What is the Gospel?

Humanity has a broken relationship with God, leaving us often feeling like God is either angry with us, doesn’t care, or doesn’t even exist. The Gospel is the comforting and joyous news that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38-9).

A Story

Before we dig deeper, allow me to offer the following illustration. There was a great film recently called Lady Bird (2017), starring the Irish actress Saoirse Ronan, pronounced “Sear-sha.”

Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson is the name of the protagonist Ronan plays. She has given herself the name “Lady Bird” to the chagrin of her perpetually irritable and dissatisfied mother. Now her mother is not unloving; she loves deeply in fact. She serves as a nurse, an extremely difficult and demanding profession. She just doesn’t know how to show her love for her daughter, which leads to all kinds of emotional turbulence.

Now Lady Bird lives in a small town, around the year 2002, and goes to a Catholic school, where she is a theater student. She thinks religion is a bunch of bull, and that her home town is boring. She badly wants to get out and move to New York City to go to college. They live on the west coast, so this would be a great distance from home. Plus, the tuition, yikes! Mom forbids her to go, but dad is secretly supportive. Mom feels that Lady Bird is ungrateful for what they have and doesn’t understand their financial difficulties. But mom doesn’t know how to communicate her love, so all Lady Bird hears is judgment and dissatisfaction. In the eyes of her mother, Lady Bird is never good enough, and mom never lets her forget it. Many fights, much pain.

With her dad’s support, she secretly applies and is accepted to a university in New York City. When mom discovers that she had done this behind her back, the fallout between them is so serious that they become estranged. In a heated exchange, mom accuses Lady Bird of arrogance and of not caring about the incredible sacrifices she has made for her. In response, Lady Bird declares that she will work hard enough to pay back every penny ever spent on her so they never have to speak again.

No longer speaking, the day finally comes for Lady Bird to move away. Still filled with pain, mom refuses to say goodbye. Lady Bird and her dad make their exchanges, and they part ways. Mom breaks down in tears on the car ride away from the airport, turning back in a moment of repentance, now wishing to share her thoughts, but it is too late. Lady Bird has flown away.

It turns out that mom had been filled with feelings she desired to share with her daughter, but could never bring herself to share them. In fact, she wrote several letters that she later balled up and threw in the trash after reading them. However, dad secretly retrieved the letters from the garbage and slipped them into Lady Bird’s suitcase.

Upon arrival in New York, Lady Bird is suddenly surrounded by smart, young, arrogant students with whom she does not really feel a sense of belonging. Now in this unfamiliar place, she finds herself listening to a fellow student talk about how obviously ridiculous belief in God is, for this philosophical reason and that. She is hearing exactly the sort of thing she used to say herself, but it no longer feels comforting. It now feels alienating, because this person doesn’t understand what it was like for her to grow up in the church.

The night proved a long one, and before she knew it, she was so drunk that she was hospitalized for alcohol poisoning. In over her head, she wanders the streets of New York the next morning, stumbling into a local Catholic church, where the choir is practicing. Suddenly, the thing she couldn’t get away from quickly enough become profoundly comforting. Whatever this religion stuff is, there is way more to it than she ever realized. For the sights and sounds of that church, despite being a thousand miles away and surrounded by a strange world indeed, was just like what she knew back home; she was captivated by it for the first time. She spent some time there in reflection, and later goes home.

After talking to her dad about her ordeal, she learns of her mother’s letter. She reads it’s flowing words of love and praise, something she had seldom heard in this way, and was broken to pieces. The movie ends with her calling her mother to say that she was right about many things, and to thank her for the incredible sacrifices she made to make her life possible.

Law and Gospel

God speaks to us in two very different voices in the Bible: the Law and the Gospel. Sometimes the word “Gospel” is used to refer to everything about the life and teachings of Jesus. Other times, however, “Gospel” is to be contrasted with the “Law,” such as when the apostle Paul declares that people are now justified by faith in Jesus Christ “apart from the law” (Rom. 3:21-22), and when John writes that “God gave the Law through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (Jn 1:17).

