The Unconditional Gospel, Part 1

Seth Erlandsson

This article is an excerpt from XP Media’s book “Rättfärdiggörelsen Genom Tron,” published for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017. This excerpt first appeared in Biblicum 81:1, 2017, pages 3-7. Translated by Julius Buelow.

All sinners need perfect righteousness in order to have fellowship with God and to be prepared for Judgment Day and eternity. In Romans 1:17, this is called dikaiosune theou, ”The righteousness of God.” The gospel reveals how people receive this right relationship with God, the holiness and righteousness which people lost because of the fall into sin through rebellion against God. “The righteousness of God” in the message of the gospel means both that righteousness originates from God and that it is a righteousness which counts before God (Luther translated: “the righteousness, which is valid before God”).

This divine righteousness is “revealed,” literally “uncovered” (apokaluptetai, Romans 1:17) in the gospel. It presupposes that it already exists before it is revealed or uncovered (compare the moment a statue is revealed at an unveiling ceremony!). Only if something exists already can one say that the cover has been removed. The gospel talks about how the God-Man Jesus Christ—through his life, suffering, and death—has restored humanity to a right relationship with God by restoring this lost righteousness for all people.

Through the gospel, and only through the gospel, this righteousness which counts before God is revealed, and at the same time, offered and extended to all sinners as a free gift. It is not a question of some future possibility which people under certain conditions might receive or develop. The gospel presents a reality which already exists, reckoned to humanity’s account. The reality is that the sins of the world have been atoned for through Jesus’ vicarious life and death, and that Christ’s righteousness/holiness has been reckoned to humanity as their own (Romans 5:18; 2 Corinthians 5:18-19).

Righteousness is not a result of someone’s faith; it is not something which faith causes. It exists before faith as something to be received as a finished, undeserved gift. It is extended to people unconditionally in the gospel.

The law, on the other hand, presents conditions that need to be fulfilled in order to have a right relationship with God. By its demands it reveals humanity’s inability to achieve the perfection which is a requirement in order to receive the verdict of “not guilty” and eternal life in fellowship with God.

Only the unconditional gospel can kindle a faith which trusts in and receives the gift of eternal life. It is God’s gracious will that this gift be received and becomes a person’s personal possession through faith. It is only unbelief, the rejection of the righteousness from God, which condemns (John 3:18).

How freeing it was for Martin Luther when he understood that “the righteousness of God” in the gospel was a saving gift, offered for sinners to receive for free! Previously, he believed that “the righteousness of God” in Romans 1:17 pointed to the law’s righteous condemnation. Likewise, the church he belonged to had mixed the demands of the law in with the gospel. But now he truly saw what is meant by “the good news,” namely, that “the righteousness of God” is a free, unconditional gift from God. God’s justification of humanity means a verdict of “not guilty” solely for the sake of Christ, not by works of the law (Romans 3:28).