A short time ago a reader of this blog wrote me with rather an interesting question. Here’s what he asked: I was hoping for some guidance on something. I am looking for books about being ‘Gospel-Centered.’ I know that is a buzzword nowadays and it is really intriguing to me. I am a long-time Christian, but am new to this Gospel-Centered idea. Don’t get me wrong, I love Jesus and Scripture and the Gospel, but I’ve never really heard or really understand the Gospel-Centered.
In my church we talk a lot about living gospel-centered lives or cross-centered lives, about applying the gospel to situations in life. So let me share a bit of my experience about what this actually means. And at the end I’ll offer up some suggestions for further reading. I feel like I am far more of a student than a teacher in this area, so I will largely depend on what others have said.
I’d love to know the origins of the phrase gospel-centered. While I cannot produce any proof of where it came from, my sense is that it arises from a combination of various factors: the writings of C.J. Mahaney and Jerry Bridges along with the emphases of organizations such as CCEF and Desiring God. Somehow if you do a smash-up of those men and those organizations, I think you end up with this emphasis on gospel centrality. Maybe someone can offer a more thorough history of the phrase.
The first thing we’ll need to do is define gospel. In our church we’ve got a handy little short-hand way of doing this, one that all the kids understand. I’m pretty sure you could go to just about any child in the church, ask “what is the gospel?” and hear this response: “Christ died for our sins and was raised.” When we talk about this during services, we accompany it with a little action. We begin with a closed fist held out in front of us and with each of the first five words we open one finger. “Christ…died…for…our…sins.” And then, with the open hand, we raise it up and say “and was raised.” And that’s the gospel. Of course the gospel can be as simple as those eight words or as complex as many volumes of theological text. But the essential gospel is right there—that Jesus Christ was put to death as an atoning sacrifice for our sins and was then raised back to life.
Living a gospel-centered life is really simply living in such a way that this gospel is central. Thus when any kind of a situation arises we can say, “How does the gospel apply to this situation?” When I am dealing with a particular sin or temptation I can ask, “How can I apply the gospel to this sin?” When I am confused about parenting, how I am to raise my children, I can ask, “What does the gospel tell me about my task in parenting?” The primary reality of the Christian life is this one: Christ died for our sins and was raised. Thus everything else flows out of that gospel and every question is answered in reference to it.
I like how Joe Thorn phrases it: “The gospel-centered life is a life where a Christian experiences a growing personal reliance on the gospel that protects him from depending on his own religious performance and being seduced and overwhelmed by idols.”
Joe points out four fruits of a gospel-centered life:
Confidence (Heb. 3:14; 4:16)
When the gospel is central in our lives we have confidence before God - not because of our achievements, but because of Christ's atonement. We can approach God knowing that he receives us as his children. We do not allow our sins to anchor us to guilt and despair, but their very presence in our lives compels us to flee again and again to Christ for grace that restores our spirits and gives us strength.
Intimacy (Heb. 7:25; 10:22; James 4:8)
When the gospel is central in our lives we have and maintain intimacy with God, not because of our religious performance, but because of Jesus' priestly ministry. We know that Jesus is our mediator with God the Father and that he has made perfect peace for us through his sacrifice allowing us to draw near to God with the eager expectation of receiving grace, not judgment.
Transformation (2 Cor. 3:18; 1 Thess. 5:23; 2 Thess. 2:13)
When the gospel is central in our lives we experience spiritual transformation, not just moral improvement, and this change does not come about by our willpower, but by the power of the resurrection. Our hope for becoming what God designed and desires for us is not trying harder, but trusting more - relying on his truth and Spirit to sanctify us.
Community (Heb. 3:12, 13; 10:25; 2 Tim 3:16, 17)
When the gospel is central in our lives we long for and discover unity with other believers in the local church, not because of any cultural commonality, but because of our common faith and Savior. It is within this covenant community, if the community itself is gospel-centered, that we experience the kind of fellowship that comforts the afflicted, corrects the wayward, strengthens the weak, and encourages the disheartened.
If a person or church is gospel-centered, it tells us that there are other things around which it is not centered. It is not tradition-centered (as, perhaps, fundamanetalist churches may be), it is not pragmatically-centered (as church growth churches often are), it is not culturally-centered as are so many churches today. It is the gospel that stands in the very center of the church or of the believer.
So in my experience the gospel-centered Christian is simply the Christian who is always looking to the gospel as the power for change, who is holding up the gospel as his reference point. No matter the situation, he is looking to the gospel and asking, “How does the gospel apply to this?”
Learning to be Gospel-Centered
Here are a couple of articles or conference sessions that are relevant:
- The 2009 Gospel Coalition National Conference offered a few sessions on this topic.
- Here is the gospel applied to quitting smoking
- Gospel-centered preaching
And here are a few books: