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The good news of the Lordship of Jesus Christ

A sketch of Paul's Isaianic vision in Romans 10


by Tim Gallant

If you, like me, are exposed to a certain brand of Reformed polemics, you will be familiar with a shrill opposition currently afoot to making a close connection between Christ's Lordship and the gospel. The gospel, we are told, is the doctrine of justification of sinners apart from works, and Christ's Lordship can only be a terror to sinners, because Lordship implies obedience, which in turn implies works. One might be forgiven for thinking that Lordship and salvation are at opposite poles.

Paul's Gospel of the Resurrected Lord

There are many flaws in this sort of logic. But to begin at the beginning, let us note that Paul (to whom constant appeal is made by our gospel defenders) is only too happy to make the gospel-Lordship connection. Indeed, one might describe all of Romans 10 as an articulation of precisely this tie between the saving good news and the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

After lamenting that Israel is ignorant of "the righteousness of God" and seeks to establish "a righteousness of their own" (Rom 10.3), Paul goes on to speak of Christ being the telos nomou - the end or goal - of the law, to everyone who believes (10.4).

Now, the million-dollar question is: "believes what?" One might feel sure that the object of such belief must be the imputation of Christ's righteousness, granted sola fide. And that, to be sure, is a fine and important doctrine.

But it is not what Paul says.

The saving word articulated by the righteousness of faith is this: "if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved" (10.9). And Paul goes on to remind us that Jesus is Lord over both Jew and Greek, and that whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved (10.12-13). All of this embodying the gospel; in verse 15, Paul quotes one of the relatively few Old Testament passages employing the terminology of gospel (Is 52.7).

In Paul's mind, at least, the proclamation of Jesus as resurrected Lord is the gospel. This much we can learn from the very opening of Romans, where Paul encapsulates the gospel as the historical action of God in sending the Son in the flesh as the seed of David and raising Him from the dead.

Lord and Gospel as Event-Terms

But how is it that Paul sees the gospel bound up with the Lordship of Jesus, and we widely do not? What wrong turn have we taken?

In no small part, a great deal of our difficulty lies with the way we approach the biblical texts. We have a tendency to take them as speaking primarily to the individual affliction of conscience that derives from personal guilt. And the Scripture certainly is concerned about that. The problem arises, however, when we take a timeless existential problem and force all of our theology and exegesis through that grid. A Lord is one who commands, and therefore a connection between salvation and Lordship instinctively appears to us as a suggestion that salvation derives from our obedience to the commandments.

We must ask, however, how the biblical terms function in the Scriptures, not simply how we would most naturally place them in a logical system of theology. In particular, we need to recognize the function of the key terms Lord and gospel.

Who is the Lord?

If "Lord" conveys "Master" or "Commander" to us, that thought is not an inaccurate one. Without question, the fact that Jesus is Lord entails His authority to command.

Yet, that is not the primary association Paul would make with this terminology. In Paul's context, the Roman setting set Jesus' Lordship over against Caesar's, and the biblical setting entailed identifying Jesus with Yahweh, the God of Israel.

With regard to the former, the idea of a Lord to supplant Caesar, whom God's people saw as an idolatrous tyrant, was a welcome thought. In the thinking of Israel (and Israel, after all, is squarely in view in Romans 10), the Caesars were only the latest in a long line of foreign oppressors who humiliated them and defied the living God. Thus, a Lord to supplant Caesar would be good news - the fulfillment of God's promises to liberate and vindicate His people.

With regard to the latter point (i.e. the meaning of Lord in the Greek Old Testament), we can scarcely overestimate the importance of Isaiah to Paul's gospel, not least in the context of Romans 10. Given the preeminence Paul gives to Isaiah in connection with his outline of the gospel, we should not be surprised if the portrait of Yahweh in that prophecy is particularly at the forefront of his thinking. But to glance at that portrait, we need to pass on to the meaning of the gospel terminology itself.

The meaning of the gospel

Paul's gospel is not the proclamation of a method - a timeless explanation of grace versus works. As noted above, Paul outlines the story of Jesus' coming in the flesh and being raised by the power of the Spirit as "the gospel of God" (Rom 1.1-4).

The usage of gospel in the context of Isaiah - upon which Paul leans so heavily in Romans, in particular - has to do with the annunciation of an event. The good news is given by the messenger running over the mountains announcing the news of a great triumph. This great triumph has issued in peace, salvation, prosperity, and the restoration of Zion (Is 52.7-9). The gospel is news. And as pertinent to philosophy as news is, news is not philosophy. It is history; it tells the story of what has happened.

In terms of Isaiah, that prophecy is concerned with a time when God would resolve Israel's languishing state, when He would vindicate her before the nations. In that connection, Yahweh is identified as the faithful and righteous One who calls Israel in righteousness, saves Israel in righteousness, and vindicates Israel in righteousness. This is language that runs throughout Isaiah 40 onward. The gospel (good news, glad tidings) involves a mighty act by which God rescues His people from their enemies and grants them peace and prosperity. Forgiveness of sins is entailed in this (and even can be said to underlie it) - but the issue is not simply a private removal of guilt. The issue is the public restoration of God's people - which in turn vindicates the integrity of God's promises. Meaning, it demonstrates His righteousness.

Jesus: the triumph of Yahweh

What does all of this have to do with the Lordship and resurrection of Jesus Christ? What does it have to do with Israel not acknowledging the righteousness of God, but instead attempting to establish its own righteousness? What does it have to do with calling upon the name of the Lord and being saved?

The breadth of Isaiah's vision makes the task of answering these questions in this short essay an extraordinarily difficult one, but here are a few things to ponder.

