Pastor Spence Shelton of Mercy Church in Charlotte, NC talks a lot about faith in this short video on church buildings. Things probably won't look how you think they will as you journey through the physical spaces of church planting.
By Ray Ortlund
I want to tell you something that you know but I think you need to hear: You matter. Do you hear that? Church planters matter to God. You are God’s marines. You hit the beach without having fully adequate support. and you just start moving inland and start gaining ground. You take the ground that nobody else has taken. And what you’re doing matters. So thank you. It is going to be okay. It is going to be better than okay. Stay low, and stick together.
So, what would it look like for us to get as good at strengthening our churches to thrive, as we have been at equipping them to launch? You know what? That looks to me like the New Testament.
Indeed, we want to plant churches that are even healthier, and more alive, and more compelling than our established churches. Our goal is not simply to grow, but to ascend. We’re following “the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14).
“. . . The end to which all church order, on the Puritan view, was a means, and for which everything superstitious, misleading and Spirit-quenching must be rooted out, was the glory of God in and through the salvation of sinners and the building up of lively congregations in which people met God.”“Puritanism as a Movement of Revival,” J. I. Packer
How, by God’s grace, do we as pastors help our churches get there and stay there, so that our established churches keep their edge and our daughter churches exceed their mother churches? When the gospel takes over in our churches and unfruitful things lose their grip and only the compelling things remain, what does that look like?
As a young pastor, I was unprepared to lead anything. I could parse a Hebrew verb, but I couldn’t do much else. In my naiveté, I thought I’d preach Christ from the Bible in a positive way, and people would light up. Many did. But others turned away. They wanted something else, and I was surprised by the collision between my expectations and the more complicated reality of an actual church. I didn’t have categories for understanding what was happening and what would help. Eventually, I had to rethink everything from the deepest foundations.
Gradually, I began to see pastoral ministry with new eyes – both new realism and new hope. And a key passage, for me, was Galatians 2:11-21. I realized, from this text, that I had missed a major dimension of ministry that had been there all along. And once I finally saw it, I began discovering it all over the New Testament. That category is what I call “gospel culture.” It creates lively congregations where people meet God. A church where our self-invented complications stop mattering and lively congregations are meeting God–that is when a church becomes awe-inspiring. An ordinary, fallible, unimpressive church that inspires awe because it is obvious that something from above has come down.
Here in this passage, I see three essentials to this kind of pastoral ministry: gospel doctrine, gospel culture, and gospel spirituality. I allow myself to over-use the word “gospel” to convey how the gospel must touch everything in a church–not just a gospel sermon surrounded with other things but everything in a church service oozing with gospel. But here in our passage, the doctrine is obvious: justification by faith alone. That really matters. As our Lutheran friends remind us, justification by faith is “the article by which the church stands or falls.” It isn’t a denominational option; it is a Christian essential. And it sets us apart. No one else builds their identity and their sense of okayness on the basis of someone else’s life from 2000 years ago.
The second essential to pastoral ministry is less obvious in our time but is in fact the burning issue in this passage. It’s gospel culture, that is, the grace of the gospel no longer a mere concept but made visible and felt in the beauty of human relationships, in the tone and feel and vibe and honesty and gentleness and humor and relaxedness and cheerfulness and humility and the spirit of praise in a church–all the subtleties and nuances that comprise a culture.
Gospel doctrine is heard in a church, and gospel culture is seen in a church, when natural enemies start treating one another as royalty for Jesus’ sake and without an ounce of coercion. A gospel culture is not just nice; it is awe-inspiring. Nursing along a healthy culture is a matter of sensitivity and keen personal awareness with your finger on the pulse all the time.
The third essential to pastoral ministry in this passage is gospel spirituality. It’s how weak people like us are lifted up and borne along, as we build up lively congregations here in this world of exhaustion and inertia where people are belittled all week long and crawl into church defeated every Sunday morning. We beat the odds by the power of the risen Christ moment by moment. It’s not just us being good at ministry mechanics; it’s us receiving what only Christ can do.
