So began Pastor Todd Wilken's Bible study at Bethany Lutheran Church in Naperville, Illinois this past Sunday morning. What a fitting theme from the host of a radio program that seeks to defend and teach "grace alone, faith alone, scripture alone on account of Christ alone" while challenging "today's postmodern culture with its unbiblical and illogical ideology" (from the KFUO website).
In his teaching on this passage from Paul's letter to the Romans, Pastor Wilken first directed the class's attention to Paul's introduction: "Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God--the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord" (1:1). Pastor then made the point that one might expect a missionary who is going after as big a "catch" as Rome to spend some time building up his credibility and laying out some references, especially in a time (not unlike our own) when there were plenty of false teachers around simply interested in taking people's money. But Paul does nothing of the sort. Instead he briefly identifies himself and then immediately goes to talking about the gospel, essentially saying (in the words of Pastor Wilken) "if you want to know what I'm all about, let me tell you about Jesus."
One of the things that I so appreciated about Pastor Wilken's preaching and teaching was his ability to make the abstract concrete--to take a theological concept and turn it from head knowledge into gut understanding. Taking note of how central the words "the gospel" are to this opening chapter of Romans, he asked the class for a definition of those words. The consensus was that they mean "good news." Then Pastor shared how when he was young he wondered why it was only "good news"--not "great" or "awesome" or "spectacular" news. It's an interesting question for us today who have elaborate rating systems for everything from books to movies to school report cards. And when you think about it, he's right: "good" is frankly not a very strong recommendation. As Pastor Wilken put it, if you were considering eating at a new restaurant and asked a friend who had been there for his opinion and were told by that friend "It's good" you would probably not make a beeline for that restaurant. You want a great restaurant, not just a good one! So why is the gospel merely "good" news? Isn't the truth of Jesus Christ the best news in the world? The answer, of course, is that when it comes to our God there is no middle ground. There is no "poor, fair, good, excellent, superior"--only "good" and "bad." We have either been made righteous in His sight or we haven't. Our Lord is an all or nothing God.
Pastor Wilken then asked the class about the definite article "the." Why is it "the" good news? The answer is simple: the news of Jesus is quite simply the only good news there is. Everything else is bad. To illustrate, Pastor described the scene at his house when he gets home from work: lovely wife preparing dinner, children greeting him at the door, family dog lavishing him with affection, Pastor settling down in his chair to unwind from the day. What could be better than an idyllic homecoming such as this one? Yet without Jesus Christ in the picture, even that perfectly lovely scene becomes a horror movie because it is all for naught, a tragic picure of condemned sinners biding their time in this world with nothing to look forward to in the next. As Pastor Wilken so aptly pointed out, it is a picture that makes you want to hightail it to church to hear the gospel!
On the Sunday of Pastor Wilken's visit to our congregation the high school students joined the adults for Bible study. As I listened to Pastor's teaching I studied the faces of some of those young people present. They were absolutely riveted. These were young people who have grown up in church for the most part, have been confirmed, and have heard about "the gospel" for years. But I think they, like all of us, were stunned to think about all the good things in their lives--the family and friends and comfortable homes and nice possessions and hobbies and activities and more--and to realize that without Jesus in the picture none of it is good at all. As is written in Ecclesiastes, it is all ultimately meaningless.
But praise be to God, it doesn't have to be! "For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith, from first to last, just as it is written: 'The righteous will live by faith.'" Writing that last statement on the board, Pastor Wilken rearranged the words slightly so they were in this order: "The one who is righteous by faith shall live." Then he suggested that the word "faith," both here and in other places in the Bible, could be replaced by the name of Jesus: "The one who is [made] righteous by Jesus shall live." We are made righteous through our faith in Jesus Christ, a faith that is created and sustained by Him alone, and in Him we find our life and eternal salvation. Indeed that is good news, the only good news that we really need! Alleluia!