Big Idea: The gospel is central, because the gospel creates community and safety.
Today we begin a four-week series on the vision of Liberty Grace Church. It’s a chance for everyone hear to put their finger on the heartbeat of the church and to feel its pulse. In a sense, we’re relaunching the church starting today. We’re re-laying the foundation, resetting the DNA. We want to go right back to the very beginning and ensure that we’re clear on the basics. Within these four weeks, we’re launching two new phases of our ministry as a church: small groups, and membership. You’re going to hear about both over the next few weeks.
When we talk about the vision for this church, we’re talking about something that’s far bigger than what we can accomplish. We’re talking about what life would be like if Jesus came to Liberty Village. What we’re talking about can only happen as an act of God, and we believe that God wants to do it. By God’s grace, we can be a church that turns our community upside-down. That’s what happened in the book of Acts, and it can happen today. We want to be a church in which real people are loved and accepted, where lives are being transformed, and in which we see God at work. We want to be characterized by an abundance of what only God can give us: an abundance of love, an abundance of humaneness, an abundance of gentleness, beauty, peace, and joy. No posing or pretending, only honesty and safety combined with God’s power. We want Jesus to be the talk of this community, and for Jesus to be big in people’s eyes. This is something that only God can do, but we believe he has done it throughout history, and he wants to do it through us as we return to the core of what it means to be a church.
And we want to begin today by explaining what lies at the heart of Liberty Grace Church. When you strip it all back, there are three things that matter most: Gospel, Community, and Mission. And it begins today as we look at the cornerstone of our vision: the gospel. So let’s look at this. If we get this right, everything else flows out of this. If we get this wrong, then nothing else matters.
What is the gospel? It is news about what God has done through Jesus Christ. We can summarize the gospel in four basic truths.
One: God made us. In the beginning, God — a personal, all-powerful God — created the universe. He created us to live joyfully in his presence, humbly submitting to his gracious authority. God created us. God owns us. We owe him everything. We were created to enjoy God, to find our satisfaction in him, because he made us for himself.
Two: We resist God. We rebelled against God. We resent his claims. We went our own way, and invented our own gods. We attempted to kick God off his throne, and put ourselves in his place. As a result, we suffer the punishment of our rebellion. We deserve his just wrath for wanting to eliminate him.
Three: God initiated a rescue plan. Instead of rejecting us, he acted to rescue us. He began by choosing a nation to display his glory in a fallen world. He continued his rescue plan by sending his own Son, Jesus, to live the truly human life we’ve never lived and to die the guilty death we don’t want to die. “God loves touchy, defensive sinners” (Ray Ortlund). He sent Jesus to reconcile us to God, and to create a new community of grace. He has begun to make everything new again, and to restore what sin has broken.
Four: Our only part is to receive, with empty hands, all that Jesus is. God calls us to repent of our sin and turn towards him for forgiveness, and then to follow him.
The gospel is at the center of our church, because Jesus is at the center of our church. Jesus and his gospel are an endless resource, not just as the way to become a Christian, but as the way to live every single day. As Scotty Smith says, there’s not more than the gospel, there’s just more of the gospel. You can dive deep down into the gospel for a lifetime and never hit the bottom. It’s an endless source of life and joy for us. It’s at the center of our church, and it has to be at the center of our lives.
That’s it. It’s simple to explain in four points, but deep enough to explore for the rest of your life. God made us. We resist him. God has rescued us through Jesus. Our only part is to receive, and then to follow.
I’ve just explained the gospel to you. For the rest of this sermon, I want to explain what will happen if we really get the gospel as a church. The gospel isn’t just something to believe; it’s something that transforms. It’s something that will have a radical effect on us, and on the community around us. I want to think about that with you today. I want to imagine with you what it will look like for the gospel to grab hold of us and become something that isn’t just something we believe, but something that shapes the way we operate as a church.
In his book The Gospel, Ray Ortlund says:
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.
Amazing things happen, though when you have both a doctrine of grace and a culture of grace. When you have the gospel embodied in a church culture, amazing things begin to happen. I want to look at two of them today. What happens when a church embodies the gospel in its culture?
