A Glossary of Faith

by Rev. L. John Gable

A Glossary of Faith by Rev. L. John Gable
January 28, 2018

We are now in the third week of our study of Romans and we are finally getting to the meat of what has only been hinted at thus far.  Recall, the Apostle Paul is writing to a church he did not plant, so needs to introduce himself in anticipation of his planned visit there, but he does so not by giving his credentials and accomplishments, as one might expect, but by describing himself as a “servant”, the Greek word is actually a “doulos”, “a slave or bondservant”, one who has willingly and voluntary committed his life to the service of Jesus Christ, and as an “apostle”, a designation he had to insist on in order to have the authority to preach and teach the Gospel he intended to share.  Paul’s intention in visiting Rome was to introduce his version or understanding of the Gospel as part of his strategy to reach the world for Christ, thus fulfilling the Great Commission.  Remember, at this point in early church history there were many evangelists and teachers preaching and teaching about Jesus, winning converts and laying the foundations of the faith, but there was not yet any consensus on what those foundations should be; there were no Gospels yet written, no New Testament, no commonly agreed upon creeds or confessions, and there wouldn’t be for nearly 300 years.  So everywhere the Gospel was preached it had a different flavor to it.  Paul then is writing to the Roman church, admittedly an important and influential church, with his understanding of the Gospel message, and he is writing as clearly and systematically as he can with the intention that this teaching will lay the foundation for all teaching throughout the Empire and beyond.  Paul’s sole desire, as we have seen, is that all people, everywhere, will come to “the obedience of faith in Jesus Christ” vs 5.

This brings us now to verses 16-17, perhaps the most important two verses in all of Scripture for our Protestant understanding of the faith.  We have spoken of this passage frequently and recently because this is the passage Martin Luther read in 1517 which touched off the Protestant Reformation, of which we as Presbyterians, are a part.  Luther’s burning question was, “How can a sinful human being, such as himself, such as every one of us, come in to the presence of a just and holy God?”  Try as he may, neither he nor we, can live up to the standard of the Law, so he continually struggled and felt defeated by the Law, until he read these words in Romans 1, “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel; it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith’’”  Now that doesn’t sound all that radical to us, because we are living on this side of that insight, but for Luther this was his “AHA!” moment when the light went on!  Up until then persons of faith thought that they had to satisfy all of the demands of the Law in order to be accepted by God, an admittedly impossible expectation, but here we read that we are saved, brought in to a right relationship with God, not by our good works but by faith in what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, and that thought alone turned the Christian world upside down.

Listen to the way Luther himself describes that experience: “I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, “the justice of God” (which we read as the righteousness of God) because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust.  My situation was that, an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled by conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would satisfy me. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against Him; yet I clung to dear Paul and had a great longing to know what he meant.

“Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that “the just shall live by faith”. Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which, through grace and sheer mercy, God justifies us through faith.  Thereupon I felt myself reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.  The whole of Scripture took on new meaning, and whereas before “the justice of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love.  This passage of Paul became to me a gate of heaven.”

Now there are lots of 25 cent theological words in these two verses, words we use in here but rarely out there; words we nod our heads in agreement with but if asked to define them we often have trouble doing so; words we are familiar with but don’t really know what they mean; which is kind of problematic because we are talking about concepts that are basic to the foundations of our faith.  So, this morning I’d like for us to take a few minutes to unpack what some of these words mean.  I know lots of people who keep a dictionary open beside them when they read so they can look up the meaning of words the author uses with which they are not familiar, and I think that would be a good practice for us as well when we read Scripture.  Since Scripture is intended to be the source and authority for our faith, it would be to our benefit to know what some of these words mean.

Give me a quick show of hands.  How many of you have seen the movie The Sound of Music…in the theater, on the big screen…more than once, twice, three times?  When The Sound of Music came out in 1965 I saw it seven times!  First with my parents, then again with my parents when they wanted to take my grandparents, then again with the other set of grandparents, then when an aunt and uncle came to town.  Seven times! Then I remember being taught the songs from that musical in music class at school, and even to perform them for an adult fellowship program at church.  Here’s my point: one of the most familiar songs goes like this: “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start. When you read you begin with A,B,C; when you sing you begin with “Do, Re, Me”.  Today let’s start at the very beginning, the A,B,Cs, the “do, re, mes”, of our faith by creating a glossary of faith, so that we can all get a better understanding of what Paul is going to present throughout the book of Romans.

Let’s look briefly at the words he uses.

