"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." – Francis Schaeffer
Ray Ortlund taught me to sum it up like this: Gospel doctrine leads to gospel culture.
As we are planting Refuge Church in Franklin, TN, we are striving for this very idea. We do not want to plant a new church just to have something to do on the weekends. We do not want to plant a new church to bring a new attraction to the suburban landscape on Sunday mornings. We want to plant a new church because we believe our city needs a certain kind of church – a church with gospel doctrine that leads to gospel culture.
So, what does it look like? For starters, the church must be firmly planted in the full belief of historical, orthodox Christianity. To believe in gospel doctrine is to believe in the full-bodied gospel that the Bible presents: God’s grace coming down to sinners. It is biblical teaching about the essentials of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We preach this doctrine from every part of the Bible. Every passage leads us to Jesus, the hero of every story. We talk about this gospel doctrine at every level. It informs and transforms all that we do.
But gospel doctrine, in some ways, is the easy part. Gospel culture is harder. What we say about our doctrine can be unsaid by our culture. The culture that we allow our doctrine to create is the real test of what we believe the doctrine to be. What our culture says will give us the right (or remove the right) to speak to those outside.
Ray uses this simple, but powerful, formula: gospel + safety + time. This is the shared experience of grace in community. We need the gospel pressed in at every level, with many ways of speaking and hearing it. We need the safety to be who we are, where we are. We need to be able to confess sin without fear of being looked down on or gossiped about. We need freedom to be needy. We need time to follow Jesus without pressure to have our lives figured out by the end of the week. We need time to build the beauty of relationships in gentleness and unity.
We have more need than we realize, and Jesus has more grace than we ask for. We need to be low before him – humble, weak, and repentant. We need to ask for his help.
Here are just five indicators that a church is on its way to experiencing this kind of culture:
1. We rejoice in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The gospel is not a theory. It’s not a possibility. It’s the only good news in all this awful world. It’s the breath of air that we need at every moment. We rejoice in salvation because we see that we have been purchased by Jesus on the cross. Our sin has made us evil – there is no other word for it – but Jesus has intervened. Now, we rejoice in the hope that we, as sinners, are redeemed for eternity. We rejoice now as one body, happy in Christ.
2. We follow Jesus courageously.
Our lives are not our own; we have been blood-bought. More than merely rescued, we’ve been ushered into the kingdom of God. We’re citizens of a new country now. We have a reason to try hard and take risks. We can joyfully pay the cost to spread the good news. We have freedom to fail because all our failures are covered by his blood. We have hope to succeed because all our success is granted by Jesus’ resurrection.
3. We love one another boldly.
Most love in the world is weak. Sensual love is weak because it’s based on a fleeting lustful desire. Once the desire is satisfied, the love wanes. Much marital love is weak because it’s based on the individual’s search for meaning and significance. When the spouse fails to provide, the marriage fails to breathe. But the gospel creates real, lasting love in the believer. We’re no longer searching for meaning. We have it in Christ. We have a bold love now – one that cannot be taken from us because it was given to us by God.
Bold love looks different. It loves the way God loves. It may not even always feel loving, because bold loves beyond feelings. Is it nice for God to show us how bad we are? It hurts. But if we never see it, we’ll never be saved. Bold love hurts when it must. Bold love confronts when it must. Bold love completely forgives without conditions. Bold love is lived out in humility through confession and repentance. Bold love honors one another, for Jesus' sake.
4. We exult in Christ and forsake self-assurance.
Jesus is always first. When I laid my life in his nail-pierced hands, I gave up my right to rule my life. In my coming to faith, I abandoned all my claim to righteousness. I forfeited all my entitlement. I admitted I deserved hell, and when I did that, I gained heaven. So, now, selfishness is forsaken. Jesus is all the Savior I will ever need. I don’t prove my worth. I have worth. I don’t own anything. I am a steward of everything God gives. My preferences don’t die, but they are not the ruling factor. They are spectators now to what God is doing. He sets the agenda. I exult and follow.
5. We expect Jesus to be real and beautiful among us.
Most of our lives are dull. We grow up, get in a routine, and wait for the weekend when our coffee pot turns on at 8:00 instead of 6:00. We live most of our lives in the drudgery of our own making. But when we are included in the kind of life Jesus grants, he will surprise us. No day will be the same. He will change us. No year will be stagnant. He will be real among us and his beauty will overtake the landscape. We will even face opposition because of him. But when we do, we find that he is there in power.
And as he changes us individually, he changes us corporately. And as he does that, he builds something beautiful out of the ashes of our lives. The church becomes radiant, not because of the beauty of the people, but because of the beauty of Christ in the people.
A gospel culture is not easy to build because it requires constant death. But if Jesus showed us anything in his life it’s that out of death comes life. What’s your hold-out? Why not die a little here and there so that Jesus can resurrect you in glory?