God gives people every chance to “get” the gospel, communicating it in so many ways that one way is bound to strike a chord. He uses the word “faith” (“the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ” from Romans 3:22), but then changes it up with the word “trust” (“I will put my trust in him” from Hebrews 2:13).
For a man like Martin Luther, who long labored under the bondage of the principle of law, God spoke to his heart about the rule of grace through faith (“the righteous shall live by his faith” from Habakkuk 2:4). To the person whose view of faith is dangerously close to being reliance on a 20-year-old conversion moment, God speaks in another tone of voice:
“He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury” (Romans 2:6-8).
This is mercy and kindness on God’s part. So great is our proclivity to self-deception that we must hear the gospel in many ways, in surround sound, as it were. Some people, not yet understanding that Jesus has paid in full our debt before the Father, are still operating as if their salvation standing is only as good as yesterday’s good deeds. Other people, having sunk into a deadly passivity, need to be reminded that if there is no daily obedience, they do not yet believe God in a saving way:
“You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24).
I notice that God even describes saving faith as the operation not only of the heart but the mouth:
“… if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).
Let us not water down the “mouth” part to a formal antiphonal recitation during Sunday church service. God has something much more natural and habitual in mind here—the daily, cultivatable habits of giving praise to God publicly, and of purging whining and negativity from our speech to replace it with utterances that put the highest construction on all God’s promises as they apply to the given moment.
If we take to heart all these different ways that God phrases “the gospel,” we will not likely fall off one side of Luther’s donkey or the other.