[In this post we look at why we are right to emphasize that the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is both the message about him and the means by which we receive him as our Savior from sin. The first two parts of this series are posted below, so this post picks up where “Part 2” left off.]
This word of God received through hearing is said by Paul to have been “at work” in the believers. “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1Thess. 2:13). This is, of course, consistent with what Paul wrote in Romans 1:16 regarding the gospel—that it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. In 2Thess. 1:13-15 Paul declared, “But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first-fruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.” Note that when Paul says (yes,present tense is acceptable because God’s word lives–Paul still speaks!) that God called them through the gospel so that they “may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ,” he is not communicating that God was merely giving them permission to reach that goal. We know this is not the case because Paul addressed those whom “God chose” “as the first-fruits to be saved.” Paul is emphasizing the means through which God does accomplish salvation for those whom God chose. God was and still is saving through the gospel being heard. The term called in v. 14 is equal to the term chose in v. 13. This is just one example of why faithful pastors and bible teachers have affirmed for centuries that there is a difference between the free offer of the gospel to all people and the effectual call of God that raises sinners from the spiritual dead, just as Jesus raised Lazarus from the physical dead by Jesus calling out to him. It is also why we are correct in defining the gospel as both the message about the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus and the means by which these events reach their fulfillment.
The Power of God to Save Through Preaching
Paul wrote in 1Cor. 15:1, “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.” The term “stand” is a perfect active indicative verb that communicates that a past action is effecting their current situation. But Paul goes further. Paul wrote that they were being saved, or that their salvation was ongoing, but only as they held fast to the word Paul had preached. The Corinthians were, at that time, standing and would continue standing by virtue of the gospel. In other words, the preached gospel was the means by which they were being saved. Paul then helped them, and us, see what this looks like from their side of the matter. It means their holding fast to the word Paul preached. We should emphasize that there really is no reason for Paul to make reference to his preaching unless his preaching was somehow united to everything else he was affirming. Why not just write “the gospel you received” or “hold fast to the word”? But Paul, twice in a very short span alerts them to his preaching of the gospel. Why? Because he had the authority to preach the authoritative interpretation of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension by which they were being saved, and it was through his preaching of the gospel that they had been called out of darkness and brought into God’s marvelous light, as Peter wrote (1Peter 2:9).
Of course, it was Paul who wrote in Romans 10:14-17 of the centrality of preaching for believing the gospel. But it is important that we understand precisely what Paul was affirming by his words in Romans 10:16-17. Paul wrote, “But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our report?” This is a quote from Isaiah 53:1. Paul had previously used a quote from Isaiah 52:7 to refer to the need for gospel preachers to be sent, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach good news?” In the Greek of Paul’s quote from Isaiah 52:7, he used the term that refers to the preaching of the gospel. Here is the full quote from Isaiah: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” The Hebrew verb form that is expressed in the English phrase “who publishes” is communicating that the announcement of the peace, the good news, and salvation is caused to be heard. In other words, it is not a mere verbal declaration, but rather an effectual declaration, just as Paul affirmed an effectual call to the Thessalonians. This same idea is communicated in the two questions of Isaiah 53:1: “Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?” To have the arm of the Lord revealed to us is to have God cause us to know and experience his saving power. This is why Paul draws the following conclusion in Romans 10:17: “So faith comes from hearing and hearing by the word of Christ.” Saving faith comes from hearing the preaching of the gospel, the gospel that is both the word about Christ (he is the content) and that belongs to Christ (he is the owner). In other words, in Romans 10:17 Paul is saying that Christ, through his word preached (because the Spirit is present in that preaching to either bless or curse), creates the ability to spiritually hear and respond in faith to Christ’s message that comes through his ordained servant. Perhaps this can be seen even more easily when we note how the Lord’s “arm” and “hand” are referred to in the Old Testament.
God’s Powerful “Arm” or “Hand”
Frequently in the Old Testament God’s right hand and/or arm are used as symbols of his power to conquer the enemy of his people, to save his people from sin, or judge them for their sin (Ex. 6:6; 15:12, 16; Deut. 4:34; 5:15; 7:19; 9:29; 11:2; 26:8; 1Kngs. 8:42; 2Kngs. 17:36; 2Chron. 6:32; Ps. 44:3; 89:10, 13, 20-21; 98:1; 136:12; Is. 30:30; 40:10-11; 44:12; 51:5, 9; 53:1; 59:16; 62:8; 63:5, 12; Jer. 21:5 [an instance of God judging and fighting against his people]; 27:5 along with 32:17 and 21 [helps us see the connection between God’s act of creating with his actions to redeem]; Ezek. 4:7 is a clear connection between the use of arm and the verbal proclamation of God’s word through his chosen prophet; 20:33-34). God’s people understood this connection between God’s arm and God accomplishing salvation, as can be seen not only from the abundant Old Testament citations above, but from Mary’s declaration in Luke 1:46-55 (see esp. v. 51), when she responded to Elizabeth’s words regarding Mary, the Christ child and Elizabeth’s own child. These things are further illumined for us in John 12:36-50.
