What Is Gospel Culture?

And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” —John 8:11

We are defining Immanuel Church. We want to be clear about the few things that matter. And here’s what we see in our passage for today. In his interaction with this woman, Jesus is ending one conversation and beginning another conversation. He puts an end to one conversations when he says, “Neither do I condemn you.” And if he isn’t bringing it up again, no one may bring it up again. So that’s over. But he also begins a whole new conversation when he says, “Go, and from now on sin no more.” She must have thought, “Me, go back to my crowd, and sin no more? What can you possibly mean?” Good question. And Jesus has some great answers. But that ongoing conversation will take place inside a relationship of zero-condemnation. When many people are experiencing that together, it’s a gospel culture.

Jesus is building a gospel culture, and he’s calling us to build a gospel culture right here. What is a gospel culture? That’s the question we’re answering this morning. We’re thinking through the Immanuel Playbook. Here is an essential play our play our team can run, to move the ball down the field: creating a gospel culture. We have gospel theology – good news for bad people through the finished work of Christ on the cross. What we’re building at Immanuel is not a new theology but a new culture that embodies that old theology. We’re building a church for sinners where their past doesn’t matter, where people are free to change and grow and never stop growing. That is what Jesus created with this woman, and it’s what he wants for us here at Immanuel.

Let me explain it another way. We’re not here just to preach the gospel. We must also incarnate the gospel. It’s the difference between Publix and Whole Foods. When you go to Publix, you walk in, buy your food, walk out. But when you go to Whole Foods, you step into a new culture. If you are a traditional person and you walk into Whole Foods, you might sense you’re on foreign soil. It’s not just a store; it’s a culture. Too many churches are like Publix. You walk in, get your religion, walk out, and it doesn’t define you. Going to Publix does not make you feel that you’re a part of something. But going to Whole Foods does. Another example. When you go buy a Chevy, you get a Chevy. But if you go buy a Harley, you enter into a new culture. No one buys a Harley just to get from Point A to Point B. They buy a Harley because it says something about them as people. And too many churches are Chevy dealerships and too few churches are Harley dealerships. If your church doesn’t offer you a whole way of life, then even if your church preaches the gospel it’s letting you down. It’s letting Christ down. The most powerful witness for Christ is not the individual Christian but a church being that rare thing – a church. When a church both preaches the gospel and embodies the gospel in its corporate culture, it’s like Jesus revisiting the world today, the Jesus of this passage in the Bible.

Sidebar. But is this passage in the Bible? In my Bible there’s a bracketed statement on the page: “The earliest manuscripts do not include 7:32-8:11.” Rats! I love this passage. Do I have to give it up? No.

Let’s think about it briefly. The manuscripts of the New Testament do disagree about this passage. Some manuscripts include it right here. Other manuscripts put it somewhere else. And still others don’t have this passage. That’s because the New Testament was copied by hand for centuries, and sometimes mistakes were made.

Until Johannes Gutenberg invented printing around 1450, all books were copied by hand. Today we have over 5000 manuscripts, or hand-written copies, of the New Testament – in part or in whole. My edition of the Greek New Testament uses the best 300+ manuscripts, some of which are very early – the second and third centuries. By contrast, my edition of Aristotle’s Metaphysics is based on five manuscripts, the earliest of which is the tenth century A.D., about 1300 years after Aristotle, which is typical of ancient documents that no one is skeptical about. I can’t find on amazon.com any books with titles like Decoding the Real Aristotle, The Lost Writings of Aristotle, The Story Behind Who Changed Aristotle and Why, and so forth – though I find titles like those about the New Testament. But there are two reasons why books like these are not written about Aristotle. One, nobody cares. Two, we have Aristotle. Five whole manuscripts to compare together! We also have Jesus and the New Testament. 5000 manuscripts to compare! Bruce Metzger, an expert in the field, says, “The textual critic of the New Testament is embarrassed by the wealth of his material.” We don’t have to recover “the lost New Testament.” We have it. But what about this passage?

