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”↩