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Definition

The Gospel is the good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God and mediator of the covenant of grace, who is united with his people by the Spirit though faith to forgive sin and reconcile to God, thus justifying, sanctifying, and adopting them, to the hope of eternal life with God in the new creation with resurrected bodies.

Summary

The gospel is the good news of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. It is good news precisely because of its covenantal backdrop, its benefits for the Christian believer, and its cosmic implications. Covenantally, the triune God has planned redemption by sending Jesus Christ as the second Adam, who, as God-incarnate, dwells in human flesh in order to obey where Adam had failed. Jesus satisfies the penalty of the covenant of works by dying on the cross, while fulfilling its requirement of perfect obedience to God, thereby securing eternal life to God’s elect by representing them in the covenant of grace. The Christian believer, then, benefits by union with Christ through Spirit-wrought faith such that they are forgiven for their sins and reconciled unto God, justified, sanctified, and adopted, and included into his body, the church. Cosmically, his death and resurrection inaugurates, guarantees, and witnesses to the final consummation—our bodies will be resurrected like his, and the world will be renewed without the presence of sin and suffering, perfected as the dwelling place of God with his people.

The Gospel is the good news of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, and it is good news precisely because of its covenantal backdrop, its benefits for the Christian believer, and its cosmic implications.

Covenant of Works and Grace: The History of Salvation

To understand the good news, we need to recognize the fallen condition of humanity that stems from the original sin of Adam (Rom 5:12–21). God appointed Adam as the representative head of the human race in the covenant of works (WCF 7:2, WLC 12) and has promised the reward of eternal life to him and his posterity on the basis of his perfect obedience: to banish the presence of the serpent from the Garden, to be fruitful and multiply, and to walk in communion with the Lord and thus partake of the tree of life. By fulfilling the stipulations of the covenant of works, Adam would secure consummate life, and thus no longer be susceptible to temptation, the threat of death, or loss of fellowship with God. The original state in the Garden, then, was good but not consummate. It was a state of probation.

Of course, Adam tragically fell by listening to the serpent instead of God (Gen 3), and in so doing lost his original righteousness and became guilty. Because Adam is humanity’s federal head and the “root of all mankind” (WCF 6:2), he imparted both original corruption and original guilt to the rest of the human race in the fall.1 By Adam’s disobedience, the many were “made” unrighteous (Rom 5:12, 18–19)—that is, his guilt is imputed to them (original guilt), and they have inherited his fallen human nature (original corruption), thus rendering human beings incapable of any saving good in the eyes of God (Rom 3:8–18).

This fall, however, did not take God by surprise, but was purposed to be permitted for the greater good of the redemption to be found in and through Jesus Christ (WCF 6:1; Eph 1:3–14). With fallen humanity incapable of life, God is pleased to form the covenant of grace: “where he freely offers unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ: requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe.” (WCF 7:3) This was in accordance with the plan of God in the covenant of redemption (pactum salutis) in eternity past, by which he freely decreed to elect a people unto Himself through a mediator in Jesus.

This is good news because Jesus Christ comes as the second Adam to reverse the curse of the fall and to accomplish what Adam should have accomplished in representing the human race. Jesus Christ, the true Son of God (Luke 3:38), comes to destroy the works of the devil (1Jn 3:8), to obey God with perfect obedience, even to the point of death. Having successfully fulfilled the righteous requirements of the covenant of works in his humiliation, Jesus has been given the name above every name in his exaltation (Phil 2:5–11). Unlike Adam, however, Jesus not only had to fulfill the requirements of the covenant of works, but also had to undergo its penalty for the disobedience of Adam and humankind. He had to live the life we should have lived and died the death we should have died. He suffered the fullness of the wrath of God (passive obedience) and perfectly obeyed God (active obedience), such that those represented by and in union with Him may have eternal life and fellowship with God. His estate of humiliation precedes his estate of exaltation, and those in union with Christ will also be exalted, provided that they suffer with him (Rom 8:17).

Christ was able to do this because he was God incarnate. The mediator had to be divine, for “salvation is of the Lord” (Jonah 2:9), and “no mere creature can sustain the burden of God’s eternal wrath against sin and deliver others from it.” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 14); and the mediator had to be human, for it is humanity that has sinned against the Lord, and it is humanity who owes unto God true righteousness (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 15). His death on the cross shows his fulfillment of the penalties of sin, and his resurrection vindicates his righteousness—for God will not “let the Holy one see corruption” (Acts 2:24–7).

We need to recognize that the gospel is this good news of redemption accomplished in Christ Jesus, before we can understand how this applies to the Christian believer. The history of salvation (historia salutis), grounded in the plan of salvation (pactum salutis), logically precedes the order of salvation (ordo salutis). The next section outlines how Christians can then benefit from Christ’s accomplished work.

Union with Christ: The Order of Salvation

Fallen humanity, now “dead” in our trespasses and sins (Eph 2:1–3), has fallen short of the glory of God. Daily we recognize that we are under the wrath of God (Rom 1:18–32), and without faith in Christ we are “condemned already” (John 3:18) under the covenant of works. God, however, freely gifts the power of faith to the elect by regenerating them in the Spirit (Eph 2:4–10). Hence, salvation is wholly by grace and not by any human effort or merit (Rom 9:16). By regeneration, the believer is made capable and willing to place their faith in Christ Jesus, and as such are united to Christ by His Spirit. In union with Christ, believers receive “righteousness, sanctification, redemption.” (1Cor 1:30). Indeed, union with Christ is the key touchstone for the doctrine of salvation, such that Herman Bavinck emphasized (with Calvin) that “there is no participation in the benefits of Christ other than by communion with his person” (Reformed Dogmatics, 3.523). Regeneration, faith, and conversion thus flow out of the covenant of grace and are gifts of the Spirit for the elect: “they are benefits that already flow from the covenant of grace, the mystical union, the granting of Christ’s person.” (Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 3.525).

