How The Gospel Creates, Sustains and Shapes True Community

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In a previous post I talked about the function of community and why it is God’s good design for every Christian to join a local church, not give up on it, and become deeply involved in it. Today I want to talk about how the Gospel creates true community and how it must sustain and shape our community in a church.

1. The Gospel Creates True Community

Only the Gospel can create and unite a people from diverse ethnic backgrounds, social statuses, different genders and ages, different interests and hobbies, and all other kinds of diverse identities. And that’s because the Gospel says that our unity is not based on any of those things. Our unity is based on something objective, unchanging, and that is relevant to every single human being, namely the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And in Christ there is “no Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.” (Col. 3:11)

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote,

“Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate. The more clearly we learn to recognize that the ground and strength and promise of all our fellowship is in Jesus Christ alone, the more serenely shall we think of our fellowship and pray and hope for it.” (Life Togetherp. 30)

In the words of Michael Horton,

“When God raises our eyes from ourselves to his Son through the gospel, we begin to see ourselves surrounded by a community of people who are no longer simply neighbours but brothers and sisters. . .Christ and his gospel is the tie that binds. I did not choose these people to be my brothers and sisters; God did. Like me, they are elected, redeemed, called, and justified by God in Christ.” (The Gospel-Driven Life, p. 192).

2. The Gospel Sustains and Shapes True Community as the Basis of Our Fellowship

And if the Gospel is what creates our unity it is also what must sustain and shape it. Paul exhorts the Ephesians to unity based upon the unity that we already have because of the Gospel:

Eph. 4:1 I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

You see, our unity is not based on our ethnic background, our common interests and hobbies, our gender, our age, our stage in life, our social status, or anything else but the fact that we are all one because of the Gospel.

And when we start to lose sight of this reality, our community will quickly degenerate and become merely a social club or worse we will become divided and break apart. We’ll start to think, “I have nothing in common with these people.” But the Gospel says “Yes you do. . .you have something in common with every single one of them!” You all are sinners who have been purchased by the precious blood of the only begotten Son of God. You all have the same Heavenly Father. You all have the same Holy Spirit. You all have God’s Word and the same baptism and a common communion table. Some of us might share a few other things in common, but we ALL as Christians share these things in common. And so, we have to keep the Gospel central, in preaching, in our hearts, and in our conversations and actions towards each other. If you want to experience something you have in common with your fellow church members start talking more about the work of Christ with them rather than always talking about your favorite hobby, interest, political opinion, sports team, and other things that cannot unite a people from every tribe, and language and people and nation (Rev. 5:9-10).

In the words of Michael Horton,

“It is not my church to shape into my image, according to my own cultural preferences, ethnic background, politics, or socioeconomic location. It is Christ’s community–and he is the location that we all share together. He is the demographic niche and the political rallying point of this kingdom. I still belong to other groups based on my cultural affinities, but my family is not something I choose; it is something I am chosen for. . .the words and sacraments of the world create affinity groups for those with similar tastes based on generational, socioeconomic, political, racial, and consumer demographics. However, when the Spirit comes through his Word and sacraments, “the powers of the age to come” break into this present evil age (Heb. 6:4-5). The church becomes a cross-cultural community in the truest sense, defined by Christ’s work rather than our own” (The Gospel-Driven Life, p. 193).

3. The Gospel Sustains and Shapes Community by Demolishing Our “Ego Barriers”

And we have to keep the Gospel central because building community doesn’t come natural to us because of our sin. Our egos get in the way ALL the time. And only the Gospel can kill our pride. In the words of the hymn: “When I survey the wondrous cross On which the Prince of glory died, My richest gain I count but loss, And pour contempt on all my pride. You can’t think deeply about the Gospel and continue to be proud. You also can’t think deeply about the Gospel and continue to be insecure, desperately living for the praise of men.

