Gospel-centered. Gospel-shaped. Gospel-focused. Gospel-driven. Gospel-based. Gospel-minded….
If you’re like me, you’ve heard all of these phrases repeatedly over the past few years. It seems like every book written is being re-written with the prefix “Gospel-centered” added to it, especially in regards to ministry. It’s almost like you smack the word “Gospel” on the cover of a book these days, it’s bound to sell and as a result, the “Gospel” is all over the cover of books these days in Christian bookstores, online, conferences, and even parts of Christian sections in non-Christian bookstores. The “Gospel” seems to be everywhere, however, what happens when we fall back too much on the word Gospel without referring to what it refers to? It can become Gospel Overkill if we aren’t careful and it can become a generic word that includes anything and everything.
What is the Gospel? Well, we have 4 of them in the Bible. As Mark writes, it is about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It is about God become incarnate, living a life obedient to the will of God the Father while performing signs and miracles pointing simultaneously to who He is and what He’s doing as well as fulfilling Old Testament scripture which is actually about Jesus, then it is also about Jesus going to the cross, dying for sins, being buried, and being raised to life on the third day, and appearing to many. That is the Gospel in a brief summary. I could be briefer by referring to Paul’s restatement of the Gospel in 1 Corinthians 15 in saying that Christ came, died, was buried, raised, and appeared to many witnesses and all this in fulfillment of Scripture.
Objectively, the Gospel has to do with Jesus Christ, who He is and what He has done. However, there is a personal element to it because it involves us. We are connected to it as we are connected with Christ. The Gospel is something that saves us. According to Paul, it’s not just once saved and that’s it saving (although yes and amen on the one hand), but we are continually saved by the Gospel. Hebrews says this doesn’t mean Jesus continually dies, but He died once and for all, but that the Holy Spirit works within us who are saved by grace and united with Christ in order to make us alive to Christ for God’s glory and our joy.
This is not to say that the Gospel is subjective in that it is different for each person, not at all. This is to say that it is objective, but also that we are all subjects to it because the Gospel is nothing less than Jesus Christ and Him crucified. We do have feelings and experiences of the Gospel in our lives, however, those feelings – and this important – those feelings are not normative and they are not the Gospel itself. We need to remember that in a world and culture that glorifies the self and the experience of the individual over historical truth.
Now, that we have understood hopefully what I mean when I say Gospel, it is important that we look at this surge of Gospel literature, both the strengths and the weaknesses.
First, the weaknesses. I am concerned that the influx of Gospel literature could make the term Gospel vague and possibly cause a culture to embrace the Gospel but not embrace the content of the Gospel, such as Jesus Christ. The inverse of this is also possible, that some might reject the Gospel, but embrace Jesus Christ. Obviously, it would seem that both are logically impossible considering what the Gospel is, but the real world has a tendency to move beyond the realm of fact, logic, historical, into a realm of overpersonalized, subjective, self-serving, deconstructions, to the point that the Gospel that many today believe is nothing more than something akin to one of those creepy notes that criminals forge in movies with various letters from newspapers.
If Gospel means anything and everything to anyone, than does it bear any meaning at all? If we believe the Bible, if we believe in not simply truth but Truth, than the answer is a resounding “Yes.” I believe if the Gospel and our understanding of the Gospel loses it’s anchor in the biblical witness and Christ, it loses all significance and power and meaning. However, if the Gospel is securely anchored in the Bible and in the person and work of Jesus Christ, being untethered by the modern inclinations to tear down and deny anything the individual self doesn’t like, then the Gospel will not become overkill and emptied of it’s power and meaning. I believe, though, that it is important to remember that the Gospel is simply a shorthand abbreviation (I am referring to the word here) to something that is far greater and significant. If we simply fall back on the abbreviations of things or simply the symbols of things, while neglecting to continually go back to the greater truth represented, then I am concerned that we could become theologically and spiritually 100 miles wide and 1 inch deep, as the saying goes. We need to constantly go back to the gospels themselves, constantly return to Jesus and seek to grow in our understanding of the Bible. We cannot settle for a been there, done that faith which settles on a heard that, read that mentality.
For example, I love Ephesians 2:8. It’s on my business card, on the back. It’s been very formative in my life and as I write about it it’s playing like an old record in my head this very moment. However, there is a danger for simply settling for the words and not thinking about them. There is a danger for referring to the words, but not turning to Ephesians 2 and reading it in context. There is a danger in ultimately assuming that God has taught me everything I need to know about this text. The truth is I don’t know all there is to know, and I don’t know all that God will teach me in His Word. I’m saying this because I feel that there is the growing tendency for some to fall back on Gospel-centered literature, but not turn to the gospels themselves. As a result, Christians can become well-steeped in Gospel words and phrases and things popular writers are saying while not really digging into the gospels and growing in knowledge of scripture. Penal substitutionary atonement is important, and it is part of the Gospel, but that isn’t all of the Gospel. There is much more to the Gospel than justification. Some scholars have minimized the Gospel of Jesus to specifically the work of justification which indeed is part of the Gospel, but not the whole.
Now, let’s consider some of the strengths of Gospel-centered literature. First, one strength is that you don’t have nearly as much self-help junk in Christian bookstores or sections of bookstores as there used to be. That’s a plus. Second, all of life and ministry is being thought about today in light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is awesome. It makes one think, what on earth were people writing about before? At least, in the past 60 or so years. This means people are thinking more critically and with the help of able authors at what it means to live for the glory of God and to center their lives around the Gospel. It also means ministry leaders all over are starting to think, “Okay, so maybe what we were doing before wasn’t good and we could do a better job of making our ministries Gospel-centered as opposed to people-centered.” That’s huge. Think of the impact of that. Also, another strength is that people do read all of this Gospel-centered literature and the opposite of the Gospel Overkill happens, Gospel saturation. People, then, do not become dulled or worn out by this literature, but inspired, encouraged, uplifted, motivated, and filled with the Gospel in such a way that it pours out into their life, their conversations, their relationships, their work, and all they do. Also, what if one of these Gospel-centered authors wrote a book that wasn’t simply consumed by American evangelicals, but was consumed by the secular Western world somehow? Just one of those works, imagine what that would be like.
Personally, I believe the biggest strength is this… for a long time people and ministries have been grasping anywhere and everywhere to attract people and do new, innovative things. However, I believe this has been done to the point that people care more about these new, innovative things to get people at the expense of actually saying anything to the people. So, the biggest strength in my view is that all this Gospel-centered stuff from books to coalitions to conferences to affiliations is helping people to realize that what we need to be doing is actually knowing the Gospel, growing in the Gospel, and sharing the Gospel. Therefore, all the other stuff doesn’t really matter and we need to focus perhaps a bit more on what the Bible says we ought to be and do as the church for God’s glory and our joy. I think that’s pretty cool. Instead of forming ministries around business practices and whatever, we are forming our ministries around the Gospel of Jesus Christ and seeking to become more biblical, more Christ-like, and more Kingdom focused as opposed to being cool, relevant, attractive, and trendy.
So, I believe the influx of Gospel literature and language lately has both positives and negatives to it. However, it is encouraging that many evangelical churches are working being more Christ-like and Gospel-centered in order to love God, love others, and make disciples. If the church offers a weak and cheap imitation of the world to the world, the church will fail. If the church offers the Gospel of Jesus Christ, God’s grace for sinners, and shows how that works out in daily life, the church will succeed. It will succeed not because success is what we’re about as it will be hard and difficult, but it will succeed in that the church offers what the church is commanded to share with the world and that is the Kingdom of God, God’s grace for sinners, God’s love in Jesus Christ. And that is something that truly cannot fail.