If we live by faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us, the watching world will notice. People asked the apostles, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” (Acts 4:7). When William Burns was preaching in Perth, Scotland in 1840 and one of the notorious sinners of the city was converted, the man was so surprised at himself that he said, “It is something altogether unearthly that has come to town.” We are not recycling the earthly but are reaching for something altogether unearthly and life-giving.
But of these three glorious powers – doctrine and culture and spirituality – gospel culture is the part that is commonly neglected and yet the most visible, the first thing people notice when they walk in.
The early Roman, Tertullian, wrote, “Look how they love one another!” The Romans had religion galore, but they had never seen beautiful community. Their world was brutal. Then came the Christians as a new world, not as a weekend option but as a new kind of community, as the Eschaton in the present, and it felt like heaven on earth. Christian teaching was a barrier, but Christian relationships and honesty and gentleness and inclusivity and generosity. That culture was alluring.
What I am saying is that the churches we all long for will require of us diligence and wisdom at all three levels simultaneously – doctrine and culture and spirituality – because that is the Christianity that will compel the attention of the world today just as it did in the first century. What we don’t need is a new kind of Christianity but the old kind, the real kind, no longer held back by our overlays of complication. It’s what Paul insists on here.
John Stott wrote about this passage, “This is without doubt one of the most tense and dramatic episodes in the New Testament. Here are two leading apostles of Jesus Christ face to face in complete and open conflict.” Something massive was on the line here in Antioch. Peter didn’t see it. Paul saw it clearly. He sums it up in verse 21, “I do not nullify the grace of God.” Were the others nullifying the grace of God? Were they saying, in effect, that Christ died for no purpose? Yes.
So let’s dig into the passage with three questions. One, what is the doctrine here? Two, what is the culture here? Three, what is the spirituality here?
What is the doctrine in this passage?
“We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:16).
We are Christians because we’ve given up on ourselves. Our lifelong project of idealizing ourselves has collapsed. We have deeply accepted that our only justification is Jesus. Our free and complete and unimprovable validation and okayness and completeness and reinstatement with the all holy God – this gospel of justification means everything to us. We join with Paul in saying, “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” Faithful Christians throughout history have stood here.
For example, the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican Church affirm, “We are accounted righteous before God only for the merit of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, by faith, and not for our own works or deservings. Wherefore, that we are justified by faith only is a most wholesome
doctrine and very full of comfort.”
The Heidelberg Catechism asks us, “How are you right with God?” And it teaches us to answer:
Only by true faith in Jesus Christ. Even though my conscience accuses me of having grievously sinned against all God’s commandments, of never having kept any of them, and even though I am still being inclined toward all evil, nevertheless, without my deserving it at all, out of sheer grace, God grants and credits to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner, and as if I had been as perfectly obedient as Christ was obedient for me. All I need to do is accept this gift of God with a believing heart.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism asks us, “What is justification?” And it teaches us to answer, “Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us and received by faith alone.”
Justification by faith alone is like a debit card. In the gospel God says to us, “I have here a debit card that accesses a fund of infinite worth, the righteousness of my Son. All your debts – past, present and future – you can charge to this account. It will never run out. Your account will always be clear with me. And you don’t need a good credit rating to receive this card. The whole point is, you’ve squandered your resources. You’re in debt way over your head, and you can’t dig your way out. There is no payment plan that will work for you now. But it is only to the discredited that I give the credit of Jesus. Your only part is to receive this card with the empty hands of faith.” And we’ve done that. We have accepted the debit card of justification. As God the Holy Spirit convicts our hearts that we have sinned, we confess our sin to the Lord, and we might have to go apologize to people and re-earn their trust; but as we stand before the Lord, by faith alone we swipe the card, and we move on rejoicing, because Jesus paid it all. And we know this is consistent with what we see here in the apostle Paul. He saw justification by faith alone not only as the entry point for converts but also as the pathway for all Christians all the time.
My dad told me a story about Donald Grey Barnhouse, who was a mentor and friend to my dad. Barnhouse was preaching as a guest in a church. Before he was to preach, a lady sang a solo – the old song, “I am satisfied.” The chorus goes like this:
Is my Master satisfied,
Is He satisfied with me?
I am satisfied with Jesus;
Is He satisfied with me?
