What is the Gospel?

Editors note: This is a brand new series on the Gospel designed to help our readers think through what the Gospel is and what it demands.



Psalm 32 is often classified by scholars as a thanksgiving hymn, one in which worshipers give thanks to God for the joy of having their sins forgiven. Due to the phrase “when I kept silent” found in verse 3, it has been common to connect this Psalm to Psalm 51, but as there is no clear indication of this from either the title of the Psalm or its content, it is better to take this psalm as speaking generally to the experience of confession and forgiveness. Thus, Psalm 32 can be also classified as a “penitential psalm” in the same vein as Psalms 6, 38, 51, 130, and 143.

Confession, Repentance, and Forgiveness

The opening two verses of Psalm 32 provide the overall theme, answering the question “Who is truly happy (or blessed)?” Verses 3-5 recount a personal experience of the Psalmist that supports the underlying theme. The terms “transgressions,” “forgive,” “sin,” and “iniquity” all echo Exodus 34:6-7, notably the fundamental expression of God’s kindness and mercy toward those who receive His covenant. No one needs to compel God to show mercy; rather, the faithful confess their sins because they believe He is merciful. Several words occur in a mirror pattern, which bind these first five verses together, specifically the words forgiven, covered, cover, and forgave. There is a contrast in the kind of cover, most notably the fact that when God covers sin, He graciously blots it out (Psalm 85:2). Conversely, when man covers his sin, he is sinfully hiding it (Proverbs 28:13).

Furthermore, transgression, sin, and iniquity as revealed in Psalm 32:1-2 are three key words for sin found in the Old Testament. These terms are viewed respectively as rebellion, failure and perversion. Psalm 32:3-5 supports the underlying theme that only the forgiven are truly happy. The Psalmist declares a time of silence about his sin, stating he refused to confess his sin to God in order to receive forgiveness. The lost vitality outlined in vv.3-4 is really a point of God showing mercy, the hand of God moving upon His faithful to help them come to the point of confessing. Having come to that point, the Psalmist wisely acknowledges his sin and God forgives his the iniquity. This brings the psalm back to v.1 with the implication that the Psalmist has now fully learned the blessedness of being forgiven. The Psalmist references in v.5 the key terms used to describe sin in vs.1-2, using them at this point in the Psalm in the context of personal confession. In verse 6, the concluding part of this section of Psalm 32, the Psalmist instructs the reader on the reality that every person who knows the grace of God should not presume upon that grace by putting off confession of their sin.

The opening words of Psalm 32:6-11, reveal a lesson for everyone who is godly, namely, to offer prayer of confession at a time when God may be found, thus noting the need to reject foolishness delays when it comes to confession of sin (Psalm 32:9). The godly are not expected to be sinless; rather, they are to believe God’s promises and confess their sins (v.11). Verses 6-7 are addressed to God, whom the faithful find to be a hiding place with verses 8-11 being addressed to fellow worshipers, urging them to accept this instruction about ready confession and to be glad in the Lord who shows such goodness to His people.

At the heart of Psalm 32 is the act of confession of sin. Not only does the psalmist confess his sins to God (Psalm 32:5), he also makes a public confession within the hearing of the worshiping congregation. It is the opening of his heart to God that ultimately works forgiveness and restoration (Psalm 32:5, 7). What must also be noted is an important dynamic at work in his constant movement from God to the worshiping community. For the Psalmist to make a public confession in this manner is both instructive to the community and supportive of him as an individual, something revealed in how the community surrounds him in song.

Public confession remains an uncomfortable and therefore infrequent experience, especially for modern Protestant Christians. Particularly in North America two elements collide to inhibit our willingness to admit our faults among fellow Christians. First, the fierce independent streak that characterizes much of our society leads to many being consumed with a concern for personal privacy.

This desire and even overt demand for personal privacy is closely linked to the sense of radical tolerance that permeates the current societal milieu. What is good for you is okay with me as long as you demonstrate the same tolerance for what I consider good for myself. Such a dynamic of misplaced privacy makes us increasingly unwilling to divulge our most private issues and concern to others. This makes it uncomfortable to intrude into the inner privacy of others. The result is often rather superficial relationships with others in which only the most obvious elements of our lives are shared.

The second element that stands in the way of public confession is the sense of perfectionism that pervades much of Western Protestantism. Our desire to be completely independent leads us to assume that we ought to be perfectly able to accomplish our goals, fulfill our needs, and reach our dreams with no assistance. We should have the self-discipline to overcome our shortcomings and lead full and satisfying lives. All too often, however, our lives are marked by failure, dissatisfaction, lack of self-control, and an erosion of confidence in our abilities to meet our own needs or those of the ones we love.

Our obvious, at least to ourselves failure to live up to the “should” and “oughts” of life, instead of leading most of us to confess our weakness and needs, instead cause many of us to hide our failings behind a façade of apparent success, happiness, and control. Twelve-step groups are full of people who follow their sense of powerlessness and fear of being discovered in a variety of destructive behaviors ranging from alcoholism, drug addiction, sexual compulsion, eating disorders, to gambling addiction, just to name a few.

Those of us who make our home within the church have fared little better. The allure of independence and perfection have prevented many a struggling Christian from admitting their fears, failures, and helplessness until the crisis blossoms to the point that it can no longer be denied resulting in the utmost devastation for all those concerned.

Those who have passed through this dark and painful tunnel and emerged on the other side forgiven and restored to their faith in God, almost unanimously speak of having learned the value of confession and accountability within a supportive community of loving, caring fellow strugglers in life. Having a community of faith willing to hear your wrongs as a fellow sinner rather than acting as judges, willing to share from their own less than perfect struggles the experience, strength, and hope they have gained from relying on God’s power, has helped many break through years of helplessness to a place of freedom from a lifetime of compulsive behaviors.

Psalm 32:5 declares, “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD, and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.” God bore the guilt of the Psalmist’s sin himself. It was lifted up and born away by the hand of God, a very New Testament concept deeply rooted in the Old Testament consciousness of the Psalmist. John says it in similar words in 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. “ Confession to God and another human being, freely given and freely received, is an important step from the bondage of sin, bondage that gains immeasurable strength from our fear and hiding.


The great Puritan author Thomas Watson once said there are six ingredients for true repentance. The first is sight of sin, whereby a person comes to himself (Luke 15:17) and clearly views his lifestyle as sinful. If we fail to see our own sin, we are rarely ever motivated to repent. The second ingredient for true repentance is sorrow for sin (Psalm 38:18). We need to feel the nails of the cross in our soul as we sin. Repentance includes both godly grief and holy agony (2 Corinthians 7:10). The fruit of repentance is revealed in genuine, anguishing sorrow over the offense itself, not just the consequences of it. Sorrow for sin is seen in the ongoing righteous actions it produces. True repentance lingers in the soul and not just on the lips.

The third ingredient is confession of sin. The humble sinner voluntarily passes judgment on himself as he sincerely admits to the specific sins of his heart. We must not relent of our confession until all of it is freely and fully admitted. We must pluck up any hidden root of sin within us. “Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit” (Deuteronomy 28:19).

At least seven benefits of confession are found in Scripture:

1)      Confession of sin gives God glory.

2)      Confession of sin is a means to humble the soul.

3)      Confession of sin gives release to a trouble heart.

4)      Confession of sin purges our sin. Augustine called it “the expeller of vice.”

5)      Confession of sin endears Christ to the soul that needs atoning.

6)      Confession of sin makes way for forgiveness.

7)      Confession of sin makes way for mercy.

The fourth ingredient for true repentance is shame for sin. The color of repentance is blushing red. Repentance causes a holy bashfulness. Ezra 9:6 says, “O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens”. The repenting prodigal was so ashamed of his sin that he did not feel he deserved to be a son anymore (Luke 15:21). Sin makes us shamefully naked and deformed in God’s eyes and puts Christ to shame, the One who took the scorn of the cross on Himself.

The fifth ingredient in repentance is hatred of sin. We must hate our sin to the core. We hate sin more deeply when we love Jesus more fully. Repentance begins in the love of God and ends in the hatred of sin. True repentance loathes sin.

Finally, the sixth ingredient of repentance is the turning away from sin and returning to the Lord with all your heart (Joel 2:12). This turning from sin implies a notable change, “performing deeds in keeping with their repentance” (Acts 26:20). “Thus says the Lord God: Repent and turn away from your idols and turn away your faces from all your abominations” (Ezekiel 14:6). We are called to turn away from all our abominations, not just the obvious ones or the ones that create friction in others. The goal of repentance is not to manufacture peace among others with perfunctory repentance, but rather to turn to God wholly and completely. This repentance most importantly is not just a turning away from sin. It also necessarily involves a turning in “repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). Here is the joy that is found in repentance. “It is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance” (Romans 2:4). We rejoice that Christ has done so much for us and continues to do for us.