First: it creates a community you won’t find anywhere else in the world.
You and I are relational beings. You were made for relationships with other people. The problem is that our relationships often fall short of what we really desire. You and I have experienced the pain of loneliness and alienation, of not finding the community and support we were looking for. This can happen in church, too. A church can be one of the loneliest places.
But when a church has both a gospel doctrine and a gospel culture, amazing things begin to happen. I want you to see this in this passage.
In 1 John 1, John the Apostle, one of the twelve disciples of Jesus, and an eyewitness of his life, helps us understand why Jesus is so central to who we are as a church. Because he was an eyewitness, he begins with the historical facts about Jesus. Listen to what he says:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you… (1 John 1:1-3)
In these first three verses, John gives us a gospel doctrine. John here gives us the content of the gospel, which is so important. John makes two important points:
Jesus was an actual person — John says that Jesus was an historical person. John heard him; he saw him; he touched him. Jesus was an actual human being in history, known and observed by eyewitnesses like John. Jesus was a real man who really lived, really died, really rose again from the grave. John and his fellow disciples really saw, heard, and touched him, both before and after he died.
Jesus was God – But that’s not all that Jesus was. Jesus was an historical person, but he was also so much more than that. According to John, he is also “that which was from the beginning,” “the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us.” These go beyond categories based on physical observation. John is stating that Jesus, the man that he knew firsthand, was nothing less than God. When Jesus was born, God himself came to earth. The one who was with God at the very beginning of creation is also the word of life, eternal life embodied in the flesh. John is going beyond the historical facts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and is telling us the significance of them. Jesus the man is nothing less than God. He is the source and substance of eternal life.
That’s John’s message, and it’s our message too. We really are all about Jesus, who really lived, who was really God, and who is the source of eternal life for all who believe. When God became man, he became the measure of all things. If you know Jesus, you know the creator of the universe, the one who invented life, the Word of Life. That’s who Jesus is. It’s the gospel doctrine that we want to hold as a church. It’s all about Jesus.
But look at what John says this gospel doctrine does. In verses 3 and 4, John says:
…that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:3-4)
What did you think John would say? “…That which we have seen and heard we proclaim to you, so that you may…” have the right doctrine, or know the right things about God, or have a personal relationship with God. All of those things are important., but they’re not what John says. Here’s what he does say. He says that he proclaims these things to us so that “you may have fellowship with us” and that “our joy may be complete.”
Here’s what John says: The gospel creates a new community. When we understand who Jesus is, it brings us into fellowship with other Christians, but it’s not just with other Christians. It’s with God as well. There’s nothing like it. When you get the gospel, you are brought into a relationship with others, and God is in the middle of that relationship as well.
John uses the word fellowship. That sounds like of flaccid to us. It doesn’t have a lot of punch. We think of fellowship as being food and light conversation. The word goes a lot deeper than that. It involves a close association based on common purpose. It involves the deepest of relationships, a deep sharing of things in common. But the fellowship that John talks about goes horizontally and vertically. It’s with God and with others.
The great preacher C. Campbell Morgan says that fellowship is partnership with God and with each other. “… fellowship with God means we have gone into business with God, that His enterprises are to be our enterprises.” It means we share mutual interests, devotion, and activity. When we’re in fellowship with God and others, “his heartbeat becomes our heartbeat, his mission becomes our mission, his goals and plans become our goals and plans. We love what he loves, desire what he desires, hate what he hates, and will what he wills. The Christian life should be an ever-deepening fellowship with God that creates and reproduces within us the mind of Christ” (David Allen).
When we get the gospel, God begins to create a culture in which people who previously had nothing in common all of a sudden have everything in common, because they have Jesus. When we get the gospel, we get a family. We become part of something much bigger than ourselves. In fact, it’s so big that we go into business with God himself and become his partners.
And not only that, but we get joy too. John says, “And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete” (1 John 1:4). Here’s the logic: the proclamation of the gospel leads to the creation of a new community, and the new community leads to joy. Joy is more than just happiness. Joy is a condition of genuine satisfaction intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually, regardless of circumstances. John doesn’t just say that we will have joy; he says that our joy will be complete. It will overflow. Joy will be abundantly supplied to us.