By faith and in union with Christ, Christians receive the benefits of justification, sanctification, and adoption—which “manifests” our union with Him (WLC 69). We are justified with Christ’s righteousness, such that his righteous obedience is imputed to us and we are declared righteous before God’s legal court (Rom 5:12). We are sanctified, set apart from the world, made holy and so able to obey God progressively through the Spirit (1Cor 1:3; Eph 2:10, 2Cor 5:17). Justification corresponds to our original guilt, as we receive a new status of righteousness; sanctification remedies our original corruption, for we are renewed unto new obedience. We are also adopted as sons with Christ as our elder brother and forerunner of the faith (Gal 3:26), and thus included into God’s covenant family, the church (Eph 2:19–22; Col 1:15–20). Indeed, there is no union with Christ, our head, without also becoming incorporated into his body, the church (Eph 1:22).

These benefits are conferred to us by union with Christ because what happened in Christ first is given to us. His resurrection was his justification, that is, not as if he was a sinner who needed an alien righteousness imputed, but as the vindication of his righteousness (Rom 4:24); Christ’s resurrection was his sanctification, that is, not as a renewed sinner, but rather as the sinless one who has been set free from the presence of the effects of sin and in his ascension has been set apart for the presence of God (Rom 6:10–11). His resurrection was also the point at which he was “declared the Son of God” (Rom 1:4; Heb 1:1–4), not that he was deified (for he was already eternally the Divine Son of God), but because his work in redemptive history as the Second Adam was completed—Christ was the true and obedient Adamic Son of God, the Messiah. What happened to Christ simultaneously in his resurrection, however, is applied to us by his Spirit in two phases: first by faith, and later by sight (2Cor 4:16–18; 5:7). Our justification, sanctification, and adoption by faith now anticipates our future resurrection, where we will be able to see our justification, sanctification, and adoption by sight.

Cosmic Renewal: Resurrection

Our regeneration and Christ’s resurrection manifest and anticipate something still future: the resurrection of our bodies—a consummate and everlasting body, no longer susceptible to sin, temptation, suffering, death, or decay. Christ’s resurrection is the “first-fruits” of our resurrection—if he is our head and the church is his body, the resurrection of the head guarantees and anticipates the resurrection of the body (1Cor 15:44–55). His body is the “spiritual” body of the “heavenly man” (1Cor 15:46, 49)—that is, a body that is from the Spirit, from above. Our regenerated and inaugurated new natures by the Spirit, too, is a guarantee of us partaking of this new resurrected body (Eph 1:13–14). Though our bodies are decaying now, our “inner self is being renewed day by day,” as we look to the things yet unseen and eternal (2Cor 4:16–18).

As Paul reminds us, all of creation anticipates in eager longing the redemption (and resurrection) of our bodies—for the appearance of our glorified bodies is concomitant with the consummate renewal of all creation:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Rom 8:18–23, ESV)

Amazingly, Paul argues in his letter to Titus that this power of eschatological new creation (Greek, palingenesia) is already in Christians now by the Spirit: “he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:5–7). That is, the power of the Spirit that marks the new creation—that power that enables obedience, holiness, and unchanging fellowship with God in the consummate age—is already in us now. Our regeneration truly means we are already a “new creation” (2Cor 5:17)—the old is gone, and the new is really here. Our regeneration means that we already participate in the coming Kingdom of God—that kingdom is already here—inaugurated—but not yet consummated. The inauguration of our renewal in our inner selves guarantees the renewal and consummation of our whole selves in the resurrection of the body in glorification.

All of this means that we ought to live in such a way that our lives now would witness—in some small but real way—to that final day where sin would be no more. Though we continue to battle the presence of sin and the residual powers of the flesh in the present time, our obedience is not in vain as the Spirit works within us. The gospel means that all our living and relationships should testify to that new-creational work of God: grace restores nature. As Herman Bavinck again would emphasize: “The Gospel is a joyful tiding, not only for the individual person, but for the family, for society, for the state, for art and science, for the entire cosmos, for the whole groaning of creation” (“Catholicity of Christianity and the Church,” 224).

This good news for all of creation and our bodies, however, should not eclipse the final end of our consummate existence: fellowship with God in the beatific vision. The new city is one where the light of the Lord illumines the whole: “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” (Rev 21:3)—this is the final end of Christian hope: “One thing I ask from the LORD, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life” (Ps 27:4). Indeed, as the classical Christian tradition would have it, one of the very purposes of our consummate sinless bodies is so that we might behold the Lord everlastingly and not perish in the beatific vision. This is the good news, indeed: we are in union with Christ now by faith, and we will be in union with Christ by sight.

Footnotes

1For more on original sin and why the imputation of Adam’s guilt and corruption do not render God unjust, see my “Herman Bavinck on the Image of God and Original Sin,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 18 (2016): 174–90.

Further Reading


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