As Tim Keller notes,

“Our natural condition under sin is to be ‘glory empty’–starved for significance, honor, and a sense of self worth. Sin makes us feel superior and overconfident (because we are trying to prove to ourselves and others that we are significant) AND inferior and underconfident (because at a deep level we feel guilty and insecure). Some people’s glory emptiness primarily takes the form of bravado and evident pride; for others, it takes the form of self-deprecation and self-loathing. Most of us are wracked by both impulses. Either way, until the gospel changes us, we will use people in relationships. We do not work for the sake of the work; we do not relate for the sake of the person. Rather, we work and relate to bolster our own self-image–to derive it, essentially, from others. . .the way to transparency, love, and mutual service is ‘blocked by our own ego.’ But when the gospel changes us, we can begin to relate to others for their sakes. It humbles us before anyone, telling us we are sinners saved only by grace. But it also emboldens us before anyone, telling us we are loved and honored by the only eyes in the universe that really count. So we are set free to enjoy people for who they are in themselves, not for how they make us feel about ourselves. Our self-image is no longer based on comparisons with others. We do not earn our worth through approval from people or through power over people. We are not overly dependent on the approval of others; nor, on the other hand, are we afraid of commitment and connection to others. The Gospel makes us neither self-confident nor self-disdaining but gives us boldness and humility that can increase together.” (Center Churchpp. 318-19)

Conclusion

And so, if we want to grow together in brotherly affection towards one another and experience more and more true community in our churches, then we have to grow deeper and deeper in the Gospel. The Gospel creates true community in a Christian church and it is what sustains and shapes that community. If we want to experience true community in our churches the Gospel has to be kept central and it has to grip us at the core of our being. Otherwise our egos will prevent us from loving each other freely for the sake of Christ. We will use each other to find significance in life and we will end up being merely a social club or worse we will “bite and devour one another” and will eventually “be consumed by one another” (Gal. 5:15). But when we are continually being reminded of who we are in Christ, it frees us up to love each other with brotherly affection and to experience true community, the kind that is a powerful witness to the world (John 17:20-23), a sanctifying experience that is good and pleasant (Psalm 133:1) and that brings great glory to our One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The Secret of Marriage

Recently I began, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God, by Timothy Keller, with Kathy Keller. So far it is really good. In the first chapter, “The Secret of Marriage,” after a thorough survey of the cultural landscape with regard to the institution of marriage in our day, here is what Keller has to say with regard to the secret of marriage (I quote at length because almost every paragraph in the last few pages was worthy of a highlight):

“If our views of marriage are too romantic and idealistic, we underestimate the influence of sin on human life. If they are too pessimistic and cynical, we misunderstand marriage’s divine origin. If we somehow manage, as our modern culture has, to do both at once, we are doubly burdened by a distorted vision. Yet the trouble is not within the institution of marriage but within ourselves. . .

In short, the “secret” is not simply the fact of marriage per se. It is the message that what husbands should do for their wives is what Jesus did to bring us into union with himself. And what was that? Jesus gave himself up for us. Jesus the Son, though equal with the Father, gave up his glory and took on human nature (Phil. 2:5ff). But further, he willingly went to the cross and paid the penalty for our sins, removing our guilt and condemnation, so that we could be united with him (Rom. 6:5) and take on his nature (2 Pet. 1:4). He gave up his glory and power and became a servant. He died to his own interests and looked to our needs and interests instead (Romans 15:1-3). Jesus’s sacrificial service to us has brought us into a deep union with him and he with us. And that, Paul says, is the key not only to understanding marriage but to living it. . .

If God had the gospel of Jesus’s salvation in mind when he established marriage [cf. Eph. 5:31-32], then marriage only “works” to the degree that approximates the pattern of God’s self-giving love in Christ. . .this is the secret–that the gospel of Jesus and marriage explain one another. That when God invented marriage, he already had the saving work of Jesus in mind. . .

The Christian teaching does not offer a choice between fulfillment and sacrifice but rather mutual fulfillment through mutual sacrifice. Jesus gave himself up; he died to himself to save us and make us his. Now we give ourselves up, we die to ourselves, first when we repent and believe the gospel, and later as we submit to his will day by day. Subordinating ourselves to him, however, is radically safe, because he has already shown that he was willing to go to hell and back for us. This banishes fears that loving surrender means loss of oneself. . .

On the one hand, the experience of marriage will unveil the beauty and depths of the gospel to you. It will drive you further into reliance on it. On the other hand, a greater understanding of the gospel will help you experience deeper and deeper union with each other as the years go on. . .

