A devotional prepared specifically to commemorate the tenth anniversary of James Montgomery Boice’s death is now available (published by Baker under the title To the Glory of God). For those of you who did not have the fortune to sit under his ministry, this devotional, which is composed of selections from his sermon series on the book of Romans, will hopefully give you a taste of his anointed teaching that impacted us so deeply.
This sermon is more than a nod to Dr. Boice’s eight years through the epistle. The title is that of his second sermon, from which comes the first devotional reading in the book. Not only have I taken his title, I am using his four point outline, which is a tribute, not only to that sermon, but to one of Dr. Boice’s own methods. It was not unusual for Dr. Boice to use the outlines of other preachers and commentators he admired, as well as to quote them extensively. Indeed, I had some difficulty editing devotional material because he often concluded his sermons with quotes and insights from other men, when what I was after was his own words. But having to be considered original was not a felt-need of his, and I remember his telling me once that he quoted others often because he wanted his hearers to appreciate other writers and read them. Well, that is what I want to happen this morning. I hope that, if you have not heard or read James Montgomery Boice, this message, as well as the devotional, will make you hungry for more of what he preached and wrote.
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…
Dr. Boice had a four-point outline for this text. And the outline focused on the word “gospel,” which he cited as the most important word in the introduction of the book of Romans because it was the very theme of the letter. As he noted, “Romans was written to make this great gospel of God more widely known.” The outline was this: 1) the gospel is good; 2) the gospel is a “promised” gospel; 3) the gospel is in the holy Scriptures; and 4) the gospel is God’s gospel.
The Great Good News
The Greek word for “gospel,” euangelion, means literally “good news.” Jesus said that he came for the very purpose to proclaim the “good news” of the kingdom of God (cf Luke 4:43); indeed, one of the signs of being the Messiah was that he preached good news to the poor as prophesied in Isaiah (cf Luke 3:18; Isaiah 61:1).
Why is the gospel good news? It is good, first of all, because it is true. The primary resistance to the gospel is that most people don’t regard the perspective of the gospel as good. It makes people out to be, well, bad. Everyone. And not just bad, but desperately so; so bad that they incur the wrath of God who is ready to eternally condemn them.
Compare that news to the good news from a book found in a tea shop. The author tells us that the way to live a peaceful life is by “believing we have done nothing that has separated us from the love of God. We are worthy of God’s unconditional love.” Now, that sounds like good news. I know, being worthy of unconditional love doesn’t exactly fit logically, but you get the point – all of us deserve God’s love. Everyone. There is no wrath, no judgment, no hell.
I have to admit that sounds pretty good. I wouldn’t mind not having to worry about judgment. Even though I don’t have to worry for myself, it weighs on me when I think about my neighbors, who seem pretty nice to me, and particularly when I think about my loved ones who have not bought into the gospel.
But the real issue is which perspective is actually news – i.e. real. As good as believing I deserve God’s “unconditional” love sounds, such “news” won’t sound too good if it turns out to be wrong, and I do end up before God’s judgment seat with nothing to say for myself other than the idea sounded good to me. Good news is truth that I can bank on.
And when I compare the gospel with the “good news” of “God just loves us all,” the latter comes out more as “nice” news. I get a picture of God as a benevolent grandfather, maybe a little naïve, who smiles and pats me on the head. What I don’t get is a holy, awesome (the old term is “awe-full”), mighty King over the universe before whom I would fall in fear, crying out with Isaiah, ““Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5). And then that holy, terror-inspiring King sends, not an angel with a burning coal to atone for my sins, but his only beloved Son to
atone for my sins. And he atones for my sin by dying for me! Dying! For me! And I know my heart. Well, at least what I know about my heart is filled with petty ego and lusts and enmity. And that is only what I allow myself to know. And the Son of God dies for me to save me from this bondage to sin! Now that is unconditional love, a love I don’t have to pretend to be worthy of. I don’t have to make myself seem good enough to deserve it. And this unconditional love is unbreakable. Nothing can separate me from it, ever! I tell you, that is good news!
A “Promised” Gospel
The second feature of this gospel is that it was “promised beforehand through [God’s] prophets.” Although the work of Christ was a new work; although he established a new covenant whereby God is reconciled to us; although the revelation of Christ himself as the Son of God came forth in new light, nevertheless who he is and what he did – the good news of his salvation – had long been anticipated, even if through a glass darkly.
