My wife and I were recently picking up the remains of a care package from our family in Arkansas. We discovered a birthday card that had been mined for the cash inside and then tossed aside. We read the message from my family and were moved by their love, care, and thoughtfulness. In his rush to grab “the good stuff” while ignoring his grandmother’s greeting, one of my sons missed out on some powerful words of assurance.
I can’t blame him. I was a kid once and haste followed me into adulthood. I still rush past and miss out on powerful words of assurance when I read the Bible. It’s tempting to fly past those apostolic greetings to get to “the good stuff,” the meaty truths inside.
But earlier this week I slowed down and was struck by one of the first descriptions of the gospel Paul gives the Roman Christians. It’s tucked away in his greeting:
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son. -Romans 1:1–3
According to Paul, the gospel is good news from God. It’s His news, not ours. But between the news and its subject, Paul says something else that’s often overlooked: the gospel is a promise.
We probably don’t think about that enough. I certainly don’t. When I believe the gospel, I’m banking on a promise. When I share the gospel, I’m announcing a promise. When I forget the gospel, I’m forgetting a promise. God’s promise carries power. Do we access it?
Romans is Paul’s most detailed description of the gospel. He was writing because he wanted the believers in and around Rome to understand the gospel, and then experience its power. So he wrote them a letter. Think of Romans as Paul’s answer to the question, what is the gospel?
If someone were to ask a typical American church-goer to describe the gospel in writing, how much paper would he need? Would a small index card suffice? Paul took 16 chapters, and (I speak as a man) one gets the impression he could have kept writing. After all, his subject is deep and unsearchable (11:33). To quote Eugene Peterson, it’s “way over our heads.” Sixteen chapters. Over 7,000 words. Romans is chock-full of rich, explosive, gospel truths, which is to say it’s filled with God’s promises concerning His Son. How many of them do we celebrate? How many of them do we use? How many of them do we even know?
After much time in pastoral ministry, including years of self-reflection, my conclusion is tragic. I don’t think we’d require much paper to list the promises we’ve mined from the gospel. We could scrawl out “Jesus died for sinners so we could be forgiven and go to heaven when we die. The end.”
Please don’t misunderstand or misinterpret what I’m saying. We’ll be celebrating that gospel truth for all eternity. It’s gloriously good news, a staggering promise. My point is this: forgiveness is only a part of God’s promise concerning Jesus. We need more.
I’ll illustrate. The most familiar gospel promise is forgiveness. God pledges to forgive our sins and remove our guilt. No condemnation in Christ for sinners who trust Jesus. It’s simple. It’s clear. It’s easy to apply. Guilty sinners need forgiveness. God provides it.
That’s good news for sinners, no doubt! But what about sufferers? If a Christian suffers from an abusive spouse, what gospel promise will help her? It’s not forgiveness she needs. She’s a victim, not the abuser. She’s been traumatized and lives each day in terror. Her security has been shattered and her identity wrecked. Got any good news?
What if someone loses a child to a terrible accident? A precious lady in our church suffered that nightmare two years ago. A drunk driver struck and killed her son. She was left reeling from the news. What gospel promise would comfort her?
And what about doubt? Does the gospel hold out any promise for a Christian who questions God’s love for him, or who feels forsaken?
Those are significant matters, with profound implications for preaching, counseling, and life. Are sins the only thing God saves us from, or does He continually rescue us from the effects of sin? Those are not the same and will require a more nuanced understanding of the fullness of the Gospel. What Paul shows us throughout Romans is how versatile the gospel is, how widely it can be applied.
Does the gospel live up to its own hype? Can we boast in its power? Is it really good news for me, right now, or is it an empty promise? Elyse Fitzpatrick once asked her conference attendees, “When you don’t get invited to the party, what’s good news for you?” That’s an excellent question. “Just get over it” is bad news, and bad advice. It’s certainly not a promise. But you’d be shocked to know how many versions of “just get over it” pass for biblical counseling and evangelical preaching these days.
In Christ, God promises to remove our guilt. But He also promises to remove our shame, I’ve written about that here. God doesn’t just want to forgive us. He wants to change us. He wants us to look more like His Son. For that, we’ll need more than forgiveness. We’ll need freedom, too. And the gospel promises both. The truth will set you free. It’s for sinners and sufferers. It forgives and frees.
We have to keep unpacking, digging, searching. Sixteen chapters. The good news keeps getting better with each exploration. If angels long to look into it, surely it can hold our attention. Like Russian nesting dolls, every layer reveals a new surprise.
So for those who suffer deeply, the Gospel holds out staggering promises: freedom, peace, security, hope, strength, love, acceptance, healing, a new beginning, and a new identity that is received, not achieved. That’s a promise on which you can stake your life.