Most of us ministers think the test of a good church is one that preaches the gospel faithfully. That must be right. But is it enough? In the new free e-book Brothers we are still not professional Ray Ortland Jr. wants us to recognise a further test of orthodoxy. Does our church not just preach the gospel but evidence transformation through the existence of a recognisable gospel culture. The issue his chapter addresses is the necessary connection between preaching the gospel of grace and living out the gospel of grace in our church communities. So the challenge for any who are leading churches is not just to preach a gospel message in our churches but to build a Gospel Culture.
What should be happening in our churches?
Where the gospel is faithful preached and carefully applied the church community ought to exhibit the transforming effect of that gospel. Ortland describes a church shaped by gospel preaching as a social environment of acceptance and hope and freedom and joy. As different books of the Bible highlight different aspects of the gospel so they shape the community in different ways. Ortland suggests;
- The doctrine of regeneration creates a culture of humility (Ephesians 2:1–9).
- The doctrine of justification creates a culture of inclusion (Galatians 2:11–16).
- The doctrine of reconciliation creates a culture of peace (Ephesians 2:14–16).
- The doctrine of sanctification creates a culture of life (Romans 6:20–23).
- The doctrine of glorification creates a culture of hope (Romans 5:2) and honor (Romans 12:10).
- The doctrine of God—what could be more basic than that? — creates a culture of honesty and confession (1 John 1:5–10).
The gospel really does have power to create God’s new society that is radically different from the world. However the sad reality is that whilst individual lives may be being changed through the gospel sadly too many churches find their community life a pale imitation of what we should expect.
So why is it that churches that preach the gospel fail to be transformed by the gospel?
Here are a few thoughts from my own experience
1. Because it’s a whole lot easier to preach the gospel than to live it. Many things will work against the transformation of our life together. Sin in all its forms; apathy, indifference, self-centredness, etc. will inevitably make establishing a gospel culture harder than ensuring faithful gospel preaching. Gospel preaching requires just one man to get it right, gospel transformation requires the whole community to put it into practice. What all that means is that it is not automatic that a church preaching the gospel will be being transformed by the gospel. We should recognise that it is always a slower process than we would like (as is our personal sanctification) but still it ought to become increasingly evident in a gospel-preaching church.
2. Because as preachers in our sermons we spend too little time applying the Bible to the community life of the church. My training for preaching prepared me well to preach to the individual Christian but much less the church body. For most preachers we find individual applications relatively straight-forward but I have to say I’ve lost count of the number of sermons that fail to even once address the gathered church.
We need to ask ‘what does this sermon mean for us as a church family?’ as well as for us as individuals. We ought to lead our congregations through our preaching and corporate applications are key here.
3. Because we British (!) struggle to find appropriate ways to celebrate how the gospel is impacting our communities. We don’t often talk about how the gospel is at work in our relationships in the church. Perhaps we ought, in our preaching to celebrate examples of gospel transformation in action. So, for example, a sermon that features the theme of inclusion provides an opportunity to comment on how we’re getting on at relating to those who are different from ourselves in church and to celebrate cross-cultural, cross-generational relationships and how different church is to other communities.
4. Because we think a gospel culture should just grow organically rather than be nurtured. It’s true that much transformation can be seen simply through individuals deciding to put the gospel to work in relationships with other Christians. But why should we simply leave people to it? We don’t think gospel-preaching just happens which is why we give considerable time to training young preachers, reviewing sermons and preparing well for our own preaching. So what energy could we put into facilitating a gospel culture? What training could we put in place? What formal as well as informal opportunities could we create to facilitate gospel relationships?
Don’t let your test of orthodoxy be limited to how faithfully you are preaching the gospel but ask too ‘how is the gospel of the living God transforming our church?’ For much is at stake; Ray Ortland includes this terrific quote from Francis Schaeffer’s The Church Before the Watching World.
