The ensuing lines come from a poem entitled, “New Heaven, New War” by Robert Southwell, a Jesuit priest, missionary, and poet in post-Reformation England. It is my estimation that these are some of the most fervent, worshipful lines that could be reflected upon this Christmas.
I am a sinner. That is, perhaps, the most uninventive way to begin any theological conversation. And yet, I feel that truth in my bones. Notwithstanding my own attempts to escape that reality or pretend it doesn’t exist, I am a sinner. I’m the chief of sinners. (1 Tim. 1:15) I know that. Everyday, I am confronted with the harrowing reality of my own deficiencies. I’m not perfect. I lose my cool. I succumb to temptation and contradict my sanctification many times. I’m pretty bad at staying “Christian” all the time. Fortunately, the good news of the gospel declares that my ability to stay and act “Christian” has no bearing on whether God justifies me or not.
I understand the law and its demands. And yet, all those things I know I should be doing, I am not doing. And the things I don’t want to be doing, I keep on doing. (Rom. 7:14–19) But when I seesaw between sinner and saint, and vacillate between one step forward and two steps back (Rom. 7), I’m reminded of the good news that my justification isn’t up to me. It’s up to God. (Rom. 8) And, indeed, it has already been secured and sealed by God’s own blood. God did all the work. his initiated and finished the redemptive plan to exchange my sin for his righteousness.
“The law saith, Do this and live; but the gospel saith, Seek righteousness wholly in another, by believing.” (Beart, 121)
Certainly, God’s new covenant with man contains action verbs. But it’s vital to remember who’s actually doing all the actions. (Heb. 8; Jer. 31; Ezek. 36) We’re dead, remember. (Eph. 2) It’s pretty difficult for corpses to do anything related to life. Therefore, it’s God who acts in us and for us. God who breathes into us and makes us alive. God who enacts this glorious transaction wherein we’re given (for free!) his righteousness and he takes on our sin. (2 Cor. 5:21) This is the gospel. This is the good news.
I’ve been struck, lately, to give proper weight to that word: news. That’s literally what “gospel” means: good news. Accordingly, we must be adamant that the gospel of God is not a new law. It’s not some new directive of God to call for some lower tier obedience that he’ll accept. The law is still the law. It still unflinchingly demands for a perfect holiness. It still exposes me as a bonafide sinner for not meeting that demand. But in that space, the gospel interjects its sublime news. And so it is that the gospel is an announcement. It’s the proclamation of perfection already performed for you. On your behalf. It’s the broadcasting of the heavenly headline news of flawless righteousness and pristine obedience for you. As John Beart rightly notes (122):
“The gospel [does not] come commanding and calling for a righteousness for justification, but revealing a righteousness already wrought out.”
You see, what makes God’s glorious gospel so astounding is that it doesn’t ask for anything. It just gives. The gospel shows and reveals, in marvelous and innumerable ways, the depths to which God stooped in order to rescue his children. The gospel’s the twist we never see coming. It’s an exhibition of a finished law-keeping performance by the Law-Maker on behalf of the law-breakers. Good News indeed!
- John Beart, The Sinner’s Justifying Righteousness; A Vindication of the Eternal Law and Everlasting Gospel (London: Seeley & Burnside, 1829).