Friends, this is why the gospel is so important. When we get the gospel, that gospel creates a community that is unlike any other on earth. It creates a place where people are welcomed, in which we really care for each other, and in which there’s acceptance, forgiveness, generosity, and love. There’s nothing quite like it. It brings us into relationship with each other, and also with God. You become business partners with God, intimately related to every other believer in Jesus Christ. You don’t have to measure up or pretend or earn it. It’s yours in Jesus Christ. Not only that, but you get joy. What an offer!
Francis Schaeffer wrote:
One cannot explain the explosive dynamic, 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 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.
In other words, we need more than the gospel taught. We need the gospel embodied. And when the gospel is embodied, and when it creates a community of joy, watch out!
We didn’t start this church just to start another church. The world doesn’t need a church, not a church that is built on what we can do. We started this church because we believe the proclamation about who Jesus is. We believe that it’s creating a radical new community that brings joy that can’t be found anywhere else. When we have a doctrine of grace and a culture of grace, beautiful things begin to happen.
The reason that the church grew like it did in the book of Acts is because it was a community that couldn’t be explained by anything else than God. The joy, the depth of the relationships, the forgiveness, the humility, and the acceptance gave people a taste of what happens when Jesus comes to town. It’s what we want to see happen here as well. When we get the gospel right, it will create a radical new community, and it will give you a joy that you can’t find anywhere else.
But that’s not all. Not only does the gospel create a community you won’t find anywhere else in the world, but:
Second: The gospel creates safety for messy, sinful people.
In verse 5, John makes a simple but deep theological statement about God:
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. (1 John 1:5)
It’s a simple statement about God. With God, there is no dark side. When John says that God is light, he’s saying that God is beautiful and pure. “God is light” means that God is completely pure, spiritually perfect, morally excellent. There’s no darkness with God at all.
The problem, of course, is us. God is light, and there’s no darkness in him, but there’s plenty of darkness in us. John 3:19 says, “And 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” (John 3:19). There’s something in us that knows what is good, but is drawn to what’s wrong. I love the illustration that Tony Reinke gives in his book Newton: On the Christian Life.
Imagine a Christian sitting down with a blank page and pen. He begins to write out his perfectly scripted life, explaining how he would love others, how he would structure his prayer life, or how he would [build a beautiful Christian family]. But indwelling sin and Satan crouch at his elbow, disrupting every pen stroke and messing up every word and sentence as our Christian friend tries to write the script.
At every point in the Christian life [our own flesh] and Satan jab our elbow, and our pen skids across the page as our perfect plan is reduced to scribbles. This is a metaphor of the Christian life with indwelling sin. Yet the biggest problem is that sin is not at our elbow—our sin is in us!
That’s a great image. God is light, and God is perfect, but we can’t even draw a line straight. What do we do when God is perfect, and we are not? What hope is there for people like us before a holy God?
John continues, saying that when we walk with God, we will experience real change:
If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:6-7)
When we believe the gospel, God begins to transform us, so that our lives begin to be light, just as he’s light. Some people believe that because God is so gracious, it doesn’t matter how we live. We can trust in the gospel and then go on living however we want. But John says that’s not the case at all. Sin matters! Don’t ever think you can follow Jesus and then live your own way. The gospel transforms us, and a sign that we get the gospel is that we begin to see our lives transformed. We begin to see change taking place in our lives.
But we will continue to struggle. You see that in verses 7 to 10:
But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:7-10)
John has just finished saying that we need to walk in the light; that our lives need to show transformation. But then John tells us the two things that will happen when we do this: we’ll have fellowship with one another, and Jesus will cleanse us from all sin. When our lives begin to be transformed, our relationship with other believers will begin to go deeper. Not only that, but Jesus will cleanse us from our sins. Obedience leads to deeper relationships, and it also leads to deeper cleansing.
