Why Gospel Cultures Are So Hard To Build

Wise pastor Ray Ortlund addresses this problem throughout his forthcoming book, The Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ (Crossway; April 30, 2014). He writes this on pages 82–83:

A gospel culture is harder to lay hold of than gospel doctrine. It requires more relational wisdom and finesse. It involves stepping into a kind of community unlike anything we’ve experienced, where we happily live together on a love we can’t create. A gospel culture requires us not to bank on our own importance or virtues, but to forsake self-assurance and exult together in Christ alone.

This mental adjustment is not easy, but living in this kind of community is wonderful. We find ourselves saying with Paul, “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things” — all the trophies of our self-importance, all the wounds of our self-pity, every self-invented thing that we lug around as a way of getting attention — “and count them as dung in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ” (Phil. 3:8–9).

Paul did not regard the loss of his inflated self as sacrificial. Who admires his own dung? It is a relief to be rid of our distasteful egos! And when a whole church together luxuriates in Christ alone, that church embodies a gospel culture. It becomes a surprising new kind of community where sinners and sufferers come alive because the Lord is there, giving himself freely to the desperate and undeserving.

But how easy it is for a church to exist in order to puff itself up! How hard it is to forsake our own glory for a higher glory!

The primary barrier to displaying the beauty of Jesus in our churches comes from the way we re-insert ourselves into that sacred center that belongs to him alone. Exalting ourselves always diminishes his visibility. That is why cultivating a gospel culture requires a profound, moment by moment “unselfing” by every one of us. It is personally costly, even painful.

What I am proposing throughout this book is not glib or shallow. So much is set against us, within and without. But the triumph of the gospel in our churches is still possible, as we look to Christ alone. He will help us.


Strewn Body Parts

During Paul’s time in Corinth the city boasted of many temples including the Temple of Asklepios, the god of healing. As you can imagine it attracted the sick and the diseased and the injured. Legend says those seeking to be cured were required to offer a clay replica of the body part that was diseased or broken. And according to later archeological discoveries, the temple was littered with such clay terra cotta likenesses of body parts, many of which originated from the 3rd-4th century BC. A large number of these clay replicas are now displayed at the Antiquities Museum at Ancient Corinth [see the picture at the bottom, a picture of the less risqué pieces (STDs were common in Corinth)]. It’s unclear whether Paul saw these clay casts with his own eyes or whether they had already been buried in the rubble under his feet at that point. But it seems safe to say that in various ways the Temple of Asklepios and its approach to healing led to a disjointed image of health. This may very well be behind Paul’s holistic body image in 1 Corinthians 12:12–31, which is a good reminder that Jesus does not settle for a healthy foot or leg, but desires a healthy Body thriving in unity with each other and in union with their Head. So much so that, “if one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (v 26). Such a contrast with the Temple of Asklepios would not have been lost on Corinthian ears.

Union With Christ and Body Life

The believer’s union with Christ is one of the richest and most precious doctrines. It is a doctrine that can be misunderstood without the proper nuances, but the proper nuances still do not make the doctrine simple or easy to comprehend. It is incomprehensible–Christ is in us, and we are in Him. We strive to better appreciate this marvelous truth, which is what the Valley of Vision calls our “felt union” with Christ.

This union is precious to those of us in the reformed tradition. Puritan Thomas Goodwin said that union with Christ was the ocean into which all other doctrines run. John Murray writes that “union with Christ is the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation.” The theme of union with Christ permeates John Calvin’s commentaries and his Institutes. And the description we read of union with Christ in The Marrow of Modern Divinity is comprehensive, breathtaking, and much too long to repost (but you can read it here).

Recently I’ve begun thinking about the ways our individual union with Christ influences how we view our corporate life together. This was originally provoked while reading the works of Thomas Manton where he writes [Works, 10:323]:

Mystical union is the union of believers with Christ the head, and with one another; with Christ the head by faith, and with one another by love. … This union of believers in the same body is often compared with the mystery of the Trinity; and it is elsewhere expressed by one body.

That is both a huge claim and a broad definition of union.

In the context Manton makes very careful and important distinctions between Trinitarian unity and the nature of our union with Christ. Nevertheless, these themes seem to be inseparable (see John 14:20–23; 17:11, 20–23).

Manton then further explains the connection between union with Christ and union with one another.

[The church] is a place full to this purpose, where all believers, in regard of their union with the head, and with one another, are set forth as one body, governed under one head, by one spirit, by which they increase and grow up, till they come to such a kind of unity as is among the divine persons.