And Barnhouse stepped into the pulpit and shouted, “Yes, he is!” That is the joyous finality of the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, apart from all our works. “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law.” Paul and Peter and we here today believe and teach that. It’s the gospel doctrine in this passage. And we love it.
But if all we have is right doctrine, even right doctrine that we love, we can still lose our way, as no one less than the apostle Peter did. If we are faithful to the right doctrine, but oblivious to the relational culture in line with the very truth we teach, then our churches will be ugly and will die and they will deserve to die. We can see in this passage that Paul is demanding of himself and others more than good doctrine. Let’s take the next step.
What is the culture in this passage?
Sadly, what we see here is the opposite of gospel culture. That is the very thing so offensive to Paul:
“But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?’” (Galatians 2:14).
Jude warned us about “ungodly people who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality” (Jude 4). But Peter fell into the opposite error – nullifying the grace of God with legalism. And Peter’s kind of legalism here was not Peter trying to earn his way into heaven. Legalism is more tricky than that. Peter’s kind of legalism here was creating hell on earth by poisoning his relationships with demands that were not of God. So Paul is not worried that the doctrine of justification by faith alone might start exerting too much influence in how these early Christians are behaving toward one another. He’s worried it won’t exert enough influence – so much so that he is willing to speak about it awkwardly. And the striking thing about Peter’s betrayal of justification by faith alone is this. He betrayed the doctrine not at the level of doctrine but at the level of culture. And to Paul, that did betray the doctrine – what Paul calls “the truth of the gospel.”
Martin Luther understood what’s at stake. He comments on verse 21, “What eloquence is able sufficiently to set forth these words: ‘to nullify the grace of God,’ also that ‘Christ died for no purpose’? The horribleness of it is such that all the eloquence in the world is not able to express it. It is a small matter to say that any man died for no purpose. But to say that Christ died for no purpose is to take him quite away. Nevertheless, this sin is common.”
The horrible but common sin in this passage is departing from the relational implications of justification by faith alone and turning a joyous gospel fellowship into a coercive social environment. Gospel doctrine creates gospel culture. Peter was holding to the doctrine but destroying the culture. Paul says Peter’s “conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel.” It was not a failure of niceness but a failure of loyalty to the truth. Yes, Peter was orthodox on paper; but he was heretical in his leadership. If Paul were among us today he would insist that it’s only when our churches are faithful both in their biblical doctrine and in their relational culture that they are faithful. It is possible for us today to unsay by our church culture what we say by our church doctrine. Which means we can defeat the advance of the gospel, however biblical our exposition and however brilliant our apologetics, by the conduct we display and the social dynamics we create with one another.
How then did Peter sin so horribly that the gospel was endangered by his ministry? You know the background. Peter had learned, in Acts Chapter 10, that Gentiles were equally acceptable before God through Christ. The vision from heaven made it clear to Peter, three times, that “what God has made clean, do not call common.” The point of the vision was obvious in the conversion of Cornelius and the other Gentiles in Caesarea. Peter saw these new Gentile believers as his equals, because Jesus alone makes anyone kosher before God. The body of Jewish tradition called the Mishnah warned that “the dwelling-places of the Gentiles are unclean.” In other words, if you go into a Gentile house, you’ll get cooties. But Jewish Peter walked right into Cornelius’ house. As he was doing so, there is a fascinating detail in the text: “And as he talked with him, he went in and found many persons gathered.” Peter, with his jealously guarded, impeccable Jewish pedigree, makes friendly small-talk with his new Gentile friend, because the gospel put him at the same level before God as everyone else. So as he turns to go into Cornelius’ house, I can imagine Peter saying, “Well, what a lovely garden. And is this Mrs. Cornelius? How nice to meet you, ma’am. And here’s Cornelius Junior! Hi, pal. Hey, how about those New England Patriots!” Why did Jewish Peter now identify with these Gentiles as equals and friends? He said, “God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.” Peter said, “God shows no partiality.” Finally, in Acts Chapter 11, now back in Jerusalem, Peter asked, “Who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” The wonderful new unity of believers in Christ alone was obvious to Peter and to everyone at that major turning point in the advance of the gospel to the nations.