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Editors note: This is a brand new series on the Gospel designed to help our readers think through what the Gospel is and what it demands.



The result of God’s just wrath being satisfied is reconciliation (katallaso, katallage). We do not reconcile ourselves to God; God reconciles Himself to us and us to Him. Paul especially emphasizes this point in Romans 5. Romans 5:7-11 says, For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” Central to the gospel’s announcement, then, is the truth Paul emphasizes in 2 Corinthians 5:19, 21, “that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” The Old Testament background here is the transition from a state of war to a state of peace (salom), a kingdom where only righteousness dwells. It is not only the lifting of the covenant’s curses but the positive harmony between foes (Romans 5:10-11; Col. 1:19-20; Eph 2:11-12).

Reconciliation and the Cross

Reconciliation with God is not about feelings but about the truth of what Christ has accomplished. Through Christ God can and does now legally forgive and justify the ungodly, and can simultaneously reconcile the world to Himself (Romans 5:10; 2 Cor. 5:19-20). Because the cross is a work of redemption and propitiation, it accomplishes reconciliation between God and sinners. Because of sin, the original friendship between God and man that was established at creation was changed for enmity. God thus regards sinners as His enemies. For reconciliation to occur, the cause for that enmity, sin must be removed. Christ accomplished this in His death. Paul writes that it was  “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (Romans 5:10).What Jesus did on the cross removed the cause of the breach in the relationship between God and sinners. His death expiated our sins.

John Calvin’s comments on the announcement of John the Baptist upon seeing Jesus for the first time (John 1:29) underscore this truth. Calvin writes:

The principle office of Christ is briefly but clearly stated; that he takes away the sins of the world by the sacrifice of his death, and reconciled men to God. There are other favors, indeed, which Christ bestows upon us, but this is the chief favor, and the rest depend on it; that, by appeasing the wrath of God, he makes us to be reckoned holy and righteous. For from the source flow all the streams of blessings, that, by not imputing our sins, he receives us into favor. Accordingly, John, in order to conduct us to Christ, commences with the gratuitous forgiveness of sins which we obtain through him.”[i]

In the old covenant expiation of sins was portrayed by means of animal sacrifices. All of the ceremony surrounding the sacrificial offerings was designed to point to the work of Christ upon the Cross. Calvin explains:

“The sacrifice was offered in such a manner as to expiate sin by enduring its punishment and curse. This was expressed by the priests by means of the laying on of hands, as if they threw on the sacrifice the sins of the whole nation (Exodus 29:15). And if a private individual offered a sacrifice, he also laid his hand upon it, as if he threw upon it his own sin. Our sins were thrown upon Christ in such a manner that he along born the curse. This describes the benefit of Christ’s death, that by his sacrifice sins were expiated, and God was reconciled toward men.”[ii]

Without the right starting point, it is impossible to come to a right conclusion about what Jesus accomplished by His death on the cross. God’s holy love that issues forth in wrath against all that is unrighteous (both sin and sinners), along with mankind’s universal and all-pervasive sinfulness, assure us that there can be no salvation without atonement. God must be appeased, sin must be removed, and peace must be reestablished in the relationship between the two. Jesus secured all of this through His sacrificial death. Those who, by faith, entrust themselves to Him receive all of these benefits of His work on the cross.

It is in the Cross that we discover the depth of God’s wrath against us and His love for us. Because of our sin, He is hostile toward us. Because of His grace, He loves us. His wrath we deserve. His love comes to us freely. By delivering up His Son on the cross, God satisfied them both. This lead Calvin to call the cross of Christ a magnificent theater for the glory of God:

“In it, the inestimable goodness of God is displayed before the whole world. In all the creatures, indeed, both high and low, the glory of God shines, but nowhere has it shone more brightly than in the cross, I which there has been an astonishing change of things, the condemnation of all men has been manifested, sin has been blotted out, salvation has been restored to men; and, in sort, the whole world has been renewed, and everything restored to good order.”[iii]


Reconciliation between a father and a son

On a cold rain day in Monroe, Washington in April 1998 my father and I took a walk down the street in front of my house. The night before I was reading in Colossians about how if you don’t forgive you won’t be forgiven and the Lord convicted me that I had held a grudge against my father and now was the time to repent of that and forgive him. While I was immediately pierced to the heart for this and repented, the next day my father came over and we went on a walk. On that walk I told my dad about what the Lord had done the night before, and I forgave him. This event opened the flood gates between my father and I. The Lord had sovereignly reconciled us to each other through Christ.