But in what ways is the connection between our union with Christ and our corporate life together in the church expressed in the New Testament, if at all? If it is connected, what are the main ramifications?

With those questions, I began my search.

I cannot deal here with every ramification, and the ones I have here identified I cannot address at length. This post intends just to put forward a few themes for further study. I’ll begin with a few foundational points before moving into specific applications:

  • Union with Christ means inclusion into His Body (the Church). This really gets at the heart of the main question: Is the theme of the believer’s union with Christ wed to the theme of union into the body of Christ (the Church)? Or are these separate and distinct unions? The simple answer is that it appears the unions are united in passages like 1 Corinthians 10:17 (see also 12:12–13 and Colossians 3:3 and 3:11–15). That is why I think Manton is correct in saying that “mystical union is the union of believers with Christ the head, and with one another.” Our personal union with Christ is the basis of our union into his body, the Church. Okay, so what are the consequences?
  • Union with Christ is the foundation of our corporate solidarity and mutual ministry together. This is especially clear in the words of Romans 12:3–5.
  • Union with Christ, and corporate solidarity, are displayed in the Lord’s Supper. I don’t think we have a clearer visual picture of our union with Christ than in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper (see Matthew 26:26–27 and John 6:41–56). With that in mind, the Lord’s Supper is where we show ourselves to be “one body” as we partake of “one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:16–17).
  • Baptism is a symbol of our union with Christ and our union with all those who are in Christ. The NDT states, “Baptism signifies union with Christ in his body, the church, for to be ‘in Christ’ is to be one with all who are united to him.” See Galatians 3:26–28 and 1 Corinthians 12:12–13 for this connection.
  • Union with Christ is the context of our corporate maturity and growth. We are growing up, growing up together, growing up together “in him.” See Ephesians 4:11–16 along with Colossians 3:12–17 (in light of verses 1–4).
  • Union with Christ is the basis of our mutual dependence. We are united to Christ, we are one body. Therefore, we need one another. This unity in Christ showcases the diversity of gifts and our need for one another in 1 Corinthians 12:12–31.
  • Union with Christ is the basis for corporate sexual purity. See 1 Corinthians 6:12–20.
  • Union with Christ is the basis for church membership. In the context of church membership, John Piper writes: “becoming a Christian means being united to Christ, and union with Christ expresses itself in union with a local body of believers. It seems to us that in the New Testament, to be excluded from the local church was to be excluded from Christ” (see 1 Corinthians 5:1–5). Union with Christ and church membership are seemingly inseparable.
  • Union with Christ is the foundation for corporate unity in the local church. Richard Baxter writes: “As their union with Christ the head and principle of their life is principally necessary, so unity among themselves is secondarily necessary, for the conveyance and reception of that life which floweth to all from Christ” (Works, 5:170). Clearly Baxter imagines union with Christ requiring corporate solidarity and it’s not hard to see how he came to this conclusion, given the NT passages above.
  • Union with Christ is a basis for racial and social unity in the local church. In his New Testament theology George Eldon Ladd writes, “When we believe in Christ, we are made members of Christ’s body; we are joined to Christ himself and therefore to all others who in union with Christ constitute his body [note that Ladd here merges the personal union/corporate union themes] … Race does not matter; social status does not matter; by Spirit baptism all kinds of people are equally members of the body of Christ” (page 588).

This brief list merely suggests a few of the many ways in which our individual union with Christ provides us with a helpful context for better understanding our life together in the church. But I think that much work could be done on this topic.

As I continue to study the many facets of union with Christ I discover myself simultaneously being led deeper into ecclesiology, nearer to the communion of the saints, and closer to the heart of God’s plan for his Church. So I am not surprised when Michael Horton writes, “The communion of saints, in Calvin’s thinking, has its source in union with Christ” (The Christian Faith, 745). And I’m not surprised when Edmond Clowney writes, “Paul describes the church as the body of Christ because of its union with Christ.” It all makes sense. Our personal union with Christ is the basis for our life together.

The bottom line for me is this: In our union with Christ we discover the groundwork for our corporate life and solidarity. In union with Christ we find the source and purpose for our spiritual gifts, we become less inclined to favoritism and racial division, and we find the basis of our unity with other Christians in our church, our cities, and around the globe. These are just a few ways in which I think further study on our union with Christ will deepen our ecclesiology.

Ultimately, the life and vitality of the church is directly connected to the life of the Savior. Charles Spurgeon perhaps captured this point best in sermon #2653. I’ll close with a quote from it:

Union with Christ is essential to the life of his Church.