  • The fusion of biblical and historical contexts, whereby Yahweh comes into collision with Caesar, provides a fascinating and powerful backdrop that indicates the strong overtones of Jesus being the anticipated King (Messiah) of Israel, who would bring liberation and vindication to His people.
  • Already in the Servant prophecies of Isaiah, there is a strong back-and-forth movement between the Servant as an individual and the servant as the nation (and occasionally, even the servant as Cyrus). This provides the groundwork for the thought that the Servant has a representative role and can stand in for the people.
  • Isaiah 51-52 employs death-and-resurrection imagery to depict God's deliverance of His people, culminating in the urgent exhortation of 52.1-2 for Jerusalem to awaken, arise from the dust and sit enthroned.
  • The employment of righteousness language in Isaiah is almost omnipresent in chapters 40 and following (e.g. 41.2; 42.6; 45.8, 13, 19, 23, 24; 46.12, 13; 48.1, 18; 51.1, 5, 6, 7, 8; 54.14, 17; 56.1-2; 57.12; 58.2, 8; 59.9, 14, 16, 17; 60.17; 61.3, 10, 11; 62.1, 2; 63.1; 64.5 - these are only a sample; one would find many more references by including cognates etc.). In Isaiah, righteous and righteousness terms are repeatedly paralleled with either salvation language (e.g. 51.5, 6) or truthfulness language (e.g. 45.19, 23). In 48.18 and elsewhere, it is paralleled with peace, security (54.14) and bounty. The overarching notion seems to be that since God is true to His Word, He has bound Himself to providing salvation for His people, and therefore His righteousness will be embodied in a deliverance that will vindicate His people before the nations and bring them into peace, prosperity, and fullness.
  • God's righteousness as salvation and faithfulness to His Word is highly covenantal; it corresponds to Israel's righteousness as doing justice (see how the righteousness of God and man are placed in counterpoint in e.g. Is 51.7; 56.1.)
  • All of these good things are repeatedly described as Yahweh's own work, and yet - apparently paradoxically - the Servant seems to be involved. As the agent of God? Or as God Himself? We know the answer.

In putting this all together, then, Paul's gospel is the proclamation that the promised day has arrived. Israel's Messiah and King, it turns out, is the Servant who is Himself to be identified as the Lord - He is Himself Yahweh. And in Him, the promised vindication has occurred; that is the testimony of the resurrection, which took Israel's representative into the fullness God had promised to His people. Israel's representative and King has arisen from the dust and been enthroned - indeed, enthroned as Lord of all. Since He is Himself Yahweh, all those who recognize His resurrection and acknowledge Him as Lord will be saved.

Israel, however, has failed to recognize that God Himself has acted in righteousness, and so, rather than turning to Christ, she continues to find in the law her point of reference. This is what Paul is referring to when he says that Israel did not "attain to the law of righteousness," because she sought it by works of the law (9.31-32), rather than recognizing that the law's goal all along was this Christ whom God has revealed.

Now, we must acknowledge here that if Isaiah's terminology is governing Paul's language, the "righteousness" he is referring to is probably not "the imputed righteousness of Christ." It seems to me that Paul has other language for that concept, and even if he does use righteousness language elsewhere for the concept, it is unlikely that he does so here. The Isaianic background to Rom 9.30ff is too dominant, particularly given the dominance of precisely that language in the portion of Isaiah upon which the apostle leans so heavily.

At least equally telling, in 10.3 Paul charges Israel with a failure to submit to the righteousness of God, which is rather strange phraseology if it is referring to imputed righteousness. (How does one submit to imputed righteousness?) If, on the other hand, Paul is referring to Christ as the embodiment of the triumphant, saving righteousness of God promised in Isaiah, the difficulty dissipates. Israel has failed to submit to her Messiah, and therefore they have not received the salvation promised. (Of course, the form that submission takes, Paul is clear, is precisely faith. In this context, this faith is primarily described as faith in Jesus as the resurrected Lord; see again verse 9. And this faith, Paul is equally clear elsewhere, is the instrument by which we are united to Christ, clothed with Him; see e.g. Gal 3.27. Thus the notion of being vindicated and justified in Christ, sharing in Him and His righteous standing, is not at all foreign to Paul, but rather is a key part of a larger package.)

Paul's Gospel and the Gentiles

We have talked a great deal about Israel, which raises the question: "What on earth does such a gospel have to do with us?" Following Isaiah, Paul answers this question too, by saying that "Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame" (10.11; cf Is 28.16). Paul takes the whoever to infer in verse 12, "For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him." Toward the end of Isaiah's prophecy, God urges as much: "Look to Me, and be saved, all you ends of the earth!" (Is 45.22). Paul has perhaps already alluded to this same passage in verse 9 when he speaks of confessing with the mouth the Lord Jesus (see Is 45.23: "to Me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall take an oath").

Paul's gospel includes the forgiveness of sins for the nations. But it is larger than that; it draws upon Isaiah's great vision of the restoration of all things, the making right of the whole earth. The good news is that this restoration has already occurred in one representative Person: Jesus Christ. In His resurrection, God has therefore appointed Him the Son, universal heir and Lord. Therefore, in Christ, the new heavens and new earth Isaiah promised have begun, and all who call upon Him will be saved.

Christ's Lordship is good news for the world.


Postscript

Of necessity, my foundational glance at Isaiah here has been of a very cursory nature. I have written at considerably more length elsewhere regarding Isaiah's gospel and how it related to Paul. See especially my short book regarding Paul's view of the law, These Are Two Covenants.

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