Brothers, Build a Gospel Culture

Gospel doctrine creates a gospel culture. The doctrines of grace create a culture of grace, a social environment of acceptance and hope and freedom and joy. Jesus himself touches us through his truths to create a new kind of community. Without the doctrines, the culture alone is fragile. Without the culture, the doctrines alone appear pointless.

Isn’t the doctrine-creating-culture dynamic what we find in the New Testament? For example, 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).

If we want this culture to thrive, we can’t take doctrinal short cuts. If we want this doctrine to be credible, we can’t disregard the culture. Churches where the doctrines of grace create a culture of grace bear living witness to the power of Jesus. I think of it very simply like this:

Gospel doctrine – gospel culture = hypocrisy
Gospel culture – gospel doctrine = fragility
Gospel doctrine + gospel culture = power

If we want our churches to compel the attention of our mission field — and, of course, we do — then, brothers, build a gospel culture! Don’t settle for preaching the truth only. Build a relational ethos that feels like the gospel. It’s powerful.

Francis Schaeffer, in his book The Church Before the Watching World, page 62, wrote this:

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.

A gospel community is authoritative. Schaeffer used the phrase “orthodoxy of community” to say that. The beauty of human relationships is not an optional add-on for an otherwise complete, biblical church. Gospel culture is as essential to our witness as gospel doctrine.

Do you consider purity of doctrine essential? Probably. Do you consider beauty of community essential? Hopefully.

The urgency of this depends primarily, of course, on who God is. If God has revealed himself to us as truth only, then beauty of community is merely a preference for certain personality types. But if God has revealed himself as truth and love, both simultaneously, then the beauty of true community is authoritative. And it is authoritative: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts” (Colossians 3:15).

Theologically conscientious churches are not always gospel cultures. The Reverend William Still, a patriarch of the Church of Scotland in the twentieth century, preaching on Romans 5:5 and the love of God being poured into our hearts, said this:

I wonder what it is about poring all over a great deal of Puritan literature that makes so many preachers of it so horribly cold. I don’t understand it, because I think it’s a wonderful literature. . . . I don’t know if you can explain this to me. I’d be very glad to know, because it worries me. But I hear over and over and over again this tremendous tendency amongst people who delve deeply into Puritan literature that a coldness, a hardness, a harshness, a ruthlessness — anything but sovereign grace — enters into their lives and into their ministries. Now, it needn’t be so. And it isn’t always so, thank God. And you see, the grace, the grace, of a true Calvinist and Puritan — that is to say, a biblical Puritan and Calvinist — is wonderful. . . . But O God, deliver us from this coldness!

The problem is not Reformed theology. Inherent within that theology is a humbling and melting power. The problem is when that theology is not allowed to exert its natural influence. Instead, our own native religiosity can create a culture contrary to our theology. And our religious culture, whatever it is, reveals what we really believe as opposed to what we think we believe.

If we are ungracious in our relationships and ethos and demeanor and vibe, then we are contradicting the very grace we preach and disempowering our churches in the eyes of the watching world.

But when we press our theology humbly and boldly into the culture of our churches, starting with ourselves and our own need for God’s grace, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is!” (Psalm 133:1).

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