At the end of last week, I had the privilege of attending The Gospel Coalition Australia’s first-ever in-person National Conference in Melbourne (last year’s conference was online due to COVID).
I felt deeply encouraged as I heard from God’s word and gathered with Christian brothers and sisters from across Australia.
The topic of the conference was ‘Gospel-Fueled Holiness,’ with talks from the book of Titus, along with seminars that explored several issues facing Christians. I felt deeply encouraged as I heard from God’s word and gathered with Christian brothers and sisters from across Australia.
While there was so much good content that came out of this conference, here are seven things that caught my attention in particular:
1. We’re not being out-thought by our secular culture—we’re being out-discipled.
Pastor and Author Rory Shiner pointed out that our surrounding secular culture provides an alternative vision of the good life—a different salvation story from the Christian gospel. It is the ‘you do you’ way of life. Christians everywhere are affected by it, and some are moving away from the faith because of this false gospel.
However, it’s not a well-thought-out gospel. It’s logically and psychologically incoherent. It doesn’t give the satisfaction it promises but leaves mental health and existential issues in its wake.
We need ‘thicker’, deeper gospel communities that counteract the influence of our secular world.
And so, why is it so influential on our people in our churches—and especially on our young people?
Because of its discipleship power, by virtue of its hold on our media and institutions, it’s the sea we swim in. Where once the dominant cultural messaging championed duty to King and Country (Rory illustrated the point with WWI Army recruiting posters). Today, it’s about ‘do what you love.’
How can churches respond?
Rory says we need ‘thicker’, deeper gospel communities that counteract the pull and influence of our secular world.
2. God has worked powerfully through the Andrew Thorburn saga, especially at City on a Hill.
Stephanie Judd, the Director of Ministry at City on a Hill, Melbourne, gave a powerful testimony of the way God has been working throughout the whole Essendon saga.
Far from feeling demoralised and dejected, the ministry team and church at City on a Hill have felt the love and care of God at this challenging time. As they looked back to the gospel of the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ, they have been reminded that being under pressure for our faith is normal. And it’s something we can and should rejoice in.
Steph shared some wonderful stories of journalists coming to their church, who, despite writing hit-pieces, nevertheless acknowledged that the people of COAH were warm and welcoming (not something you would expect from ‘hateful bigots’).
3. Our greatest temptation is to find our joy in things other than the Lord God.
TGCA Council member and Archbishop of Sydney Kanishka Raffel made a simple but incredibly profound point: the biggest temptation for gospel workers—and for all Christians—is to find our joy in something other than our Lord Jesus Christ.
These other things, he said, might be good (e.g. ministry, work, family) but putting them first is deeply dishonouring to God: it says to him that he’s not enough for us.
That was a much-needed reality check.
4. The gospel should make us feel uncomfortable in this world.
In a world that’s rebelling against God, the gospel should make us feel uncomfortable.
Richard Chin from AFES reminded us of this vital and important truth. Drawing from passages such as 2 Timothy 3:1-4, Richard pointed out that if we belong to Jesus, we can’t help but feel uncomfortable in our world. And that’s normal. And that’s good.
In fact, as he pointed out, some perceptive secular commentators know this to be true. Richard quoted journalist Ben Sixsmith’s reflection on the Carl Lentz Hillsong scandal:
I am not religious, so it is not my place to dictate to Christians what they should and should not believe. Still, if someone has a faith worth following, I feel that their belief should make me feel uncomfortable for not doing so. If they share 90 per cent of my lifestyle and values, then there is nothing especially inspiring about them. Instead of making me want to become more like them, it looks very much as if they want to become more like me.
5. How do we fuel our holiness? Not through moral effort but through remembering what Jesus has done for us.
Richard Chin also highlighted one of the greatest fallacies of the Christian life, which we’re all prone to believe. That fallacy is the belief that the key to growing in godliness is moral effort: we need to try really, really hard to change our behaviour and ourselves.
The Bible teaches that we grow in holiness by remembering the gospel.
In contrast, the Bible teaches that we grow in holiness by remembering the gospel and what Jesus has done for us.
For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. (Titus 2:11-14)
We can say ‘no’ to ungodliness by remembering, rejoicing in, celebrating Jesus, and what he’s done.
Or, in the words of John Owen:
Our greatest hindrance in the Christian life is not our lack of effort, but the lack of our acquaintedness with our privileges.
That’s the essence of ‘gospel-fuelled holiness’.
6. When engaging our culture, we need to understand both what they believe and why they love that belief.
Monash Lecturer and author Chris Watkins gave a seminar on how the gospel intersects with culture. Drawing on the Apostle Paul, Augustine and Tim Keller, Chris made the point that we need to first understand our culture if we’re to better communicate the gospel to them—and not get drawn into the false beliefs of the culture.
This all begins with understanding what our culture believes, but it doesn’t end there. We also need to understand why our culture loves that belief—why it’s attractive to them.
Once we understand those two things, we’ll be able to challenge that belief and show why it doesn’t deliver on its promises. We’ll also be able to show why Christ can deliver what our culture seeks—albeit in an unexpected and subversive way.
7. A ministry leader’s key role is to ring the gospel bell.
The minister’s life is a busy one. Even so, with so many balls to juggle, only one needs to stay in the air: the gospel.
Ministers’ most important priority must always be the gospel.
Trinity Adelaide Senior Pastor Paul Harrington reminded us that ministers’ most important priority must always be the gospel. They must continually preach the gospel to themselves, their teams, and their churches.
Because losing sight of the gospel in the busyness of life is the first step to shipwrecking our ministry.
Encouragement for the Hard Days Ahead
Having come to Melbourne and the conference in the fallout of the Essendon saga, I left the conference encouraged by the way God is working through his word—amongst so many different Christians, and all across Australia. The gospel is growing. People are being converted. Lives are being transformed.
Even in these last days.