One cannot explain the explosive dynamite, the dunamis, of the early church apart from the fact that they practiced two things simultaneously: orthodoxy of doctrine and orthodoxy of community in the midst of the visible church, a community which the world could see. By the grace of God, therefore, the church must be known simultaneously for its purity of doctrine and the reality of its community. Our churches have so often been only preaching points with very little emphasis on community, but exhibition of the love of God in practice is beautiful and must be there.
In discussing faith and science Higgs went on to say I don’t happen to be one [a believer] myself, but maybe that’s just more a matter of my family background than that there’s any fundamental difficulty about reconciling the two.
(HT: David Robertson)
There is a powerful and profound video doing the rounds called The Incarnation in which Odd Thomas, through the medium of poetic word, attempts to express the inexpressible and comprehend the incomprehensible – that at Christmas we affirm God became man.
The second person of the Trinity commissioned to abandon his position
And literally set aside the independent expression of his attributes in full submission
The word manifested in the flesh, the fullness of God expressed
The self-emptying Jesus poured out at the Father’s request
I’m not exactly sure what he means in that second line when he says that the Son literally set aside the expression of his attributes and for all I know we might find that over a cup of coffee we completely agree with each other. But it comes a little too close for my comfort to saying that in taking human form, God the Son ceased to be fully God. If we are to believe that God left heaven and became a baby does that mean he stopped being fully God?
A little over 100 years ago an idea became popular that this is exactly what happened. The kenosis theory was put forward by a man who later became the first Bishop of Birmingham and later Bishop of Oxford, Charles Gore.
Grudem in his Systematic Theology writes The kenosis theory holds that Christ gave up some of his divine attributes while he was on earth as a man…This was viewed as a voluntary self-limitation on Christ’s part, which he carried out in order to fulfil his work of redemption. Grudem puts forward a number of reasons as to why such an idea (based on a misinterpretation of Philippians 2:7) must be rejected. Probably the most important two are that no teacher in the church for 1800 years ever thought that Philippians 2 did mean a giving up of divine attributes and secondly that the context of the passage strongly suggests ‘that it talks about Jesus giving up the status and privilege that was his in heaven’ rather than a change in his nature.
What really happened then in the incarnation?
The truth is that Christmas is bigger and better than this theory allows and that it must be better than this if Jesus is able to save us.
1. The most helpful way to describe the incarnation is not that God the Son gave up his deity but rather that God the Son joined himself to humanity. Grudem suggests ‘the incarnation was the act of God the Son whereby he took to himself a human nature.’
Only such a definition allows us to continue to say that Jesus is fully God and fully man, inseparable but distinct.
2. That means that God the Son did not cease to be God the Son even whilst he was on earth. Here is where it gets to be truly mind-blowing. Christians affirm that God the Son was ruling in the heavens even as he lay helpless in a manger! Imagine you are in Augustine’s congregation as he gives expression to this truth in these beautiful words taken from one of his sermons;
Maker of the sun,
He is made under the sun.
In the Father He remains,
from His mother He goes forth.
Creator of heaven and earth,
He was born on earth under heaven.
He is wisely speechless.
Filling the world,
He lies in a manger.
Ruler of the stars,
He nurses at His mother’s bosom.
He is both great in the nature of God,
and small in the form of a servant.
Such a truth is essential to affirm even as we acknowledge beyond our ability to comprehend.
3. The trinity is not interrupted and God is not changed or confused. How essential it is that we affirm the unchanging nature and character of God! He cannot be one God at a certain moment in time and another God at a different moment in time. The Son does not stop being the Son and continues to relate perfectly to Father and Spirit within the Godhead even as he experiences life in the flesh on earth.
4. Jesus is able to save us from our sins. Only by being fully God and fully man is he able to save us. If he surrenders his divine attributes he ceases to be fully or truly God. Grudem says ‘If Jesus is not fully God, we have no salvation and ultimately no Christianity.’
Should we therefore ever use language that describes a great condescension of God e.g. can we say of him ‘God was in a manger’ or ‘God had to learn to speak and to walk’? Yes. Because Jesus truly is ONE person with TWO natures. Because he is one person we may rightly say that what is true of one nature is true of the person. Jesus in his human nature knew what it was to be helpless, weak, dependent on others, ultimately he knew what it was to be tempted, to suffer and to die. Because what is true of one nature is true of the person we can say that ‘God became man’ when he joined himself to humanity.
