If you were to ask one hundred Americans the question, “what is the gospel?”, you would no doubt hear many different answers. If you were to ask that same question to the same number of professing christians, you might hear something more related to Jesus’s salvific work on the cross. However, if you were to press those christians on what the gospel actually means, it is likely you will hear a truncated understanding that equates to a, “get out of hell free card.” This has been a common issue, not just in the Bible-belt, but throughout the entire country for years. As a result, in recent years the term, “gospel centrality” has been popularized within evangelicalism. Gospel centrality is the belief that the gospel that saved, is the same gospel that should be made central in every christian’s life. Meaning, the gospel is more powerful than we think, and does more than we could ever imagine. Gospel centrality is not just a new fad that will come and go, but rather a profoundly biblical truth that has life changing implications.
First, although the phrase gospel centrality is new, the principle is not. In order to understand what gospel centrality is, one must first be able to answer the question, what is the gospel? One of the most clear definitions of the gospel is found in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, written almost 2,000 years ago. In these verses, the apostle Paul sums up the gospel by saying, “the gospel is the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ”. In verse 1, Paul said, “Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand.” In this verse, by using words like, “received” and “wherein ye stand”, Paul makes it clear that they knew the gospel. So, why was Paul reminding his audience of the gospel? Roy Ciampa and Brian Rosner, in their highly regarded commentary on 1 Corinthians, said, “Paul’s recounting of the gospel message reflects the fact that it is first and foremost a message about Jesus Christ and what he has done for us, rather than being a message primarily about us and how we can be saved.” Ciampa and Rosner sheds some light on the heart of the gospel. Gospel centrality, at its core, is a belief that the gospel is all about Jesus. Paul also mentioned in that passage that the gospel was “…of first importance…” (1 Cor. 15:3) Paul wanted the church in Corinth to understand the sufficiency and importance of the gospel. Referencing this verse in his book, Gospel Wakefulness, Jared Wilson argues that since Paul said that the gospel is “of first importance”, churches today should not assume the gospel, but rather, the gospel […should be the clearest, most prevalent message and theme of all a community’s worship and focus]. Wilson makes the case for what place the gospel should hold, both in the church and in the christian’s life.
Furthermore, the principle of gospel centrality, namely the belief that the gospel is a message about what God has accomplished for mankind, has been believed and written about throughout church history. Martin Luther, synonymous with the protestant reformation in the sixteenth century, when referring to the gospel, said it is something that we must [repeat and beat into our minds]. One might wonder, how does Luther’s statement relate to gospel centrality? It relates in signifiant ways because the truth of the gospel does not come naturally to sinners, trying to be justified by the law, does. That is why one has to remind themselves of this beautiful truth constantly. In their book, Church history 101, the authors, when referring to the reformation in 1517, point out that one of the things that led to Martin Luther nailing the 95 theses to the castle door in Wittenberg, was Luther’s new understanding of the gospel and all of its implications. To say that this event was one of the most transformative events throughout church history would be an understatement. The authors also argued that one of the byproducts of the great awakening in the eighteenth century was a more holistic view of the gospel. This is important to note because some of the most influential christian writers in history, most commonly known as the puritans, were heavily influenced by this movement. There are countless other examples that could be used to demonstrate that although the phrase, gospel centrality is somewhat new, the principle behind the phrase is certainly not.
Next, another important aspect of gospel centrality is how the gospel shapes the christian. In Galatians 2, the apostle Paul admonished Peter’s racial pride by saying that his life was not in step with the gospel. What did Peter do that warranted such a strong rebuke from Paul? Peter, being a Jew, decided to not associate with Gentiles out of a fear of what people might think. During this time, racial tensions were high, and it was not common for Jews to mingle with Gentiles. Scot McKnight, in his commentary on Galatians, provides some additional context to this passage. McKnight points out that Peter’s upbringing was formed by the law, that is to say, he knew the law extremely well. In contrast, the gospel and all of its implications were extremely new. McKnight makes a good point that explains Peter’s actions. Peter, being an apostle, knew the gospel, but at the same time was still a sinner that had areas of his life that still needed to be transformed by the gospel. The inference here is that the gospel of Jesus Christ is not just a message that saves, but it is a message that shapes every part of the christian’s life.
