Gospel-Centrality: A Warning and a Recommendation
How do you move beyond the gospel without moving on from the gospel? On the other hand, if the gospel is so all-important, do we need to “move beyond” the gospel in any sense at all?
Those are two of the questions which are raised by this increasingly audible gospel-centrality movement among evangelicals.
Last week I looked at one possible objection to this movement. In this post I’ll tackle these two questions. One yields a recommendation, the other a warning.
First, I should say that I think evangelicals’ apparently increasing focus on the gospel is a wonderful trend. These many voices are right to tell us that the gospel is central to sanctification, that the indicative grounds the imperative, and that we don’t move beyond the gospel but deeper into the gospel. These are all deeply biblical arguments.
TWO EVANGELICAL “ISMS”: ESSENTIALISM AND REDUCTIONISM
But, someone might say, “If the gospel is so all-important, do we need to ‘move beyond’ it in any sense at all?”
Evangelicals are deeply essentialist. For a variety of historically conditioned reasons, we like to boil things down to their road-ready minimum and get on with life. As I’ve often heard it said, we tend to have two speeds, essential and unimportant.
One danger with this new movement, then, is that if the gospel occupies the “essential” category (and it should!), then everything else will be consigned to the “unimportant” bin.
Once in a while I’ll hear little hints of this in warnings not to let anything eclipse or overshadow or marginalize the gospel in our lives and churches. Such warnings are necessary and on the mark, but if we don’t carve out a third space between essential and unimportant, the gospel itself will be in danger. You can’t preserve the gospel merely by focusing on the gospel. There are all kinds of God-given doctrines and practices which are necessary to that end, and we neglect them to our own peril.
For example, the doctrine of the Trinity is inseparable from the gospel. Father, Son, and Spirit each fulfill distinct roles in salvation, which means that any distortion of the Trinity is a distortion of the gospel as well.
Another example: the truthfulness of Scripture presents a firm epistemological foundation for the gospel. Our trust in Christ is grounded in the truthfulness and trustworthiness of God’s Word.
As to gospel-protecting practices, consider church membership and church discipline. As Jonathan Leeman has said, church membership shows the world who represents Jesus and church discipline protects the name of Jesus.
Church membership marks off the body of people who belong to the gospel. It shows the world, “This is who the gospel people are. This is the new people which the gospel creates.”
And church discipline guards the image of the gospel which the church displays to the world. It keeps the church from presenting a false picture of the gospel to the watching nations. It does this by saying what a Christian isn’t: “This is not the life which flows from the gospel.”
Further, as someone has said, church discipline is the gospel in action. In Christ, God doesn’t leave us in our sin. Nor should we leave our fellow church members in their sin. Instead, we should move toward them with loving rebuke and Christ’s free offer of forgiveness.
These doctrines and practices, along with many more, are closely related to the gospel. They’re organically connected to it. We can’t neglect them without doing some kind of harm to our understanding of, and witness to, the gospel.
So now my warning: don’t let your gospel-centrality become gospel essentialism, which leads to gospel reductionism. Yes, make the gospel the center of your life, and your church’s life. But don’t make it sound as if the gospel is the only thing that matters.
CONNECT THE DOTS
On to the first question: how then do we move beyond the gospel without moving on from the gospel? In other words, how do we preach and practice these things without leaving the gospel behind?
Here’s my recommendation: we do this by constantly connecting the dots between the gospel and our doctrine and practice.
We’ve done that already in this article. The Trinity, biblical authority, church membership, and church discipline are organically connected to the gospel. And so are dozens of other crucial doctrines and practices.
The way for a church leader to move beyond the gospel without moving on from the gospel is to make those organic links explicit in your preaching and teaching. The way to focus on other matters without losing our focus on the gospel is by tracing out their relationship to the gospel.
So teach about church elders and parenting and eschatology and dating and baptism in light of the gospel, and in a way that shows how each of these things link to the gospel. That way, other doctrines and practices won’t compete with the gospel. Instead, they’ll link arms with it.
Don’t let your gospel-centrality become gospel reductionism. Instead, connect the dots between the gospel and everything else, including the structure and corporate life of the local church.