Our God contracted to a span, Incomprehensible made man – Charles Wesley
On Sunday evening City Church held its, now annual tradition, of Carols by Candlelight courtesy of The Blue Coat School in Birmingham. Beautiful music in a beautiful setting. Below is the text of my talk.
One particularly naughty young boy was worried that he might not get what he was hoping for at Christmas so as he sat at his desk writing a Christmas list to Jesus. He began, ‘Dear baby Jesus, I have been a good boy the whole year, so I want a new…’ but then crumples it up into a ball and throws it away. Beginning with a new piece of paper he starts again, ‘Dear baby Jesus, I have been a good boy for most of the year, so I want a new…’ No good he thinks and throws it away. But then he has an inspired idea. He runs downstairs and removes the statue of Mary from the nativity set, puts it in the wardrobe, and locks the door. He takes another piece of paper and writes, ‘Dear baby Jesus. If you ever want to see your mother again…’
Well how are the Christmas preparations going this year? Some of you are looking pretty relaxed the trees up, cards have been sent, the presents bought and wrapped. Some of you are not looking quite so confident, maybe still have a little bit of work to do? Well I’m glad that whatever your situation you’ve made some time to sing carols tonight.
Can I start asking what, in particular, does Christmas mean to you?
Christmas is a few drinks too many – well that’s the answer for some
Christmas is for the kids – lots of us would echo that
Christmas is about the traditions we remember fondly from our own childhood
Christmas is a time to reconnect with the family we struggle to see at any other time of year
Christmas is cancelled or is that wishful thinking for some of you or at least delayed. For some, Christmas can be one of the toughest times of the year.
Well I hope this evening has helped to encourage you that despite all the work we all have to put in, Christmas really is worth celebrating. I wonder whether you’ve seen the Christmas classic film It’s a Wonderful Life starring James Stewart? The American Film Institute ranked it as the most inspirational film of all time and I guess that’s why it’s still shown in America every Christmas day even though it was made in 1946!
The story is about a man called George who thinks that his life has not amounted to anything much and on a snowy Christmas eve is considering ending it all by jumping from a bridge into the icy waters below. But God sends an angel called Clarence, dressed as a man, to rescue him. Clarence’s job is to change George’s mind and what he does is show George Bailey how different the world would have looked if he had never been born. In a world without George Bailey so may lives would have taken a turn for the worse if a man like him had not been there for them.
After he shows him a world in which George Bailey had never existed Clarence the angel concludes; Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?
George is a man transformed at looking at his life in a new perspective and the film ends well. A life lived that brings so much blessing to others IS a wonderful life. He is the richest man in the world!
No doubt there are many people that have played a part in your life who in big ways or small you are grateful for this Christmas time every human life in some sense is a life that makes a difference. In a carol service we’re thinking about one life in particular – the life of Jesus.
What If Jesus had never been born? Would it really make any difference? The 2011 census results show that 25% of people in England and Wales claim to be of no religion. One recent survey found that 51% of people agreed with the statement that ‘The birth of Jesus is irrelevant to my Christmas”
I suppose that means if you ask them what difference the life of Jesus makes, their answer would be none. I guess it is possible to celebrate Christmas without Jesus. To get me in the mood for Christmas I thought I’d try listening to a CD recommended in the paper called Christmas with my friends by Nils Landgren. The first track I listened to was a Swedish setting of O little town of Bethlehem, but weirdly the second is Imagine by John Lennon. What a curious choice of song for a Christmas album as you sing along at Christmas imagine there’s no heaven! Why not celebrate Christmas by imagining that the world would be a better place if Jesus had never been born?!
But there again I suppose it is an extraordinary thing that we should even be in this building at all this evening, remembering the life of a man who lived so long ago. After all his story should be a footnote of history; born in an obscure village, a child was born of a peasant woman. He grew up in another village where He worked as a carpenter until He was thirty. Then for three years He became an itinerant preacher.