Gospel: vs 16 “I am not ashamed of the Gospel”.  The word literally means, “Good News!”  Contrast the Gospel with the unattainable demands of the Law and we hear the Good News that God is for us, not against us; that He seeks us in order to save us, like the shepherd who leaves the 99 in search of the 1 who was lost.  The Gospel is the Good News of God’s saving act in Jesus Christ.  God is not an angry tyrant or demanding lawgiver, but is an infinitely compassionate Savior!  That really is Good News!  That is the Gospel!

The next phrase Paul uses is the Power of God: Again in vs 16 “The Gospel is the Power of God for salvation”.  The clear teaching of the Gospel is that God has done for us what we cannot do for ourselves, namely save us.  Try as we may, we can’t satisfy the demands of God’s just and holy Law by our own efforts, so if the gap separating us from God is to be bridged it has to be bridged from the God side since we can’t do it ourselves.  Only God has the power to bridge that separation and He has, in Jesus Christ.  Only God has the power to satisfy the demands of perfect obedience, and He has in Jesus Christ. Only God has the power to defeat the last enemy, death, which He has in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  This understanding of the Gospel is important because the only way we can participate in the new life which God offers us is by relying on the power of God, not on our own good works!  Remember, in Jesus Christ, God has done for us what we cannot do for ourselves, so on Him, and Him alone, we must depend.

Look again at that same verse, “The Gospel is the power of God for salvation”. Salvation, another word we use frequently, but what does it mean?  We often think of our salvation only in terms of what happens to us after we die, but it is a much richer word than that.  To be “saved” really means to be “healed”, “restored”.  Our salvation is not only something out there for later on, but it is something that changes us right here, right now.  Salvation is the act of binding that which is broken, finding that which is lost, healing that which is dis-eased, restoring that which is damaged.  The brokenness of our sin damages every relationship in our lives: with God, with one another, with ourselves, with the creation.  So the salvation Jesus offers us restores those damaged relationships, brings harmony out of disharmony, not just with God, eternally, but with our neighbors and ourselves and the creation.  So our salvation is not just “pie in the sky when we die”, it impacts the way we live our lives right here, right now.

Another radical thought which Paul introduces here is this: “the Gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, the Jew first and also to the Greek.”  Point being: no one is beyond the saving reach of God.  No one! The Gospel is for everyone.

Look then at verse 17.  Righteousness: vs 17 “For in it (meaning the Gospel) the righteousness of God is revealed.”  Interestingly, we translate the same Greek word as both righteousness and justice.  The “justice” of God that frightened Luther so badly, is also the “righteousness” of God which the Gospel gives us.  So many words we use in our faith: “righteous, righteousness, just, justice, justification” all come from the same word meaning “to put in right alignment, right relationship with God”.  We are made “righteous”, that is rightly related to God, not by what we do but by what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.  He is our righteousness.

So how does the work Christ has done affect us?  By Faith: vs 17 “The righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith.”  Faith is the means by which we access the righteousness of God, by which we accept what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.  We often use the word faith as a noun, as something we have or do not have, when it is better understood as a verb, something we do or do not do.  To have faith is effectively to have “trust” and “trust” is different than having knowledge or agreement.  I can have knowledge of how the swinging bridge across the deep chasm was built and I can be in agreement that others have walked across it before me, but that kind of understanding is far different than actually stepping off the cliff and trusting that that swinging bridge is going to hold me and deliver me safely to the other side.

I can know all there is to know about Jesus and I can agree with what others have told me about Him and how He has changed their lives, but that is different than actually trusting Him for my salvation, trusting Him to be able to restore me in to a right relationship with God.  Everything else is my life tells me I have to do things for myself, but “faith” tells me I have to “trust” Him, and Him only, to do for me what I cannot do for myself; that is to deliver me from the bondage of my sin safely to the other side.  He alone is able to do that, there is no other. “As it is written, ‘the one who is righteous (that is the one who is rightly related to God) will live by faith.”

These are the key concepts Paul introduces in verses 16-17.  The one word which we need to include here in our glossary of faith which Paul does not use, but implies, is graceGrace is classically defined as “God’s unmerited favor” and it captures so many aspects of each of the principles we’ve already discussed.  Grace is God’s loving action toward us which, without any action or good work on our part, restores us in to a right relationship with God.  We haven’t earned it and we don’t deserve, so it is not based on who we are or what we done, but only who God is and what He has done for us in Jesus Christ.  In the letter to the Ephesians we read, “For by grace you have been saved through faith and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not the result of works so that no one may boast.”  So using the very words that Paul uses in vs. 16-17: We are saved (made right with God) by God’s grace (unconditional love) through faith (that is, through our trusting that what Jesus has done for us is sufficient) and that, friends, is the Good News, the Gospel truth!

Of course, there are many other good theological words we use which we would do well to unpack, but these will have to suffice for today.  These are the A,B,C s; the “do, re, me” s of our faith.