The reason that marriage is so painful and yet wonderful is because it is a reflection of the gospel, which is painful and wonderful at once. The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope. This is the kind of relationship that will really transform us. Love without truth is sentimentality; it supports and affirms us but keeps us in denial about our flaws. Truth without love is harshness; it gives us information but in such a way that we cannot really hear it. God’s saving love in Christ, however, is marked by both radical truthfulness about who we are and yet also radical, unconditional commitment to us. The merciful commitment strengthens us to see the truth about ourselves and repent. The conviction and repentance moves us to cling to and rest in God’s mercy and grace.

The hard times of marriage drive us to experience more of this transforming love of God. But a good marriage will also be a place where we experience more of this kind of transforming love at a human level. The gospel can fill our hearts with God’s love so that you can handle it when your spouse fails to love you as he or she should. That frees us to see our spouse’s sins and flaws to the bottom–and speak of them–and yet still love and accept our spouse fullly. And when, by the power of the gospel, our spouse experiences that same kind of truthful yet committed love, it enables our spouses to show us that same kind of transforming love when the time comes for it.

This is the great secret! Through the gospel, we get both the power and the pattern for the journey of marriage!”

Great stuff! Can’t wait to read the rest of the book.

What is Christian Joy?

Here is part one of a two part sermon series on Christian joy that I preached this past Sunday (if you prefer, you can listen to it here):

Charles Spurgeon, instructing a group of seminary students on sermon delivery, said, “When you speak of heaven, let your face light up with a heavenly gleam. Let your eyes shine with reflected glory. And when you speak of hell–well, then your usual face will do.” As funny as that is, there is some truth to it. Sadly, too often, Christians lack joy in their life. And I am hear today to exhort you with Paul the apostle, Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Phil. 4:4). Elsewhere Paul wrote, For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17). As Christians, joy ought to be a characteristic of our life. Others should know of your joy in the Lord. Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit AND Jesus says in John 15 that one of the reasons that he came is so that His joy may be in us and so that our joy may be full (John 15:11). So once again we are called to rejoice in the LORD, and not just some times but ALWAYS. But in order to understand and appreciate and heed this command we need to understand what true Christian joy is this morning, which is fruit of the Holy Spirit.

Theme: Christian Joy

  1. What Christian Joy Is and Is Not (Part 1: morning sermon)
  2. How We Cultivate Christian Joy (Part 2: afternoon sermon)

1. What Christian Joy Is and Is Not

Phil Ryken says that, “Joy. . .is not so much happiness as contentment. Joy is the ability to take good cheer from the gospel. . . It is not, therefore, a spontaneous response to some temporary pleasure. It does not depend on circumstance at all. It is based rather on rejoicing in one’s eternal identity in Jesus Christ.” And is this not what Paul says in Phil. 4? He doesn’t just say, “rejoice!” He says, “rejoice IN THE LORD!”, not rejoice that things are going well for you right now or even though things are going bad for you right now, stop being such a Debbie Downer and rejoice anyway. NO! Paul says, rejoice IN THE LORD. In fact, speaking of contentment, Paul goes on and says: “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:11-13). And remember, Paul was writing all of these things while he was in prison for the sake of Christ and the Gospel.

Another way to define what Christian joy is and is not is as Tim Keller puts it: “Joy is delight in God and his salvation for the sheer beauty and worth of who He is. Its opposite is hopelessness/despair, its counterfeit is elation that comes with blessings not the Blesser! Mood swings based on circumstances.” So you see Christian joy is NOT simply a happy-go-lucky attitude despite what I am going through; Nor is it mere optimism for the future; Nor is it mere happiness in present circumstances that are good (these are all counterfeits to what real Christian joy is. . .not that these things are necessarily wrong. . .they just aren’t to be confused with genuine Christian joy because even a non-Christian can have these things). Furthermore, Christian joy is not incompatible with sorrow and grief. . . You see, the opposite fruit of joy is not sorrow as one would think. Rather the opposite fruit of joy is as Keller points out, hoplessness/despair.

