About the Author
J. I. Packer (1926–2020) served as the Board of Governors’ Professor of Theology at Regent College. He authored numerous books, including the classic best seller Knowing God. Packer served as general editor for the English Standard Version Bible and as theological editor for the ESV Study Bible.
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THE GOSPEL FOR YOU
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
Gospel doctrine creates a gospel culture. The doctrine of grace creates a culture of grace.
When the doctrine is clear and the culture is beautiful, that church will be powerful. But there are no shortcuts to getting there. Without the doctrine, the culture will be weak. Without the culture, the doctrine will seem pointless.
Gospel doctrine with gospel culture is prophetic. Francis Schaeffer wrote:
One cannot explain the explosive dynamite, the dunamis, of the early church apart from the fact that they practiced two things simultaneously: orthodoxy of doctrine and orthodoxy of community in the midst of the visible church, a community which the world could see. By the grace of God, therefore, the church must be known simultaneously for its purity of doctrine and the reality of its community. Our churches have so often been only preaching points with very little emphasis on community, but exhibition of the love of God in practice is beautiful and must be there.
Schaeffer's words "by the grace of God" are crucial. We need strength from beyond ourselves, because it's hard to hold on to gospel doctrine. It's even harder to create a gospel culture, one so humane and so attractive that people want to be part of it. Schaeffer also wrote: "If the church is what it should be, young people will be there. But they will not just 'be there' — they will be there with the blowing of horns and the clashing of high-sounding cymbals, and they will come dancing with flowers in their hair."
We accept that the truth of biblical doctrine is essential to authentic Christianity, but do we accept that the beauty of human relationships is equally essential? If by God's grace we hold the two together — gospel doctrine and gospel culture — people of all ages will more likely come to our churches with great joy. It is more likely that they will think, "Here is the answer I've been looking for all my life."
DOCTRINE OR CULTURE?
Every one of us is wired to lean one way or the other — toward emphasizing doctrine or culture. Some of us naturally resonate with truth and standards and definitions. Others of us resonate with feel and vibe and relationships. Whole churches, too, can emphasize one or the other.
Left to ourselves, we will get it partly wrong, but we won't feel wrong, because we'll be partly right. But only partly. Truth without grace is harsh and ugly. Grace without truth is sentimental and cowardly. The living Christ is full of grace and truth (John 1:14). We cannot represent him, therefore, within the limits of our own personalities and backgrounds. Yet as we depend on him moment by moment, both personally and corporately, he will give us wisdom. He will stretch us and make our churches more like himself, so that we can glorify him more clearly than we ever have before.
These equations help me define the matter more simply:
Gospel doctrine – gospel culture = hypocrisy
Gospel culture – gospel doctrine = fragility
Gospel doctrine + gospel culture = power
Only the powerful presence of the risen Lord can make a church this gospel-centered.
Several years ago, author Anne Rice said, "Christians have lost credibility in America as people who know how to love." There might be many reasons for that negative assessment, not all of them convincing. But I cannot dismiss her comment. Neither does the problem that she highlights register as a low priority in the Bible, one we might get around to someday. In fact, few things are more urgent for us than to regain credibility as people who know how to love, for Jesus's sake, so that his glorious gospel is unmistakably clear in our churches.
People will see him in us as we build our churches into gospel cultures with the resources of gospel doctrine, taking no shortcuts.
John 3:16, perhaps the most famous verse in all the Bible, spreads before us the doctrine of the gospel. This verse is the gospel for you and me personally. The renewal of our churches starts deep within each of us, as we are renewed in the gospel ourselves. So let's think through this wonderful verse, phrase by phrase.
FOR GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD
The gospel is good news, and these momentous words have to be the best news: "For God so loved the world ..." (John 3:16a). Yet for this verse to make the impact on us it deserves, we must understand two things: who this God is and how he loves this world.
First, who is this God? The word God is so familiar to us that we might gloss over it. But we need to think about it. Not one of us has ever had a single thought about God that was fully fair to the magnitude of who he really is. Who is the God of the Christian gospel?
