‘Romans’ is a beautiful letter. Paul describes in incredible rhetoric the saving action of Jesus Christ, the work of the Holy Spirit, God’s heart for humanity, and the role of the church in the world. Unfortunately, it has become the go-to text for a popular group of teachers that claim to be the harbingers of the true gospel – a message currently saturating the Christian subculture. I’d like to take a few minutes to explore a few ways to recognize the true gospel when you hear it – and in turn how to recognize imposters. But first, a little background.
The church in Rome was full of people from two completely opposing backgrounds: Jews and Gentiles. There was an obvious tension between the two groups, one believed they were better than the other, both struggling to figure out how to co-exist. So Paul’s letter to the Romans is structured in a ‘back and forth’ way that describes the reality that both were on common ground and neither could therefore claim a higher status in the church. Throughout the letter Paul paints a picture of the gospel that aligns perfectly with the one Jesus painted. It makes sense in light of the Jewish scriptures and the Jewish foundations of Jesus and his followers.
Yet, none of us live in the first century dominated by Roman rule and none of us have the natural perspective of a first century Jew. But Jesus was a first century Jew that came from a long line of Jews that had a very different perspective of God and the world than we do today. Therefore, it is dangerously easy to read something into the text that was never there in the first place or even miss the whole, actual point of the text.
So, here are 3 indications that the gospel you hear/proclaim is the right one.
#1: It is the same ‘Good News’ Jesus Himself teaches
Any message claiming to be the ‘good news’ must be validated by whether or not it aligns with the good news Jesus Himself taught. Jesus actually talked very little about the law, and we have no record of him ever using it as a tool to convince sinners they needed to repent. Jesus didn’t spend His time pointing out the moral flaws of the people He was leading – the religious leaders did. Jesus is actually very disinterested in behavioral modification as showcased in His repeated opposition to the rule-centered-righteousness demonstrated by the religious leaders around Him.
So, what exactly was the good news Jesus went around from town to town preaching to the lepers, the demoniacs, His disciples, roman centurions, and prostitutes? Quite simply, “the kingdom of God is near”. This is, as Luke 4:18 says, good news for the poor, those who are tied up, the blind, and freedom for the oppressed… and if you read the entirety of the text He is quoting from Isaiah, you’ll see He was quoting a famous passage about God’s restorative heart for Israel and most probably, all humanity. Any message that claims to be the gospel that doesn’t speak extensively about the Kingdom of God is not Jesus’ gospel.
#2: It resonates profoundly with sinners
Have you noticed that our attempts at ‘evangelism’ often don’t get us anywhere except more isolated from our culture? Frankly, it seems like the gospel message doesn’t quite resonate with ‘sinners’. But this is strange seeing as how the sinners seemed to be the people who were most receptive to Jesus. As I heard Alan Hirsch say, “Why is it that the holiness of Jesus was so attractive to sinners, but our holiness repels them”? And again, “Why is our holiness so attractive to religious people and so repellant to sinners?”
Jesus could always be found hanging out with these people, eating meals at their tables, and enjoying a good time. The religious folks even accused Him of being a sinner and a drunkard and a glutton because he was with them so much! Consider His interactions with people like the woman at the well, the woman caught in the act of adultery, Levi the tax collector, and the woman who washed His feet with her hair. Jesus and His message resonated with sinners – and made the religious leaders so mad they wanted to kill Him. Any message that claims to be the gospel that doesn’t resonate with sinners is not Jesus’ gospel.
#3: It sounds like Good News
The culmination of the first half of Romans comes when Paul claims that sin and death have been defeated in the work of Jesus! The penalty for sin has already been paid and each human has the opportunity to be created anew and to live a life empowered by the Holy Spirit, in communion with the Father. Get this: whatever wrath God had stored up for sinners was placed on Jesus. Jesus took the weight of every sin on His shoulders. He died for the sins of all humanity. He dealt sin and death a fatal and permanent blow by His death and resurrection and they no longer have the power to enslave us. This is Good News! I would bet you a sweet tea from McDonalds that your next door neighbor does not enjoy the effects of sin!
Speaking the good news to someone should not start like this: “have you ever lied/looked at porn/illegally downloaded music/etc.? Well then you are a sinner in need of grace and the only way you will get into heaven is if you…!” This doesn’t even sound like good news. A much better way to speak the good news to someone would be to this: “don’t you hate cancer/murder/racism/rape/war/oppression/etc.? Me too” This opens up so many great conversations that all lead back to the truth that beginning in the garden, humans have tried over and over again to self-rule… and the world we live in now is a product of it. Jesus came to make a way for us to get back to a garden like dependence on this Good God. And there is therefore now no condemnation for those who have entered into this Kingdom! Whatever power sin held over humanity has been released – and while it is still running rampant in the world, it cannot stand up to the forward movement of the kingdom of God. The message of Jesus is “good news” – it embodies hope and freedom and life and saving grace. Any message that claims to be the gospel that sounds like rules and oppression and gloom is not Jesus’ gospel.
Jesus came to establish once and for all the victory over sin and death to proclaim that He is King over all the things that bind humanity up. He came to call us out of a kingdom where sin, death, and humans rule and into a kingdom where He rules: The Kingdom of God! And to begin the restorative process whereby the curses brought on by our desire to obtain independence from God would be undone – one day everything will again be made right. His references to Gehenna (‘hell’) are rarely (if ever) pointed toward the “sinners”. Instead, hell is for people who reject this new Kingdom and it’s King. Jesus speaks most harshly to otiose, self-righteous religious people that think they have everything figured out; to teachers that pour heavy burdens on the people they lead; to those who were so caught up in themselves that they refused to let His teachings rule their lives. These people, he says, will be cast out into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. This, in my humble exegetical view, is a more holistic, biblical view of the gospel.