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Just Words: Understanding the Fullness of the Gospel
Chapter 1 - The Gospel and Justification
Jacob A. O. Preus

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I am not ashamed of the Gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 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." (Romans 1:16-17)


What is the Gospel? What exactly is the language of the Gospel? How do we know when we have the Gospel, when we have said it, when we have heard it? Above all, what is the rela-tionship between the Gospel and what we call the "doctrine of justification"?

The word Gospel means "good news." It derives from the Greek word euangelion, which literally means "good message." Gospel refers to the fact that God has Good News to proclaim to His sinful creatures: Their sins are forgiven; they are declared innocent because of the work of Jesus Christ, God's own Son, on their behalf. The Gospel is Good News. As a message of Good News, the Gospel can be and is used quite properly in a variety of ways.

First, the Gospel refers to those portions of the Scriptures that tell the story of Jesus. The biblical books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are known as "gospels" because they were written for the express purpose of telling the Good News of God's provision for the salvation of human beings in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Second, we use the word Gospel to refer broadly to any revelation of God, regardless of the content. For example, some use the word Gospel not only to refer to what God has done for us in Christ, but also to refer to what God commands of us as a righteous and demanding God.1

Third, we use the word Gospel to refer specifically to the work of Jesus on our behalf. It is the Good News that God is reconciled to a world of sinners. This is the way it is used most commonly among the Reformers of the 16th century. They carefully separated what God has done for us in Jesus Christ from what God demands from us. The former they called the Gospel, the latter the Law. The Gospel is not what we do as a loving response to God's graciousness in Christ. This they usu-ally referred to as sanctification. In a narrow, restricted sense, Gospel is what God has done for us in Jesus Christ to rescue us from our sin and to make us holy in His sight.


Although a primary form of the Gospel is the words about Christ's saving work on our behalf, words are not the only form the Gospel takes. The Gospel, the "power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes" (Romans 1:16), comes in verbal and in visible forms. A person receives God's favor in the Gospel either by hearing the message proclaimed (in sermons, in Bible classes, or in other simple verbal expressions of God's love in Christ) or by receiving it through visible means-the water of Baptism or the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper. The Gospel is verbal-conveyed through words-and it is visi-ble in water and in bread and wine.

It must be clear from the outset that the Gospel is more than words. In whatever form, whether Word or sacraments, we hear and see and receive the same Gospel, the same saving power of God in Christ. Both Word and sacraments provide the same access to the favor and love of the heavenly Father. These wonderfully diverse forms of the Gospel should never be con-sidered to be in competition with, or even contradictory to, each other. They are different ways our gracious God has pro-vided to bestow on us the saving blessings earned by Christ on the cross.2

Further, these forms of the Gospel are not as separate as one might think. The sacraments are not merely materialistic rituals, external signs. They need the Word to give them power, to explain them, and to interpret them for our learning and benefit. Likewise, the Word is not a unidimensional, flat, inte-rior, intellectual word. It is a dynamic, eventful Word that goes forth from God into the real world with powerful effects.


The Gospel is more than words. In today's world, words tend to be flat, merely descriptive, without any real force. Although we love and defend our First Amendment rights to free speech, as a culture we generally have a low opinion of words and their power. Too often we actually believe the say-ing, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." We think of words as less harmful, less power-ful, than actions. We are dead wrong. In our hearts we know that words do hurt. Anyone who has been crushed by careless criticism or who has felt remorse over a "cutting word" knows that words have power. Words bite and break. Words kill.

When spoken or read, words make something happen. Communication through words is an event. This is true of any communication, but it is especially true of communication with the Gospel because the Gospel is the Word of God. The Word of God is a creative, powerful word, energized by the Holy Spirit. Both the Law (what God demands of us because of His perfection) and the Gospel (what God has done perfectly for us in His Son) are creative, powerful words. The Law creates sorrow in sinful hearts. The Gospel also creates. It creates true faith in the hearts of sinful people, something no ordinary word could do. Although all words are eventful, only the Word of God is fully creative and powerful. The Word of God is the-ologically eventful because in it God is at work doing what only He can do.


The Holy Spirit works powerfully and creatively in our hearts through the Word of Law and of Gospel. That is, the Holy Spirit speaks to us "in, with, and under" human expres-sions and human language. These two forms of creativity, God's and ours, do not work at cross purposes with each other and should not be seen as contradicting each other. To be sure, our creativity is only descriptive and evocative while God's is performative. In our use of words, we are like an artist who is restricted to the use of preexisting materials. The artist doesn't create anything new. He or she "creates" a new perspective of what already is there through the imaginative use of media, whether the reflective qualities of paint or film or metal. God's Word, on the other hand, is creative in a far more profound sense. It performs. It does what it says. As God says in Isaiah's prophecy:

"As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is My word that goes out from My mouth: It will not return to Me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it." (Isaiah 55:10-11)

When God speaks, He brings into being things ex nihilo (out of nothing), as He did in the beginning (Genesis 1:1). God speaks into being things that are not. Just as in the beginning He said, "Let there be light," and light was, so today He says through the Gospel, "Let there be faith in the heart of a sin-ner," and faith is. This divine Word comes in human words, and it comes only through human words. These words of the Gospel are inspired by God the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit works creatively in the hearts of people even as we seek to speak the Gospel creatively to others.