Men sometimes lose a, foot, or a leg, or an arm, or an eye, or an ear. It is very remarkable how a man may continue to exist after he has lost several of his limbs, but he cannot live if his head is taken away. Cut that off, and the decapitated body is dead in an instant.

So, brethren and sisters, the Church of God lives because Christ lives, and its life is entirely derived from him. If there were no Christ, there would be no Church; and if there is, anywhere, a body of professors without vital union to Christ, they are not a church. They may have the name of a church, but they are assuredly dead. The Spirit of God flows through Christ into the whole of his true Church, permeating every part of his wonderful mystical body.

How Personal Idols Destroy Community

Readers of this blog know where I stand on N. T. Wright so I’m not going to take the time to qualify this post and I’ll just jump in by saying that last summer I read Wright’s Surprised By Hope (HarperOne, 2008). The book was okay and while I cannot recommend it I can say that at one point Wright makes very important point about how idolatry undermines community.

Wright’s point is that idolatry is more than a mere internal heart problem—idolatry is something each of us project onto others. Idolatry shapes our value (or de-valuation) of others and carries consequences into our families, our communities, and our churches. He writes,

One of the primary laws of human life is that you become like what you worship; what’s more, you reflect what you worship not only back to the object itself but also outward to the world around. Those who worship money increasingly define themselves in terms of it and increasingly treat other people as creditors, debtors, partners, or customers rather than as human beings. Those who worship sex define themselves in terms of it (their preferences, their practices, their past histories) and increasingly treat other people as actual or potential sexual objects. Those who worship power define themselves in terms of it and treat other people as either collaborators, competitors, or pawns. These and many other forms of idolatry combine in a thousand ways, all of them damaging to the image-bearing quality of the people concerned and of those whose lives they touch. (p. 182)

That’s a great point. In other words, idolatry—while at root a heart issue—not only affects the sinner but also the community. Idols dehumanize the heart and cause us to act inhumanely towards others.

This idol-projecting point is also made Mark Driscoll’s latest book Doctrine (Crossway, 2010):

If we idolize our gender, we must demonize the other gender. If we idolize our nation, we must demonize other nations. If we idolize our political party, we must demonize other political parties. If we idolize our socioeconomic class, we must demonize other classes. If we idolize our family, we must demonize other families. If we idolize our theological system, we must demonize other theological systems. If we idolize our church, we must demonize other churches. This explains the great polarities and acrimonies that plague every society. If something other than God’s loving grace is the source of our identity and value, we must invariably defend our idol by treating everyone and everything who may call our idol into question as an enemy to be demonized so that we can feel superior to other people and safe with our idol. (350-351)

Wright and Driscoll provide a sobering warning. Personal idols dehumanize us, dehumanize our evaluation of others, and necessarily erode community. Personal idols are not isolated in their consequences. We all have something at stake.

Cross-Centered News Consumption

Yesterday in church we prayed for the growing—and growing increasingly persecuted—Church in Iran. It was humbling to learn about the spread of the gospel in that country and especially because I had spent 20 minutes that morning learning from the Washington Post all about the policy shifts and political activities of Sarah Palin in Alaska. Arriving at church I think I was more informed about the library restructuring in Alaska by a “bulldog in lipstick” than I was the status of the gospel in ancient Iran.

So it’s got me thinking today–what constitutes true news?

We are inundated with blogs, websites, podcasts, XM radio, newspapers, books, magazines, talk shows, Oprah, CNN, coffee-shop conversations, and the list goes on! And we all want to be well-informed (that’s why we read blogs). But it often feels like we are waist-deep in a powerful stream of information passing all around. What should we scoop up in our little mug for closer examination? What should we let pass untouched?

Defining “News”

What constitutes true news is, for the Christian, no easy question to answer. But neither is this a new question. Long before the “information age,” an obscure Puritan preacher named Henry Hurst (1629-1690) delivered a sermon to answer the question: “How may we inquire after news, not as Athenians, but as Christians, for the better management of our prayers and praises for the Church of God?” His text was Acts 17:21—“Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.”

Hurst understood the attraction we all have to the latest news, not because of its intrinsic importance, but due to our Athenian-like insatiable inquiry to feed on a stream of fresh tidbits. And I don’t claim innocence here. Often my news consumption habits are as defendable as the Athenians.

In Hurst’s sermon he begins by separating “news” into three categories:

A. Trifling reports. These reports are, “below the gravity and prudence of a man to receive from a reporter, or to communicate to any hearer.” Think petty rumors spread in gossip columns, blogs, or in conversations at Starbucks, the fascination into who Michael Jackson is dating, the National Inquirer, much daytime television, etc.