Leon Morris, in his commentary on John, writes, “Throughout the history of the church it has been held that, whoever wrote [this passage], this little story is authentic.” The Jesus we meet here is the same Jesus we meet elsewhere in the Bible. The truth here is the same truth as everywhere else in the Bible. Romans 8:1 says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Whether or not John wrote this, the message of this text is good news for bad people through the finished work of Christ on the cross. This passage rings true as biblical. And this passage is in our manuscripts. End of sidebar.

Let’s think the passage through with three questions. One, where do we not see a gospel culture here? Two, where do we see a gospel culture here? Three, how can we create this gospel culture today?

Where do we not see a gospel culture here?

Two things are wrong with this picture. One, where’s the man? She was caught in the act of adultery. Where’s the man? The law of Moses confronted both the adulterous man and the woman, of course (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22). But in verse 5 the scribes and Pharisees refer only to “such women.” Why? They don’t care about this woman, they don’t care about the whole truth, they don’t even care about the law of Moses. Verse 6 tells us what they care about: “This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him.” They want to force Jesus to choose between upholding the Bible and forgiving a sinner, and the woman was the bait in their trap. If she was humiliated, it didn’t matter. If the man was let go, it didn’t matter. If the Bible was distorted, it didn’t matter. All that mattered was discrediting Jesus.

Two, why this hostility to Jesus? To understand that, we have to ask, Why are the Pharisees here in the New Testament at all? Time after time the gospel writers trot the Pharisees out as the bad guys. And when I see them there, I think, “The Pharisees were such morons. I’m glad I’m not like that.” But that thought is Pharisaism – looking at another sinner and thinking, “I’d never do that, I’d never sink that low” (Luke 18:9-14). The Pharisees are here in the Bible, to show us who we are – at our best. The Pharisees were the model citizens of their day, sticking their finger in the dike to hold back the flood of immorality. But the New Testament treats them as villains. Why? In her novel Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor says of the central figure, “There was already a deep black wordless conviction in him that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin.” Being good is one way to avoid Jesus. Without taking that into account, we’ll never understand ourselves. But we really can face ourselves, because Christ loves Pharisees. And his dying love humbles us down to the level of this confession: “If God were to choose me out and judge the whole world on the basis of my heart, God would have to damn the whole world.”

The Pharisees built up a non-gospel culture, just by not facing that truth. Guilty sinners who are upright outwardly but whose hearts are insecure, always uncertain how they’re doing and off-loading their secret anxiety and inferiority by blaming and condemning others – the whole world is like this. Paul Tournier, the Swiss psychiatrist, in his brilliant book Guilt & Grace, explains that every day you and I are swimming in an ocean of unspoken criticism. He calls it “the seasoning of our daily life.” We walk into a room, for example, mentally rating the other people, ranking them, sizing them up, scrutinizing, comparing, hoping to see weakness and failure. When our hearts look at other people and say, “The worse you look, the better I look,” that is not a gospel culture. Why is the whole world like that? Because they do not have a satisfying answer to this question: Am I okay? They don’t even know to ask the mega-question behind that one: Am I okay with God? But when the God-question gets a solid, happy answer applied to our hearts by the gospel of Christ crucified for sinners, it changes how we walk into a room. We start building a gospel culture where sinners can live and thrive in newness.

In all of literature outside the Bible, my favorite passage on creating a gospel-culture comes from Jonathan Edwards:

Spiritual pride tends to speak of other persons’ sins with bitterness and an air of contempt. Spiritual pride is very apt to suspect others, but a humble Christian is most jealous of himself. He is as suspicious of nothing in the world as he is of his own heart. The proud person is apt to find fault with other believers and to be quick to note their deficiencies. But the humble Christian has so much to do at home and sees so much evil in his own heart and is so concerned about it that he is not apt to be very busy with other hearts. He is apt to esteem others better than himself.

Where do we see a gospel culture here?

If we fast-forward the whole biblical story to the end, we’re shown what heaven will be like. We see that Jesus came to build a whole new world, a new culture both holy and humane, where God himself will wipe away every tear from our eyes – millions and millions of people from every race and nation living together in eternity, and every single one of them will like you. You walk into that room and everyone enthuses over you for the sake of Christ. That’s what Jesus started 2000 years ago, and he’s building it today through his church. The Bible says, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). That salvation is embodied in a new gospel culture called the church. It’s a foretaste of heaven on earth.