Indeed, as Dr. Boice demonstrates in his sermon, the apostles and their fellow evangelists preached, not so much as messengers proclaiming a new concept, but rather witnesses and instructors of how the promises written by the prophets in the Scriptures (our Old Testament) were fulfilled by Jesus of Nazareth.
And so Paul immediately refers to Jesus in verse 3 as “descended from David” in reference to the understanding that the Messiah would come from the line of David. Indeed, I don’t know that you can find a recorded sermon in the New Testament that does not refer to the promises of the Old Testament. The preachers and writers refer to Psalm 2, 16, 22, 110, and 118; to Isaiah 49, 53 and 55; to Joel 2, Micah 5, Habakkuk 1, Zechariah 9, and Malachi 4. And all of these men were guided by Jesus’ own instruction and modeling. It was he who taught “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” and who demonstrated how he fulfilled “everything written about [him] in the Law of Moses and the prophets and the Psalms.”
Names are made or broken over promises. We are disillusioned and angered when promises are broken. “But you promised!” We are jaded by political promises that are broken by deceit or failure. We are skeptical of people who show promise because we have seen them fail to live up to their billing too many times. But then there are those times when a promise has been kept, and, oh, how good it feels. “You kept your promise!” That friend who stood by you as he said he would. That parent who said she would be there for you. And even that rare hero who lived up to his billing, who fulfilled his potential honestly and remained a good person. No one brings such joy and earns such respect as the promise-keeper.
God is the Promise-Keeper and his Son Jesus Christ is the Promise-Fulfiller. They came through, and they came through in what matters most to us – our redemption. The promises made became the promises kept, and the promises that remain will be fulfilled. The Promise-Keeper and the Promise-Fulfiller keep their word. They do not falter; they do not deceive. Is that not good news? In a world in which political promises are laughable for their audacity, and the promises even of a good friend are tenuous, isn’t it good to know that the promises which matter most – affecting the eternal state of our souls – are the promises most assured of being kept?
“The Holy Scriptures”
To recap, the gospel is good news; it is a promised gospel; third, as Dr. Boice observes, “it is in the Holy Scriptures that this announcement has been made.” Anyone who sat under or was a student of his writings must smile at that statement. There is no way Jim Boice would miss that observation. Like a grandmother who perks up whenever the word “baby” is spoken and then begins to regale whoever may be nearby with pictures and stories about her grandbaby, so Jim Boice could not let an opportunity to slip by to talk about the greatness of the Holy Scriptures. And the point he makes here is that not only was the gospel promised but those promises are found in the Holy Scriptures! And if we find these promises in Scripture, well then, what more do we need to be convinced of them?
I’ve just finished another reading of The Lord of the Rings. Throughout the story there will be references to vague prophecies – “it is said,” “the prophecies say,” “remembering the saying.” There is a sense that prophecy is being fulfilled, but then, certainly for the characters, it is not quite certain what they mean nor how valid they are. Quite unlike what was demonstrated by the religious scribes. Herod asked them where the Christ was to be born. “They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel”’” (Matthew 2:5-6). They didn’t need a special word from the Lord, no vision, no drumming up old, vague sayings from long ago forgotten source. They simply quoted Micah 5:2 from the written Word of God.
God’s Word is written down, and it is trustworthy. It is trustworthy because it is the revealed Word of God, revealed by the Holy Spirit. As 2 Timothy 3:16 explains, it is “breathed out by God.” What does that mean? Simply this, that in God’s mysterious ways, through his Holy Spirit, he has given us in Scripture divine revelation of who he is and what his will is concerning salvation. The various scriptures – i.e. the books that make up the canon of God’s Word – bear the marks of the authors who wrote them. The manner in which the authors composed their writings vary. Nevertheless, God’s Spirit was at work in each author and method, so that their words became the Word that God revealed for his truth to be known. And specifically regarding prophecy such as spoken of in our text, we are to understand that, as Peter explains in 2 peter 1:21: “No prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
The context for that verse is Peter telling his readers that they and he have a surer word than even what he received on the mount of transfiguration when he beheld Jesus glorified and heard directly God’s voice. “We ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation” (2 Peter 1:18-20).
