The gospel1 is the joyful message about the grace of God in Christ Jesus.
The gospel is the joyful and amazingly excellent message that the mind of God directed at us lost and condemned sinners is full of grace from eternity, and that this grace is the real and only truth of the mind of God towards us. The gospel was sent upon the earth by God himself, and has never originated in the heart of a human or even in the heart of an angel.
Grace, therefore, has by no means first originated in God’s mind towards us by accident. Rather it is the eternal, true, and freely comprehended mind of God, which is not determined by any law. O, let us mark it well! This is, however, incomprehensible and unspeakable; it far surpasses all thought and deliberation.
The law ― to sum it up, this shows us the eternal, holy, and inviolable will of God concerning how we should be. It shows us how we should be and how we, precisely through grace, should become again. The law also shows us the righteous and genuine wrath of God towards us sinners. God has created us good and holy in Adam and Eve in conformity with his eternal and holy will. But because we have fallen into sin through Adam and Eve, the wrath of God has come over us, as the law tells us. ― But nevertheless the law, as it is revealed and stands before us, does not show us the actual and true mind of God towards us in any way; it only demands holiness and threatens and curses us sinners. The actual mind of God towards us, from beginning to end, is grace. The law has only come near and appeared by our side for the sake of sin. It exists to make sin appear in its true, evil essence, and to thus make grace rightly recognized through the gospel.
The gospel is the joyful message that this grace and truth of the mind of God towards us has been realized and has come into effect in the fullness of time through Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of the Father.
Here’s how it happened: In Christ, through his vicarious obedience and suffering, death, and resurrection, God has reconciled the entire sinful world to himself and justified it for eternal life. ― This is an accomplished fact of grace. This is not altered through anything that humans do or any attitude that humans may have about it. It is also not affected by anything of that sort. All speech and teaching that offends against this in any way, limits this by stipulations in any way, or does not stand in fullest harmony with this, is lying and false doctrine.
The gospel was first announced in Paradise to fallen mankind by God himself, then attested by the prophets of the Old Testament, prefigured in the Mosaic Law, and at last preached by the incarnate Son of God and proclaimed through word and writing by his apostles on account of the command of the eternal God. In this way it has been sent from heaven by the Holy Spirit. It should be preached and proclaimed in the whole world and to every person, without distinction or exception. In this preaching and proclamation the grace of God manifests itself so much, that the preachers and proclaimers in God’s stead exhort the people and in Christ’s stead entreat them: “Be reconciled to God!”
Moreover, this gospel is not just an announcement, testimony, and proclamation of the grace of God, realized through Christ, and the justification of the entire sinful world. This gospel, with the holy Sacraments that belong to it, is also the Means of Grace, which carries this grace, reconciliation, and justification with itself. These things are offered, given away, chartered, and sealed to mankind as a free gift and present, affected by nothing and altogether unquestionably firm.
So this gospel is only to be recognized and believed, only to be received and trusted. Whoever does that already has as a possession and benefit that which it announces, attests, proclaims, carries with itself, offers, gives away, charters, and seals-the grace of God, reconciliation, and justification. Whoever has these likewise has forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. ― Indeed, only faith, reception, and trust can be the means to take possession of the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. Then how could a work, a work of the law, still be demanded? Then it would no longer be “by grace,” right? But although this faith and reception is something put into action and done by people,2 it cannot be considered as their act, doing, and work. It cannot be an action of mankind that God stipulates. On the contrary, whoever wants to earn for themselves a right to the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation through any kind of a work, of the law or otherwise, is under the law and its demand, threat, and curse. Whoever wants to set down their faith as a work and lay claim to salvation based on that is also under the law, for he thereby rejects what God has firmly testified in the gospel, namely that his grace alone avails for our salvation. Again, whoever believes and receives the gospel about the grace of God is completely free and released from the demanding, threatening, and cursing law.
