I want to interact with those around me, respond to sin (either mine or others), and generally live in such a way that I put the good news of Jesus on display. Of course, I’ll never do this perfectly but I should strive to make everything I can in my personal life point to the Lord’s kindness in Christ.
Think about parenting. When I interact with my kids, I want them to have a profound sense of my love and care for them. I also interact in ways that help them to understand there are standards of right and wrong. And when they do wrong, there are earthly consequences. Yet, I don’t want those earthly consequences to be the last word. In my parenting, I also want to point them toward the cross, where Jesus has paid their ultimate debt. So, I try to create a culture where my kids know I love them. I shower them with affection. I uphold standards of righteousness. And I help them see that even when they fail and fall short, there is grace and forgiveness at the feet of Christ. Parenting in those ways, I hope, creates a gospel culture within our home.
On the flip side, there are ways to parent that create gospel-less cultures. That is, the note of the gospel simply isn’t clear among mom and dad, sons and daughters. Perhaps mom and dad don’t show much affection and instead make their kids feel as if they are an annoyance or they simply get in the way of what mom and dad really want to do (e.g. travel the world or be alone). Or, perhaps parents show little grace for sin and judgment comes too quickly. Or, it might be that there is plenty of affection, and tons of grace, but never any accountability for sin. No accountability for wrongdoing obscures the gospel, too. Whether it’s coddling children and failing to hold them accountable, or bringing swift judgment without mercy, we can parent our children in ways that obscure the good news.
That is what I mean by a gospel-less culture. There are simply some people and places that fail to cultivate an environment that puts the gospel on display as brightly as possible. These environments either coddle sin and never hold people accountable, all in the name of grace, or they drop the hammer on sin fast and hard without extending mercy and forgiveness.
So, sometimes we live in ways that cultivate rich gospel environments. What we might call gospel cultures. At other times, we live in ways that cultivate environments void of a full-throated gospel. Or, gospel-less cultures.
For as long as I can remember, many people have leveled this gospel-less charge against those who might describe themselves as Calvinistic or reformed. That is, those in the reformed tradition are often described as mean-spirited men and women who love to be known as truth warriors but often fail to extend much grace to their opponents. They quickly respond to theological errors but often in ways that lack kindness and tact. That those types of people exist within reformed camp is beyond debate. So, even in fighting for truth and confronting sin and error, we can fail to display the gospel if we don’t point toward hope and forgiveness found at the cross.
Yet, I do not think this problem is unique to those in the Calvinistic tradition. There are Christians of all stripes who can act in mean-spirited ways toward those around them. It might be hard to quantify, but my inclination is that reformed and non-reformed alike can be pretty nasty towards one another. I’m not so sure Calvinists have the corner on the jerk market. When those postures prevail, no matter what one might believe about election or the atonement, the gospel is obscured.
Both groups can undermine the gospel in other ways, too. That is, cultivating a gospel-less culture doesn’t always look like simply being rude, mean, or going toe-to-toe over every wind of doctrine. Sometimes the reformed and non-reformed alike can undermine the gospel in the name of winsomeness or grace (though it is probably true to say this problem tips towards the non-reformed world). In the name of kindness and love, Christians are often guilty of failing to confront error and sin. After all, who wants to cast the first stone?! We might describe this group as sin coddlers. They don’t want to offend anyone and use the virtues of “love,” “grace” or “mercy” as a cover to stop short of telling someone they’re a sinner who needs to repent or face judgment. Or, they stop short of debating the ideas on the table because they don’t want to argue and fight but, as they might say, simply love. This, too, is a gospel-less culture. Why? Because the gospel is the good news of salvation for sinners who must turn from sin and trust in Jesus. And in order to call someone to repent, we must confront them with the sin from which they need to repent. This, in the end, means we run the risk of being perceived as mean or judgmental as we guard this good deposit and speak it plainly.
Two ways, then, to create gospel-less cultures. First, respond to those around you in ways that lack grace, mercy, and hope. Second, coddle sinners in such a way that they never see their wickedness and are called to repent. There is no gospel without grace. And there is no gospel without repentance.
So, in short, whether in our personal lives or in the life of whatever church or institution we find ourselves in, we want to live in such a way that we put the gospel on display. That means right displays of affection, cultivating just and righteous environments where right and wrong are clearly defined, holding people accountable when they falter, and finally pointing them towards grace and forgiveness that is found at the cross.
Love. Justice. Repentance. Grace. Forgiveness. None are dispensable if we’d create a gospel culture.