As stated previously, I’m a big fan of 9Marks and their missions to “equip church leaders with a biblical vision and practical resources for displaying God’s glory to the nations through healthy churches.”

Personally, I’ve found them to be very helpful and insightful in thinking thru complex issues with remarkable clarity.  They have also been a tremendous help to our church, specifically in the area of Elder training and assessment.    We have been to their Weekenders, and their “Building Healthy Churches” series of books are required reading.  IOW, get ready for several more book reviews like this.

First up is “The Gospel – How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ” by Ray Ortlund, who is the Lead Pastor of Immanuel Church, in Nashvegas.

The gospel is the center and foundation of everything in the church, or it should be.  The depth to which that is realized within a church lies in the balance between the theology of the gospel, and the practice of the gospel.  The primary danger being that “a church with the truth of the gospel in its theology can produce the opposite of the gospel in its practice.” [16] Ortlund holds these two in tension throughout this helpful book and how this tension plays out is the true test of a “gospel-centered” church.

As Ortlund points out – this doesn’t start with doctrine so much as it starts with the beauty of Christ.  Hence the subtitle.  Churches need to center this balance of theology and practice on the incomparable beauty of Jesus in His redemption of sinners by his boundless mercy and grace

So, how do churches get a gospel culture?  Works of service?  Deeds of mercy?  Turning the lights down low and turning the music up high?  There are no shortcuts – “gospel doctrine creates a gospel culture.  The doctrine of grace creates a culture of grace.” [21].  Funny how doctrine gets a bad rap, but there is no escaping that we have to building on the same foundation or the walls will be rickety.  We can’t hang pictures on the walls of grace without digging the ground and setting a foundation on the rock.  “Truth without grace is harsh and ugly. Grace without truth is sentimental and cowardly.” [22]

Before you get nervous with the word “doctrine” remember – the gospel is a set of indisputable facts.  God is perfect, holy and just.  We rejected Him and made ourselves kings of our own kingdoms, thus incurring the just wrath of God.  Jesus was sent as our wrath-bearer – becoming the very perfection, holiness, and justice of God.  What do we do to participate?  Ortlund, quoting Gerhard Forde, points out “Nothing.  Just be still.  Shut up and listen for once in your life to what God the Almighty, creator and redeemer, is saying to his world and to you in the death and resurrection of his Son! Listen and believe!” [34]

How does look in the local church?  “The doctrine of grace creates a culture of grace where good things happen to bad people.” [36]. The church is the environment for growth, the arena for holiness, it’s God’s Plan A for reaching the world with the good news of His Son.  It needs to held high, honored, and committed to.  “There is no churchless Christianity in the Bible. We individualistic Americans need to face that. God is building a new community, and it’s worth belonging to.” [41]. Anytime we pick on individualistic Americans I’m in.  Of course…there is a healthy dose of self-conviction in that. If I were honest of course.  This is where the gospel confronts, sanctifies and grows the church. Quoting John Owen, “…the love of Christ is effective and fruitful in producing all the good things which he wills for his beloved. He loves life, race and holiness into us; he loves us into covenant, loves us into heaven.” [47]

This should get real practical, real fast. The church is also where “the gospel is field-tested for real life…the gospel should be displayed most clearly in our church. Therefore, how we behave in the household of God matters to everyone around us.” [66].  The reality of practical holiness and progressive sanctification by the Spirit, all done under the banner of love, are the bread and butter of life in the church.  “The goal is not to make the church safe for sin; it is to make it safe for confession and repentance.” [73]

What stops us then? First – what are we preaching? The gospel much be preached from the center God’s Word.  One needs only to look as far as the ecclesiological and denominational wreckage of the American church to see what happens when we drift from the center.   But once that becomes the heart of a church, attention turns to the members themselves.  Ours is a religion of faith and Ortlund rightly points out “one of the largest barriers to the work of the gospel in our churches is unbelief among us church members.”  Ouch.  Why did he have to say “us…” Because unbelief undermines the authority of the gospel in our actual lives.

Solution?  Focus on the perfect beauty of Jesus Christ.  “God simply changes everyone’s topic of conversation from what’s wrong with us, which is plenty, to what’s right with Christ, which is endless.” [90] AMEN!  We don’t  spur each other on to growth in the gospel unless we look to Jesus, the author and perfecter of or faith.

Preach the gospel of Christ boldly!  “The one thing the gospel never does is NOTHING. Every time we hear the gospel preached, it hardens us a little more, or it softens us a little more…no one is static. No one is NOT responding to the gospel. Everyone is moving further along one path or the other.” [95-97]. Think about that the next time we stand in the pulpit, or give a youth group talk, or sit down for family devotions.  The gospel forging a culture, let us pray it is one of true saving faith in the hearts of the hearers.

Ortlund closes with a practical call to action for the church in power, culture and love.  In power, we call upon God in prayer. In courage, we boldly run the race set before us focused on Jesus and others, and not ourselves. In love we are identified as Jesus followers, as we love others and the true church.

Straight up – this is a great book.  It makes you think deeply about how the gospel not only saves us, but fuels the church in representing the beauty of Christ in a dark world.  It gives you hope of gospel transformation not only within our own hearts, but the culture of our churches.  It points to the glorious eternal hope we have in Christ and how by dwelling on the riches of the glorious gospel, we will be better prepared to meet him one day.

 

 

 

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