Fast forward now about seven years after this event and I’m now sitting in my father’s office. We’ve been having some issues and I’m determined to sit down with him. So, determined in fact I was waiting in the waiting room at his physical therapist office in downtown Bellevue, Washington for four hours until finally he’s done for the day, and I can meet with him. While we work out some of the issues that we have I find out the next week that he is moving to Eastern Washington. After that day, I don’t see him for another six and a half years until one day he shows up at a hospital in Seattle, Washington after having come back to pick up some of the things from his office he had put in storage from his physical therapy office many years ago. The Lord once again sovereignly and by His grace brought my dad back into my life.

I mention this story to highlight what we’ve talked about in this article. The Lord convicted me of my unforgiveness and I repented and turned from my sin by confessing it first to the Lord who cleansed me of my sin and then to my dad. This explains why reconciliation is important it reconciles us to God on the basis of the finished work of Christ and to one another through confession of our sin. This is why Paul says that we are ambassadors of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20). Paul also tells us that we are to be agents of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18).

The Great Commission commands Christians to make disciples of the nations. Through being reconciled to God, Christians have a message that is desperately needed in our culture. We live in a day when many marriages are falling apart, where men and women are struggling with addictions to pornography, drugs, alcohol and many other issues. What sinners need is to be reconciled to God. Christians need to be truthful about how Jesus has reconciled to them to God not of their own merit or ability but all by the grace of God. Christians, need to be honest and authentic about how God has sovereignly reconciled and repaired relationships in their lives as they’ve applied the gospel to their lives. As Christians by the grace of God share not from a place of strength but rather from weakness boasting only in what Christ has done in and through them, which enables them to share openly of what God has done for them in Christ. This will in turn help Christians and the Church to produce disciples who not only know what the message of reconciliation is, but who lives as agents of reconciliation in our culture to the glory of God.

[i] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion.

[ii] John Calvin, Commentary on the Prophet Isaiah, 4:124-125.

[iii] Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, 2:73.

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Editors note: This is a brand new series on the Gospel designed to help our readers think through what the Gospel is and what it demands.


Many evangelical churches truncate the gospel. They focus primarily on the benefits of the gospel for us. They explore the depths of our salvation, but rarely talk about Creation, Fall, or Consummation. Salvation is a crucial act in the gospel story as we explored above but it’s still only one act.

Many theologians have desired to correct this salvation-focused gospel by pointing out the full story of the gospel. But in doing so, many downplay the importance of justification by faith. Some see it as a novel focus of the Church. But justification by faith wasn’t invited during the Reformation. The Reformers were self-conscious about tying the reformed faith to the history of the church, the Church Fathers, and the faith found within the pages of the New Testament.

The chasm between the salvation gospel (often rightly or wrongly associated with those who emphasize justification by faith) and the story of the gospel is artificial. Justification is a key element to the story of the gospel. You could no more remove justification by faith from the story than you could remove The Two Towers from J. R. R. Tolkien’s masterpiece The Lord of the Rings and hope to understand it. There’s a crucial connection between the larger story and the doctrine of justification.

We must examine the gospel through covenantal spectacles. The beginning of Genesis has the ingredients of a covenant. A covenant made with certain blessings and curses. The curses are commonly called the “Fall.” The blessings are wrapped up in the Seed who will crush the serpent’s head.

From the “in the beginning” of Genesis 1:1, we are meant to understand God as sovereign creator and ruler of all. We are His ambassadors as image bearers. However, we have foolishly rebelled against God. We have done irreparable harm to our relationship with Him. The question hovers throughout the story: How can a God who is righteous remain so, and yet redeem His bride from her current state of rebellion?1

God offers terms of peace that He meets—in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Isaiah calls Jesus the “Prince of Peace” (9:6). The question immediately becomes, “How does Jesus’s arrival bring us peace?” Hear what the angels say when they announce the arrival of Jesus:

“And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them,

‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.’

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!’” (Lk 2:8-14)

I love how the KJV renders this announcement: “[O]n earth peace, good will toward men.” There’s a gospel expectancy because the question of how isn’t explicitly answered. This advent proclamation of peace is the foundation for Paul’s theology of justification. Without this proclamation there’s no justification! So let’s read what Paul writes about peace:

“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ [cultic and covenantal language]. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” (Eph 2:13-16 see also 6:14-15 “the gospel of peace”).

