“Gospel-centered preaching.” “Gospel-centered parenting.” “Gospel-centered discipleship.” The back of my business card says “gospel-centered publishing.” This descriptive mantra is tagged on to just about anything and everything in the Christian world these days.
What’s it all about?
Before articulating what it might mean to be gospel-centered, we better be on the same page as to the actual message of the gospel.
I don’t mean Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
What I mean by “gospel” in this article is the outrageous news of what has been done for us by God in Jesus. The gospel is the front page of the newspaper, not the back-page advice column; news of what has happened, not advice on how to live.
Specifically, the gospel is the startling news that what God demands from us, he provides for us. How? In his own Son. The gospel is the message that Jesus Christ delights to switch places with guilty rebels. The one person who walked this earth who deserved heaven endured the wrath of hell so that those who deserve the wrath of hell can have heaven.
And the gospel is not only personal, but cosmic. Christ’s death and resurrection doesn’t only provide forgiveness for me. It also means that in the middle of history, God has begun to undo death, ruin, decay, and darkness. The universe itself is going to be washed clean and made new. Eden will be restored.
But to be part of this movement, we too must die. Grace requires death. We must die to our bookkeeping existence that builds our identity on anything other than Jesus. We must relinquish, give up on ourselves, throw in the towel. And out of this death—letting God love us in, not after getting over, our messiness—resurrection life quietly blossoms.
What does it mean, then, to be “gospel-centered”?
As far as I can tell the phrase is used in two basic ways. One way is to view all of life in light of the gospel. We’ll call this a gospel-centered worldview. The other is to view Christian progress as dependent on the gospel. We’ll call this gospel-centered growth. The first looks out; the second looks in. Take gospel-centered worldview first.
Think about what we mean when we call people “self-centered.” We don’t mean that all they think about directly is themselves. They also think about what to eat, what to wear, how to conclude an email, and a thousand other things each day. But self informs all these other decisions. A self-centered person passes all he does and thinks through the filter of self. Self trumps everything else and orders all other loves accordingly.
In a similar way, to be gospel-centered does not mean that social action, marital and sexual matters, ethical issues, political agendas, our jobs, our diet, and all the rest of daily life are irrelevant. Rather, it means all of life is viewed in light of the gospel. Everything passes through the filter of the gospel. What Jesus has done and is doing to restore the universe trumps everything else and orders all other loves accordingly.
There’s another, more common way that the phrase gospel-centered is used. Here we narrow in to issues such as Bible-reading, book-writing, preaching, and teaching. Generally when we speak of “gospel-centered discipleship” or “gospel-centered preaching” we mean that such activities are done in the light of two core realities: our ongoing struggle with sin and our ongoing need for grace.
The twisted fallenness of the human heart manifests itself in our constant self-atonement strategies. The natural, default mode of the human heart (including the Christian heart) is restless heart-wandering, looking for something to latch on to for significance, to know we matter, to feel okay about ourselves. This tendency is often profoundly subtle and extremely difficult to root out. We are sinners. We are sick.
However, the far-reaching grace of the gospel calms our hearts and nestles us into the freedom of not needing to constantly measure up since Jesus measured up on our behalf. In Christ, we matter. Clothed in his righteousness, we are okay. This sweet calm is the soil in which true godliness flourishes.
Gospel-centeredness, then, funnels the gospel out to unbelievers and also into our own hearts. It acknowledges that the good news about God’s grace in Christ is the supreme resource—for believers just as much for unbelievers. In other words, the gospel is a home, not a hotel. It is not only the gateway into the Christian life, but the pathway of the Christian life.
This is why Paul constantly reminds people—reminds Christian people—of the gospel (for example, Rom. 1:16–17; 1 Cor. 1:18; 15:3–4; Gal. 1:6). We move forward in discipleship not mainly through pep talks and stern warnings. We move forward when we hear afresh the strangeness of grace, relaxing our hearts and loosening our clenched hold on a litany of lesser things—financial security, the perfect spouse, career advancement, sexual pleasure, human approval, and so on.
Example: Gospel-Centered Dating
Given this context, what might be meant by “gospel-centered dating”?
Such an approach to dating remembers the fierce works-righteousness orientation of the human heart and the way we tend to build our identity on anything other than Jesus.
Gospel-centered dating wouldn’t be dating that tries to share the gospel with as many dates as possible. It would be dating that refuses to build a sense of worth on whom we’re dating, what they think of us, and the happiness they can provide if the relationship works out long-term. It would be letting Jesus be the one who saves us—not only from judgment before God in the future, but judgment before our dates in the present.
Dating can be truly enjoyed if we go into every evening out with a heart-sense of the gospel. If we know we are accepted and approved in Jesus, acceptance and approval by the person sitting across the table loses its ominous significance. If we know God delights in us with invincible favor and love, dates that go poorly will disappoint but not crush us. If we know that no matter what happens in a relationship we will always have Christ, and he is everything, then we are freed from having our mood dictated by dating success. And even if dates go well with someone early on, it’s only a matter of time before a boyfriend or girlfriend (or spouse) will disappoint us and let us down. There’s only one who never lets us down.
A gospel-centered life, in other words, is the only life that can truly be enjoyed, no matter your circumstances. Nothing can threaten our sense of worth and identity. Christ himself is our mighty and radiant friend.
Keep the Reality
There’s one more thing to be said. The label “gospel-centered” is neither here nor there. There’s nothing sacred about it. But the heart of what is being recovered, both in terms of worldview and in terms of growth, is vital for calm and sanity amid the ups and downs of life in a fallen world.
Every generation must rediscover the gospel for itself. “Gospel-centered” happens to be the label attached to this generation’s recovery of grace. When we tire of the label, get a new one. But keep the reality.
We will be broken, messy sinners until Jesus comes again and gives us final cleansing. Until then, true shalom and fruitfulness can only be found through waking up each day, shoving back the clamoring anxieties, and defibrillating our hearts with a love that comes only to those—but to all of those—who open themselves up to it.