Archive for October, 2022

Back in March, I attended a seminar by Ray Ortlund on Gospel-Culture in churches. I left feeling like I wanted it to be longer. As a result of his recommendation, I read The Mark of the Christian. As a result of the seminar, I read The Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ. Like the seminar, it left me wanting more in the sense of “that was great” not the sense that I was unsatisfied.

This book is part of the 9Marks series on Building Healthy Churches. This book focuses on the centrality of the gospel and the culture that necessarily flows from the gospel. When a church has a gospel culture it portrays the beauty of Christ. In his foreward to the book, J.I. Packer notes that we don’t think very often about the culture of our congregations. He defines culture as the “public lifestyle that expresses a shared mindset and convictions held in common. A church’s culture should be orthopraxy expressing orthodoxy.” Our right doctrine should produce right living with one another.


Ortlund begins by reminding us that each generation has to discover the gospel for itself. We don’t re-invent the gospel but we must personally believe it, and then communicate it in words suitable for our generation and its needs. Again, it isn’t changing the gospel but stressing the aspects of the gospel pertinent to our society.

“God, through the perfect life, atoning death, and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, rescues all his people from the wrath of God into peace with God, with a promise of the full restoration of his created order forever- all to the praise of the glory of his grace.”

Referring to a quote by Tyndale, he laments that we don’t see “singing, dancing and leaping for joy in our churches.” Okay, in Reformed churches anyway. The gospel doesn’t seem to be setting the tone as our hearts don’t seem to be set free like David’s. Too often our churches inflict pain rather than set people free. Outsiders hear anguished cries when we preach but don’t live in light of the gospel. He quotes Isaiah 5:7 in this regard. God looked for justice in His vineyard but saw bloodshed instead. God is blasphemed among the nations because of us at times.

Ortlund has been shaped by the writing of Francis Schaeffer. Here he references “How Heresy Should be Met” which was written after his crisis of faith. Schaeffer wrote that the goal is to win men with deviant theology back to Christ, not merely prove them wrong. We must clearly articulate what is wrong with their doctrine AND “a clear, intellectual return to the proper scriptural emphasis.” Based on that I’m guessing that Schaeffer is thinking of such heresies that emphasize one teaching of Scripture over and against others. For instance focusing on the humanity of Christ and neglecting the divinity of Christ. Focusing on justification and ignoring sanctification to produce antinomianism.

The need of our times is nothing less than the re-Christianization of our churches, according to the gospel alone, in both doctrine and culture, but Christ himself.

We need to believe the gospel in such a way that we act like we do. Our churches will become beautiful, grace-filled (not perfect) churches. The purpose of the book is to show how Christ beautifies the church.

The Gospel for You

He begins with “Gospel doctrine creates a gospel culture. The doctrine of grace creates a culture of grace.” Such doctrine is necessary but insufficient to produce such a culture. As we see in Hebrews 3-4, they received the good news, but since it was not united to faith they didn’t enter into God’s rest, nor the Promised Land.

He gets back to the dilemma again: “Without the doctrine, the culture will be weak. Without the culture, the doctrine will seem pointless.” Schaeffer, whom he quotes again, sees the power of the early church in practicing both at the same time: “orthodoxy of doctrine and orthodoxy of community in the midst of the visible church, a community which the world could see.” If we can hold to both gospel doctrine and culture, we should see people coming into our congregations.

Because we get things partly right, we frequently don’t see that we have it partly wrong.

Gospel doctrine – gospel culture= hypocrisy

Gospel culture – gospel doctrine= fragility

Gospel doctrine + gospel culture= power

The gospel must do its work within each of us. We need to be renewed in the gospel. This sounds much like Richard Lovelace. In this context, Ortlund spends some time in John 3. This begins with the God who loved by sending His Son (a big theme in John’s gospel). Many of our churches don’t explore the nature and character of God. We need to be more clear in our doctrine about God in a way that warms the heart. The almighty and thrice holy God loves the world! We need to believe this or we will never come in repentance.

We also need to admit that we loved the darkness, and can still hide in the darkness. We wear masks instead of bringing our weaknesses and proclivities into relationship with God and one another (James 5:16). God’s holiness exposes our sinfulness like it did Isaiah’s (Is. 6, similar to Moses’ declarations of “uncircumcised lips” in Exodus 6). We need to end the dishonesty toward God and one another. Wrongs ignored kill relationships.