“For in him [Jesus] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col 1:19-20).

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Rom 5:1-2).

It’s in Paul’s magnum opus, the letter to the Romans, that he makes the connection undeniable between peace and justification.

So when someone asks Paul “How can a righteous God make peace with man through Jesus?” Paul would say, in shorthand, justification. Therefore, the proclamation of Jesus as Hero of the gospel story is not opposed to emphasizing the doctrine of justification. What’s more, study the ministry of Jesus—it’s centered on bringing peace to those who are sinners, sick, scandalized, and in dire straits. Jesus embodies and acts out the divine peace through justification by faith in the Gospels, whereas Paul explores and mines these truths systematically.

Jesus’s arrival marks the proclamation of good tidings for everyone whom God is pleased with by offering peace with God by His blood!”

Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!

Hail the Son of Righteousness!

Light and life to all He brings

Ris’n with healing in His wings Mild He lays His glory by

Born that man no more may die

Born to raise the sons of earth

Born to give them second birth Hark!

The herald angels sing “Glory to the newborn King!”2


(This is an excerpt from A Household Gospel by Mathew B. Sims available from Grace for Sinners Books, 2013. It appears here with the permission of the author and publisher.)

1. “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the LORD.” Proverbs 17:15
2. Charles Wesley’s “Hark the Herald Angel”

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Editors note: This is a brand new series on the Gospel designed to help our readers think through what the Gospel is and what it demands.


What are we saying when we gather to worship on Easter Sunday? We are actually saying something radical, are we not? We’re saying that an itinerant rabbi who lived 2,000 years ago in a backwater town in the Middle East is actually God. But we’re saying more than that, aren’t we?

We’re not only saying that we believe Jesus was God, but that His life and death and resurrection proved this. We’re saying that Jesus’ predictions of His future death and resurrection tell us that He was no ordinary human, but that he was God in the flesh. But we’re saying more than that, aren’t we?

We are not only upholding the apologetic of the Resurrection, we’re not only affirming that the historic Jesus did indeed rise again and was seen by 500 witnesses. We are also saying that “if” this is true, then it changes everything about us, about the world, and about what we think we know about God.

We’re saying Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures, the hope of Israel, the Promised One who will not only satisfy God’s just punishment of sin against humans. We’re saying that the fallen corrupted world, a world of war and disease and famine and strife and murder and corruption, will one day be restored. We’re saying that the utopia we long for, the blessed, beautiful world that we all want to see happen, but seem powerless to effect–we’re saying that Jesus’ resurrection signals that this kingdom will one day happen. That’s what we’re saying.

But we’re saying even more. On Easter, we’re saying that “if” this is true, if Jesus was God, did suffer the death for sin we should have suffered, if He indeed rose again, than death is defeated, the invisible enemy was crushed, and restoration is on the way. Easter is a kind of spring season, it reveals the first colorful shoots and seedlings that point to a new a brighter day. It gives us hope that the world’s long winter freeze has been lifted. Instinctively, we all long for a better world, we all want things to change, all want personal renewal and corporate renewal. But we all know that mankind, at his best, cannot bring this to pass. The 20th century marked the century of the most human progress. And yet, it was the century that arguably saw the most blood shed. So, by Easter, that’s what we are saying.

But we’re saying so much more. Easter also says that Creation itself, the world, the planet, the universe, will also one day be restored. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ not only defeated the death brought to mankind by sin, but it defeated the curse placed by sin on creation, a planet and universe that now rumbles with trouble, unleashing devastating natural disasters. Easter says that there is renewal around the corner. But Easter says even more than this.

What we are saying Easter says is that there is a new Kingdom and a new King coming. We’re saying this new King is calling citizens of a new Kingdom, enlisting them in the immediate task of creating an alternate community, the Church, who is to be a window, a glimpse into the final Kingdom. These kingdom people, empowered by the king, live by a different set of values. The poor, the peacemakers, the virtuous, the humble, the forgiving, the courageous. But we’re saying more than this.

Easter says that God not only came in Christ to renew the earth, rescue humanity, and reverse sin’s curse, but He came to offer personal salvation and access to God. By His life and death and resurrection, Jesus grants those who believe personal intimacy with God. Easter says that this access, citizenship in the new Kingdom, is not given because of merit or birth but by personal regeneration. Consider Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, the most religious man in Israel (John 3). Jesus said that this eminently religious and presumptively qualified man that despite his religious devotion and spiritual heritage, he too needed spiritual rebirth. He too needed a new heart, a new allegiance, a new life. By putting his faith in Christ, Nicodemus and all who believe, become citizens of this new Kingdom.