How do we see it here? His grace toward this woman is not just about him and her; it’s about him and her and them. Jesus does not say, “I do not condemn you.” He says, “Neither do I condemn you.” In other words, “The Pharisees have just walked away in silence, ma’am. They no longer condemn you. And neither do I.” He gave this woman her dignity back both in his sight and in their sight. He began to create a spreading gospel culture. He wanted the Pharisees to be a part of it too. When he said, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (verse 7), he was saying, “Why not drop those stones from your hands and join this woman before me?” He was saying, “Remember how David prayed? ‘Search me and know my heart, and lead me in the way everlasting’?” (Psalm 139:23-24).

Sinners have nothing to fear from the Friend of sinners. But these Pharisees turned away from their Friend. And – I never noticed this before this week – when Jesus takes this woman’s guilt off the table, she has still expressed no repentance. But she did stay there before Jesus. She didn’t skedaddle when they did. And he takes that as repentance enough. It’s as if he says, “I’ll take that as a yes.” He can work with so little, because your new beginning in life is not premised in your repentance but in his gospel pronouncement: “Neither do I condemn you.” A good thing, too. Are we ever repentant enough? Sin touches everything about us, even our repentance. Only one thing saves us – the cross, where Christ bore all our guilt in our place, including our sin-infested repentance.

What he wants is to start a whole new conversation with every one of us: “Go, and from now on sin no more.” He doesn’t mean, “You can be perfect now.” He means, “It’s time to change, and I’ll help you.” The Bible says, “If we say we have fellowship with God 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).

How can we create this gospel culture today?

It’s not just a matter of being nicer. It’s a matter of applying the gospel to our thoughts about ourselves and others. The key is remembering the difference between our justification and our sanctification. Most of our problems trace down to confusion right here. When Jesus says, “Neither do I condemn you,” that’s our justification. It’s final. It’s settled. He pronounces our guilt removed. He has the authority to do that. He died for that. He knows how to speak peace to our fearful hearts. It’s his ministry of justification. All we do is receive it with the empty hands of faith. Justification creates a penalty-free zone of acceptance within which we can relax and start to change.

Now, that ongoing personal change – that’s sanctification. Sanctification is the gospel leading us forward into new ways to think, new things to care about, new things to live for. But our mistake is when we reverse the order of things. Instead of thinking, “God accepts me; therefore, I will obey him,” which is the gospel, we think, “I am obeying him; therefore, he accepts me,” which is not the gospel. But that’s how we destabilize a gospel culture of freedom and joy. We turn our eyes away from Christ and his cross, we shift our emotional focus back to our own sacrifices, and that’s when we’re not a lot of fun to live with and we start deconstructing the gospel culture of our church without even realizing it. Self-justification puts our sanctification into reverse gear and we join the world in their non-gospel culture of blaming and finger-pointing even though we may be preaching the gospel. But here’s how we can build a gospel culture. We keep preaching the good news to our own hearts: “Neither does he condemn me; therefore, I will go and sin no more.” We live moment by moment on the basis of pre-arranged acceptance by God. We begin each day with this truth: “I am a desperate sinner. But I am ‘accepted in the Beloved’ (Ephesians 1:6, AV). Therefore, I will honor him today.” And then we look at each other in Christ and say the same thing: “You are accepted in the Beloved too. Therefore, I will honor you.” Martin Luther wrote to a discouraged friend:

When the devil throws our sins up to us and declares that we deserve death and hell, we ought to speak thus: “I admit I deserve death and hell. What of it? Does this mean I shall be sentenced to eternal damnation? By no means. For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction in my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Where he is, there I shall be also.”

In a gospel culture we look around at each other in Christ and think, “You are a sinner, but what of it? If Christ has set you free, so will I.” That faith, that reverence, is where sinners can live and thrive and change.

People are looking for a church like that. It’s a taste of Jesus and a foretaste of heaven. By God’s grace, let’s build it together.