B. Personal and private matters. These reports are “of no more concern to a judge or magistrate or the public than a scuffle of boys in their sports to a general and his army.” These are stories with very little consequence, that should have remained a private issue, but have become public only because of the Athenian attraction within us.

C. Public news that concerning the state and Church
. The final category includes news reports that communicate “threatening danger, or some smiling providence” as it relates to the Church or state. There is every reason to be aware of what threatens the health and safety of our country. Genuine worldwide threats should concern us, and especially those in position to provide leadership in light of the dangers.

But the infatuation so much inconsequential “news” (#1+2), Hurst argues, led the Athenians to wasting time, neglecting duties, a loss of trade and employment, and bred further false stories of others and provoking contention among those we should be offering peace. Hurst writs, “I could wish there were a redress of all the inconveniences and vices that spring up in coffee houses [the blogosphere of the 17th century]; but I believe that every man who frequents them must mend his own faults herein.” I’m writing this at Starbucks, and as I look around to the tables of conversation I see that this temptation to Athenian rumor milling is just as relevant here as a 17th century coffee house.

Inquiring about the Church

Although much of Hurst’s sermon is convicting, he does provide very helpful and constructive thoughts on how to pursue news for the glory of God. And it’s all based upon a very simple premise.

True news is defined by a genuine love and concern for the Church. Hurst says it this way: “You may, as Christians ought, inquire what news of the Church’s affairs that you may the better manage your prayers for the Church in trouble, or praise God for good wrought for it.…A Christian ought to make inquiry into news that concerns the Church, according to the advantage and capacity he hath, to more fully to know both the good and welfare of the people of God, or to know the sorrows and dangers that lie upon the Church.”

After encouraging kings and Christian leaders especially to concern themselves as to the state of the Church, Hurst turns to the lay folks.

“Merchants and travelers who learn from the far remote parts for their trade, and gentlemen who travel for their pleasure and to satisfy themselves by an ocular survey of countries and cities, have some greater advantages to see and hear the low and sinking state, or the rising and flourishing condition, of those Churches which are planted in such countries. As Christians, they are bound to observe, inform themselves, and tell others, how it is with the Churches, so that prayers and praises may be offered unto God for them. But this is very little minded by merchants, when abroad; and less minded by them, when returned home with wealth, greater than ever they hoped. Though religion decay, and Churches lessen in number, knowledge, faith, and holiness; yet who of them, out of their abundance, settle a tribute of thankfulness to God, making provision for the sending and maintaining preachers and schoolmasters among them.”

Hurst’s mode of information is certainly dated, but his standards for genuine news are not. He encourages those out in the field to carefully communicate to the rest of the Church on the condition of the global spread, successes, and hindrances to the gospel. This is truly eternally-relevant news to spread among the Churches.

Sounds great if you are a missionary, but how should those of us domestically-bound folks find and use these updates on the condition of the global spread of the gospel? Hurst provides the following directives:

1. Find levelheaded sources. “He who inquires as a Christian, in order to manage prayer and praise, should, I think, inquire of those who can and will inform him the best, most truly and sincerely, of any news he knows. There has been, and now are, persons who abuse the world with false reports to amuse the more simple-hearted. They dare coin lies, and cry out, ‘Woe, woe!’ or, ‘Peace, peace!’ very wrongly to the nature and aspect of affairs.”

2. Respond to this news from the heart
. News of the Church’s condition around the world should affect our hearts. “If you would inquire as Christians ought, to affect your hearts, in order to pray or praise God for the Church, let your thoughts be much upon the importance of what is reported to you. Weigh what influence the new things are likely to have on the good or evil, to the comfort or the discomfort, of the Church-catholic, or any particular churches near to or far from you.” Our hearts will be numb towards the condition of the global Church until we have properly weighed the eternal significance of the so-called news we fill our minds with.

3. Inquire with compassion
. “He who inquires as a Christian, must inquire with a compassionate affection to the suffering Churches of Christ, feeling their wounds as living members feel the grief and wounds of the body in whatever part is hurt…When Christ foresaw and foretold the doleful state that Jerusalem should fall into, he wept over her; and so must every Christian weep over desolate and disconsolate Jerusalem, when he hears her sorrows, and prays for her relief. Among natural relations, few there are who are not affected with grief for the sorrows and troubles of a brother: there should not be one among spiritual relations, but should with hearty grief entertain the news of sorrows and distress upon the Church, and give God no rest till he make her a quiet habitation, till he turn her mourning into joy, till he take away the garments of her widowhood, and clothe her with the garments of his salvation.”

