What Is the Gospel Plan? (Romans 3:27-4:5)
Big Idea: The gospel is that we don’t measure up, but Jesus has measured up for us. It’s based on our need, not our doing.
A preacher once told the story of a frog that one day fell into a pail of milk. Although he tried every conceivable way to jump out of that pail, he always failed. The sides were too high, and because he was floating in the milk he could not get enough leverage for the needed leap.
So he did the only thing he could do. He paddled and paddled and paddled some more. And one day, his paddling had churned a pad of butter from which he was able to launch himself to freedom.
The preacher’s message was: “Just keep paddling, keep on working, keep on doing your best, and you will make it.”
I sometimes think that’s what people expect to hear when they come to church: work hard, do more, and one day you’ll measure up. It’s not only the message that we think we’ll hear in church, but it’s also the message that many of us live by in our lives.
We’re in this series called “Best News Ever.” It’s about knowing and sharing the message of the gospel. It’s the very reason that we exist as a church. And today we’re going to ask ourselves, “What is the gospel message?” What is the message that we want to share with as many people as possible? So today, I want to share with you what this message is. I want to share it for two reasons:
- First, because we need to hear it. I need to hear it today.
- Second, because we need to share it.
My goal is to give you something that you can use as you share the gospel with others. I encourage you to take notes, and to make it an aim to use this within the next couple of weeks.
So what’s the heart of the Christian message? One way to put it is to look at three things: how we try to measure up, how the Bible says we can measure up, and then what we need to do.
How We Try to Measure Up
This passage gets to the heart of a problem that’s common to all of humanity. It’s true of everyone who’s present here today. The problem: boasting.
What is the deal with boasting? In history, boasting was a ritual that people practiced before going into battle. They would line up, and the commander or king would know that he was sending many of them into certain death. So how do you get them ready? You get them ready with a ritual boast. William the Conquerer reminded his soldiers of all the insults that his enemy had made against their families, and said, “May the lightning of your glory be seen and the thunders of your onset heard from east to west, and be ye the avengers of noble blood!” And then everyone would cheer and go crazy, and then go into battle. You see this all throughout history, as well as in literature like Shakespeare.
What’s interesting is that the Bible takes this and says that this is what the human heart does. In fact, it’s the spiritual problem that all of us have. It’s boasting: publicly proclaiming that we’re satisfied with our own achievements.
In the passage we just read, the apostle Paul says this:
Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. (Romans 3:27-28)
This is what happens when the frog paddles hard enough to create butter and escape the bucket. It’s what we celebrate in all the stories of rags to riches. It’s why we read self-help books and why we try to do better. And it’s a problem.
Here’s the heart of what Paul says in this verse: human boasting is excluded in our desire to measure up before God. It’s something that religious people do, but it’s also something that is a problem for all of us. We all tend to take pride in our accomplishments, and base our standing on these.
I once heard Tim Keller preach on this passage, and he explained:
The whole idea behind ritual boasts is, “We can do it. We can get it. We’re strong enough. We’re good enough.” What God says is the problem with every human heart is you look at your beauty, you look at your smarts, you look at your talent, you look at anything good about yourself, you look at your achievements, and you say, “I did that.” You take credit for it…
Every single soul makes its boast in something. I want to look at two types of boasting, because both of them are common.
Non-religious ways of measuring up — The first kind of boasting is non-religious boasting. It looks at money, strength, athletic ability, beauty, intelligence, career success. It could be family, or social standing, or reputation. We look at it and say, “This is why I’m valuable. This is why I’m worth it. This is my glory and significance. Because of this, I am worth it.”
We all do this. We’re not that different from the warriors going into battle, when you get down to it. If you know me at all, and if I know you at all, we’ve probably already discovered each other’s boasts, the things that really matter to us and make us feel like we’re something.
But Paul says that boasting is excluded.
Religious ways of measuring up — There’s a second type of boasting that’s also excluded. In the context, Paul was talking about the boasting that a religious person would do based on how good a person he or she was. And Paul says that any kind of boasting based on our moral record is completely excluded. It’s just not welcome. It’s a problem, and a disease. It is not what the gospel is all about. We all do it, and it’s a problem.
As a case study, Paul uses the example of Abraham. Abraham was the man that God chose thousands of years earlier to be the founder of the nation of Israel. But God chose Abraham not because of anything that he could boast about. God chose Abraham simply because of grace, and he was justified completely by his faith in God. If Abraham couldn’t boast about anything, Paul is saying, why would any of us think that we could?
If there’s one kind of boasting that is especially dangerous, it’s religious boasting. If you are a church-going person, you may be in greater danger of boasting than you realize. James Boice says:
The sphere of life in which people show the most pride is religion. And there is a good reason for this. Religion—not true Christianity, but religion in the generic sense—is the ultimate setting for the very worst expressions of pride. For it is in religion alone that we are able to claim that God, and not mere human beings, sets his approval on us as superior to other human beings. Moreover, the more demanding or rigorous our “religion” is, the more prideful we become.
