THE GOSPEL AND COMMUNITY
(an excerpt from Center Church by Tim Keller)
Building community is no longer natural or easy under our present cultural conditions. It requires an intentionality greater than that required of our ancestors, and it is uncomfortable for most of us. But our weapon is the gospel itself.
In his classic book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer grounds Christian fellowship solidly in the gospel of justification by faith:
The Reformers expressed it this way: Our righteousness is an “alien righteousness,” a righteousness that comes from outside of us … God permits [Christians] to meet together and gives them community. Their fellowship is founded solely upon Jesus Christ and this “alien righteousness.” All we can say, therefore, is: the community of Christians springs solely from the biblical and Reformation message of the justification of man through grace alone; this alone is the basis of the longing of Christians for one another … Without Christ we … would not know our brother, nor could we come to him. The way is blocked by our own ego.
How does this work? Our natural condition under sin is to be “glory empty” — starved for significance, honor, and a sense of worth. Sin makes us feel superior and overconfident (because we are trying to prove to ourselves and others that we are significant) and inferior and underconfident (because at a deep level we feel guilty and insecure). Some people’s glory emptiness primarily takes the form of bravado and evident pride; for others, it takes the form of self-deprecation and self-loathing. Most of us are wracked by both impulses. Either way, until the gospel changes us, we will use people in relationships. We do not work for the sake of the work; we do not relate for the sake of the person. Rather, we work and relate to bolster our own self-image — to derive it, essentially, from others. Bonhoeffer reminds us that the way to transparency, love, and mutual service is “blocked by our own ego.”
But when the gospel changes us, we can begin to relate to others for their sakes. It humbles us before anyone, telling us we are sinners saved only by grace. But it also emboldens us before anyone, telling us we are loved and honored by the only eyes in the universe that really count. So we are set free to enjoy people for who they are in themselves, not for how they make us feel about ourselves. Our self-image is no longer based on comparisons with others (Gal 5:26; 6:3 – 5). We do not earn our worth through approval from people or through power over people. We are not overly dependent on the approval of others; nor, on the other hand, are we afraid of commitment and connection to others. The gospel makes us neither self-confident nor self-disdaining but gives us boldness and humility that can increase together.
Strong community is formed by powerful common experiences, as when people survive a flood or fight together in a battle. When they emerge on the other side, this shared experience becomes the basis for a deep, permanent bond that is stronger than blood. The more intense the experience, the more intense the bond.
When we experience Christ’s radical grace through repentance and faith, it becomes the most intense, foundational event of our lives. Now, when we meet someone from a different culture, race, or social class who has received the same grace, we see someone who has been through the same life-and-death experience. In Christ, we have both spiritually died and been raised to new life (Rom 6:4 – 6; Eph 2:1 – 6). And because of this common experience of rescue, we now share an identity marker even more indelible than the ties that bind us to our family, our race, or our culture.
Keller, Timothy. Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City