All of this is what Easter is saying. It is declaring the Bible’s beautiful narrative: Life was once good and beautiful, how we all think it should be. It tells us that man was created uniquely to image God. It tells us what happened to this beautiful world and to man himself. -An enemy seduced humankind into rejecting the Creator. It tells us the consequences of sin: death, destruction, evil–every imaginable horror. It tells us, though, that God already had a plan to restore His creation and His people, through the death and resurrection of Christ. Easter tells us that the centuries-long desire for rescue–the arc of the Old Testament–was fulfilled in Jesus. It tells us that because of Easter, there is a better world coming.

Easter is an invitation into this new world through faith in the King who died, was buried, and rose again.

This, my friends, and not any other reason, is why we celebrate Easter. If this is true, it truly changes everything.

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Editors note: This is a brand new series on the Gospel designed to help our readers think through what the Gospel is and what it demands.


The topic of adoption is very personal for me. As the father of an adopted daughter, I am increasingly aware of what it means to be adopted and the change that adoption brings into the life of an individual. At its core, adoption is grace bestowed upon another for the purpose of bringing one into a new family, to include all of the rights and privileges associated with taking on the new name of that new adopted family. Ultimately, as noted by John Piper, “The Gospel is not a picture of adoption. Adoption is a picture of the Gospel.” As part of the ongoing series on the Gospel, in this post we will analyze the doctrine of adoption, demonstrating why this doctrine is so vital to understand.

Let’s begin with a definition of adoption. Chapter XII of the Westminster Confession of Faith describes adoption in this manner:

“I. All those that are justified, God vouchsafes, in and for His only Son Jesus Christ, to make partakers of the grace of adoption, by which they are taken into the number, and enjoy the liberties and privileges of the children of God, have His name put upon them, receive the spirit of adoption, have access to the throne of grace with boldness, are enabled to cry, Abba, Father, are pitied, protected, provided for, and chastened by Him as by a Father: yet never cast off, but sealed to the day of redemption; and inherit the promises, as heirs of everlasting salvation.”[1]

The first element that must be noted concerning adoption is spiritual adoption is an act of God. The Apostle Paul, in Ephesians 1:3-5 declares:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will.”

In this passage, Paul is clearing noting that our status as adopted sons is rooted in a decision made by God from before the foundation of the world, something known as the doctrine of predestination. This means there is nothing we can do or have done to become sons of God or to be members of the household of faith. What is interesting in Paul’s statement in Ephesians 1:3-5 is the repeated use of the word blessed, which focuses the praise for our status as adopted, predestined sons of God back to the source, namely God. Not only was it God’s will that He chose us from before the foundation of the world, it is also important to notice another set of notable phrases, specifically “in Him” and “in Christ”. The blessing is rooted in our status as being in Christ which is itself rooted in God. This all took place for the explicit purpose of being found holy and blameless before God. Right off the bat we have a sense that the Gospel presented through doctrine of adoption is found to be by God, in God, and for God through Christ’s redemptive work on the cross.

A second element regarding adoption addressed in the Westminster Confession is that of the liberties and privileges we have as children of God. John 1:12-13 speaks to this point stating, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” Once again we find that any rights or privileges we have are provided to us by God. This also begs the question as to what these rights and privileges are that have been granted to us by God and by His will alone. Romans 8:17 describes believers as “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.” Furthermore, Romans 8:23 reveals, “Not only that, but we also who have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body.” What Paul is telling us in these various passages is that our status as adopted sons of God provides a “now and not yet” set of rights and privileges. The now aspect is found in the reality that we are justified through Christ and are vouchsafed or given something in a gracious manner. This gracious gift expresses the entire idea of God’s grace manifested towards us through the cross which is after all the very heart of the gospel message. Moreover, that justification and subsequent status change through adoption is the now aspect of what Paul speaks of in Romans 8. The not yet rights and privileges is what J. I. Packer describes as the “blessing of resurrection day…the surpassing grandeur of what awaits us in the good plan of God.”[2] This promise of eternal life also lies firmly at the heart of the message of the gospel message, most notably the transference from death to life through the power of the cross of Christ.