A contrast can help. In his book What Is the Gospel?, Greg Gilbert uses satire to help us see how we naturally diminish our concept of "God":
Let me introduce you to god. (Note the lowercase g.)
You might want to lower your voice a little before we go in. He might be sleeping now. He's old, you know, and doesn't much understand or like this "newfangled" modern world. His golden days — the ones he talks about when you really get him going — were a long time ago, before most of us were even born. That was back when people cared what he thought about things, and considered him pretty important to their lives.
Of course all that's changed now, though, and god — poor fellow — just never adjusted very well. Life's moved on and passed him by. Now, he spends most of his time just hanging in the garden out back. I go there sometimes to see him, and there we tarry, walking and talking softly and tenderly among the roses....
Anyway, a lot of people still like him, it seems — or at least he manages to keep his poll numbers pretty high. And you'd be surprised how many people even drop by to visit and ask for things every once in a while. But of course that's alright with him. He's here to help.
Thank goodness, all the crankiness you read about sometimes in his old books — you know, having the earth swallow people up, raining fire down on cities, that sort of thing — all that seems to have faded in his old age. Now he's just a good-natured, low-maintenance friend who's really easy to talk to — especially since he almost never talks back, and when he does, it's usually to tell me through some slightly weird "sign" that what I want to do regardless is alright by him. That really is the best kind of friend, isn't it?
You know the best thing about him, though? He doesn't judge me. Ever, for anything. Oh sure, I know that deep down he wishes I'd be better — more loving, less selfish, and all that — but he's realistic. He knows I'm human and nobody's perfect. And I'm totally sure he's fine with that. Besides, forgiving people is his job. It's what he does. After all, he's love, right? And I like to think of love as "never judging, only forgiving." That's the god I know. And I wouldn't have him any other way....
Okay, we can go in now. And don't worry, we don't have to stay long. Really. He's grateful for any time he can get.
Is there anything in Gilbert's picture that reflects how we think of God? Let's be honest with ourselves about this.
John Piper helps us all take our spiritual temperatures this way:
For many, Christianity has become the grinding out of general doctrinal laws from collections of biblical facts. But childlike wonder and awe have died. The scenery and poetry and music of the majesty of God have dried up like a forgotten peach at the back of the refrigerator.
In other words, we might affirm the right doctrines, but every one of us still needs to say: "Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts!" (Ps. 139:23).
Let's forget everything else for a moment. Let's think about God, because "what comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us." God does not gain by our clarity about him. We do.
Go all the way back to the beginning. Where did you get your idea of God? And how do you know you didn't make it up?
The gospel displays God gloriously, far beyond what we naturally think, even opposite to what we naturally think. For instance, early in the Bible, God says, "I am God Almighty" (Gen. 17:1). Almost no one believes that God is truly almighty, which is why God said it. But when that amazing thought about God drops into our mental pool, the ripples move out in all directions. Here is what God Almighty reveals to us about himself:
I am the Almighty God, able to fulfill your highest hopes and accomplish for you the brightest ideal that ever my words set before you. There is no need of paring down the promise until it squares with human probabilities, no need of relinquishing one hope it has begotten, no need of adopting some interpretation of it which may make it seem easier to fulfill, and no need of striving to fulfill it in any second-rate way. All possibility lies in this: I am the Almighty God.
Without this real and glorious God, the task of our lives would be to keep adjusting our expectations of life downward. Author Reynolds Price understands how dark reality becomes without an almighty God: "There is no Creator and there never was. The universe is pure unillumined matter where senseless atoms and vicious creatures stage the awful pageants of their wills." But with John 3:16 showing us the love of God Almighty, we never have to swallow such hopelessness.
The Christian gospel does not ask us to settle for something. It begins with the almighty God, who, amazingly, doesn't despise the world but loves the world. That's who God really is. It's what the Bible says. Let's believe it.
