Creating a Gospel Culture
One of the core values of SMPC is to create a Gospel culture. The purpose of this article is to clarify what a Gospel culture is, what a Gospel culture looks like, and how a Gospel culture can be created.
To begin, let’s see what it means to be faithful to the Gospel. This matters because, as Martin Luther taught us, justification by faith is not just one doctrine among others, it is “the article by which the church stands or falls.” Luther also taught that justification by faith alone is hard to accept and to hold on to. He wrote, “This doctrine cannot be beaten into our ears too much. Yes, though we learn it and understand it well, yet there is no one who takes hold of it and perfectly believes it with all his heart, so frail a thing is our flesh and disobedient our spirit.” What he was saying is that there is more to believing the Gospel than doctrinal correctness, for it also calls for a cultural incarnation. It is not easy to follow through on both levels. It is utterly impossible without Christ Himself. This is what is meant by a depth understanding of the Gospel. It is an understanding in both head and heart. To incarnate the Gospel of grace means to both understand the truth of the Gospel and to live by the implications of the Gospel as a social dynamic.
This leads us to ask a question. If justification by faith alone is the doctrine by which the church stands or falls, what does it look like to stand rather than to fall? Is it possible to fall when we think we are standing? A believer can trumpet and echo the doctrine of grace justification, while at the same time be crippled by the disfunctions of self justification. If you carefully read Paul’s letter to the Galatians you see that he is pressing the Gospel forward at both levels, the doctrine and the culture. Paul is not satisfied with a mere subscription to the doctrine of justification but he is also concerned to see them establish a culture consistent with that Gospel. This is what we mean when we speak of a depth understanding of the Gospel as faithfulness to Christ.
The classical Protestant doctrine of justification by grace alone in Christ alone apart from all our works is the truth. The thirty nine articles puts it briefly and clearly: “We are accounted righteous before God only for the merit of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ by faith, and not for our own works or deservings. Wherefore, that we are justified by faith only is a most wholesome doctrine and very full of comfort.”
This statement reminds us of the objectivity, the exteriority, the out-there-ness, the someone-else-ness of our justification. As John Bunyan also reminds us in ‘Grace Abounding’, “One day I was passing in the field, and that too with some dashes on my conscience, fearing lest all was still not right, when suddenly this sentence fell upon my soul, your righteousness is in heaven. And I thought as well that I saw, with the eyes of my soul, Jesus Christ at God’s right hand. There, I say, is my righteousness, so that wherever I was, or whatever I was doing, God could not say of me, [John Bunyan] lacks my righteousness, for that righteousness is right before Him. I also saw that it was not my good frame of heart that made my righteousness better, nor my bad frame that made my righteousness worse, for my righteousness was Jesus Christ Himself, the same yesterday and today and forever. Now did my chains fall off my legs indeed. I went home rejoicing for the love and grace of God. Here I lived for some time, sweetly at peace with God through Christ. Oh, I thought, Christ! Christ! There was nothing but Christ before my eyes.”
However, self justification is the deepest impulse and default mode on the fallen human heart. But deep in our hearts it isn’t that simple. The problem lies in the fact that the old man will not and cannot hear the Gospel no matter what anyone says. The old man will use whatever is said as part of the protection and solidification of our self justification projects and our unique ability to turn grace into new law. We deeply desire to save ourselves by our own record. Yet, at the same time, our sinful nature deceives us and filters out our ability to see our sinfulness. Martyn Lloyd-Jones describes our lack of self-awareness, “You will never make yourself feel that you are a sinner, because there is a mechanism in you that as a result of sin that will always be defending you against every accusation. We are all on good terms with ourselves, and we can always put up a good case for ourselves. Even if we try to make ourselves feel that we are sinners, we will never do it. There is only one way to know that we are sinners, and that is to have some dim, glimmering conception of God.”
We don’t rid ourselves of the drive for self justification by embracing grace justification. But, by embracing grace justification we do gain a remedy for our compulsive self justifications. Justification by our own righteousness is not merely a Roman Catholic or legalist problem; it is a human problem. It is a Christian problem which you and I are only an inch away of being drawn into its darkness. It is even possible to preach grace justification and do so out of motives of self justification with its bitter fruit. Only beginning again at the foot of the cross daily can undermine this insidious power.
The Gospel unleashed does create a Gospel culture. The Gospel does more than renew us personally within. The doctrines of grace also create a culture of grace, called a healthy church, where the Gospel is consistently preached and is lived out in relationships. This creates a vibe, an ethos, a culture of grace that shows in our relationships and community. Without the doctrine the culture is unsustainable. Without the culture the doctrine loses its point and power. To get a church there and keep a church there is not easy.
An example of how we can split doctrine and culture is the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18. Luke introduces the parable this way: “Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and viewed others with contempt.” The Pharisee was going to the temple, the place of substitutionary atonement. Why? He believed in it. But his heart was more deceived than his belief. His self-justifying heart spilled over in an attitude of contempt for the tax collector. Self justification creates an attitude of aloofness and superiority and negative scrutiny and a “gotcha” mindset. Though we may hold the doctrine of grace justification, our deeper thoughts, motives and feelings can slip into a functional self justification and it shows. Trusting in ourselves that we are righteous and viewing others with contempt always go together. What causes this is a Gospel deficit in the heart, however sincere the Gospel profession in the head. A tipoff is that the Gospel does not have a hold on our hearts is when we draw a line, put ourselves on the right side of the line and scapegoat others on the wrong side. Whenever we need someone to be wrong to preserve our okay-ness, we are in self-justification mode. This creates a culture of ugliness. But justification by faith creates a culture of warmth, acceptance, beauty and safety. The more a church embraces the Gospel of grace, the more a church bears witness to Jesus as a mighty friend of sinners. He will be honored and people will come.
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