He then quotes C.S. Lewis who says:
Whenever we find that our religious life is making us feel that we are good—above all, that we are better than someone else—I think we may be sure that we are being acted on, not by God, but by the devil.
Any type of boasting is dangerous. But religious boasting, based on our faithfulness, our knowledge, or our piety, may be especially dangerous.
There’s the problem: our boasting, our working to make ourselves good enough.
So this is what I’d want to share: We all want to measure up. We all do this. Religious people do it, and non-religious people do it as well. And it’s futile. I think I’d want to talk about some common ways that people around us are tempted to measure up: health, career success, wealth, and status. I’d also want to talk about some ways that you personally are tempted to measure up and boast as well. It helps a lot when you’re honest about your temptations as well.
We’re all tempted to try to measure up. But the Bible says that this never works. So what is the answer?
The Heart of the Gospel: Grace
The alternative to trying to measure up is one word: grace. Paul explains this in Romans 4:4-5:
Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness… (Romans 4:4-5)
Notice the contrast: working versus not working.
Working — Here’s one problem with trying to measure up. If God accepts us because we measure up, Paul says, then God accepts us out of obligation. He uses the example of our jobs. When we work, our employer pays us. When we get the pay, we receive it as something that we deserve. It’s not a gift. It’s not because our boss is generous. It’s because we earned it. We had it coming to us.
If we were able to do this with God, then our standing before him wouldn’t be a gift. It would be something we deserved, and we would be able to brag about it. We would be able to boast and be spiritually proud. Life would be a meritocracy in which only the good people get in, and they’re proud because they know they earned it.
There’s another problem with this. You can break down all human acts into four categories:
- bad – bad — bad things done by imperfect people (crimes, immoral things)
- good – bad — good things done by imperfect people (civility, human goodness)
- bad — good — bad things done by perfect people (doesn’t exist)
- good – good — good things done by perfect people (doesn’t exist)
The problem is that to earn our standing before God, we have to be in the last category. We have to do good things as perfect people. The problem, though? None of us ever make it. We can get to the good things done by imperfect people category, but that’s as far as we can get. That means that we’re in big trouble if we think we have to measure up to be right with God.
Not Working and Believing — Paul shows us a better way: “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Romans 4:5). Here’s what Paul is saying: God isn’t looking for good people. He isn’t looking for people who are working to earn their standing before him. He’s looking for imperfect people.
How does this work? It works because Jesus’ righteousness is credited to us. We get the credit for the only perfect person who ever lived.
In the spring of 2002, Denise Banderman left work early so she could have some uninterrupted study time before taking a final exam. When she got to class, everybody was doing their last-minute studying. The teacher came in and said he would review with them before the test. Most of his review came right from the study guide, but there were some things he was reviewing that they had never heard. When questioned about it, he said they were in the book and we were responsible for everything in the book. The class couldn’t argue with that.
Finally it was time to take the test. “Leave them face down on the desk until everyone has one, and I’ll tell you to start,” said the professor.
When the class turned them over, every answer on the test was filled in. Each student’s name was even written on the exam in red ink. The bottom of the last page said: “This is the end of the exam. All the answers on your test are correct. You will receive an A on the final exam. The reason you passed the test is because the creator of the test took it for you. All the work you did in preparation for this test did not help you get the A. You have just experienced grace.”
The professor then went around the room and asked each student individually, “What is your grade? Do you deserve the grade you are receiving? How much did all your studying for this exam help you achieve your final grade?”
Then he said, “Some things you learn from lectures, some things you learn from research, but some things you can only learn from experience. You’ve just experienced grace. One hundred years from now, if you know Jesus Christ as your personal Savior, your name will be written down in a book, and you will have had nothing to do with writing it there. That will be the ultimate grace experience.”
That’s exactly what Paul says here: To the one who doesn’t work, but trusts God who writes the test for us, that person will get the mark they couldn’t earn with all the work in the world.
How to Communicate It
There are many ways to communicate the gospel. This is just one of them.
We can share that everyone tries to measure up. We all try to do this, using religious ways (going to church, being a moral person) or non-religious ways (achievements, wealth, status). But everyone tries to measure up. We all look to something so that we can know that we’ve made it.
But the message of the Bible is that our efforts to measure up before God backfire. The best we can do is to become an imperfect person doing good things. But this isn’t enough. The good news is that God accepts people who don’t work, but trust God to make them right because Jesus has written the test for them. This is the heart of the gospel.
Dane Ortlund says:
Christianity is the unreligion. It turns all our religious instincts on their heads ….
The ancient Greeks told us to be moderate by knowing our inclinations. The Romans told us to be strong by ordering our lives. Buddhism tells us to be disillusioned by annihilating our consciousness. Hinduism tells us to be absorbed by merging our souls. Islam tells us to be submissive by subjecting our wills. Agnosticism tells us to be at peace by ignoring our doubts. Moralism tells us to be good by discharging our obligations. Only the gospel tells us to be free by acknowledging our failure. Christianity is the unreligion because it is the one faith whose founder tells us to bring not our doing, but our need.
This is the simple message we need to believe. And this is the simple message that we need to communicate.