When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem six days before the Passover, he encountered some Greeks who had come for the feast. Jesus recognized this as a sign that his time of glorification through his death and resurrection was at hand (12:20-32). In the midst of Jesus speaking about this, John tells us a “voice came from heaven” (v. 28). The crowd heard thunder. Keep this in mind. Jesus went on to speak about the judgment of the world, the ruler of the world being cast out, and Jesus being lifted up to draw all people (in light of this being prompted by the Greeks it was a veiled reference to all types of people, i.e. Jew and Gentile in God’s kingdom) to himself. Then Jesus gets a bit more ambiguous and spoke about people walking in the light while the light is with them and that they needed to believe in the light. Then John tells us that Jesus departed and hid himself and that the people did not believe in him despite all the signs Jesus had done. Pay attention to what John wrote concerning this. John wrote that this was so “the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: ‘Lord, who has believed what he heard from us, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? [Isaiah 53:1] Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said, ‘He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.’ Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him” (John 12:38-41). The very text that Paul uses to stress that faith comes from hearing the word of Christ John uses to confirm why people could not hear rightly and believe in Jesus. Perhaps someone might ask: “Well which is it?” It is both. It could not be otherwise. God is Lord of the revelation of himself; God determines who hears or rightly understands his word and who does not; his sheep hear his voice because they are his sheep (John 10:26-27).
Knowing who God is, understanding him as the worthy object of your faith for the saving of your soul is a gift from God. God creates, saves and destroys by his mouth or word (Psalm 18:8; 33:6; Job 4:9; Isaiah 34:16; 40:5; 45:22-23; 48:3, 13 [note the union of God’s “hand” and “right hand” creating along with God’s word going out]). Perhaps the effectual nature of God’s word is expressed nowhere more concisely and clearly than Isaiah 55:10-11: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” And then that is followed in the last two verses of Isaiah 55 with a declaration of the joy that is experienced by God’s people because they have been saved by God. God has mercy upon whom he has mercy and hardens whom he hardens (Exodus 9:16; Romans 9:17-18). Perhaps again we should remind ourselves that no one, not a single person, deserves to be able to hear, understand and believe for salvation; what we all deserve is death.
So then, what Isaiah is asking in 53:1 and that Paul uses in Romans 10:16 amounts to asking this: “Who, in the preaching of the gospel, has been given the power to believe the gospel and be saved?” That Paul did not think this was simply for converting people to the Christian faith, but in building them up continually in the Christian faith their whole earthly life is seen, among other ways, in that Romans was written to Christians, and that the most accurate way to translate Romans 1:16 is that “the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who keeps on believing.”(The term that is translated “who believes” is pisteuonti a present active dative participle. It communicates an ongoing act of believing.) God’s power to continuously save us as sinners comes through the preached gospel. What Paul brought into further light in Romans 10 he had already presented in Romans 1:15 that preceded his statement regarding why he was not ashamed of the gospel. “So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous will live by faith.’” The power of God to bring salvation by his “arm” and the connection of this to apostolic preaching was also expressed by Paul in Acts 13.
As Paul began preaching in the Antioch synagogue he referred to God’s history of bringing Israel out of Egypt “with uplifted arm” (v. 17). Paul highlighted Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel’s hope of salvation. It sparked the interest of many and so Luke tells us that the next Sabbath day “almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord” (v. 46). But some of the Jews began to contradict Paul and Barnabas. This is what Luke reports next: “And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly saying, ‘It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles” (italics mine). Notice that in thrusting the word of God aside they were regarding themselves unworthy of eternal life. In other words, the word of God is equated with eternal life. Now, what Paul and Barnabas said next is, I believe, one of the most stunning statements in the Bible regarding the character of apostolic preaching. They stated: “For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’” This is a quote from Isaiah 49:6 referring to the One commonly called the “suffering servant,” who was God’s way to save his people, both Jew and Gentile from their sins, and, who, of course, is Jesus. Paul and Barnabas said that it applied to them in their preaching the gospel. It is the equivalent of saying, “Our apostolic preaching is Jesus.” It was, of course, the continued expansion of what Jesus had said in Acts 1:8. The response of the Gentiles was appropriate: “and when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.” The union between the saving work of Jesus in his life, death, resurrection and ascension and the apostolic preaching of it could not be tighter or clearer. The apostle Peter proclaimed the same truths.
In our next post we will look at more examples of these points and draw some conclusions regarding the ministry and life of the Church.