This man never went to college or university. He never wrote a book. He never held a public office. He never had a family nor owned a home. He never put His foot inside a big city nor travelled even 200 miles from His birthplace. And He never did any of the things that usually accompany greatness, throngs of people followed Him
And yet in Communist China, the Economist magazine estimates, he is worshipped by more people than there are members of the state Communist Party. Somewhere between 70-100 million people in China will celebrate his birth this Christmas.
Someone has written This one Man’s life has furnished the theme for more songs, books, poems and paintings than any other person or event in history. Thousands of colleges, hospitals, orphanages and other institutions have been founded in honour of this One who gave His life for us.
All the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the governments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned have not changed the course of history as much as this One Solitary Life.
HG Wells, author of War of the Worlds famously said;
I am a historian, I am not a believer, but I must confess as a historian that this penniless preacher from Nazareth is irrevocably the very centre of history. Jesus Christ is easily the most dominant figure in all history. Christ is the most unique person of history. No man can write a history of the human race without giving first and foremost place to the penniless teacher of Nazareth.
We celebrate at Christmas one life like no other. One life that was always designed to make the most radical difference. This is how Matthew records the birth of Jesus;
an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
The birth of Jesus is the beginning of a wonderful life that makes all the difference in the world. Let me tell you two reasons why I’m glad that Jesus was born and why I’m ready to celebrate his birth this Christmas.
1. Jesus is God with us
Lots of my friends aren’t sure whether to believe in a God and they’re not sure why this God rather than another God. The birth of Jesus brings to an end our debates and speculation about God. We don’t need to argue over God and big bang or look for clues in the fabric of the universe. God is no figment of our imagination for God has entered our world, become one of us.
And not only does that bring clarity in a world of confusion but it brings comfort in a world of pain. That God should become one of us brings God home. When I read in the papers or witness on the news all the sadness and pain that surrounds the tragic events of Newtown Connecticut I want to know that there really is right and wrong, that love does triumphs over evil, that there is someone finally in control, that justice will be done. Richard Dawkins tells me that these desires of my hearts are mere delusions. He tells me I need to wake up to reality that I live in a cruel indifferent universe that it has no design or purpose that there is no such thing as good or evil, right or wrong.
But Christmas cuts across the darkness of Dawkins worldview for it supremely offers me a reason for hope. A reason to say God is not only there but he is for us and with us because God became one of us. He walked my path, he knew my pain. He experienced what it was to suffer injustice, intolerance, hatred and overcame it all for us.
The second reason reason I’m ready to celebrate Christmas this year is that
2. Jesus is God for us
In coming into our world Jesus showed me the lengths that God is willing to go to put things right. You see there is a second reason I am glad that Jesus was born and that is because it shows that not only is God with us but God is for us. The angel said to Joseph
you are to give him the name Jesus,because he will save his people from their sins
Jesus’ life is a wonderful life, full of compassion, concern, he welcomed the stranger, he embraced the poor, he cared for the sick, he provide for the needy, he welcomed in the outsider, the excluded, the marginalised. And he also came for you and for me.
Jesus’ life was a wonderful life because he lived it for you and he gave it up for you when in his death he offered his life as a sacrifice for your sins and mine.
Christmas is a time when we find that the past so often hangs over us and overshadows our joy. We remember our mistakes, relive our regrets, dwell on our misfortunes, hide our shame and guilt and at a time of peace and good will it can be a reminder that when we are supposed to be at peace with others we are not even at peace with ourselves. When we see the consequences of sin in our lives like that we get just a glimpse of how a holy and perfect God sees us.
But Jesus says to us this Christmas time ‘I’m here to take that off you.’ The wonderful life was a life lived for you and for me. And his life has been impacting lives for 2000 years.
What are you looking for this Christmas? I hope that it is more than ever this Christmas not new socks, or a few days off work, but a fresh start and a new life. At the beginning of John’s gospel we find these words;
He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
The wonderful life that Jesus lived for you is a life he now offers you. A life that knows no end and no end of joy. We sang in our earlier carol ‘O little town’ the following words..