I want you to notice that the walking and the cleansing are both in present tense. This is a big hint to us that walking in the light doesn’t mean that we become sinless. What John is saying is that the gospel will begin to change us, and bring us into deeper relationships with other believers, but we will continue to sin. But Jesus will continue to cleanse us. We’ll continue to walk in the light, continue to grow, continue to go deeper in relationship, continue to sin sometimes, but Jesus will cleanse us. We can always draw upon the finished work of Christ, not just at the moment of conversion but moment by moment.
John goes on further. John goes on saying that we can’t deny that we sin. The gospel gives us safety to confess our sins, and to know that we can receive ongoing forgiveness from God.
Do you see what John is describing here? He’s describing a Christianity in which the gospel is really changing us, in which we’re really growing deeper with each other. But he’s also describing a Christianity in which we can be real about our sins. We can bring them to the light, knowing that our sins are a present reality, but his grace is a present reality as well. We don’t have to pretend. There is safety for imperfect people because we have a perfect gospel.
I recently read this book by Nate Larkin called Samson and the Pirate Monks. Larkin began to really struggle in his life, but he hid his struggles. He couldn’t figure out how to be honest about the mess in his life. As a result, he continued the downward spiral and couldn’t pull out of it.
But one day he went to church and sat under a pastor named Scotty Smith — a pastor who’s coming next June to speak at Liberty Grace, by the way. Listen to what happened as he attended this church and begin to experience not just a gospel doctrine, but a gospel culture:
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 of God, 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.
Larkin began to come to life again. He began to experience real change, because he encountered the safety of a community where God’s grace was real, and where he didn’t have to cover up over his struggles anymore.
Here’s how it works. The early Methodists, during the First Great Awakening, started organizing people int small groups. John Wesley, their leader, gave this instruction: “…that each person, in order, speak as freely, plainly and concisely as he can, the real state of his heart, with his several temptations and deliverances, since the last time of meeting.” Simple and doable. We want to be a church where we take sin seriously, and in which we’re seeing our lives change, but also where we’re free to talk about sin in the present tense, and celebrate the mercy of God every Sunday. We want to be able to share the real state of our hearts, both our temptations and deliverances, and to stop pretending and posturing. That’s what real Christianity is like.
Friends, that’s why our church’s vision begins with the gospel. We want a gospel doctrine, but we desperately want a gospel culture. We want the gospel to create a community that you won’t find anywhere else in the world. We want a gospel culture in which we’re being transformed, but in which we’re also safe to admit our struggles, and to reveal the true state of our hearts.
Let me quote Ray Ortlund one more time:
In this new kind of community, which only the gospel can create, desperate sinners coming to Christ have nothing to fear. They are finally safe. They can open up about what’s really going on in their lives. They can find healing for the past and hope for the future. This new kind of church feels like heaven on earth. And the way to get there is not by slick packaging but by gospel rebuilding. It’s what the doctrine is for – building a new kind of community to compel the attention of the world.
Three applications this afternoon.
First, do you get it? God made us. We resist him. God has rescued us through Jesus. Our only part is to receive, and then to follow. So simple, and yet so profound. It will change our life. I urge you today, if you haven’t, to embrace this gospel today. There’s nothing better that you could receive.
Second, are you with me? Are you serious about being a church that has both a gospel doctrine and a gospel culture? I desperately want what John describes in this passage. I want the gospel to create a fellowship you can’t find anywhere else. I want it to bring us joy. I want to come out of hiding and find safety to confess sins, and to find purification. Let’s commit to this. I want what only the gospel can produce. Let’s pray about this. Let’s work at this. Let’s not settle for talking about the gospel. Let’s see what happens when the gospel becomes the operating system of a church.
Finally, let’s buckle in. For the next three weeks we’re going to be talking about what building a gospel culture looks like. Spoiler alert: we’re starting small groups and membership this month. Please come back. Please consider what part God wants you to play in this church. If you can’t come out one week, listen to the sermon online, or read it. This series is going to be important as we consider the type of church we want to see take shape here in Liberty Village.
“When the doctrine is clear and the culture is beautiful, that church will be powerful.” Let’s pray and work for a doctrine of grace and a culture of grace, and then see what God does in this community for his glory.