The third element of adoption outlined in the Westminster Confession is the notation of “having His name put upon them” in order to “receive the spirit of adoption”. Paul states in Galatians 4:6-7, “And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!” Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.” The sonship that results from being adopted by God is that of a status change. We are delivered from slavery to sin and bondage with the requirement to fulfill all the requirements of God’s law in order to be justified. Furthermore, we are gracious given freedom through the perfect fulfillment of God’s law on our behalf by Christ. Our adoption papers if you will were signed by the blood of Christ.

Additionally, as noted by Iain Campbell, “we are no longer strangers and aliens to the people of God but members of the household of God.”[3] When Paul declares that through adoption we are sons and thus can cry out “Abba, Father”, what he is referring to is yet again a change of familial status. As a slave to sin, we served a master other than God. Sin lorded itself over us. Through the cross, we no longer are slaves to sin; conversely, we become children of God. We can then rightly call out “Abba, Father” because we are in the family of God. For example, when my wife and I adopted our daughter, following the completion of the process her last name changed to ours. In essence, our family name was put upon her when she received the gift of adoption. The same idea is rooted in the doctrine of adoption. When God, before the foundation of the world, adopted us as His sons into His family, His name was put upon us. We are now His children.

This concept is further played out by what should happen in the life of the one who is adopted. As a father, I have the expectation of my child to honor me as a parent and it is expected that my child, keeping in mind her sinful nature, should desire to honor me as the parent. This passion for holiness should be the hallmark of every believer as a result of our understanding of this gracious gift of grace in recognition of the message of the gospel. Gary Senna writes on this sonship/name aspect of the doctrine of adoption noting “it is the intended goal of every adoption, either spiritual or natural, for the adopted individual to begin reflecting the values, dreams, and hopes of their adoptive family. Spiritually, this truth is reflected in the transformation of the individual as they become more like Christ in attitude, compassion, lifestyle, and aspirations.”[4] Since the Gospel is the movement of filthy sinners from the kingdom of darkness to a place of transformation as sons of God in the Kingdom of God through the power of the cross, it should be the response of every believer to desire to reflect holiness in their lives to the glory of God. A true response to the Gospel will result in a transformed life, one that understands what it means to reflect their Father in every aspect of their life.

The final element of the doctrine of adoption described in the Westminster Confession is that of assurance of salvation, the surety of our status as sons of God and members of the household of faith. J. I. Packer again provides salient insight into this issue, noting two important issues we all must remember as adopted children of the family of God:

“First, the family relationship must be an abiding one, lasting forever. Perfect parents do not cast off their children. Christians may act the prodigal, but God will not cease to act the prodigal’s father. Second, God will go out of His way to make His children feel His love for them, and know their privilege and security as members of His family. Adopted children need assurance that they belong, and a perfect parent will not withhold it.” [5]

In natural adoption language, this is called providing a child a forever family. The same is true with our status as children of God. God predestined us before the foundation of the world to be part of His forever family. Assurance does not provide a reason to believe that one can act however they want since after all, they are “in the club”. As previously noted, the adopted child of God recognizes the need to reflect the Father in their lives at every opportunity. There is the inherent desire to bring glory to the Father because of His marvelous grace extended towards us.

The great Puritan author Thomas Watson once wrote:

“Extol and magnify God’s mercy, who has adopted you into his family; who, of slaves, has made you sons; of heirs of hell, heirs of the promise. Adoption is a free gift. He gave them power, or dignity, to become the sons of God. As a thread of silver runs through a whole piece of work, so free grace runs through the whole privilege of adoption. Adoption is greater mercy than Adam had in paradise; he was a son by creation, but here is a further sonship by adoption. To make us thankful, consider, in civil adoption there is some worth and excellence in the person to be adopted; but there was no worth in us, neither beauty, nor parentage, nor virtue; nothing in us to move God to bestow the prerogative of sonship upon us. We have enough in us to move God to correct us, but nothing to move him to adopt us, therefore exalt free grace; begin the work of angels here; bless him with your praises who has blessed you in making you his sons and daughters.” [6]

As we contemplate this precious gift called the Gospel, let us also ponder this wonderful gift of adoption. We deserved death yet God chose to rescue us and to receive us as His children. Let it also sink in what Watson stated, namely “in civil adoption there is some worth and excellence in the person to be adopted; but there was no worth in us, neither beauty, nor parentage, nor virtue; nothing in us to move God to bestow the prerogative of sonship upon us”. Paul writes in Romans 5:8 “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” This is the message of the Gospel and adoption is a small but beautiful picture of that glorious Gospel message.

