions are with us. We are finite, temporal creatures, independent of will, and of limited capacity. Imagine for a moment a vast ocean and a tiny bucket. Toss the bucket into the ocean and it is instantly surrounded and filled. That’s us and God. We are in Him and He in us. And our hope is in the ocean, not in the bucket.
It is this that the Scriptures seek to convey through what have become somewhat clichéd phrases. “Fix your eyes on Jesus.” “Put Jesus first.” “Seek first the kingdom.” “Fix your eyes on things above.” We’re people of the Spirit, so let’s live by the Spirit, walk in the Spirit, be filled with the Spirit, sing in the Spirit, pray in the Spirit, keep in step with the Spirit, and live one-with-another in the unity of the Spirit. This is the way of salvation; the way of righteousness that is by faith from beginning to end.
This is one of a series of posts adapted from the e-book “Why the Gospel is the Best News Ever!” by Gavin Cox. Go to the first post in the series by clicking here.