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 a day when it is easy to spend a lot of our time listening to great preachers from around the world on the internet how can we ensure that we are learning from those who preach faithful sermons to us Sunday by Sunday without wishing they were someone else or we were somewhere else.
This post by Steve Burchett on the Gospel Coalition site offers 5 suggestions.
One point that stands out to me and I’ve found to be true in my own church is that ”The mature worshiper is easily edified.” He or she knows they are not going to be hearing the best sermon that’s ever been preached at their local church but they are ready to receive from God and learn. If it is novelty we seek, if it’s new and profound insights to blow us away we crave, we may well be disappointed because few preachers can live up to such expectations. If it is an opportunity to consider afresh even the things we know, to renew our commitment to live for Christ we should rarely be disappointed.
Mark Twain was right when he said ‘it’s not the parts that I don’t understand that bother me in the Bible. It’s the parts I do understand.’
The most common and desperate question I have receivedover the last three decades is: What can I do? How can I become the kindof person the Bible is calling me to be?
In effect Christians say to Piper:
I want this [life].But I fear I don’t have it. In fact, as far as I can see, it is outside my power to obtain. How do you get a desire that you don’t have and you can’t create? Or how do you turn the spark into a ﬂame so that you can besure it is pure ﬁre?
When I don’t desire God is John Piper’s response.
You must download the book by 31st Decemeber to get if for free. You can also access and print out a free pdf version of the book at the Desiring God website.
John Piper makes the case for reminding the people you are leading of your vision. There is a need for renewing, restating and rejoicing in your vision as a church.
‘It is the job of the leader to articulate the vision over and over again’ – Piper.
1. In regular patterns for church at large eg. a preaching series, business meetings, church weekends, vision nights
2. Every time leaders meet
3. When making changes such as multiplying a small group
4. Every time people are considering membership
5. Every time you (as leaders) introduce change
6. Every time you recruit volunteers
‘For the skilled leader, every day brings “insertion points” for vision. They might be when a church member talks to a neighbor — a vision casting moment. It might be a teaching, transitioning toward application — another vision casting moment. It might be the children’s director inviting someone to be on the team….’
This post from John Piper on turning 65 is a call to remember to put the gospel to work even as we stop our ‘work’. Let’s prepare well for our future and let’s prepare our people to plan well. There is more to retirement than gardening and holidays!
Read for just 15 minutes a day and even take a day off a week and you’ll have read a million words in a year. John Piper has done the maths;
Suppose you read slowly like I do – maybe about the same speed that you speak- 200 words a minute. If you read fifteen minutes a day for one year (say just before supper, or just before bed), you will read 5,475 minutes in the year. Multiply that by 200 words a minute, and you get 1, 095,000 words that you would read in a year. Now an average serious book might have about 360words per page. So you would have read 3,041 pages in one year. That’s ten very substantial books. All in fifteen minutes a day.
Or, to be specific, my copy of Calvin’s Institutes has 1,521 pages in two volumes, with an average of 400 words per page, which is 608, 400 words. That means that even if you took a day off each week you could read this great biblical vision of God and man in less than nine months (about thirty-three weeks) at fifteen minutes a day. The point is: The words and ways of God will abide in you more deeply and more powerfully if you give yourself to some serious reading of great books that are saturated with Scripture. It certainly does not have to be John Calvin – or my favourite, Jonathan Edwards – but not to read any of the great old books when you have access to them may be owing to nothing better than what Lewis calls “chronological snobbery.”
Don Carson has said ‘we don’t pray because we don’t plan to pray’. The same can be said of reading. In a culture saturated with more immediate forms of amusement we find it so much easier to be entertained than educated. Reading takes effort, reading requires energy,reading means discipline, reading is never achieved without organisation. But reading is essential to our spiritual lives.
In a short series of posts I want to ask Why read? What to read? How to read?
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.
2 Timothy 2:15
The number of theological books should…be reduced, and a selection should be made of the best of them; for many books do not make men learned, nor does much reading. But reading something good, and reading it frequently, however little it may be, is the practice that makes men learned in the Scripture and makes them pious besides.
Just think how reading can change you!
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