I grew up learning short pithy sayings that “summed up” the gospel. I took classes so I could walk someone through the “Romans' Road.” I learned a 5 part flip chart complete with illustrations promoted by an evangelist at a camp where I worked. Now, looking back, I realize that most of that time, I could only articulate a PART of the gospel. Each method focused on the universal nature of our debt (all have sinned and come short of the glory of God) and Christ's payment of my sins on the cross. They focused on the value of Christ's DEATH for me. But they didn't focus on the value of His LIFE. Over the years, I have come to understand that the good news of Christ is not just that, through Jesus, my debt to God is canceled. No—God did not JUST bring my account up to zero, but He also lavished His grace on me, crediting to my account Christ's righteousness (Isaiah 61:10, 2 Cor. 5:21).
I have benefitted greatly from Christ's death, the penal substitution. But oh the benefits to me from His LIFE, this imputed righteousness. Christ's righteousness is in my account now. And that is every bit as precious as the erasure of my sin. Think of an inmate deserving the long sentence he received. Then, by the mercy of the judge and sacrifice of another, the inmate's sentence is paid in full. He gets to walk out of jail a free man. Yet, he's broke. Sure, he's grateful that he no longer has a debt to society, but he faces a long, daunting road. He can't even buy lunch. He can't pay a taxi to take him home (if he even has one). If he doesn't have someone outside who's watching out for him, he can't even pay for a hotel room for the night. He's set up for failure. He's set up to return to a life of crime. His only hope is to pull himself up from the bootstraps. But pitfalls surround him, and he has virtually no safety structure to keep him from utterly failing. And so is the very great difference between a view of the gospel that ends with penal substitution and one that also strongly embraces imputed righteousness.
Paul teaches this view of the gospel in Ephesians. He starts off with a bang – in Christ, you are blessed with EVERY SPIRITUAL BLESSING. And he goes through them all, praying at the end of Ephesians 1 that we'd really come to understand this inheritance in our accounts and power at work on our behalf. Then he gets into the fact that we were dead in our sins, by nature deserving of God's wrath, alienated from God. I think Paul understands, under the Spirit's inspiration, that we NEED to know our bank account is full and that we have resources. Just being spared death does not prepare you for life.
God didn't bring me just to dead even. But now, in Christ, I have an abundant surplus in my account because God sees me wearing Christ's robe of righteousness. I AM RIGHTEOUS! And not by works of my own. God has lavished this righteousness to my account fully by His mercy and grace, and I can REST in it.
This doesn't mean I don't wrestle over how to show grace to my children or to stamp down my own selfishness. There remains a long list of actions and attitudes in my life I long to change. But in the midst, I can rest. I don't have to change myself. Christ's finished work is complete on my behalf. And I have His life of love and good works credited to me.
"Run, John, run. The law commands, but gives neither feet nor hands. Better news the Gospel brings; It bids me fly and gives me wings." John Bunyun
Now, in Christ, I am empowered to do battle with sin, to put to death the old man and live like the new creation I am. I am the inmate set free from my well-deserved sentence who has the bank account and resources of the daughter of the king. I have RESOURCES for every need that comes my way. When I am provoked to anger with my children, I have spiritual resources. When I am tempted with gluttony, lust, selfishness, or gossip, I am fully equipped for battle. As John Bunyan said, I can fly, and I do it with Christ's wings. The same power that raised Christ from the dead is the power at work in me!
Be wary of the “gospel-centered” teacher whose gospel ends at penal substitution, for they have nothing for life after salvation except pulling yourself up by the bootstraps. The gospel becomes the source of OBLIGATION instead of the source of EQUIPPING. You're exhorted to stop gossiping or sleeping around or overeating because it makes the gospel look bad. That's gospel obligation that misses completely the value and power of imputed righteousness. The true gospel doesn't obligate you to do good. No, it EQUIPS you to do good. There is a profound difference. That battle with your weight, the temptation to gossip, anger with your children—the gospel equips you to do battle with sin with the very same power that raised Christ from the dead. You have a lavish spiritual bank account, and this is integral to the very good news of all Christ's life and death has accomplished for you.