Now to the second question — how does God love this world? John says, "For God so loved the world." The little word so is worth noticing. It communicates the intensity of God's love. How did God love the world? Not moderately, but massively. God so loved the world, not because we are lovable but because he is love (1 John 4:16).
The intense nature of God's love becomes all the more evident when we think about this world of ours that is so loved by God. As we grow in seeing God more clearly, we also grow in seeing ourselves more clearly. John observes: "This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light" (John 3:19–20). It's hard to admit that we love the darkness, but we know it's true. We have all done evil things and then covered them up, fearing exposure. We've tried to forget the memory and to ignore conscience and to medicate the pain. It is hard for us to face ourselves honestly.
W. H. Auden, in his poem "September 1, 1939," points to something of this darkness in our individual lives. He describes what he saw one evening in a nightclub:
Faces along the bar Cling to their average day;
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play ...
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night Who have never been happy or good.
We all see ourselves in this poem, don't we?
John's words about loving the darkness also help us to see ourselves at another level — as a culture. One of the marks of our times is that we redefine evil things as good. We change the labels, as if that could change the realities. We tell ourselves we're better than we really are. This too is "[loving] the darkness rather than the light."
Recently I did a search at Amazon.com for "self-esteem," and I got 93,059 results. Time after time, we have been told that self-regard is how we become well-adjusted and successful people. But is it true?
In her New York Times article "The Trouble with Self-Esteem," Lauren Slater quotes a researcher who studied criminals and concluded: "The fact is, we've put antisocial men through every self-esteem test we have, and there's no evidence for the old psychodynamic concept that they secretly feel bad about themselves. These men are racist or violent because they don't feel bad enough about themselves."
The Bible challenges the self-flattery that we cling to in our world today. How? First, the law of God exposes the fraudulence of our virtue by showing us the true holiness of God. We don't deserve as much as we think we do. Second, the Bible simply changes the subject to how much God loves the undeserving. In other words, the gospel helps us to stop barricading ourselves against God, because it's evil people in denial whom God loves so massively.
But we must trust him and open up. After all, we know how dishonesty paralyzes our human relationships. For instance, a friend wrongs you and then pretends it never happened. As a result, the friendship cools, the distance between you grows, and soon there is guardedness where before there was spontaneity. At some point, you realize that what makes the relationship impossible isn't the original wrong but the denial of the wrong.
Our willful denial of God is the mega-offense above all our other offenses that God challenges by his massive love in Christ. Our world thinks it is too good for God. It's too touchy and defensive to accept his love. But that does not stop God.
What if it did? What if God said: "So, that's the way you want it? Then have it your way. You hate the light. You love the darkness. Your whole approach to life is to sin and then fake happiness. You refuse to be honest. Okay. But you cannot cling to your self-created falsehood and have my massive love too. This relationship is over forever"? He has the right to say this. Who could blame him if he did!
But what did God do instead?
THAT HE GAVE HIS ONLY SON
God so loved the world "that he gave his only Son." This Son is Jesus, the promised Messiah of the Old Testament and the One who fulfills the deepest hopes of the human heart. The word only means that Jesus is unique. There is no other like him. He is therefore irreplaceable. There is no other Savior. The world has no other hope. No one else will appear out of heaven to come rescue us. It's either God's only Son or despair now and damnation forever.
Have you considered the audacious things Jesus says about himself? Here are a few, for starters:
"I and the Father are one" (John 10:30).
"Believe in God; believe also in me" (John 14:1).
"Unless you believe I am he you will die in your sins" (John 8:24).
C. S. Lewis helps us get right to the point:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: "I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God." That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic ... or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon, or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
The only Son, given from the massively loving heart of the Father, came into this world "not by constraint but willingly, not with a burning sense of wrong but with a grateful sense of high privilege and ... a blessed consciousness of fellowship with His Father who sent Him." We did not make him up as a new religion. He came down from God as the archetypal new man, our better self, our only future. He lived the worthy life we have never lived and he died the guilty death we don't want to die. By his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus fulfilled every demand of God in our place. He atoned for our guilt. He satisfied the wrath of God against us. He conquered death on our behalf. He did all that as our substitute, because in our helplessness we could never dig our own way out. God gave us his Son fully, without holding back at all. God even gave him up at the cross. He abandoned him to the desolation of the hell we utterly deserve, so that forever and ever he would give us heavenly things we cannot deserve (Rom. 8:32).