Unfortunately, many of us go through life only hearing the voice of the Law from the God we think we know, and this understandably leads us to resent and reject this God whether we admit it or not. Sometimes this is the fault of Christian ministers for preaching judgment or expectations we can’t live up to without forgiveness and acceptance. Other times, it is because we just haven’t had the life experiences necessary to hear this Word of comfort and forgiveness as something we badly need.

The voice of the Gospel is a voice of pure comfort, mercy, forgiveness, acceptance, and assurance on account of what Christ has done for us, apart from anything that we do or fail to do (Rom 3:21-22; 1 Jn 4:10). Although we need the Law, sometimes the Law can just drive us deeper into resentment or despair (Rom 7:10). Just like Lady Bird, if all we hear from God is Law and judgment and expectations, we feel unloved and angry. God knows what the heart really needs in order to find joy and freedom, and that is a Word of unconditional favor and acceptance. That is what God does in Jesus Christ.

The voice of the Law gives instruction, guidance, and shows us our sin. This includes the Ten Commandments, but above all the command to love God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves (Mk 12:30-31). Yet, that same Law also shows us our failure to love and its deep roots in the human heart. In this sense, the “Law” refers to the proclamation of God’s judgment on human sin. In this sense, the Law has a terrifying effect and shows us our need of Christ. We don’t love as we ought; when we hear that truth in the light of God’s Law, it stings. We are always falling short, and so Paul writes, “The very law that promised life proved to be death to me” (Rom 7:10).

Whereas the Law teaches us how we ought to love others but don’t, the Gospel proclaims the love God has shown for us in Jesus Christ, Who has already accomplished everything needed. “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 Jn 4:10). Strictly speaking, “Gospel” means “nothing else than a proclamation of comfort and a joyous message which does not rebuke nor terrify but comforts consciences against the terror of the law, directs them solely to Christ’s merit, and lifts them up again through the delightful proclamation of the grace and favor of God, won through Christ’s merit.”[1]

While scripture sometimes refers to God’s teaching and Word in ways that include both Law and Gospel, such as when the Psalms give thanks and praise for the whole Torah, or the first five books of the Bible, the distinction between Law and Gospel is important if we are to hear the Bible in a beneficial way. Of course, Lutherans weren’t the first to see this aspect of the Bible. A distinction between the law and the promises has been observed in the church at least since the rules of Tyconius in the 4th century, as reported by St Augustine. Martin Luther and his colleagues in Wittenberg, however, recognized its central importance. They considered this distinction between Law and Gospel to be “an especially glorious light, through which the Word of God, in accord with Paul’s admonition, is properly divided.”[2] Apart from this distinction, people interpret the Bible in harmful ways that drive others into hypocrisy and despair, just as Lady Bird was by her mother. We need the Law, and yet nobody can fulfill it. We can lie to ourselves and others by pretending that we’re doing great after all, or we can face the truth and admit that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. The Good News is that Christ has restored our relationship to God, taking our sin as his own and giving us his righteousness by faith alone.

Justification by Faith Alone

Another way of saying this is that the “Gospel,” strictly speaking, announces the forgiveness of sins won for us by Christ. Luther and his colleagues considered this teaching so important that they referred to it as the teaching by which the church stands or falls. This is also known as “justification.”

A person is justified or made acceptable before God by faith alone, apart from any work or striving on their part.

St Paul writes to the Christians in Rome, “But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Rom. 3:21-22). As the Psalmist declares, “I will come praising the mighty deeds of the Lord God | I will praise your righteousness, yours alone” (Ps. 71:16). A person set free by such a wonderful message is filled with joy and does more good than morality or the Law could ever demand.

Word and Sacrament: God’s Means of Grace

Where do we get this wonderful Gospel and its benefits? People are “justified” when God simply declares them forgiven and righteous on account of Jesus Christ. This happens in church through the proclaimed Word of God and the administration of the Sacraments. Faith is not our choice; it isn’t something we work up in ourselves in an emotional or irrational leap. Rather, faith comes from hearing the external Word of the gospel (Jn 15:16; Rom. 10:17; Gal. 3:1-3).

