In the first century, many Jews looked for a Messiah who would lead the Jewish nation to international power, wealth and glory. They were proud of the fact that they worshiped the true God, but ashamed that their God allowed pagan nations like Rome to rule over them. They wanted the Messiah to be a powerful hero who would defeat the Roman armies.
But Jesus was not the sort of Messiah they expected, not the type of leader they wanted. He did not attack the Romans—instead, he criticized the Jewish religious leaders! Instead of respecting wealth and power, he seemed to prefer poor, weak people. He seemed to think that sin was a bigger problem than the Romans.
Jesus announced a kingdom of God, but it was not the sort of kingdom that most Jews were looking for. It was a kingdom that started in a small and insignificant way, a kingdom that involved judgment, not just glory. This kingdom required humility, not pride—meekness, not power. It involved repentance and forgiveness, not weapons and wealth.
But Jesus also offered something that a military leader could not: eternal life. He spoke of salvation, of freedom from death. When people entered his kingdom, they entered into life eternal.
Jesus’ disciples did not understand Jesus’ kingdom at first. But after Jesus’ death and resurrection, after they had seen Jesus demonstrate victory over sin and death, then they understood. Jesus’ kingdom was not like the kingdoms of this world. It was a spiritual kingdom that dealt with their greatest spiritual needs: relationship with God and the opportunity to live with him forever.
How can it be done? Through Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior—and only through him. That is why the early church preached about Jesus Christ: He is the proof that salvation is a real possibility for all who trust in him. He is not just proof—he is the One who makes it happen. He is the key to the good news, the key to salvation, the door to eternal life.
The book of Acts shows how the apostles presented this gospel in various settings. The letters of Paul give us greater understanding of what the gospel does for us and how it works. Paul uses several key words to teach us how salvation is made a reality for us through Jesus Christ. In this study, we’ll look at several of those key words.
1. In the synagogue in Antioch, what did Paul proclaim? Acts 13:38. Through Jesus, what could people receive that was not possible through the law of Moses? Verse 39.
Comment: Here we can see that “justified” is similar in meaning to the forgiveness of sins. It is God’s declaration that a person is not guilty, that the person is “just” or “righteous.” Paul develops this meaning further in his epistles.
2. Is it possible for a person to be declared righteous through the law? Romans 3:20. But now, through the gospel, a different way of righteousness has been made known (verse 21). How does it come? Verses 22, 24, 26, 28, 30.
Comment: The gospel makes known a “righteousness from God” (Romans 1:17). We cannot earn this righteousness by obeying the law, but it comes to us by grace. It is given to all who believe in Jesus Christ. God declared us righteous not on the basis of law, but on the basis of faith.
But faith is not something we “do” to earn this gift of being counted righteous in God’s sight. All of salvation is a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8-9). Faith is belief that accepts the gift, not a work that earns it. That is why Paul calls his message “the gospel of grace” (Acts 20:24) and the “gospel of your salvation” (Ephesians 1:13).
3. This principle of being declared righteous on the basis of faith is made clear in the New Testament gospel. Did the Old Testament also give evidence of this principle? Romans 3:21. What illustration does Paul give? Romans 4:3. Did God count Abraham righteous because he obeyed, or simply because he believed? Verses 2-4. Who is it that God justifies—the obedient, or the disobedient? Verse 5.
Comment: People who are already righteous do not need a special declaration of God to say that they are righteous. As Jesus said, he did not come for the righteous, but for sinners. The good news is a message for sinners who need to be rescued. Since all have sinned and no one has earned the right to be called righteous before God, everyone is in the category of wicked or ungodly. The good news is that these are the people God is willing to declare righteous, if they believe.
4. Will God count us righteous if we have faith? Verses 23-24. What do we now have with God? Romans 5:1. Where do we now stand? Verse 2.
5. When Paul confronted Peter about “the truth of the gospel,” what did he say about justification? Galatians 2:14-16. Can righteousness be obtained through the law? Galatians 2:16, 21; 3:11, 21. Does this mean that sin is acceptable? Galatians 2:17.
Comment: Many people did not understand Jesus. Similarly, many people did not understand Paul correctly. That is because the message is so surprising, so unlike the way we normally think.
Paul repeatedly answered questions about the law of God. Are you doing away with the law? Does your gospel mean that it’s OK for people to sin? Modern readers might ask, But what about the law? Isn’t it important to obey? Paul answers: Certainly, we should obey. We are not doing away with the law. We are not giving permission to sin.
Paul would not have to answer such questions if he had emphasized the law. Instead, the fact that such questions had to be answered shows us that Paul emphasized grace so much that questions arose as to whether there was still any role for the law.
