Friday, April 9, 2010

Is it possible to be too Gospel-centered?


I remember about ten years ago hearing for the first time from C.J. Mahaney a vision for the Christian life and the church that was "Gospel-centered." It was like a conversion experience for me. I knew that I would never think of the church and Christianity in the same way ever again. About that same time I discovered Mark Dever's 9 Marks Ministries. As a young Southern Baptist pastor I was profoundly encouraged to hear from another SBC pastor who was declaring this same vision of Gospel-centeredness.

Briefly, to be Gospel-centered is to understand that the message of Christ's perfect obedience, substitutionary death, and victorious resurrection is the theological well spring and functional center of the Christian life and the church.

It seems like a no-brainer. And yet for many of us who grew up in conservative evangelicalism the Gospel was thought of simply as the abc's or something attached to evangelism. We loved the Gospel but it was a piece of the whole, not the central reality. I had never been given a vision of the Gospel as the very center of my life. What made the message so powerful (and as it turns out, lasting) is that it is biblical. A vision of the Gospel-centered life is the vision God gives us in His Word. For a man who had grown up in the never ending ebb and flow of evangelical fads, this was different. This wasn't higher life. It wasn't seeker sensitive. It wasn't purpose driven. This was not about prophecy seminars, power point, or vision statements.

Gospel-centeredness, I came to see, is a rock-ribbed, biblical vision for God's people. The Gospel illuminates the grand narrative of Scripture. The Gospel is the great theme for preaching. The Gospel is God's power for our efforts to evangelize. It is reality that brings wholeness to our brokenness. The Gospel provides the only satisfying rationale for Christ-like ethics like mercy and sacrifice. It is no wonder why Paul calls this message of the doing, dying, and rising of Christ "the matter of first importance" (1 Cor 15:3).

Dane Ortland has a helpful post addressing whether or not "Gospel-centered" is merely a fad.


There has been a wave of books, blogs, messages and movements in recent years calling, in various ways, for the church today to be (more) ‘gospel-centered.’

Publically, I think of Ray Ortlund, Zack Eswine, Tim Keller, Sovereign Grace, Acts 29, the Gospel Coalition, Jared Wilson, Joe Thorn, Jonathan Dodson, Paul Tripp, David Powlison, Jerry Bridges, Mike Bullmore, D. A. Carson, Graeme Goldsworthy, Covenant Seminary, Tullian Tchividjian, and many others (see e.g., here). Privately, I think of friends like Brian Martin, Nate Conrad, Dan Orr, and Jim Lane, who have personally helped me understand the gospel as the engine (keeping us going), not the runway (getting us off the ground at conversion and landing us in heaven at death but unnecessary in between), to life and theology.

In more recent days, though, some are raising the question of whether this is getting a bit out of hand, asking whether we can emphasize the gospel to the exclusion of other things, and, perhaps most of all, simply expressing a general cynicism about the current trendiness of being gospel-centered (whatever “gospel-centered” means — I use the phrase here to refer to viewing the gospel not as something beyond which Christians graduate but which rather remains the heartbeat of life, to be not only confessed doctrinally and evangelistically but also appropriated emotionally and psychologically, the non-negotiable of all non-negotiables, summed up best biblically in 1 Cor 15:3-4).

There are three possible responses to the current trendiness of being ‘gospel-centered.’

1.Uncritically dismiss it due to its trendiness
2.Uncritically absorb it due to its being embraced by others we know or respect; vicariously feed on others’ excitement without personally digesting it ourselves
3.Consider what it means, and whether it is biblical; ponder what istrue in it; ask why it is trendy.

The last option is the way of wisdom. Before either dismissing it or absorbing it, let’s consider it, test it, and, if we find that in fact deeper awareness of sin and sin’s healing in Christ is indeed the place to start and end every day happily and humbly, pass it on.

Remember, trendiness is not bad in itself. Justification by faith alone was suddenly trendy among significant church circles in the 1520s and 30s. Thank the Lord for all those who neither uncritically dismissed it nor uncritically absorbed it but personally wrestled with it, saw it in their Bibles, found fresh liberation, and passed it on.

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