O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!
51% of people in that earlier service thought that Jesus would make no difference to their Christmas my hope and my prayer is that he might make all the difference to your Christmas this year. Have a happy and blessed Christmas time.
Hilarin Felder in his work Christ and the Critics, vol. 2 includes the following words of Napoleon and his take on Jesus:
What a conqueror!–a conqueror who controls humanity at will, and wins to himself not only one nation, but the whole human race. What a marvel! He attaches to himself the human soul with all its energies. And how? By a miracle which surpasses all others. He claims the love of men–that is to say, the most difficult thing in the world to obtain; that which the wisest of men cannot force from his truest friend, that which no father can compel from his children, no wife from her husband, no brother from his brother–the heart. He claims it ; he requires it absolutely and undividedly, and he obtains it instantly.
Alexander, Caesar, Hannibal, Louis XIV strove in vain to secure this. They conquered the world, yet they had not a single friend, or at all events, they have none any more. Christ speaks, however, and from that moment all generations belong to him; and they are joined to him much more closely than by any ties of blood and by a much more intimate, sacred and powerful communion. He kindles the flame of love which causes one’s self-love to die, and triumphs over every other love. Why should we not recognize in this miracle of love the eternal Word which created the world? The other founders of religions had not the least conception of this mystic love which forms the essence of Christianity.
I have filled multitudes with such passionate devotion that they went to death for me. But God forbid that I should compare the enthusiasm of my soldiers with Christian love. They are as unlike as their causes. In my case, my presence was always necessary, the electric effect of my glance, my voice, my words, to kindle fire in their hearts. And I certainly posses personally the secret of that magic power of taking by storm the sentiments of men; but I was not able to communicate that power to anyone. None of my generals ever learned it from me or found it out. Moreover, I myself do not possess the secret of perpetuating my name and a love for me in their hearts for ever, and to work miracles in them without material means.
Now that I languish here at St Helena, chained upon this rock, who fights, who conquers empires for me? Who still even thinks of me? Who interests himself for me in Europe? Who has remained true to me? That is the fate of all great men. It was the fate of Alexander and Caesar, as it is my own. We are forgotten, and the names of the mightiest conquerors and most illustrious emperors are soon only the subject of a schoolboy’s talks. Our exploits come under the rod of a pedantic schoolmaster, who praises or condemns us as he likes.
What an abyss exists between my profound misery and the eternal reign of Christ, who is preached, loved, and worshipped, and live on throughout the entire world. Is this to die? Is it not rather to live eternally? The death of Christ! It is the death of a God.
(HT: Brant Pitre)
Tim Keller’s new book Every good endeavour is the subject of conversation on an American TV breakfast show.
In essence the book explores how the gospel of Christ shapes our attitude to work. In the interview Keller says ‘When you make your work your identity you identify with your work and that means if you’re successful it destroys you because it goes to your head. If you’re not successful it destroys you because it goes to your heart and it destroys your self-worth.
Faith gives you an identity that’s not in work or accomplishment and that gives you protection. If successful you stay humble if you’re not successful you have some ballast.
Al Mohler’s new book on leadership has recently dropped through my letterbox. The conviction to lead: 25 principles for leaership matters is everything that you might expect; wise, clear, biblical and focused! Above all else what guides Mohler’s principles for leadership however, is conviction. He writes I want to fundamentally change the way leadership is understood and practiced.
It won’t do to ignore best practice in leadership as some evangelicals are prone to do. We cannot hide in our studies, write a few sermons and pay our pastoral visits and believe we are doing all we are called to do as church ministers. Leading a church requires much more than that. But neither can we reduce our role to that of ‘leaders’ who mimic the world, seeking to take a church forward through motivation, vision, strategy and models of leadership. Mohler seeks to bring these, too often separate, worlds together. His purpose in the book? My goal is to redefine Christian leadership so that it is inseparable from passionately held beliefs [convictions], and to motivate those who are deeply committed to truth to be ready for leadership. Let a book like this shape your ministry and that of others in your church. Be clearer on your convictions and put those convictions to work as you learn to lead through them.