These questions reveal how surprising the gospel of grace is—God justifies the ungodly. We are justified, counted righteous, by faith, not because of obedience. Our standing before God is not dependent on the law, not dependent on whether we obey!
If that seems shocking to us, then perhaps we are hearing the gospel the way that Paul wanted it to be heard—with so much surprise that we ask, Can it be true? Isn’t obedience important? Doesn’t it count for something? If we hear Paul correctly, we might ask such questions.
Paul tells us, Obedience is part of the picture. God wants his people to be servants of righteousness. But this is a subsequent matter—it is not the reason that God declares us righteous (Titus 3:5). Paul had a righteousness based not on the good things he had done, but a righteousness that had been given to him by God through faith in Jesus Christ (Philippians 3:9).
The sequence is this: First, God declares ungodly people righteous on the basis of faith. Second, he tells them to live a righteous life. The declaration comes first, and obedience comes later.
The verdict of “not guilty” comes first—even though God knows that we cannot live perfectly even after he justifies us. Despite that, he declares us, in advance, to be righteous. He declares, in advance, that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). We are not falling in and out of Christ; we are not falling in and out of condemnation. We stand in grace, a state of being forgiven, a state of being counted righteous.
“Justification” is a term that deals with law and judgment. It refers to a verdict at a trial. This is part of the good news of the gospel: that our Judge is declaring us “not guilty” because we believe in Jesus Christ.
Actually, we are better than “not guilty”—better than neutral. We are counted as positively righteous, because of what Christ has done. Through his obedience, we can “be made righteous” (Romans 5:19). Justification means that God is declaring us righteous.
6. God tells us that the penalty of sin is death. How is it possible for us to escape the penalty? Romans 5:6, 8; 1 Corinthians 15:3; 1 Thessalonians 5:10; Titus 2:14; 1 John 3:16. What else did he become for us? 2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:13; Hebrews 9:26. What did he carry for us? Hebrews 9:28; 1 Peter 2:24.
Comment: We can escape the death penalty because it has been paid “for us”—on our behalf. Jesus Christ died for us, in our place, as a representative and our substitute. He was a sin offering, a sacrifice, carrying our sins, paying for our sins, suffering the curse or penalty required by the law. Because Jesus had no sin of his own, and because Jesus was our Creator, his death could pay the penalty for us.
7. What else was achieved when Christ died for us? Galatians 2:20; Romans 6:4, 6, 8; Colossians 2:20. What was achieved in his resurrection? Ephesians 2:5-6; Colossians 2:12-13. In him, what do we become? 2 Corinthians 5:21. He became sin for us; did he also become righteousness for us? 1 Corinthians 1:30. Is it through him that we are made righteous? Romans 5:19.
Comment: These scriptures have concepts that are foreign to modern thought, but if we want to understand the biblical message, we need to explore the way that Paul explains our means of salvation. We died with Christ, were buried with him, and raised to life with him. Through faith, we are united with him. He shared in us and we share in him.
Let’s use accounting terms: Just as our sins were transferred to his account so that he could pay the penalty of those sins, so also his righteousness is transferred to our account so that we may be counted righteous. His righteousness is imputed to us. Not only are our debts forgiven, our bank account is also filled. An unlimited number of debts can be forgiven. We are clothed with his righteousness (Galatians 3:27; Colossians 3:3), not our filthy rags.
8. What other financial terms are used to describe what Jesus did for us? Acts 20:28; Mark 10:45; 1 Timothy 2:6; Hebrews 9:15; Galatians 3:13-14; Titus 2:14; 1 Peter 1:18-19.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com
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This article was written by Michael Morrison in 1998 and updated in 2014. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved. If you'd like to learn more about the Bible, check out Grace Communion Seminary. It's accredited, affordable, and all online. www.gcs.edu.
Comment: Both “ransom” and “redeem” suggest that Jesus paid a price to buy our salvation, so he could give it to us. Scripture does not use these metaphors to imply that payment was made to anyone in particular—the biblical emphasis is on the concept that God now owns us. We are his slaves, obligated to obey him.
Greco-Roman society was familiar with slavery and redemption. When Paul said that Christ is our Redeemer, and that we have redemption in his blood, his readers would understand that God is the Lord, who has ownership rights over the people he purchased. Paul urges his readers not to sin, but to yield themselves as slaves of righteousness, as slaves of God (Romans 6:15-22).
In our next study, we will look at more salvation terminology, especially the terms that bring out the concept that salvation involves a relationship with Jesus Christ.