Into this mess, God sent His Son. The Father surrendered His beloved Son, His greatest treasure, to bring us back to Himself. The Son willingly left the Father’s glory to take on and suffer in flesh. There is no other suitable Savior.

The only alternatives are perishing and eternal life. Eternal life only comes to those who receive the Son. It is not simple agreement, but a love returned. Jesus becomes the center of our lives. We also stop hiding and resisting. Jesus is a real Savior for real sinners who commit real sins!

Such a love, according to Paul, Peter and John, means that we not only love God but love one another earnestly. The Greek word there has the sense of being stretched out. Loving earnestly stretches you, often to the breaking point. That’s a large part of gospel culture: earnest love.

The Gospel for the Church

When good things happen to bad people you have a gospel culture. While the gospel changes each of us, it also changes our community. If we are all drawing our life from Him together in an organized, practical fashion our growth is accelerated. The unity of the Church should be our experience in the unity of a church. Together we flourish, and suffer.

In earnest love “we lose some of our space, time, and freedom to do as we please.” Perhaps that is why such love is so rare. He also brings in the issue of submission. A gospel culture is one where people sacrifice for others and submit to one another, particularly the leaders.

Ortlund meditates on Ephesians 5 here beginning with Christ’s sacrificial love for the Church. God’s eternal plan was to love the unlovely and undeserving. He displays His mercy for the angels to behold and wonder. We receive that mercy that we may proclaim His excellencies (1 Peter 2) as a living temple, holy nation and royal priesthood.

Jesus also sanctifies and cleanses us with His Word. He is at work to make us holy. Grace doesn’t leave us as we are, but makes us like He is. That involves community since God is Triune. Each Sunday (and in Bible Studies), Jesus washes us with His Word preached and read. He makes us fit for Himself.

He will present the Church in splendor at the end of time. And revel over her! He makes the Church beautiful! While this beauty is imperfect at this time, it should be there. That beauty will attract people.

We’re not married to a dead and helpless Jesus but to a living and powerful Jesus.

The Gospel for Everything

The gospel isn’t just about people, but also about place. Adam’s sin brought the curse to creation. God subjected creation to futility and decay (Rom. 8:19-23). God will renew creation and lift the curse in Christ. The gospel culture is a “prophetic sign that points beyond itself” to the new earth.

We all get weighed down by the realities of a fallen world. We groan with creation, as a part of creation. We forget that we live now because of God’s mercy. Jesus not only upholds the Church in the everlasting arms, but all of creation (Heb. 1:3).

We have hope in the midst of our suffering and grief. We can look past the present and see a glimpse of the future in Revelation 21-22. Despair “denies gospel doctrine and destroys gospel culture.” There will be real people in the real creation serving the real God freed from all evil (both natural and moral).

While we are to be zealous for good works (Titus 2), and therefore do good, we must recognize that we can’t build heaven on earth. The utopian dream is just that, a fantasy.

I joke that utopia is a short road to hell. Across the street from my subdivision there is a short road, Utopia, entering a subdivision filled with no parking zones, driveways too short for most vehicles, and lots of speed bumps so it takes longer to get out of there after you can’t find a place to park your car.

We can feed a hungry person, but we won’t end hunger. We can heal a sick person, but we won’t end disease. We can help a person get a steady job and get out of poverty, but we won’t end poverty.

In a gospel community, our love should be practical in feeding and clothing our brothers and sisters in need, caring for widows and orphans. It becomes ordained by these good works that testify to the gospel of grace’s power to transform greedy people into generous people.

The unity of a congregation points to the unity of all God’s people in the glorious New Jerusalem forever. We will be with Him forever. “There will be no slums, no garbage, no graffiti, no smog, no dirt and grime, no sin.” God will not disappoint us.

Gospel culture creates churches with rugged hope. Such churches will be honest about how life is now. But they are looking for the city to come. They are not defeated, but continuing to press on. We can become “cheerfully defiant toward every disappointment”.

Something New

Ortlund then looks at what the gospel produces in this present, evil age. It isn’t simply that the gospel creates a new community, but a new kind of community. The restored humanity of Christ becomes visible. Jew and Gentile are joined into one new man (Eph. 2), and people of every tribe, nation, tongue and language join together to worship Jesus (Rev. 4-5).

