A Culture of Grace

“Justification vs. Self-Justification” is the title of the lecture that Ray Ortlund gave the recent Gospel Coalition conference. One of the primary points that was driven home to me is that a church filled with people who actually believe and rest in the gospel will create an atmosphere of graciousness. The church becomes a welcoming culture when they rest in the welcome of God in Christ:

“The gospel does more than renew us personally within.  The doctrines of grace also create a culture of grace, called a healthy church, where the gospel is articulated at the level of doctrine and incarnated at the level of culture and vibe and ethos and feel and relationships and community.  But getting a church there and keeping a church there is not easy.  Without the doctrine, the culture is unsustainable.  Without the culture, the doctrine appears pointless and powerless.

An example of how badly we can split doctrine and culture is the Lord’s parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18.  You know how Luke introduces it: “Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and viewed others with contempt.”  The Pharisee was going to the temple, the place of substitutionary atonement.  Why?  He believed in it.  But his heart was more devious than his belief.  His self-justifying heart spilled over in an attitude of contempt toward the tax collector.  Self-justification creates an outlook of aloofness and superiority and negative scrutiny and “Gotcha!”  Though we hold the doctrine of grace-justification, our deeper thoughts and feelings can slip into functional self-justification, and it shows.  Trusting in ourselves that we are righteous and viewing others with contempt always go together.

When we see the negative dynamics of dismissive contempt, there is a reason.  And the reason is a gospel deficit in the heart, however sincere the gospel profession in the head.  We look at our doctrinal statements and our mental beliefs, and they seem to line up.  But a tip-off that the gospel does not have as deep a hold on us as we would wish is whenever, like this Pharisee, we start looking for a scapegoat, someone to judge, someone to whom we can transfer our anxiety.

Whenever we need someone else to be wrong, to preserve our own okayness, we are in self-justification mode, we aren’t really trusting in the perfect Scapegoat God provided at the cross.  And it creates a culture of ugliness.  But justification by faith alone creates a culture of acceptance and warmth and beauty and safety: “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7).  The more clearly that doctrine is taught, and the more beautifully that culture is developed, the more powerfully a church will bear prophetic witness to Jesus as the mighty Friend of sinners.  He will be honored, and people will come.

Download the PDF here and read the whole thing. The previous sentence is just a suggestion but if you take it as a command and obey it, I won’t mind and you won’t regret it.

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