So high, majestic, full, and immeasurable is the grace of God conveyed by the gospel, that God sends his Holy Spirit with the gospel to recreate, re-beget, and give new birth to people precisely through that gospel. In this way the Holy Spirit brings us to faith in the gospel and preserves us in that faith. For all people are dead in their sins, incapable of even the slightest spiritual impulse, and even hostile to God. As the Holy Spirit exercises his divine power in people through the gospel, he also takes the law into his service. He opens people’s hearts and eyes, so that from the law they really recognize the outrageous height of their sins and the hellish depth of their corruption and are truly alarmed by it. He causes them to be comforted by the gospel in repentance to God and to believe grace. So wherever there is a mere sparklet of faith, the mere impulse of a longing and craving for grace and salvation in Christ, for forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation, there the person possesses the grace of God, justification, and salvation. For that is already or still the working of the Holy Spirit through the gospel in people, all of whom are spiritually dead by nature. Yes, that is faith. ― Only those who persistently resist the Holy Spirit, who push away and do not want to believe him and the grace conveyed by him through the gospel, remain in their corruption and are lost.
Christians are thus “called,” i.e. made believers and are saved, by the gospel out of God’s grace. According to his eternal grace and truth, God has, already from eternity, considered and graciously predestined them for himself for Christ’s sake; he has firmly appointed that they should believe and be saved. So everything is dependant on God’s grace in time and eternity; nothing is dependant on human merit. ― But in defiance and spite of every rational deduction from all sides, especially on this point, the gospel teaches that God withholds absolutely nothing at all from people, which can make them believers and save them. Those, who get lost when their time comes, do so through their own unbelief. On the other hand the gospel does not teach that God gives any kind of advantage to those who are elected from eternity and appointed to faith and to salvation when their time comes, so that they alone become believers and are saved. Such a thing is a self-invented speech that contradicts the gospel. With the latter everything is grace in spite of guilt; with the former everything is guilt in spite of grace.
The elected believers-the recreated, re-begotten, and reborn-are now “God’s temple.” The Holy Spirit dwells in them and guides them always into all truth through the gospel. He leads them to correctly believe in God through Jesus Christ, to love God and their brothers, to recognize the holy will of God and to desist from sin and be sanctified in love, and to firmly and patiently hope for the promised salvation to which God so certainly and surely leads them with his omnipotently gracious hand. He assures them that God also has every single thing3 work out for their best―even their sins, yes, precisely these.
Oh, how weak we are in all of that, we who still wander about in the flesh! Our recognition, our faith, our love, and our hope-it is all so weak! We often fear as well. The hostile power and frightful image of the sin that dwells in our flesh wants to interpose between us and grace. It wants to rob us of the faith that looks to grace. ― To combat this, hear and grasp this threefold gospel message. First: Do you desire to readily believe? But of course! Behold! In such a desire there is grace, which has given you new birth into faith. Do you desire to readily love and be sanctified in love? But of course! Behold! In such a desire there is grace, which has freed you from original sin and the self-love that is hostile to God. Do you desire to readily hope? But of course! Behold! In such a desire there is grace, which directs your heart to the salvation that is firmly promised to you. Then do be comforted! Grace does not leave you. Second: No matter how many countless times you fall on account of the deceit of your inherent sin, yes, although you daily sin much and well deserve nothing but punishment, since indeed you are still “fleshly, sold under sin” (Ro. 7:14), nevertheless the entrance to grace is always open for you. Grace is much more powerful than sin, and the Holy Spirit guides and leads you to grace through the gospel. In that gospel you receive grace on top of grace4 for constant forgiveness of sins, continually renewed sanctification in love, and continually rekindled hope of salvation. All this is imputed to continually new faith that the Holy Spirit works in you. Third: Grace strengthens and increases your faith, love, and hope, so that you become firm against all temptation, valiantly struggle against all enemies who encounter you from inside and outside, gain the victory, and obtain the crown of eternal life. Listen! Your faith, which you have regardless of whether you are strong or weak, is already the victory in itself. Through grace it has overcome and will further overcome everything hostile.