Promises and prophecies are nice to hear, but those written in the Bible, the Word of God, are not merely interesting but certain.
The Gospel Is God’s Gospel
So the gospel is good news; it is not new but was promised by the prophets; and those promises were made sure by being recorded in Scripture. The last point that Dr. Boice brought up is actually the first made in our text, namely, that the gospel is God’s gospel.
God came up with this good news. He was not satisfied to leave us in our lost estate. He was determined not to let Satan have the last laugh. Though we brought our misery upon ourselves by rebelling against him; though, as Romans will go on to explain, we refused to honor God or give thanks to him (v. 21); though we exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator (v. 25); though we proved to be sinners, even enemies of God, he determined that we would yet receive good news.
And consider what this good news cost. For we were ransomed, “not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:18-19). And who is Christ, but the only begotten, beloved Son of God. To save sinners who willfully disobey him, God the Father sent his only begotten Son to die for them so that these “enemies,” as Romans 5 baldly identifies us, might be reconciled to God, might be forgiven of our sins, be declared justified and counted righteous, become adopted as his sons and daughters, be given the assurance of future glory…
I don’t understand this. If it be true that God is the Holy One who cannot abide with sin, how then did God the Son abide in the flesh with man? If God is three persons-in-one – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit – and if they dwell together in perfect harmony and love, why then did the Three Persons-in-One God bother to save anyone? He did not need us.
I know what the Holy Scriptures say – “for God so loved the world.” But I can’t wrap my mind around such love. I just can’t do it. Die for friends, yes. Die for strangers, perhaps. We die for others because they are fellow humans. We don’t consider our lives of more value than anyone else’s. But surely the life of the Son of God is infinitely more valuable than ours. And however valuable we think another life may be, we don’t die for an enemy. We definitely don’t deliver over our son for that enemy to kill, however willing our son may be to make the sacrifice.
No, I don’t understand. Critics scoff at a number of Christian doctrines – the Trinity (how can one explain three persons-in-one); the atonement (how can one man’s death on a cross save millions from sin); predestination, which even Christians have trouble accepting. It is God’s love that overwhelms me as the great mystery of all. This is good news that tries my faith even as I hold on to it.
I don’t have trouble believing that God is okay with you enough to save you from hell because I measure you according to who I am. And you don’t seem too bad. But when I look into my own heart (timidly) and consider the good news promised in the Holy Scriptures, well, if it were not in the Scriptures I would have to believe such news too good to be true. Even now, at times, I wonder how such love could be true if only because I look at myself even now after years of accepting this good news and see the self-centered, trivial mindedness that entangles me. Can love be so mighty as to have set me free from sin’s bondage? Is God’s love so steadfast as to hold on to me regardless of the sin that is so evident in me? (And I don’t see nearly into my heart as God sees.)
That is the promise given in the Holy Scriptures. That is the good news delivered. That is the gospel of God. Who am I to doubt it? Think about that, Christian. The next time you doubt God’s saving love, understand that you doubt God. You doubt his promise. You doubt his revealed written Word. You doubt his power to fulfill his good news. Such realization is what has helped me in my shaken times. It sounds humble to doubt that I could be saved, but such doubt only reveals all the more my self-centeredness. Do I really believe that I am too much for God to handle? Do I believe that I can foil God’s purposes, that I can keep him from coming through on the promises he has made, the promises revealed in Holy Scripture?
To those of you still struggling to accept the gospel of God. Let me leave you with the words that James Montgomery Boice spoke from this pulpit.
“If you do not yet fully appreciate (or perhaps have not even begun to appreciate) the greatness of the love God has for you, the explanation is probably that you have never really thought of yourself as God saw you in your fallen state.
“Perhaps you have never thought of yourself as someone who was utterly without strength or powerless before God saved you.
“Perhaps you have never considered yourself to have been ungodly.
“Nor God’s enemy.
“But that is what you were – and still are if you have never come to Christ in order to be justified. It is only if you can recognize the truth of these descriptions that you can begin to appreciate the love God holds out to you through the death of his Son.
“If you have never responded to this great overture of the divine love, let me encourage you to do that, assuring you that there is no greater truth in all the universe. Can you think of anything greater? Of course, you can’t. How could anybody? God loves you. Jesus died for you. Let those truly great thoughts move you to abandon your sin, love God in return, and live for Jesus.
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