Not only should we provide sound doctrine, but also “honest answer to honest questions, true spirituality, and the beauty of human relationships.” The first thing people notice will be the last he mentioned. People want to be in churches where they are noticed, accepted, loved. Cold, distant churches don’t generally grow. This warmth for people who can be so different in personality, politics, hobbies, humor … can only come from the gospel.

Paul called the church the “household of God” and told Timothy how people are intended to behave in that household. When the household is managed well, people want to be there. When it isn’t, people will flee.

The church is to be a counter-culture. It isn’t simply the opposite of the culture around it. There are aspects it will accept and affirm, as well as those it rejects. There will be aspects church culture will transform as well.

Worldly culture is a corruption of gospel culture. It is built on the idols and false gospels of the surrounding culture. Gospel culture is built on the true gospel in all its fullness (not simply a truncated gospel of justification). Here he gets into Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Such a culture has a vague God who wants us to be kind but doesn’t care about holiness. There is no repentance and offers false hopes. It has no power of changed lives like gospel culture.

“God graciously wants to satisfy the questions of our minds. So let’s all improve at explaining the reasonableness of the gospel to our doubting friends. But the beauty of human relationships in the church is itself an argument for the gospel.”

Jesus’ first sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, should be viewed as a description of a gospel culture: meek, poor in spirit, merciful, peace-makers. It is the opposite of worldly culture’s entitlement, self-righteous, vengeful, greedy and pushy. Churches are intended to be alternatives to the madness of the world.

gospel + safety + time

The gospel creates a safe place to struggle with sin and time to repent and mortify that sin. We should be a safe place for people to confess sins, a place to let down the masks. We are to be patient with people (1 Thes. 5) because God has been patient with us (1 Tim. 1). We are in constant need of forgiveness. Here he quotes Calvin at length. Here is part:

So, carrying, as we do, the traces of sin around with us throughout life, unless we are sustained by the Lord’s constant grace in forgiving our sins, we shall scarcely abide one moment in the church. … sins have been and are daily pardoned to us who have been received and engrafted into the body of the church.John Calvin

There are “deal-breaker” sins which must be disciplined. He quotes a fellow pastor, “When a sinner is repentant, the elders should protect that sinner from the church. When a sinner is defiant, the elders should protect the church from that sinner.”

In this way the church reveals both the mercy and severity of God. While a merciful community we are a holy community that deals with unrepentant sinners appropriately through discipline.

It Isn’t Easy, But It Is Possible

The gospel is “a continual surprise” as we struggle with pride regarding our goodness or our wickedness. Luther spoke of having to pound it into our heads because we are so forgetful (commentary on Galatians).

Our unbelief, Ortlund says, hinders the work of the gospel in our churches. The flesh opposes the work of the gospel and refuses to believe God’s great and precious promises. We are so prone to put our hope in our efforts. This makes cultivating a gospel culture a challenge. It requires relational wisdom and finesse, not just doctrinal articulation.

The main issue is our default pattern of self-exaltation. We make things about ourselves instead of Jesus. Our repentance should include “unselfing” or saying ‘no’ to the demands of self.

Another issue is that we often don’t notice our church culture. We are so used to it that we can’t recognize its impact on us.

Every church can have more of his power by pressing the gospel more fully into its culture. It’s no disaster for a church to suddenly find itself having to depend radically on Jesus. Dependence on him is a sign of health.

He speaks the painful truth that there will be times when it feels like the church is falling apart. We are broken so we stop relying on ourselves and begin to rely on Christ (again). We need to “place our endless need before his endless supply.”

Just as we politically choose freedom over safety (freedom involves risk and danger) we can do this in church life as well. Ortlund brings us to Paul’s rebuke of Peter in Galatians. Peter didn’t change his theology, but the fear of the Judaizers led to a change in practice that led others, even Barnabas, astray. They acted contrary to the gospel! Fear destroys honesty and joy. A culture of self-protection stifles the gospel. It says that the gospel isn’t enough. He refused to accept others on the basis of Christ but only on the basis of circumcision.

Church culture must be gracious and merciful as well as pursuing godliness. We must accept one another because of Christ, not performance or giftedness. When we focus on performance we begin to hide from one another, displaying a false or legalistic righteousness. A gospel culture keeps pointing us to Jesus so we trust Him, love Him and honor Him.

