- David Schrader, PhD
The Gospel Shaped Church
On Sunday, May 23, churches around the world will observe the day of Pentecost – a day that marked the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the early disciples – a day regarded ever since as the birth of church.
The purpose of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was stated by Jesus in Acts 1:8: "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
The outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the early believers had an instantaneous and far-reaching impact. After being locked up in a room because of fear of the Jews, Peter stood up and boldly preached the good news of Jesus Christ. When the people heard his message, they were "cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, "Brothers, what shall we do?" Peter replied, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:37-38).
Three thousand people repented of their sins that day and were baptized. After this, they devoted themselves to the Apostles' teaching on a regular basis; and healthy, biblical, spirt-filled churches were birthed that day.
The mission of the Congregational Christian Churches in Canada is Proclaiming Jesus Christ, Making Disciples and Growing Healthy Churches. While each of these aspects of our mission is crucial, having healthy churches is critical to the continued sharing of the Good News of Jesus Christ both in our communities and around the world.
So, why is the gospel or good news so important to a healthy church? Paul said in Romans 1:16 that he was "proud of the Good News, because it is the power God uses to save everyone who believes." If we want to see healthy churches and people's lives changed, then this can only be accomplished through the power of the Holy Spirit and through the preaching of the Good News.
To be a healthy church, we must come to terms with the following questions: "Are we as proud of the Good News as Paul was?" "And are we convinced that the Good News is the power God uses to save everyone who believes?"
Churches can only be healthy to the degree that:
1. Its pastoral leadership is able to—accurately, effectively, and broadly bring the gospel to bear on the real lives of the people.
Jesus' message was, "repent of your sins for the kingdom of heaven is near (Matt. 4:17)" and his missionwas, 'I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent (Luke 4:43). Pastors and Christian leaders, like Jesus, must call people to repent of their sins and to follow Jesus as Lord in his kingdom.
2. Church members have a personal understanding of the gospel as it applies to their daily lives.
In other words, a church understands biblical truth in light of what it means to live out the gospel as members of the kingdom of heaven. The church teaches biblical truth and expects believers to obey the teachings of Jesus.
Jesus said, "Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you.” The key here is not just to hear the commands of Jesus but to obey them. Jesus likened a healthy disciple as follows: "I will show you what it’s like when someone comes to me, listens to my teaching, and then follows it. It is like a person building a house who digs deep and lays the foundation on solid rock. When the floodwaters rise and break against the house, it stands firm because it is well built" (Luke 6:47-48).
Healthy churches will teach their people to build upon the solid foundation of God's Word, not the transitory whims of cultural approbation or group think.
3. The pastor and the church not only understand the gospel message cerebrally, but they realize it has behavioral implications for how they are to live their lives every day of the week. This happens when the good news is modelled in gospel conduct.
Think of these three things I have just mentioned as illustrated by three concentric circles.
In the center of the circle is the Gospel Message, perhaps best represented by the words of 1 Corinthians 15:3—"Christ died for our sins." This simple phrase speaks of the reality of our sin, the necessity of divine punishment, and the wonderful provision of salvation through Jesus Christ.
Paul gives priority to this Good News in his preaching and teaching: "For I decided that while I was with you, I would forget everything except Jesus Christ, the one who was crucified " (1 Cor. 2:2); and again in 2 Tim. 2:8, he says, "Remember Jesus Christ, who was raised from the dead, who is from the family of David. This is the Good News I preach."
The gospel message or the good news was central to everything Paul taught. But in order for the gospel message to have a functional centrality, it must be connected to the everyday lives of people and where they live.
This is why the second ring around the center is called, Gospel Growth. These are specific, concrete doctrinal implications of the gospel. For example, listen carefully to what Paul says in Ephesians 4:17-24. Here he speaks of the transformation that should take place in people's lives as a result of understanding the gospel message:
With the Lord’s authority I say this: Live no longer as the Gentiles do, for they are hopelessly confused. Their minds are full of darkness; they wander far from the life God gives because they have closed their minds and hardened their hearts against him. They have no sense of shame. They live for lustful pleasure and eagerly practice every kind of impurity. But that isn’t what you learned about Christ. Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy.
The important truth in these verses is that believing in the gospel message should bring about a transformation in how people live. Notice the words, "Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception." The message is clear – one cannot live like they have always lived once they believe and trust in Christ. To believe the gospel message requires a change in one's behaviour.
The good news particularly affects our minds and our thinking. Without the gospel, Paul says people's minds are "full of darkness; they wander from the life God gives because they have closed their minds and hardened their hearts against him." But when the good news about Jesus Christ's death, burial, and resurrection is believed and followed, Paul says that the "the Spirit should renew our thoughts and attitudes" because we will have a new nature that is "created to be like God – desiring "righteous and holiness."
Beyond the shaping of our thinking is the final connection that links the gospel to the third ring around the center – Gospel Conduct. In Galatians 2:14, The Apostle Paul rebukes the Apostle Peter for conduct that was "not in line with the truth of the gospel." And, in Philippians 1:27, Paul urges believers to "conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the gospel."
In other words, the gospel specifically addresses behavior. When someone calls themselves a Christian, and yet their behaviour or beliefs contradict a godly lifestyle, then that person has failed to embrace the power of the gospel's transformative message.
These are the people Paul describes in 2 Timothy 3:5, "They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly. Stay away from people like that!"
The Apostle John also says, "So we can see who God’s children are and who the devil’s children are: Those who do not do what is right are not God’s children, and those who do not love their brothers and sisters are not God’s children" (1 John 3:10). It can't be stated any plainer than this.
Healthy churches will encourage their members to read the Bible in such a way that they are always looking for a connection between the gospel message and how they should be living their lives.
For example, when Paul appeals to the Corinthians to "flee from sexual immorality," he explicitly bases his appeal on the gospel: "you are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore, honor God with your body" (1 Cor. 6:18- 20).
When he urges forgiveness, he explicitly references the gospel as both our motivation and our model, "Be kind to each other, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. (Eph. 4:32).
When he tells husbands to love their wives, he does so by linking his exhortation directly to the gospel, "For husbands, this means love your wives, just as Christ loved the church. He gave up his life for her." (Eph. 5:25).
When he calls the Corinthians to an ongoing generosity, he explicitly reminds them of God's generosity in the gospel (See 2 Cor. 8:7, 9; 9:12-13, 15).
When the Apostle Paul called upon the Philippian Christians to be godly examples of the Christian faith, he exhorted them as follows: "Be sure that you live in a way that brings honor to the Good News of Christ" (Philippians 1:27).
All Christian behavior should bring honour to the gospel –the good news about Jesus Christ. If your church isn't healthy, it just might have something to do with the lack of godliness in its membership.
In order to have healthy churches, pastoral leadership must clearly show these three connections so that people can bring the gospel to bear on both their thinking and their conduct. Only then will the gospel, or Good News of Jesus Christ be able to transform believers into a healthy local church.