Think about it!

[1] http://www.reformed.org/documents/wcf_with_proofs/
[2] J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 1973), 217.
[3] http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/adoption-gods-family
[4] Garry Senna, “The Doctrine of Adoptoin” (master’s thesis, Reformed Theological Seminary, 2006), 60.
[5] Packer, 225.
[6] Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 1957), 240.

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Editors note: This is a brand new series on the Gospel designed to help our readers think through what the Gospel is and what it demands.


I am so very thankful for the recent resurgence among the “Young, Restless, and Reformed”—as Collin Hanson with the Gospel Coalition would call it—who preach the gospel and it’s core doctrine of justification by faith alone week by week.  Sadly, the American church often misses this core doctrine..

Luther called the doctrine of justification by faith alone “the head and cornerstone” and explained that “without it the church of God cannot exist for one hour?”[1]  He writes in his commentary on the book of Romans that “all men are sinners and in need of [God’s] righteousness.”[2]  It was not simply a general “salvation,” but God’s righteousness that provided the foundation for salvation.  Calvin wrote, “Wherever the knowledge of [justification] is taken away…the hope of salvation is utterly overthrown.”[3]

Indeed, sola fide was the battle cry of the Reformation and remains the bond between the various branches and denominations of the Protestant church.  Certainly this doctrine is not just central to the Christian life or the hope of the church; it should also central to teaching and preaching.

So what do we mean when we say “justification by faith alone?”  What is the historical, Reformed, and biblical understanding?  The Westminster Shorter Catechism states: “Justification is an act of God’s free grace wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us a righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.”[4]

Justification is the declaration of “not guilty” or “righteous” of a believer in Christ based on the imputation of the believer’s sin to Christ and Christ’s righteousness to the believer.  This is called double imputation and is the foundation of God’s pardoning and declarative act.

Justification in Paul’s letters, expounded by the Continental Reformers and Post-Reformation Puritans, is chiefly a forensic term.[5]  That is, it is understood in the context of law, guilt, grace, and pardon.  The current attack on the doctrine is over this basic belief and insists that justification has more to do with a process of staying in the covenant community of God’s people than with God’s one-time declarative act.[6]

The “great exchange” of the gospel is our sin imputed (or credited) to Christ and his righteousness to us.  Richard Gaffin notes, “Justification in Paul is essentially, primarily soteriological.  It is a ‘transfer’ term describing what takes place in an individual’s transition from wrath to grace.”[7]  He goes on to build the relationship between our union with Christ by faith and the doctrine of justification: “In union with Christ, his righteousness is the ground of my being justified.  That is, in my justification his righteousness becomes my righteousness.  This…is to be at the notion of imputation.  His righteousness is reckoned as mine.”[8]

As the Apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  It is this imputed alien righteousness that is missing in our current, post-modern preaching and teaching.  The present challenge to justification “obscures half of Christ’s glory in the work of justification…it denies the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.”[9]

Paul makes the case in Romans 4 that the righteousness “credited” to our account is received by faith and not “works of the law.”  He makes the same argument in Philippians 3:9, where he writes that righteousness comes “through faith in Christ.”  Moreover, it is this ideology and belief that Jesus attacks throughout the gospels, predominately recognized among the Pharisees and “teachers of the law.”

If we don’t preach justification, we don’t preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.  To be sure, justification is the core of the gospel, the “article on which the church stands for falls,”[10] and the only hope for guilty sinners.  It is the means by which we lay down our attempts to justify ourselves and trust in the sufficiency of Christ.

I am grateful for the recent conscientious reaffirmation of the doctrine of justification.  Let us thank God for counting us “righteous” in his sight based on the merits of his Son and our Lord, Jesus Christ.

[1] Martin Luther, quoted in John Piper, Brothers, We are Not Professionals (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2002), 17.

[2] Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids: Kregal Publications, 1976), 78.

[3] John Calvin, quoted in Brothers, We are Not Professionals by John Piper, 17.

[4] Q. 33.

[5] R. C. Sproul, Justified by Faith Alone (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1999), 12.

[6] This is one of the over-arching premises of the NPP.

[7] Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., By Faith, Not by Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation (Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster, 2006), 45.

[8] Ibid., 51-52.

[9] John Piper, Counted Righteous in Christ: Should We Abandon the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2002), 35.

[10] Martin Luther, XV Psalmos graduum 1532-33; WA 40/III.352.3.

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