4. Inquire humbly. “When you inquire into the present news that concerns the Church, that you may the better pray for the Church, or praise God on behalf of the Church, inquire into the condition of the Church with an humble, mourning, and repenting heart. So did Josiah, in reading the law, and comparing Judah’s former behavior—how that people had sinned against the law of God; and by this he discovered what sins.” Reports of success or failures should be received by a humble, broken, and prayerful heart. When we see the Church faltering somewhere in this country or globally, we (bloggers) can be tempted to strike out publicly, often through some form of “watchtower” blog. Often these blogs become nothing more than a fire hose of self-righteousness spewing trifling reports on private matters. Especially for those of us not in persuasive positions of authority, problems within the Church should drive us to our knees in humble, private prayer to God. Do we respond humbly to Church news?

5. Pray, anticipating the full deliverance of the Church. Negative news, like updates on the persecution in Iran, should lead us to pray for the full deliverance of the Church. How long, O Lord? “It needs not a particular proof, that there are many express promises that the Church shall be delivered; that there is a fixed time for the beginning, progress, and full accomplishment of these promises; that their accomplishment shall be gradual, and such as will clear itself; and though we cannot say when the full accomplishment will take place to a day or month.”


I could go on. Hurst’s sermon is helpful in so many areas. Like the Athenians we are prone to the “new” not what is true “news”. We need to be careful we don’t heedlessly soak our heads in the inconsequential facts, rumors, and what should remain private. And Hurst motivates me to see that when we open the newspaper we need to especially guard our hearts for what we consider important news. Is the gospel advancing? Is the gospel seemingly receding? These events should especially capture our attention, our hearts, and our prayers.

As much as I love reading about the upcoming Presidential elections, I find myself intrigued in reading about the “bulldog in lipstick,” whether John McCain knows how to Google search or send an email, and the enduring effect of Obama’s pillar-decorated DNC speech. That’s why I’m thankful today for an obscure 17th century Puritan preacher (“obscure”=he has no Wikipedia page dedicated to his life and accomplishments). He reminds me to focus on the truly important events happening around the world.

May God help us as we pursue true news, reports that update us to the Church’s highest mission—“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).


Hurst’s sermon was published in volume 4 of MORNING EXERCISES AT CRIPPLEGATE, ST. GILES IN THE FIELDS, AND IN SOUTHWARK, a collection of Puritan sermons published in 1844 by James Nichols.

Well Done! T4G and brilliant ecumenism

tss-well-done.jpgConventional wisdom says Christian unity is finding the lowest common denominator of agreement and trashing everything else that could possibly disrupt the unity. Unity, in this sense, means total conformity. And where we cannot conform, we must downplay, whitewash or forget.

But a more interesting approach is to unify around the gospel and allow significant doctrinal divisions to remain prominent. This is how Together for the Gospel was assembled. For the first time I can recall we are seeing this ecumenism in action in the debate over baptism. (Justin Taylor has a great summary if you have not been reading.)

Yesterday, Ligon Duncan wrote on the T4G blog:

“The unity of T4G is not a unity in spite of doctrinal differences, in which we gain unity by downplaying doctrine, minimizing ecclesial differences and going with a lowest common denominator. Our unity is instead a unity of respect for the truth and for truth-in-practice, that sees in each other such a dogged commitment to God’s word in both faith and practice that we want to be together promoting biblical Christianity, even (and especially) in the way we handle the points of principle on which we seriously disagree.”

My point is not to offer my own opinion in the matter of baptism but to draw your attention to the brilliant ecumenism on display that upholds theological differences and provides a platform for genuine Christians to unite around the Cross. All while leaving the door open to publicly call other Christians to account for their theology and practice.

Coming together for the Gospel does not mean Mohler will restrain from calling Duncan out on baptism, nor will it mean Mahaney will refrain from challenging Dever on his cessationist theology. Sometimes this “calling out” will take more serious form and sometimes will be at points of humor (like at the T4G conference in ’06 Mahaney suggested Dever – known for his overview sermons – preached 1 Corinthians in one sermon so he could skip chapters 12 and 14).

So where do men and women with serious theological disagreements find unity? Around a biblically faithful and well-defended message of the Cross. Only the Cross is high enough and profound enough to draw Christians together and hold them together as they disagree over other important distinctions.

This is brilliant ecumenism.


Audio excerpt from the first panel discussion at T4G’06. © 2006 Together for the Gospel.