When I was a kid, I used to bury treasure in our yard and then dig it up later. Once, I buried some collectible coins in the garden area of our yard. I put them in a little plastic bag, covered them over with dirt, and then left them there. Later, when I went to dig them up I couldn’t find them again. I was worried, because I thought I had lost them. But, eventually with enough digging in the right areas I was able to find them, and I was extremely happy.
It’s a similar thing with the Gospel. By Gospel I mean the “Good News” that Jesus Christ has done everything necessary for our salvation. Salvation is Christ setting us free from slavery to sin and redeeming us from eternal death. And why exactly is the Gospel “Good News?” It is because our righteousness and salvation rests outside of ourselves; it rests in Christ. It is the external Word of God who justifies us in God’s sight, not something internal to us that justifies us. This is the Good News of God’s unmerited grace through Christ, and it is eternal, because it is the way in which God has dealt with us and with all people since the beginning. We all stand before our holy Lord God only because He makes us able to stand before Him through Christ. And God is always faithful to His promises.
Yet, like a precious coin which has been buried, the Gospel is sometimes obscured. That is because we as sinful people are always tempted to try to take credit for our salvation; we’re not content to let “everything” be “everything.” We’re tempted to want to put our own little “something” in there. We end up burying the treasure of the Gospel underneath the dirt of our own sense of self-righteousness to the point that the Good News aspect of the Gospel is hidden.
This had happened in the Church of the Middle Ages. The Gospel had gotten so covered over with the dirt of our own works that the free grace of God through Christ was obscured. The Gospel then was no longer the “Good News” it is meant to be. Instead, it became a burden from which we could not escape. The “righteousness of God” which St. Paul talks about in Romans 1:17 came to be viewed as God’s righteousness by which He judged sin, rather than the righteousness which He imputes to us for the sake of Jesus Christ.
What happened then is that people thought they had to do good things in order to be saved. They thought they had to earn their salvation by atoning for their own sins. It was an immense burden, because how could you ever know if you’ve done enough? How could I be sure that the Holy Lord God had accepted me, a sinner, as His own child?
This was the problem that a young German monk named Martin Luther struggled with. Despite all his good works, devotion, study, prayer, and repentance, he never felt like he was good enough for God to love. This was because he knew he could not atone for his own sins and could never do enough to be perfect.
Then, around 1512/1513 Luther began preparing to teach a class on the book of Romans. He had struggled with that verse I mentioned earlier, because he saw it as yet another way that God condemns sinners. But, as he wrestled with the Word of God, he came to see that the “righteousness of God” is actually the righteousness which He imputes to us for the sake of Jesus Christ. That is, this phrase was meant as Good News, but had been interpreted, wrongly, as a condemnation because the Gospel had been buried for so long.
Once Luther made this realization, it was as if he had just uncovered a precious coin which had been hidden. He now saw the Gospel as the “Good News” that it really is; that God justifies us in His sight on account of Christ’s work on the cross and the empty tomb. We don’t do anything to deserve salvation or to earn it; God gives it to us freely on account of Christ. We are sinners, but God’s perfect Son Jesus Christ took our sin upon himself and made the atonement for it.
What Luther then realized is that God’s grace is exactly that; it is unearned by us. Grace is having mercy on someone who does not deserve it and who can’t pay you back. God’s grace is therefore Him looking upon us sinful humans who were enslaved by sin and freeing us from it. Grace is God sending His own Son as the propitiation, the payment, for our sins. Grace is God bringing us to faith in His Son through the Holy Spirit. Grace is our God who is both just and our justifier. He is the one who makes us right in His eyes, not because of what we have done to deserve it – because we can do nothing to deserve it – but, because of what His Son Jesus Christ has done for us.
This truly is Good News. And its re-discovery made Martin Luther extremely happy. He had found the buried treasure and everything changed for him. He had uncovered God’s pure, unmerited grace given to poor sinners for the sake of Christ. It is a rest from works, as the Epistle to the Hebrews points out; God has brought us into His rest, where we can simply receive His grace and mercy. This is something to rejoice about. It’s something to tell the whole world about.
Christ died for the sins of all people of all times and all places, and so this eternal Gospel is to be proclaimed by the Church to all people – every nation and tribe and language – as we see God’s angel doing in Revelation (Revelation 14:6-7). We are all united in Christ, no longer separated by sin and death and the devil, no longer divided by language or skin color, no longer at war, but at peace.
Because Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God has set you free from from all this (John 8:31-36). He has brought you to know the truth, and the truth has set you free. And what is the truth? It’s not some abstract concept. It’s not a set of propositional statements. It’s not a set of rules you have to follow to be saved. No, the truth is precisely the eternal Gospel that is proclaimed to all those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. It is like a precious coin which, once found, is rejoiced over. The truth is the Gospel of Jesus Christ which not only proclaims your freedom from sin and death and the devil, it actually gives you this freedom. The truth is that the Son has set you free, and you are free indeed, because the Son has the authority to do so.
God’s Word does things. It accomplishes things. It makes things real. It makes you the children of God and part of the household of faith, along with the rest of the Church Militant and the Church at Rest.
So, if you ever hear someone describe the Gospel to you and it doesn’t sound like Good News, then ask yourself if you are being told to interject your own works alongside of Christ’s works in order to be saved, because that’s not Good News, that’s not the Gospel, instead it is just another burden. No, the Gospel is that God has already saved you and made you His own, even though you didn’t deserve it and apart from any works of your own. That’s what grace and mercy is, and God gives this to you due to the works of His Son Jesus Christ, not due to your own works. Christ has set you free.
And ultimately, you will be the Church Triumphant, inheriting the new, restored creation when Christ returns. This is more than heaven. Heaven is where our souls go to rest with God when our bodies die. But, heaven is not the end, it is just a resting place. For when Christ returns he will resurrect your bodies, wherever or in whatever state they are, and bring you into the land he has prepared for you. You will be fully restored, body and soul, just like the rest of creation. And you will dwell in the house of the Lord forever, God’s eternal Gospel abiding. Amen.
(Image By Gustave Doré, depicting the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21 – http://www.artbible.info/art/large/383.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49700403 )