What Can We Expect

He doesn’t advocate a plan, strategy or system. How the gospel impacts churches will be different. In Acts we see that it does result in people coming to faith, caring for one another, prayer and joy in Christ. It also results in trouble.

The gospel is a double-edge sword. It will bring some to their knees in repentance, and it will harden the hearts of others. The same sun melts wax and hardens clay. People will either spiral up by faith or down into deeper sin by unbelief.

In His earthly ministry, Jesus triggered strong responses. Some loved Him and others wanted to kill Him. He still produces these strong responses. The aroma of Christ is like cilantro: you either love it or hate it.

Churches passionate about the gospel give off an aroma. It is noticeable to visitors. It will attract some and run others off. God is still at working bringing about judgment and salvation.

It is difficult to be mistreated and misunderstood. We can be discouraged. We can be mistreated because we actually mess up. We can also be mistreated because others try to justify themselves. They can blame others for their problems. As a result of mistreatment, we can give way to self-doubt and stifle the gospel ourselves.

I’m trying not to live in the past, but I think God also wants us to learn lessons from the past. One of the things I’ve been sorting out is reputation. Under attack, I’ve been too concerned with my reputation. That stifles the work of the gospel. I’ve learned to beware of the person who thinks ours is the perfect church. You are put on a pedestal only to be knocked painfully back to earth.

Ortlund addresses emotional blackmail in which one’s pain means another person has failed to love them. This feeling condemns the other. Emotions matter more than truth. Church leaders are easy targets. Such people follow the lie Adam spread: it is someone else’s fault that I’m in this mess I made.

Our Path Forward

He ponders what it will take the the gospel to renew our churches. He reminds us that we are a few minutes away from moral and ministry disaster. There are too many stories of pastors and leaders who lost it all for a few moments of pleasure.

Our churches need the power of God, courage and the love of God to move forward. God’s power is not added to our strength but made perfect in our weakness (2 Cor. 12). We need to reject other sources of strength. We need to forsake cleverness.

Prayer is the essence of the work to which God calls us. We frequently speak about praying for the work, but essentially it is prayer which is the real work.Eric Alexander

Courage is needed because someone will always pay the price for the advance of the gospel. You can’t take land in war without losses. People need to be brave enough to move forward anyway. To gain something good, you need to let go of something of lesser value. That hurts. It’s scary.

Churches hinder the gospel. It may be not wanting people who actually struggle. It may be not accepting people who are different. It may be a focus on man-made rules. Mostly it is the refusal to change, to continually reform as we understand God’s Word more clearly and the mission more fully grasps our hearts. Leaders have to stick to their guns and not compromise.

When he speaks of love, Ortlund is highly dependent upon Francis Schaeffer and The Mark of the Christian in particular. He also tosses in some John Flavel as well.

Our love is intended to show the world we are Christ’s disciples. When we fail to love one another, the world is justified to think we aren’t Christians. As John said, we can’t really love God if we refuse to love one another. Our unity is proof that Jesus came from the Father and rose from the dead.

Such a church will pursue reconciliation. Each will face their failures honestly, without blaming others. He shares a story by Bishop Festo Kivengere who was on a preaching tour with William Nagenda. He grew envious of William’s success. He grew distant and critical of Nagenda. Eventually he saw what he had done and was doing. He confessed his envy, coldness and critical spirit. Nagenda hugged him and they had a good cry (for joy). Too often we just plain refuse to say “I was wrong”. The spirit of the Fonz dwells too deep due to pride.

The danger is that when are distant from God we grow distant from others. The problem is deeper than our relationship with that person. “It engages in merciless comparisons and endless faultfinding.” You may think it isn’t personal, but it is. Ultimately it is because you aren’t right in your vertical relationship.


As I noted, this book seemed too short. I wanted more. While Ortlund didn’t say all that could be said, what he did say was important and helpful. There is much here that we need to hear. Our lack of power is connected to our unbelief. Our churches allow themselves to drift, not only from gospel doctrine but also gospel culture. We need both to powerfully declare the greatness of Jesus Christ. Ortlund gets to the point and stays on point here. Pastors and elders should read this and seek to build a gospel culture in their churches.

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