Here is Mohler on The Leader and Death
A legacy is what is left in the wake of a great leader. The leader is gone from the scene, but his influence remains essential to the direction and culture of the work he led. Once again, conviction is central. The idiosyncrasies of the leader will not (or should not) remain. The plans and visions of the leader will be outdated soon after his burial. The style of the leader is a personal signature. Your tastes will not be the tastes of the future. Yet none of this really matters. What matters is that the convictions survive.
Remember that leadership is conviction transformed into united action. If the convictions are right, the right actions will follow. The wise leader does not try to perpetuate matters of style and taste, or even plans and programs. The leader who aims at a legacy aims to perpetuate conviction. If the conviction is truly perpetuated, all the rest will follow. If the convictions are not perpetuated, none of the rest really matters. The leader who truly leads by conviction drives those convictions deep into the foundation of the movement. A legacy is built on that foundation as convictions frame reality.
Every leader needs to know the reality that we will die one day and that others will take our place. Hopefully, these new leaders will bring talents and abilities and vision greater than our own. Our greatest concern, however, is that they come with a wealth of conviction. Otherwise, all that we build can be turned against the very truths we have championed.
Why are we anxious?
The mental health charity Mind comments
You may worry about the future. Sometimes, if you feel you are not in control of many aspects of your life, you can start to feel anxious about events beyond your control, such as the threat of global warming, of being attacked, of developing cancer, or of losing a job.
After a while, you can start to fear the symptoms of anxiety, especially feeling out of control. This sets up a vicious circle. You may feel anxious because you dread feeling the symptoms of anxiety, and then you experience those symptoms because you are having anxious thoughts.
What does the Bible say about anxiety?
Paul in Philippians 4 commands (yes, commands) Christians not to be anxious. He writes
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
The great news for the Christian is that in the gospel God gives us the resources to help us combat anxiety. It is not easy and it is not automatic but Paul tells us that we can live lives as God’s people free form anxiety. There are two truths taken together that are crucial to beating anxiety.
1) The unshakeable conviction, that as a Christian, God loves you and has adopted you as his child not because of your life (your goodness, obedience, etc.) but because of Jesus’ perfect life lived for you and his perfect death for your sins. God has never accepted you and adopted you because of your performance but entirely on the performance of Jesus and that never changes.
2) The sure knowledge that the God who loves you in Christ is sovereign over every detail of your life.
That knowledge has to be appropriated in times of anxiety. The antidote to anxiety is to take our fears and worries to the sovereign God who loves us and hand the future over to him. Alex Motyer in his commentary on Philippians writes;
In prayer, anxiety is resolved by trust in God. In thanksgiving anxiety is resolved by the deliberate acceptance of the worrying circumstance as something which an all-wise, all-loving, and all-sovereign God has appointed.
Prayer takes up the anxiety-provoking question ‘How?’ –How shall I cope? –and answers by pointing away to him, to his resources and promises. Thanksgiving addresses itself to the worrying question ‘Why?’ – Why has this happened to me? – and answers by pointing to the great Doer of all who ever acts purposelessly and whose purposes never fail.
What is the fruit of prayer?
When you turn moments of stress and anxiety over to the sovereign Lord in prayer, then and only then, can you be free from anxiety and discover the peace of God. The peace from knowing he is in control even when we are not.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
I know all about the despair of overcoming chronic temptations. It is not serious provided self-offended petulance, annoyance at breaking records, impatience et cetera doesn’t get the upper hand. No amount of falls will really undo us if we keep on picking ourselves up each time. We shall of course be very muddy and tattered children by the time we reach home. But the bathrooms are all ready, the towels put out, and the clean clothes are in the airing cupboard. The only fatal thing is to lose one’s temper and give it up. It is when we notice the dirt that God is most present to us: it is the very sign of his presence.
– C.S. Lewis, in a letter to Mary Neylan,January 20, 1942
(HT: Trevin Wax)
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