For the past decade and a half, there has been no bigger buzzword in American evangelical circles than “gospel-centered.” A quick search of book titles reveals a blizzard of works on the topic, including gospel-centered marriages, counseling, work, discipleship, students, youth and kids ministry, adoption, parenting, funerals, hermeneutics, community, recovery, evangelism, citizenship, and more.
Where did the phrase come from? Google Ngram suggests the hyphenated word became increasingly popular in the mid-2000s and reached its current height of use about 10 years ago.
“Gospel,” of course, is a very old word in English. “Gospel” became less common (as a percentage of words used in publications) in the early 1900s, but has seen a bounce since 2000, no doubt partly due to the frequent use of “gospel-centered” and related terms like “gospel-driven.”
“Centered” is a more modern word, one infrequently used until about 1900. All that to say that “gospel-centered” or its derivatives hardly ever appeared before the 1900s, and even the word “centered” does not appear in the KJV, ESV, or NIV Bible translations.
There is nothing wrong with neologisms per se, but “gospel-centered” is an almost brand-new term in the history of English-speaking Christianity. And when it began to be used as an adjective in the 1960s, it was more likely to apply to progressive rather than evangelical churches.
One of the first uses of anything like “gospel-centered” appeared at the end of the 19th century, in an 1899 sermon by the evangelical Congregationalist minister J. D. Jones of Bournemouth, England. Jones was reflecting on the missionary movement and the challenge posed by other world religions. Setting out the apostles’ teaching as the church’s authoritative guide, he proclaimed that the disciples traveled through the Mediterranean world preaching Christ crucified: “They went to preach a Gospel and their Gospel centered on the cross.”
‘Gospel-centered’ is an almost brand-new term in the history of English-speaking Christianity.
Here “Gospel centered” is a noun and a verb, but it anticipates current evangelical uses. In the early days of the social gospel, Jones warned against allowing evangelistic appeals to become detached from Christ’s death on the cross, which made the only way for sinners to be saved.
Lutheran and Liberal
“Gospel-centered” began to appear as an adjective in the 1960s. It seems most often to have appeared in Lutheran circles, including writings by modernist German Lutheran theologian Paul Althaus. In his influential work (in English translation) The Theology of Martin Luther (1966), Althaus spent several pages explaining why Luther held to a “gospel-centered interpretation” of the Bible, or one based on “the gospel of justification by faith alone.”
Luther held to a ‘gospel-centered interpretation’ of the Bible, or one based on ‘the gospel of justification by faith alone.’
So far so good, but Althaus added that gospel-centered interpretation often superseded the meaning of Scripture, and made “contradictions” and “inaccuracies” in the biblical texts irrelevant. Here “gospel-centered” was close to being the opposite of “Bible-centered.”
For the evangelical interpreter, “gospel-centered” virtually equals “Bible-centered.” The infallible Word of God perfectly communicates the good news about Jesus the Messiah. Yet in his 2001 book The Making of American Liberal Theology, the progressive theologian and historian Gary Dorrien repeatedly used “gospel-centered” to describe the philosophy of social gospel pioneers such as Walter Rauschenbusch, the Northern Baptist minister and author of works such as A Theology for the Social Gospel (1917).
In the early 21st century, the evangelical use of “gospel-centered” was not unknown, but it was not the norm. The label was more likely to be used in mainline or progressive discussions of Bible interpretation, or views of social ministry. A host of other groups used “gospel-centered” episodically, including Catholics and Mormons. The phenomenally popular Mormon writer and leadership guru Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (1989), once spoke of “gospel-centered family life” as the central focus of all Latter-day Saint ministries.
Reformed and Conservative
How did “gospel-centered” turn into a fixture of evangelical and Reformed rhetoric? It is often difficult to prove intellectual causation, because most people do not explicitly tell us “I started believing [a certain idea] because I read [a certain text].” But it seems likely that two of the primary catalysts of the evangelical trend toward “gospel-centered” were the founding of TGC in 2005, and the 2006 publication of Graeme Goldsworthy’s Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics.
Goldsworthy is an Australian Anglican theologian who previously taught at Moore Theological College in Sydney. Some of what Goldsworthy posited in his book sounded like Althaus, in the sense that a gospel-centered hermeneutics “must be based on the person of Jesus Christ.” But for Goldsworthy, such interpretation does not stand above the text of the Bible, but accords with the focus of Scripture. The “redemptive revelation, the word of God, is focused on Jesus Christ,” he concludes.
A gospel-centered hermeneutics must be based on the person of Jesus Christ.
Justin Taylor did a note on Goldsworthy’s book at TGC in 2006. Sinclair Ferguson published In Christ Alone: Living the Gospel-Centered Life in 2007, and by 2010 the gospel-centered dam seemed to have burst. By 2011, Matt Chandler and Trevin Wax were noting how frequently “gospel-centered” was being used, and in Counterfeit Gospels (2011) Wax called it a “buzzword.”
TGC fueled the buzz, too. TGC’s “Theological Vision for Ministry,” one of its “Foundation Documents,” uses “gospel-centered” repeatedly. TGC and Crossway published D. A. Carson and Tim Keller’s Gospel-Centered Ministry in 2011. My recent search of “gospel-centered” at TGC’s website yielded 8,612 hits.
“For TGC, the term was shorthand for the three things—an emphasis on preaching and evangelism, a hat tip to the grace emphasis of the Reformed tradition, and a biblical-theological emphasis that saw the entire canon pointing forward to Jesus Christ,” said Tim Keller, who was also using the term at Redeemer Presbyterian Church to distinguish it from fundamentalist churches on the right and mainline churches on the left.
By 2010 one can start to see notes of doubt about the gospel-centered trend, however. Dane Ortlund raised concerns at TGC about the possibility of being “Too Gospel-Centered.” He concluded that the wise approach was to distinguish between the biblical wheat and the trendy chaff within the concept.
Such reservations have appeared regularly at evangelical and Reformed outlets in the past decade. In 2019, Desiring God posted a John Piper message in which he suggested that putting all one’s focus on forgiveness and justification might detract from the joyful emphasis on Christian obedience.
In 2020, 9Marks did a journal issue on “What’s Wrong with Gospel-Centered Preaching Today?” It was inspired by TGC Council member David Helm, who noted the risk that in a rush to be gospel-centered (as 9Marks’ Jonathan Leeman explained), “young preachers would get lazy, not pay close attention to their texts, and move toward Christ too quickly. They wouldn’t do careful exegetical work; or preach the point of their particular texts; or take canonically responsible ways of moving toward the gospel.”
Ironically, such exegetical laziness would, in effect, return “gospel-centered” preaching to the type of biblical interpretation recommended by modernists such as Althaus, who believed we should primarily preach Christ because the biblical text wasn’t always reliable or edifying. Whatever evangelical or Reformed gospel-centered preaching means, it must always steer us back to close study of the whole divinely inspired Bible.
Ngram suggests that by 2019, the use of “gospel-centered” had begun to decline a bit. But the concept seems certain to endure as a cautionary reminder, especially as evangelical churches face temptations to focus inordinately on other issues, from politics to moralism to “life management” strategies. If gospel-centered means that we constantly return to the message of salvation through Christ alone, a message derived from the perfectly authoritative Word of God, then by all means let’s be gospel-centered!