Yes, in order to accomplish all this increasingly more and more, God also gives precisely to us-his Christians, the elected believers, the recreated, rebegotten, and reborn, in whom the Holy Spirit dwells-orders, commands, and exhortations, which apply to every aspect of our Christian life. God orders, commands, and exhorts, that we believe, love, and hope, and do everything that conforms to his will in us. Now don’t be alarmed! These are not legalistic orders and commands. These orders, commands, and exhortations in the New Testament bear the name “new commands.” They are evangelical and gracious commands that only apply and are able to apply to reborn Christians.5 For they presuppose what they command to Christians as already substantially present in them. Thus they require from Christians only what in fact already is, dwells, and endures in them. Yes, they carry with themselves the power of their fulfillment through the Holy Spirit. ― Consequently these “new commands” do not exist for unbelievers. They do not even exist for the old Adam who dwells in Christians. One may say at the most that they, like every gracious word, are given to Christians who still bear sin that assails them from within. But this we most certainly can and want to say: How gracious God is, that he flat out commands us to believe in and receive his grace! How gracious he is, that he flat out commands us to love for the sake of such grace and to gladly confirm that love without fear, like children! How gracious he is, that he flat out commands us to joyously hope for the salvation he has given! O God, how strongly you want to convince us that your grace, salvation, and everything holy are ours! ― We are not given a further illustration of this matter in Scripture, and we are simply obliged to repeat Scripture. We ought, however, to take care that we do not make these “new commands” legalistic, either by saying that they have the same character as the Mosaic Law, or by saying that they apply to the Christians’ old Adam, who surely never believes, loves, or hopes.
So we believers are the beloved children of God Most High through Jesus Christ. We are Jesus’ friends, yes, even his brothers and sisters. The gospel of God’s grace has exalted us so highly, that there is no person or thing in heaven, earth, or hell that is able to be higher than we, or is able to step between us and God. The only mediator Jesus Christ, who is God and man in one person and is our dear Savior and Lord, is the only single one who stands between us and God.
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The gospel is the joyful message about the “kingdom of heaven,” i.e. the kingdom of Christ, which was loudly foretold in prophecy and which came about in the fullness of time.
The mode of operation in the Old Testament, restricted to the people of Israel and founded on the Levitical priesthood and law, has reached its end. The mode of operation in the New Testament, appointed for all peoples without restriction and founded solely on Christ and the gospel, has taken its place.
The punishment and curse of the law given through Moses threateningly demands perfect righteousness. The law strictly determines, regulates, and prescribes all desires, thoughts, words, and deeds through many precepts. After pointing out sin and transgression, which is its actual God-ordained purpose, it then strictly determines, regulates, and prescribes through many more precepts how such sin and transgression is to be atoned for, blotted out, and abolished. This is done through prefiguring, holy procedures that point to Christ and foreshadow him and his salvation. Through these precepts the law also prescribes how a person ought to be purified and ought to enter into a newness of life. But this law has reached its end. “Christ is the end of the law.”
The gospel has taken the place of the law. The gospel proclaims that Christ has perfectly fulfilled the entire law with all its demands as our substitute, and that the body of every shadow of the law has appeared in him. This gospel gives the righteousness of Christ that avails before God free for nothing. “Whoever believes in him is righteous.” Whoever receives this righteousness in faith is righteous and justified, i.e. pronounced by God as righteous for eternal life. This gospel then gives the Holy Spirit free for nothing, who restores the lost image of God in those who are reborn into faith by him through the gospel. He does this by planting holiness and righteousness into hearts with the recognition of the holy and divine will. Through “new commands” the dear Lord calls the reborn who still wander about in the flesh to the actual implementation of these commands, which the Holy Spirit has already planted into their hearts. These commands indeed agree with those of the law in substance, but are evangelical and of the New Testament, and carry Spirit, power, and life with themselves. So the gospel has taken the place of the law. The believers who have been reborn under the new covenant are without the law and its assistance. They are righteous before God and heirs of eternal life; they are filled with recognition of the holy will of God; they are holy manservants and maidservants and children of God; they gladly and willingly serve Christ-all without the assistance of the law. They are only and solely under grace; they are only and solely under the gospel; they are only and solely under God in Christ; they not under the law in any connection whatsoever.