What is the nature of this relationship between God's Word and human words? An analogy can help illustrate the relationship. There is a connection between the Word Incar-nate-the God-man, Jesus Christ-and the Word about the Word Incarnate, the Gospel.

Our Lord Jesus is both divine and human. He is God, and He is man. He has a divine nature and a human nature. There is something about Jesus that is divine and something that is human. Yet He is not partly divine and partly human, as if His divinity and His humanity could be separated from each other. Since His conception, the eternal Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity, has been united inseparably with His human nature in a mysterious but wonderful Personal Union.

It is a mystery: Jesus is fully and genuinely divine and at the same time fully and genuinely human. As God, Jesus is fully divine, and He possesses all the attributes of God. He is eternal, unchangeable, almighty, all-knowing, and is present every-where. Jesus also has divine names and does the work of God. As human, He lacks nothing of genuine humanness, and He experiences all that our humanity includes (except sin). This great mystery has been believed and confessed by Christians through all the ages of the church: Jesus is "very God of very God ... born of the virgin Mary." This constitutes the orthodox teaching on who Christ is. Any view that diminishes or denies the completeness or genuineness of His divinity or of His humanity is an error that is harmful to faith.

The analogy with the Word of the Gospel is this: The Gospel Word also can be said to have two natures-divine and human. As a divine Word, it has certain divine qualities. The Gospel has divine power or efficacy-it can bring us to faith in Jesus. It has divine sufficiency-it is enough for our salvation. It has divine perfection-it is complete. To deny this nature of the Gospel is to rob it of something essential, something nec-essary for it to be Gospel. To deny this nature of the Gospel would be to make it into merely a flat and powerless human word, incapable of doing the divine work of snatching sinners from certain destruction and transferring them into the king-dom of heaven.

As a human word, on the other hand, the Gospel has cer-tain human qualities as well: language, literary form, historical context, grammar, syntax, and rhetoric. To deny this nature of the Gospel is to rob it of something essential, something nec-essary for it to be Gospel. To deny this nature of the Gospel would be to make it into an a-historical, a-textual word that is incapable of conveying the divinely powerful Word of God in terms and categories humans can understand.


It is helpful to clarify what the Gospel stands against, what it is not. The Gospel is the solution to the problem of the Law. In the divine Law, we see our ultimate concern before God. The Gospel is the Good News only if it comes as the solu-tion to the problem of God-His wrath, His condemnation, His estrangement from us because of our sin. In a sense, the real human predicament is the reality of the God who judges, the reality of the God in the light of whose Law we stand accused. In the light of God's life, we are dead. In the light of God's perfection, we are defiled. Through the Law. we recognize who we are as we stand in God's presence.

The Law also points to the problem between people. Sin has a social, psychological, perhaps even a genetic, dimension. Primarily, however, our real "problem" is God. We need a solu-tion to the problem of God, to the problem that is God. It may sound strange, even blasphemous, but our predicament as sin-ners is not merely that our sins are harmful to us and to our neighbors. The deeper truth is that God is angry and person-ally offended by our sins. God's anger and wrath need appease-ment. In this sense, God is the true problem that needs to be solved. Our problem has a name: God.

The Gospel describes the solution to precisely this prob-lem. This means that the language of the Gospel is, in the first instance, theological language. That is, the Gospel is language about God. It describes the relationship God has to us, specifi-cally what God has done for us in Christ to solve this problem.3 As a result of Christ's perfect obedience, God's wrath was turned away and He turned a favorable gaze toward us.

The Gospel always refers to the work of God in Christ. It tells what God has done in the historical events associated with the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ in first-century Pales-tine. It is, therefore, extra nos or outside of us. The focus of the Gospel is always on Christ.

The Gospel also refers to the work God did pro nobis, or for us, in the historical actions of Christ on the cross. We rejoice in what God is doing in those whom He justifies, but this is the "fruit," or result, of the Gospel-that is, sanctification-and not the Gospel itself.

The Gospel stresses the sole sufficiency of Christ's work on behalf of the world on Good Friday and Easter. It is the Word of God located specifically and narrowly in Christ's obe-dience-active in His living and passive in His dying. This Good News was consummated at the cross and announced vic-toriously at the resurrection of our Lord. The Reformers used the phrase solo Christo (Christ alone), to identify this particular nuance of the Gospel.

The Gospel also recognizes and honors the fact that our favorable standing before God exists solely because of His grace. This concept is described in the phrase sola gratia (grace alone). Gospel language, therefore, gives all credit for our sal-vation to God in Christ and not to God's transforming work in us, to our faith, or to our good works and love.

Finally, the Gospel acknowledges that a person's salvation is brought about through faith alone (sola fide). Faith is the means of receiving the benefits of Christ's work on the cross. Faith is not a "cause" of salvation.4 We are not saved because of our faith. We are redeemed through faith as a means of receiv-ing the final and perfect redemption worked out by Christ. Only in this way does Christ receive all the glory for our salva-tion. Only in this way do we poor sinners receive maximum comfort from our salvation.