This is the massive love of God — the Son leaving nothing of the Father's glory unexpressed, leaving nothing of our need unfilled, opening up the mighty heart of God to the unworthy. But this massive love is laser-focused. The only Son is our only entry point back to God, the only One given by God, the only One acceptable to God. There is no other. I dare you to name one other hope in all this world of which this can be said:
The obedience and death of the Lord Jesus laid the foundation and opened the way for the exercise of this great and sovereign act of grace. The cross of Jesus displays the most awesome exhibition of God's hatred of sin, and at the same time the most august manifestation of his readiness to pardon it. Pardon, full and free, is written out in every drop of blood that is seen, is proclaimed in every groan that is heard. ... Oh blessed door of return, open and never shut, to the wanderer from God! How glorious, how free, how accessible! Here the sinful, the vile, the guilty, the unworthy, the poor, the penniless, may come. Here too the weary spirit may bring its burden, the broken spirit its sorrow, the guilty spirit its sin, the backsliding spirit its wandering. All are welcome here. The death of Jesus was the opening and the emptying of the full heart of God. It was the outgushing of that ocean of infinite mercy that heaved and panted and longed for an outlet. It was God showing how he could love a poor, guilty sinner. What more could he have done than this?(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Gospel"
Copyright © 2014 Ray Ortlund.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword by J. I. Packer,
1 The Gospel for You,
2 The Gospel for the Church,
3 The Gospel for Everything,
4 Something New,
5 It Isn't Easy, But It Is Possible,
6 What We Can Expect,
7 Our Path Forward,
What People are Saying About This
“When Ray Ortlund speaks, I listen. My generation has grown in knowledge but needs sages. Pastor Ray is that to us. Pick up this resource and hear from a man who espouses theological depth matched by gospel grace.”
Eric M. Mason, Lead Pastor, Epiphany Fellowship, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; President, Thriving; author, Manhood Restored
“Churches don’t make the gospel true, but when ‘the sweetness of the Lord’ is upon us, the church becomes a powerful testimony of God’s grace. With both realism and hope, Ray Ortlund tells us how that grace can thrive among useven as broken as we areso that Christ’s glory will radiate from us.”
Bryan Chapell, Pastor Emeritus, Grace Presbyterian Church, Peoria, Illinois
“Ray Ortlund weaves together profound biblical reflection on how gospel doctrine must lead to gospel culture with choice quotations from great saints in church history. A must read for any church that wants to help rather than hinder the lost in being attracted to Christ.”
Craig L. Blomberg, Distinguished Professor of New Testament, Denver Seminary
“Compelling. Convicting. Encouraging. Probing. And most of all, entrancing. What a beautiful vision of what the church can be through the power of the gospel. How evident it is that the gospel has penetrated Ortlund’s own heart. Read it. Pray through it. Ask God to use its message mightily in your church and in many other churches as well.”
Thomas R. Schreiner, James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
“Pastor-scholar Ray Ortlund, in his newest book, brings out the goodness in the good news. And a church that doesn’t show this goodness in their life together, says he, undermines the very gospel they preach. It’s a good argument, and worthwhile.”
Mark Dever, Pastor, Capitol Hill Baptist Church, Washington, DC
“In this incisive book, Ray Ortlund does the necessary and compelling work of connecting the life-giving gospel to the lived experience and witness of the church. His vision for gospel cultures that bloom in the rich soil of gospel doctrine will capture those who desire to see the world captivated by Christ.”
Stephen T. Um, Senior Minister, Citylife Presbyterian Church of Boston; author, Micah For You