With the end of the law, the Levitical priesthood has also reached its end, since it only existed for the law. The Levitical priests, who had the high priest as their leader, were obliged to carry out and enforce obedience to the law, which demands perfect righteousness under threat of punishment, points out sin and transgression, prescribes prefiguring works of atonement, and regulates every step of those who are purified. The Levitical priesthood was therefore just as disciplinary, foreshadowing, and prefiguring as the law. It is abolished with the law. ― The New Testament believers are without the Levitical priesthood or one similar to it. They are now under one eternal high priest: Christ. Moreover they themselves are priests, kingly priests-all of them together, every single one of them. They step before God; they have free access to God and his grace through Jesus Christ. Through Jesus Christ, they offer God the real and true sacrifices-we know what these are-that are pleasing to him. Through Jesus Christ, they are in control of themselves and all forces hostile to God and Christ, which are in them, around them, and against them. They promote the gospel of peace through Jesus Christ in their own midst and in the entire world. Through Jesus Christ, they recognize the holy will of God and encourage themselves and each other. Through Jesus Christ, they enter into the Most Holy Place of heaven when their last hour arrives. In this way a new priesthood has taken the place of the Levitical priesthood. The Levitical priesthood has really lost its existence, its purpose, and its right altogether-through the gospel about Christ. If another similar priesthood is established, as in the antichristian papal church, then it is the same great shame as the entire papacy.
Old Testament Israel according to the flesh are the people “to whom belong the adoption, the glory, the covenant, the law, the public worship, and the promises. They also are the patriarchs. According to the flesh Christ is also descended from them, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen!” But they have ceased to be the specially favored, unique, and fenced-in people. No longer does everything that wants to be saved need to be taken within their walls. With the end of the Old Testament law and priesthood, this too has ceased and reached its end. ― The one holy Christian Church, the communion of saints, has taken the place of the Old Testament people of Israel. “Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your believers and enkindle in them the fire of your divine love, you who through the diversity of languages have gathered the peoples of the entire world into unity of faith. Hallelujah!” The gospel reveals the “secret that has been hidden from the world and from the ages … which is Christ in you, the one who is the hope of glory.” Through the gospel, Christ is the hope of glory among all heathens, peoples, races, and languages; all eternal glory is theirs with Christ, without the Old Testament people, priesthood, and law.
To his church and to every large or small gathering within it, as well as to each individual member of the same, Christ has given the keys of the kingdom of heaven. That is to say, he has bestowed the gospel and the holy Sacraments, the ministerial office and the administration of the gospel and the holy Sacraments in their midst and among all peoples. Christ has bestowed and entrusted such an office to his church. In order that the communion of saints, the church, all Christendom, might be well equipped and supplied with tools for this office, Christ has bestowed upon it, placed in it, and thus truly entrusted with it the possession and use of all sorts of gracious gifts. Among these he has also given gifts of people-servants, officials, and special ministry personnel distinguished from one another: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. Christ wills and commands in great grace, love, and faithfulness, that among Christians and Christian congregations there should always be pastors and teachers, who are chosen by them and called to the public service that takes place on behalf of common interest. Christ wills this in order that through their service Christians may become full in faith and recognition of the Son of God, resolute and firm6 against every stormy blast of the teaching and cunning, deceiving and sneaky corrupting of men. These pastors and teachers, like all ministry personnel given at any time, are not lords over Christians, but servants of them. It is true, though, that as such servants they are in the service of God and are servants and housekeepers of Christ, whom Christians happily follow and obey in such service, since that is the expressly declared will of God. For they teach and preach the apostolic Word of the prophetical writings in the New Testament; they pay attention to Christians and are their spiritual overseers; they take care of and provide for those same Christians with spiritual food and drink for eternal life. ― But we avoid false teachers.
We Christians want to remain with the words of Jesus, with the gospel. By doing so, we will recognize the truth, and the truth will set us free! Free! Free! It will free us from sin, guilt, wrath, curse, death, the devil, hell, and condemnation. It will free us from slavery to sin, carnal disobedience, blindness, and error. It will free us from human authority and lordship in matters of faith and the Christian life. It will free us also from the Mosaic Law and from each and every human precept. Christ alone is our Lord and master. Christ exercises his lordship over us through the Word alone, his Word, the Spirit’s Word, the Word of the gospel in the Holy Spirit.
While we stand in such freedom, without doing this freedom any harm and in order to really demonstrate and preserve it, we Christians do and should do something that, to those who are ignorant, seems to be opposed to this freedom. What is that? We take the moral law of Moses and use it. We also subject ourselves to human and ecclesiastical regulations.