The simplest example of God’s justifying Gospel is absolution, where a minister or fellow Christian exercises Christ’s own authority to simply declare the forgiveness of sins to someone with a despairing conscience. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:23 & Matt. 18:18; see also John 15:3). To be absolved and to be justified mean the same thing (see Formula of Concord, Ep., Art. 3). Justification also happens to us in baptism, in the preached Word of the sermon, and in the sacrament of holy communion. These teachings can be found in the Augsburg Confession of 1530 (Art. 4 & 5), and throughout the rest of the Book of Concord, which contains the central teachings of the Lutheran church.

Lutherans and Catholics After 500 Years of Reformation

A person is considered completely just and righteous in God’s eyes by faith in Christ alone. While this teaching is very simple and profoundly liberating, it is also counter intuitive, and became clear for Luther and his colleagues in an historical and religious context that is difficult for us to understand today. While it was common since the time of the Reformation for Catholics and Lutherans to attack and condemn one another, our two churches have come to agree about most of the major issues at stake in Luther’s reforms. In fact, Lutherans and Catholics held a shared commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation last year. The fruits of decades of Lutheran-Catholic dialogue have been published in a document titled “From Conflict to Communion,” which can also be found on the Vatican’s website. The following description presumes this consensus and recognizes that medieval Catholicism is not fully represented by the things that Luther rejected. On the contrary, Luther understood himself as a catholic preacher and doctor of Bible who was simply exercising his duties to teach the Gospel faithfully and comfort despairing consciences.

In Luther’s day, one way of thinking about justification that was widespread at the time was that of Gabriel Biel. Luther describes this view and its effects at length in the Smalcald Articles of 1537. According to Gabriel Biel, a person’s original sin was wiped away at baptism, but after that baptism was of no use to a Christian. If a person committed a sin intentionally, such a sin was considered a mortal sin that took a person out of their baptismal grace. One then needed to use the system of penance to return to a state of grace. Gabriel Biel taught that a person began this process of returning to God’s grace by doing the little bit of good that was in them, with the belief that God would not deny grace to such a person who’s given a good effort.

Then the person needed to see the priest for the next step, to get the help of God’s grace to improve their own initial effort. They would confess their sins in order to have the eternal punishment for those sins removed by absolution, but a temporal punishment remained. So absolution did not really free a person in this complicated system. Such disciplines or penances could involve a certain number of Hail Mary’s, giving alms, good works for the poor, pilgrimages, and so forth, each for a certain amount of time. Such disciplines were seen as being needed to prove the validity and sincerity of a person’s original confession.

Yet these temporal punishments would accumulate and build up over time, to the point that no person could satisfy them all in one lifetime. This is why purgatory was needed, so a person could go to an intermediary realm to work off the rest of their temporal punishments in order to be purified. The other problem was that a person could never remember or know for sure all of their sins. In these ways, baptism was of no use, and confession and absolution were never certain and offered no comfort. Since people were taught that communion was holy and they needed to go through the penitential system before receiving it, most people did not commune. Finally, preaching increasingly came to focus on indulgences as a way to be set free from temporal punishments, rather than proclaiming the benefits of Christ crucified and risen. As a result, this system produced pride among many monastics, and widespread spiritual despair among the common people.

Is This Still Relevant For Us Today?

Yes! Granted, the problems of medieval Christianity are very far away from us. Luther was searching for a gracious God and felt overwhelmed by God’s wrath as people in his day always strove to be better but never reached the goal. Although today we tend to live our lives as if there were no God in the world, we can still relate right away to the feeling that what we do is never enough. The images of advertising in late consumer capitalism place before us an ideal self that always makes us feel inadequate or unworthy. Yet God’s justification of us by faith alone can cut through this system as well, so that we can know and feel ourselves valued and worthy on account Christ against a world that constantly tries to tell us otherwise.

I will conclude here with a presentation offered by Nadia Bolz-Weber at the ELCA National Youth Gathering in Houston (2018) that addresses this issue directly. She also gave an excellent interview on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, which can also be found below. Her message can help us to understand why justification by faith alone remains so relevant for us today.

+Pastor Gabriel

[1] Formula of Concord, Ep., Art. 6, in Robert Kolb, Timothy J. Wengert, and Charles P. Arand, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000), 501.

[2] Ibid, 500.