The Gospel Off-Centered, Part 1
For some time now the term “Gospel-Centered” has been finding its way into virtually every reformed conference theme, numerous book titles, and scores of internet forums. It’s a great term! People who love Jesus Christ love the gospel of His saving grace. We want to fulfill the great commission, we long to worship Him in “spirit and truth,” and we desire to make His glory the unchallenged bulls-eye of everything we do in ministry. In a day when the evangelical church is transfusing truth with secularism at frightening levels, being “Gospel-centered” instantly marks someone as swimming ‘upstream.’ The term has trumpeted a new movement within evangelicalism, signaling what appears to be a divine rekindling of the church’s first love. Coursing through the resurgence are fresh streams of the doctrines of sovereign grace.
From all angles, it appears that we are experiencing a spiritual ‘awakening’ of some kind. Disheartened Christians have been praying for revival in our culture for decades. The current renewal of gospel-fervor in the church worldwide is a merciful answer to those faithful prayers. These are great days! But they are also dangerous. With every outpouring of the grace of God there is an evil counterwork hatched by the adversary. It is rarely discernable at first, but it is inevitable and always deadly! Satan hates God. He double-hates God’s saving nature. And he triple-hates the surging voices of sinners praising Christ from eyes of faith and a heart of gratitude.
Whenever God brings revival His people should raise their level of spiritual alert. Here’s the question: with all our gospel-centeredness are we already being taken ‘off-center’ and away from the true gospel? The gospel is far more than the grace that justifies. What concerns me, however, is when someone preaches gospel-centeredness as an argument against those who are striving to obey God’s commands in the power of the gospel. The argument can be summarized like this:
The heart of the gospel is the finished work of Christ on our behalf. He already accomplished everything for us. Since we are justified by grace through faith in Christ and not of works, then we should spend our Christian lives in contemplation of that truth. Therefore, if we begin to see our daily Christian life as duty—to obey commands rather than high thoughts of God’s grace, we’ve fallen into the trap of legalism, trying to work our way into God’s favor. The only safeguard, therefore, is to teach, contemplate and reiterate what Christ has already accomplished for us. Anything that remotely sounds like duty or submission to rules is a sure sign of self-atonement and is not the gospel.
Is this what Jesus taught? Is it true that an emphasis on our duty as believers to obey the Bible’s “do’s and don’ts” is a wrong view of grace? Should we abandon all efforts to “please God” and simply be gospel-centered in our contemplations? The answer to all these questions is a resounding “No!” In fact, at the very center of the gospel is the Holy Spirit of grace who assures us of His power to obey. To be gospel-centered is to live every moment of every day in the conscious presence of Christ. It is to listen to Him, to trust Him, to fear Him, to submit to Him, to serve Him and to adore Him. How can anyone claim to be “gospel-centered” and depreciate the very commandments of Jesus at its center?
But some may ask, “Doesn’t the gospel of grace mean that Jesus has done everything for us? If we spend our time striving to conform to scriptural imperatives, won’t we quickly slip into mere Law-keeping and end up cold, lifeless and disillusioned?”
Let’s be clear: Jesus Christ has accomplished our redemption by His sovereign grace alone. We were dead in sin when He “made us alive,” granted us repentance and faith, and delivered us “from the domain of darkness into the kingdom of his dear son.” And if we spent our days nurturing unbelief by trying to earn God’s love through spiritual-sounding words and behavior modification, we would experience the same guilt and weakness suffered by all self-atoning legalists. Such self-righteous folly always ends in disillusionment and despair. But on the other hand, if we truly believe the gospel, our submission to Christ will not be for the purpose of adding anything to His cross, but rather to magnify His glory through the display of His power. To be gospel-centered is to cherish and appropriate the power of the gospel so that Jesus Christ is “fully formed” in us!
What did Gospel-centeredness mean to Jesus—the very heart of the Gospel?
Matthew 28:19-20 – “Go into all the world and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe all that I’ve commanded you.”
Notice that Jesus didn’t say “all that I’ve taught you.” He specifically used the NT word for “commandment.” Jesus did instruct. He taught and explained the OT Scriptures to His disciples, helping them to understand the manifold grace of God in the arrival of Messiah. Over a period just shy of three years, Jesus gave His ministry companions a comprehensive soteriology. But He also systematically taught them every other truth needed to carry out the great commission. And when He finally launched them as His ambassadors, His blueprint for gospel-centered ministry was simple: make disciples of all nations, baptize every new convert, and begin teaching them to obey all of His commandments.
With today’s frequent, rather broad use of the term “gospel-centered,” evangelicals seem to define it as being focused exclusively on what Christ has already accomplished. In fact, I know of more than one church where the finished work of redemption is emphasized so strongly that biblical imperatives—Christ’s commands—are barely mentioned or often equated with the error of legalism. At the risk of sounding a bit dated and cheesy, I think we should ask: what did Jesus emphasize? All of us would affirm that the Lord was the embodiment of all that the Father desired in carrying out the work of the church. There has never been anyone more gospel-centered than the Lord of glory Himself! He is the supreme object of all gospel interest and mission. He is the message and the very heart of all true means for carrying out His saving work among the nations. To worship Jesus Christ is to exalt and honor His saving message as the centerpiece of all we do. But what did “gospel-centeredness” mean to the Lord?
In the next few weeks I want to explore Five Features of a Gospel-Centered Life. Stay tuned…