But why? For what reason?
We take and use the moral code of Moses on account of the old Adam, who is still in us. We do this as follows. We stand firmly and freely on the rock of the truth of the gospel; we stand in faith and recognition of the Son of God, our Savior. Now the old Adam assails us. He very powerfully allures us into the service of sin, into unbelief, into self-imposed hypocrisy. The old Adam has nothing in common with the gospel. He is inimically against it, just like the natural man, which he is in the core of his being. So then we take the law and give it to our old Adam. Is the purpose and usefulness of this clear to you? The old Adam, this wild and raging animal, is outwardly (not inwardly) intimidated, restrained, and kept in check by the threatening and cursing law, that he may not burst out in a way much too coarse. In the holy, pure, and good law that demands righteousness in deed, word, thought, and desire, the old Adam’s unrighteousness, unholiness, impurity, and evil is crassly reflected again. What we are by nature and what we bear in ourselves in shown therein. Before the law the potential self-imposed hypocrisy of the old Adam is completely destroyed, for the law shows the works which please God and which God wants to have from us. So we Christians use the law against our old Adam more or less as a curb, mirror, and guide.7 This is also how our pastors and teachers should use it in their office and service to us, publicly and privately.
But at the same time we Christians always stand, as said before, firmly and freely on the rock of the truth of the gospel. We do not want to serve sin. We should regard ourselves as miserable sinners who have been given the gift of faith; we should not be self-righteous. We know what works God wants to have from us. The Holy Spirit who dwells in us certainly guides, teaches, directs, and sanctifies us children of God. But we have now thrown the law into the face of the old Adam’s assault, right into his teeth. Through the Holy Spirit who is in us, we stand all the more firmly in true repentance to God, in believing trust in our Savior Jesus Christ, in joyous and God-pleasing sanctification, and in certain hope of salvation.
Do we furthermore subject ourselves to human and ecclesiastical regulations? But of course! We follow the example of Jesus and the apostles. We do that in order to show love for our brothers and in order that everything may take place honorably and orderly within our fellowship. ― But what if some want to legalistically mark such human and ecclesiastical regulations as God’s commands in a false and pharisaical way? What if some want to make keeping these regulations a necessity for salvation? What if some want to bind our consciences to them and judge us by them, and in this way spy and scout out our freedom in Christ in order to rob it from us? What then? Then we follow the example of Jesus and the apostles yet again. Yes, then we do what the Word of Jesus and the apostles teaches us: We do not budge one inch for such false brothers, who have broken into our midst and crept in next to us, who are engrossed in a legalistic delusion and are otherwise sincere. We do not subject ourselves to them, in order that the truth of the gospel may endure in the church and in the communion of those who are with us.
This is how it goes with the gospel, the joyful message about the grace of God in Christ Jesus. That which a glorious church father has said in reference to the doctrine of justification through faith alone, we also say in reference to the entire gospel and its doctrine: De hoc articulo cedere aut aliquid contra illum largiri aut permittere nemo piorum potest, etiamsi coelum et terra et omnia corruant. Translated for our use in this matter, it reads: No true Christian can concede anything in this doctrine, nor can he allow or permit anything opposed to it to filter in to it, even if heaven and earth and everything tumbles down together. Amen.
- 1. * This article conveys the result that we have obtained from a compilation of all New Testament Scripture passages that relate to the subject. Quotations are not added.
- 2. People are the ones who believe; God does not believe for them.
- 3. Lit.: all, all, all things
- 4. Gnade um Gnade is a beautiful phrase, taken from John 1:16. It literally means “grace around grace” or “grace for grace.” The idea is that no matter how often we fall into one blunder after another, no matter how often we use grace up, so to speak, God is always there with more and more grace to cover over our transgressions for the sake of his dear Son.
- 5. * Acts 17:30 seems to contradict this. But we have the variant reading to take into consideration. Even if the reading “commands” is the correct one, then it is still a gracious command that wants to lead all people everywhere into the state of grace, by showing them how earnestly intent the grace of God is. It is made as though in anticipation of their faith.
- 6. Lit.: made like steel
- 7. Lit..: bar, mirror, and rule (or principle)