You see, Christian joy is much more deep and profound than these things. It truly is a fruit that can only be produced by the Holy Spirit that only Christians can have. Simply put, Christian joy is rooted in the good news of the person and work of Jesus Christ and is produced in us by the Holy Spirit through faith in God’s Word. R.C. Sproul: “The mandate of Christ, “Be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world,” is not superficial cheerfulness or irrational escapism but is grounded in cosmic reality.” And so, a Christian sermon on joy is not a superficial happy clappy pep rally despite our present circumstances. . .rather it’s a deep, heartfelt, Spirit-wrought rejoicing in the Lord that’s rooted in God’s Word to us about Christ’s present circumstances and our union with Him. Now, all of that said, where do we see this in the Bible?

Well, once again, the Bible reveals this to us in many places. Joy is an attribute of our Triune God. All three members of the Trinity delight in one another and they delight in the work of their hands in Creation and Redemption. But the supreme revelation of God for us is the person and work of Jesus. He is the one who bore the fruit of the Spirit perfectly in his life on our behalf, for our salvation, and as our supreme example. And He is the vine and we are the branches, apart from Him we can do nothing. But as we abide in Him and behold His glory we will bear much fruit by the Holy Spirit. And so we must look to Jesus to know what Christian joy looks like. And the author of Hebrews talks about Jesus’ joy in Hebrews 12: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:1-2).

Here we see that Jesus had joy in his life. But as I said earlier joy in the Christian life is not incompatible with sorrow. It often overlaps with sorrow in our life. And we see that especially with Jesus. The author of Hebrews tells us that it was for the joy that was set before him that Jesus endured the cross. And when he says that Jesus had joy, he doesn’t mean that Jesus had some kind of superficial happiness on the way to the cross, and especially while he was on the cross. In fact, we know from Isaiah 53 that Jesus is characterized as being a man of sorrows who was acquainted with grief. But you see his delight, his joy, was in the knowledge that he was being obedient to His Father’s will and redeeming His people. Isaiah 53 also tells us that through suffering, Christ would see his offspring, and that his days would be prolonged and that the will of the Lord would prosper in his hand. He goes on and says, Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous” (Isa. 53:11). You see, Jesus didn’t take joy simply in suffering and dying on the cross. Rather, he took joy in knowing that he was redeeming his Bride. He took joy in knowing that one day he would see his bride walking down that aisle, white and glorious, at that wedding supper of the Lamb in the new heavens and new earth. And he took joy in knowing that it would please his Father and bring him great glory.

How do we cultivate the joy of Christ in our life, that same kind of joy that he experienced even as he went to the cross? We all long for that kind of indestructible joy, don’t we? J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the epic trilogy Lord of the Rings, in his essay “On Fairy Stories”, says that every good story is a reflection of the Gospel story. All good stories have some kind of catastrophe that gets to a point where it seems like the protagonist has no way out, where all hope is lost, and it’s all going to end in tragedy. But then there’s that great turn of events where the hero is saved, his enemies are conquered and they all live, what?. . .happily ever after. Tolkien even came up with his own word for this type of story. He calls it a eucatastrophe. Eu is a Greek prefix which means good. So a eucatastrophe is a catastrophe that turns to good in the end. And Tolkien says that the stories we love most are eucatastophes. And it’s true. I saw three movies this week with my wife (we went on a date night binge since grandparents are in town to babysit our kids). And all three movies had some catastrophe that turned to good in the end. And that’s because we are all longing for redemption. In this world of sorrow, we are all longing for indestructible joy in the end. And Tolkien says the only difference between those stories that we love and the Gospel is that the Gospel is the eucatastrophe that came true! The life, death and resurrection of Christ is the eucatastrophe of human history. And Jesus says to you and me today, as he said to his disciples: So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:22). 

But we don’t have to wait until heaven to experience that joy now. Jesus was originally speaking about his death and resurrection appearances. They had great sorrow when Jesus was in the grave but then he rose from the dead on the third day and appeared to his disciples and they rejoiced greatly to see him face to face once again, risen victorious over the grave. And Jesus gave them his Spirit so that no one would ever be able to take their joy from them (John 20:22). And he gives you and me His Spirit as well to produce the joy of the Lord in our hearts more and more until Christ comes again to bring us into the glory of the new heavens and new earth where there is fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore at God’s right hand (Gal. 3:13-14; Gal. 5:22; Ps. 16:11). In the words of Peter: “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Pet. 1:8-9).