Reformation theology affirms the doctrine of justification as the article on which the church stands or falls. This is the Gospel! For the church's continuing existence, the message of the Gospel must remain in place: that sinners are holy before God by grace, for Christ's sake, through faith alone, apart from works of the law.

The doctrine of justification is really the Gospel itself. This Gospel stands over the church as the criterion of the church's authenticity. It is the judge of what is truly the church and what is not. It is the presence of this Gospel in its verbal and visible forms that identifies the church of Jesus Christ and distinguishes it from every other organization or sect. Where this Gospel is, we have the church. Where we do not have evi-dence of this Gospel, we do not have visible or trustworthy evi-dence of the church.

The Gospel also stands under the church as its only firm foundation. Without the Gospel, the church cannot stand for one hour. It is the substance of the faith-the substratum, the fundament-on which theology, the church, and faith stand. Without the foundation of the Gospel, we fall. We simply lose everything.


How do we say the doctrine of justification? What words do we use? Do we claim too much when we insist that the doc-trine of justification is the article on which the church stands and falls? Is justification one way of saying the Gospel? Some might respond that justification is merely "your way of saying the Gospel." Some claim different people have different ways to speak about God and salvation.

We use the word justification in two different, yet related, ways.5

The Bible uses the words justify and justification to refer to God's saving work among humankind. It is legal, or forensic, language. Such language is especially common in Paul's letters. We also use the word justification in a broader way to denote the doctrine of justification as distinct from the doctrine of sanctification or any other article of faith.6 In this sense, that is synecdochally,7 the doctrine of justification is more than the legal language. It stands in for all the ways of saying the Gospel and includes all the words-all the rich and variegated lan-guage-of the Gospel. In terms of language, justification is one of the words. In terms of doctrine, it contains all the words- all the ideas-within itself and cannot be reduced merely to one or two words.

The legal, or forensic, language is essential. That language articulates something about the Gospel that is both biblical and necessary. Any conception of the Gospel that ignores or eliminates the legal imagery is flawed, perhaps fatally. In fact, the great contribution of the Reformation was this truth about salvation: God justifies the guilty. The medieval church lacked the objective, forensic emphasis of salvation in Christ. Never-theless, when we say that God justifies the guilty, we have not said all there is to say about salvation.

Each Gospel word, phrase, and idea is necessary to the fullness of the biblical doctrine of justification. Every Gospel word contributes something distinctive, something unique, which, if it were not present, would make the doctrine less than whole, less than fully what the Lord revealed.

The failure to understand and appreciate the fullness of the Gospel has led to errors throughout the history of theology concerning the doctrine of justification. Often culture and context so influence church theologians that they allow a sin-gle metaphor to dominate the discussion or interpretation of Christ's work of salvation. For example, in feudal times, com-mercial metaphors dominated. This led to a conception of the Gospel in primarily monetary terms. This, in turn, led to such errors as the "treasure of merits" and the buying and selling of forgiveness through the sale of indulgences.

The goal is not to reduce the Gospel to one of its words, but to proclaim it in its fullness, to use all its ways of being said. The goal is, in addition to proclaiming the Gospel as a divine, powerful Word, to proclaim it as a profound and richly textured human word.

Go to Chapter 2


1. Although the word Gospel may be used in a broader sense, seri-ous misunderstanding results from referring to what the right-eous God demands of poor miserable sinners as "good news." It is important to define carefully theological language, especially when we refer to God's act of saving us in Christ.

2. When people pit these two forms of the Gospel against each other, the result is always sad and sometimes tragic. Some raise the Word over the sacraments as a more "pure" form of the Gospel. This may be a subtle form of rationalism, which sees the realm of ideas as a better and holier medium for the Gospel. On the other hand, by exalting sacraments over the Word, we also undermine the Gospel. The solution is obvious: Both Word and sacraments are equally honored by us and are given the highest place in our theology and life as gifts from the Lord who insti-tuted both.

3. St. Paul masterfully makes this point in Romans 3.

4. Some theologians speak of faith as a cause of justification. They are, generally, careful to identify faith as an instrumental cause, emphasizing the fact that faith is the instrument through which we receive God's grace. The true cause of our justification before God is the gracious will of God and the saving work of Christ.

5. See my essay "Justification by Faith: The Articulus Stantis et Cadentis Ecclesiae," in And Every Tongue Confess: Essays in Honor of Norman Nagel, ed. by Gerald S. Krispin and Jon P. Vieker (Dear-born, MI: Nagel Festschrift Committee, 1990), 264-282.

6. This is the way the Lutheran Confessions use the word justifica-tion, often in parallel with other biblical words for the Gospel.

7. Synecdoche is a rhetorical device whereby the "whole thing" is intended by reference simply to a part. See page 31.

Taken from Just Words: Understanding the Fullness of the Gospel, copyright 2000. Used by permission of Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, MO 63118-3968. You can order Just Words for a total of $14 by calling the Issues, Etc. resource line at 1-800-737-0172.

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