But here in Antioch, how the tune has changed! Verse 12, “For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.” What is Peter saying now? His behavior now denies that there is “one body and one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:4-5). Peter’s political cowardice – back in the Gospels, when Peter denied the Lord, he was driven by fear for his physical survival; now Peter again denies the Lord, driven by fear for his ecclesiastical survival – Peter’s hypocrisy is saying that there are two justifications, a super-justification for believing Jews and a sub-justification for believing Gentiles. Peter in Antioch is “rebuilding” the walls of exclusion that Peter in Caesarea had “torn down” (cf. Galatians 2:18). Peter’s aloofness is saying that Gentile justification is inferior to Jewish justification, and everyone will just have to get used to a two-tiered Body of Christ with the Jews above and everyone else below. Of course, if the Gentiles would only add into their justification the kosher tastes of the Jews, they would be allowed up in the first-class section too – but not until they conform at the level of culture. We see then why Paul uses the strong word “force” in verse 14, “How can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” It was by the psychological power of exclusion that Peter forced and pressured and coerced the Gentile believers to adopt Jewish packaging as if that were required for all Christians to be legit.
Exclusion because of selfish pride and rigid tradition not only insults human beings but, even more seriously, it violates the gospel. Later Paul says, of the Galatian legalists, “They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them” (Galatians 4:17). It’s like that moment in Tom Sawyer. Remember when Aunt Polly tells Tom to whitewash the fence on that gorgeous Saturday morning? But Tom hates every minute of it. Then he sees Ben Rogers coming his way down the street, and he tricks Ben into doing the job for him. How did Tom manage that? Mark Twain explains: “In order to make a man or boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.” But full stature in Christ is easy to attain! All anyone needs is Christ, received with the empty hands of faith. There is no hierarchy in our justification, no degrees or shades or levels. But offering to the few and the favored firstclass elite status with prior boarding and extra legroom – that messes with our insecurities powerfully. It appeals to our pride and arouses our fears. “Our church is better. Our church is for cool (or traditional, or any self-exalting distinction) Christians. You might make the grade.” No church says that with words, but many churches say it with their attitudes and all the subtle intangibles that create culture. And it is a blatant denial of justification by faith alone, even if the doctrine is enshrined in a church’s doctrinal statement and preached in the pulpit. And if you came out of an improperly demanding church background, with a legalistic church culture that was denying its own gracious doctrine, and all your life your heart has been knocked off-balance and to this day you wonder if you measure up, and you’ve had to fake it and not let on how you’re not doing well, but in it all you keep clinging to Jesus, the gospel says to every one of us right now: “You are cleansed, you are received, you are included, because of Christ alone! There is a place for you among the very best of the people of God. You belong!” It was for this freedom that Christ set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
The uncorrupted gospel, allowed to do what it does and not hindered – the gospel creates a social environment so gentle, so respectful, so easy to join, that everyone there breathes a sigh of relief and also tenderly reassures everyone else, “All week long at work we get beaten up, we never measure up, we never fully belong. But here we are now in church, fully accepted by the Lord, and deeply bonded together as one. Isn’t it great to be here together?” Gospel doctrine creates that gospel culture. The truth becomes the experience of the community – not only how they enter, but also how they roll. It’s not a matter of an optional adornment. It’s a matter of essential faithfulness.
But how can a life-giving gospel culture last, over the long-haul, into the next generation and be reproduced in hundreds and thousands of new churches? We are so weak. We need nothing less than the very touch of Jesus himself upon us, moment by moment.
What is the spirituality here?
“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
The very personal nature of this verse confronts us about our own personal reality with the Lord. Whatever those men from the circumcision party were thinking – probably a sense of alarm about falling standards, with all those messy Gentiles entering in – whatever was going on inside them, it wasn’t the love of Christ. And whatever Peter and the others were thinking when they caved to church politics, it wasn’t their personal reality with the Lord. Whenever our hearts drift away from a wonderful sense that the Son of God loved me and gave himself for me – that is when we fragment and divide. If we’re drifting from him, how can we stay loyal to one another? Justification by faith alone, as a doctrine, is an abstraction. But the felt love of Jesus for us personally, his grace as a personal remedy, is too real not to hold us together. We need not love him first. He is not living by faith in us. He loved us and gave himself for us, each of us personally. When his love moves our hearts, we can keep in step with the truth of the gospel. We can preach and incarnate true doctrine. I love the way Luther comments here:
Think carefully about this price and see the captive given, the Son of
God. He is incomparably better than all created things. What will you
do when you hear the apostle say that such a price was paid for you?