Another example of how the gospel shapes the Christian can be found in the book of Philippians, “'being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.” Paul, the author of this book, was writing to the church at Philippi for the main purpose to give them hope in uncertain times. The way that Paul chose to give them hope is very telling; he reassures them of God’s sanctifying work in their lives. What a tremendous thought, not only does God save sinners, but the Bible is clear that He is committed to our sanctification for the ultimate purpose of making us more like Christ. Jeff Vanderstelt, in his book titled Gospel fluency, said, “The gospel is good news for our sanctification—the ongoing work of God saving us and conforming us daily into the image of Christ. Our activity in this process is ongoing repentance from unbelief to belief in the gospel.” Vanderstelt brilliantly makes the connection between God’s sanctifying work in the believer and the responsibility of the believer. God does the saving, sanctifying, and securing in the christian’s life. The christian on the other hand, clings to the glorious gospel of Christ. This also seems to be the thought that J.C. Ryle had in mind when he so eloquently said:
If we would be sanctified, our course is clear and plain—we must begin with Christ. We must go to Him as sinners, with no plea but that of utter need, and cast our souls on Him by faith. . . . If we would grow in holiness and become more sanctified, we must continually go on as we began, and be ever making fresh applications to Christ.
Ryle probably never heard of the phrase gospel centrality, but one could argue that he was most certainly gospel-centered. So, how does the gospel shape the christian’s life? In short, the gospel takes the eyes off the sinner and places them solely on the savior, Jesus Christ.
Finally, the last facet of the gospel is how it shapes the church. The apostle Paul, when writing to the church in Ephesus explaining Jesus’s ultimate plan for the church, said, “that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle.” (Eph. 5:27) In this verse, when Paul uses words like “holy” and “without blemish”, it is clear that he is not referring to the current status of churches today. No honest church member would be able to describe their church with those adjectives. So, if this is Jesus’s ultimate goal for the future, and not right now, what does God expect from churches today? To answer this question, one first needs to go back to the passage in Ephesians, “…Christ loved the church and gave himself up for it.” (Eph. 5:25) Knowing that Jesus does not just love the future, perfect version of His church, but actually loves the fallen, helpless version of His church is truly amazing. This truth means that Christ is committed to making us perfect and spotless. Ray Ortlund, in his book The Gospel: How the church portrays the beauty of Christ, proves this by saying, “When men look for a bride, they often look for a beauty queen. But Christ chose the dirty one who needed his cleansing.” Ortlund strikes a chord regarding the love that Jesus extends to undeserving sinners. To the degree that a believer understands what Christ accomplished for the church and His affections towards the church, will be reflected in the believers relationship to the church body.
Another example of how the gospel shapes the church can be found in 1 Thes 1:5-6, “For our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance; as ye know what manner of men we were among you for your sake. And ye became followers of us, and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost” Paul was writing to this group of believers to share with them his thankfulness for God’s work on their behalf. In these verses, Paul mentions that when he brought the gospel to them, he did it in three ways: “in word” meaning the proclamation of the gospel, “in the power of the Holy Ghost” referring to the power of the gospel, and finally “in much assurance” which is to say, he was fully persuaded by the importance of the gospel. In verse 8 of this passage, Paul continues to say, “For from you sounded out the word of the Lord not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith to God-ward is spread abroad…” Michael Holmes, in his commentary on 1 Thessalonians, pointed out that the Thessalonian congregation lived out the gospel truth that they believed with their community. What a striking thought, the gospel is not just a truth to be believed personally, but it is a truth that shapes the way we interact with the church.
In conclusion, gospel centrality, when properly understood, is like drinking a cup of ice cold water in a hot desert. The reason is because without the truth of the gospel, we end up trying to live the christian life in our own strength, which leads to either discouragement or self-righteousness. Centering our life on the gospel avoids both of these ditches, because the gospel enables us to live the way that God intended. Seeing this principle throughout church history, and understanding how it shapes the christian and the church, all prove the significance of this precious truth. Only God knows how much longer the phrase, “gospel centrality” will be popular, but one thing that is certain, this principle will last forever.