Churches that believe the gospel are common. Churches whose cultures are shaped by the gospel are not. In his excellent book Samson and the Pirate Monks, Nate Larkin describes the time when, as a sexual addict, he first encountered a church that whose culture breathed gospel:
I didn’t realize it at the time, but my world had just turned. Barely four months later I would be listening to the gospel in a church where it was safe to admit brokenness, where the pastor talked about his own sin in the present tense and celebrated the mercy of God every Sunday. Here I would hear about the covenant of grace and the steadfast love of our heavenly Father. I would be reminded week after week that I am an adopted son, no longer an orphan, and that my Father never disowns his own. Finally—and this was the greatest miracle—it was in this church where I would meet many of my future comrades, the men whose friendship God would use to radically rearrange my life.
“The doctrine of grace creates a culture of grace where good things happen to bad people,” writes Ray Ortlund. And this is exactly why Ortlund has written the book The Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ. He would like to see churches not only proclaim gospel truth, but embody gospel culture.
If you have never read a book about gospel centrality, then this is a good one. Ortlund clearly expounds the gospel, showing the importance of the gospel for the individual, the church, and for everything. I will never forget the seismic shift that gospel centrality made in my own life and ministry, and for this reason alone, Ortlund’s volume is worth reading.
But that’s not all. We all know churches that proclaim gospel doctrine, but don’t embody gospel culture. “It is possible to hold the gospel as a theory even as we lose it as a reality.” Ortlund offers a simple formula:
Right gospel doctrine + anti-gospel culture = a denial of the gospel
On the other hand, a church that embraces right gospel doctrine and a culture that is shaped by the gospel is one that affirms the gospel and portrays the beauty of Christ to a world that desperately needs it. “Gospel culture is just as sacred as gospel doctrine,” he writes, “and it must be carefully nurtured and preserved in our churches.” Ortlund describes such a church. After living in a cycle of criticism, guilt, and self-justification all week, we enter worship:
Then, on Sunday, we walk into a new kind of community where we discover an environment of grace in Christ alone. It is so refreshing. Sinners like us can breathe again! It’s as if 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. He replaces our negativity, finger-pointing, and self-hatred with the good news of his grace for the undeserving. Who wouldn’t come alive in a community that’s constantly inhaling that heavenly atmosphere?
What makes Ortlund’s book so valuable is that he is neck deep in pastoring a church that aspires to be such a community. He writes not as a theoretician, but as a pastor who not only proclaims this message of grace, is trying to create a culture of grace within the church he leads, and is living in the safety of this gospel of grace as well.
The need of the hour is the rediscovery of the gospel, not only as a doctrine, but as the very air we breathe in our churches. I have not read a book that so clearly addresses this need. I can’t commend it highly enough. When you encounter such a church, as Nate Larkin did, it’s like nothing else you’ve ever experienced.
Read this book. Think hard about it. And pray that God would create churches all across our countries that not only preach gospel doctrine, but portray Christ’s beauty with gospel culture.