Will you bring your vows, your actions, your merits? What can all these
do? What can even the law of Moses do? What is the obedience of all
the angels, in comparison with the Son of God given, most shamefully,
to death on the cross, so that there was no drop of his most precious
blood that was not shed for your sins? If you would think about this
incomparable price properly, you would throw everything else down
to hell. . . . Christ is nothing but joy and sweetness to a trembling and
broken heart, as Paul shows here when he describes him most sweetly
and says, “He loved me and gave himself for me.”
The law didn’t love us and give itself for us. But Jesus loved us and gave himself for us. He who knew no sin became sin for us, to make us clean forever before the all-holy God, whatever our background and culture, giving each of us a place at his table forever. He will never draw back and separate himself from us. He fears no one. There isn’t an ounce of hypocrisy in him. He made full satisfaction for us, because he loved each of us personally. And when our hearts savor his dying love as the answer to our deep fear that we will forever be exiles and outsiders – when his dying love moves us, we not only enter in ourselves but we also make room in our hearts for other sinners too. And all the critics and fault-finders and the devil himself will just have to cope with the joy we share in the Lord.
“The life I now live in the flesh,” as Paul puts it, is our moment-by-moment enjoyment of the One who loved us and gave himself for us. Savoring our justification as the heart of Jesus for us all the time creates emotional space where sinners like us can breathe and relax and rethink our lives at a deep level. And it’s unforced. It makes going to church every Sunday the highlight of the whole week. Cherishing our free justification is what Paul means when he says, “I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” That reality has the power to refresh exhausted sinners. Jonathan Edwards counseled a young believer: “One new discovery of the glory of Christ’s face and the fountain of his sweet grace and love will do more towards scattering clouds of darkness and doubting in one minute than examining old experiences for a whole year.” That is why our goal as pastors every Sunday is to shepherd people back into enjoying the all-sufficient love of Christ for them. Our people don’t need “challenge.” They need the heart of Christ for them – at their worst.
The future of our churches depends on gospel doctrine experienced in gospel culture and sustained by gospel spirituality. Charles Hodge wisely wrote:
Whenever a change occurs in the religious opinions of a community, that change is always preceded by a change in their religious feelings. The natural expression of the feelings of true piety is the doctrines of the Bible. As long as these feelings are retained, these doctrines will be retained; but should the feelings be lost, the doctrines are either held for form’s sake or rejected, according to circumstance; and if the feelings again are called into life, the doctrines return as a matter of course.
A church with a tender heart toward the Lord will cheerfully love the gospel and one another. But if a church’s heart cools toward the Lord, that church will destabilize at all levels. The heart works with such power that it creates inevitability in a church’s future, for good or ill. But knowing his love is what wins us and keeps us, as nothing else can. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said:
The whole object of being a Christian is that you may know the love of
Jesus Christ, his personal love to you; that he may tell you in unmistakable language that he loves you, that he has given himself for you, that he has loved you with “an everlasting love.”
And Francis Schaeffer, in True Spirituality – the word “classic” is overused, but True Spirituality is a classic – he put it plainly:
True spirituality can never have a mechanical solution. The real solution is being cast up into moment-by-moment communion, personal communion, with God himself, and letting Christ’s truth flow through me through the agency of the Holy Spirit.
A healthy church is unlike every other collectivity on earth. A healthy church lives in the all-sufficient grace of God in Christ, equally shared, by all alike, through faith alone, so that diverse people can be who they are in Christ. There is nothing in all this world so happy and so beautiful and so prophetic as a church that shows the world what it actually looks like to believe in the dying love of Jesus for all alike. Then church politics dies. Then dividing walls crumble. Then we experience reformation and revival, as diverse and unlikely people come together with a happiness from above.
This article is an excerpt from a collection of talks from our 2019 Summit Collaborative Retreat about what it looks like for us to run with pace, to build strength for long-term movement. You can download the entire book for free below.