Kyle Strobel recently wrote a piece on the spiritual dangers of being “gospel-centered.” I’m probably not the best person to write a detailed response, since I don’t know Kyle or the context for his concerns, and since my experience of gospel-centeredness has been positive where his has been negative. In fact, in the circles I run, the label “gospel-centered” has referred to theology and attitudes and behavior and instincts that serve precisely the end of Kyle’s concerns: to humble people under the Lordship of Christ, not raise them up in the power of the flesh. I hope someone who understands Kyle’s post better might respond to it more closely.
Instead of responding, I’d like to try to receive Kyle’s critique and consider what we who espouse the label “gospel-centered” can learn from it. After all, he does raise some valid concerns—for instance, about gospel-centeredness becoming formulaic, or about the work of Christ eclipsing his person. I don’t doubt that some expressions of gospel-centeredness do fall into these errors, even while healthier variations of gospel-centeredness should remain aware of them as potential dangers. So I’m writing to those sympathetic to the idea of gospel-centeredness and asking: how can we avoid imbalance, formulism, or a sectarian mindset?
Amidst a myriad of other things we could also do, I have two suggestions: (1) read the Puritans and (2) study Revelation 2-3.
The Message and the Man
One of Kyle’s repeated concerns throughout his article is that we can so emphasize our conceptual understanding of the gospel that we lose sight of the actual person of Christ. “Rather than standing before Christ giving an account for ourselves, we can hide behind the ever-so-comfortable formula of the Gospel.” My brother Dane made this same point well in his review of Barbara Duguid’s Extravagant Grace:
[Some books] are rich in exploring the gospel but feel a bit formulaic. The word of grace is reflected on but not the Man of grace. Ironically similar to the Roman Catholicism with which such book are otherwise in stark contrast, “grace” becomes almost a substance, a thing, a stockpile, that is lavishly given to us.
This is an important concern because the gospel does indeed come to us most deeply not as an idea, but as a Person. We receive grace in the context of vital union and communion with him: moment-by-moment repentance, worship, listening to his voice, striving to please him, etc. Just as in Narnia, the fundamental impulse of the children isn’t cognitive reflection on the Stone Table: they just love Aslan and long for his appearance. Any expressions of gospel-centeredness that lack this full-blooded, experiential dynamic are defunct or defective.
It is just here that I think the Puritans can help us. Why the Puritans? Well, they are the direct spiritual and theological forbearers of the modern gospel-centered movement, and simultaneously provide the richest theology of sanctification in church history. The Puritans were “gospel-centered” and “Christ-centered” (in all that is good about those terms) before it became hip, and they avoided the mistakes that we tend to make today. In particular, I suggest we read more books like:
- Richard Sibbes, The Bruised Reed
- John Owen, The Mortification of Sin (or anything by John Owen)
- Thomas Watson, The Doctrine of Repentance
The Puritan vision of the Christian life was rich in the doctrines of grace while remaining sensitive to the dynamics of how grace operates in everyday life. It was grounded both in the man and the message; it was both intellectually deep and spiritually wise. Owen would speak of those who “decay in grace,” for instance. Is that even a category for us today in our understanding of gospel-centeredness? Or take this passage on putting lust to death from The Mortification of Sin:
Bring thy lust to the gospel, not for relief, but for further conviction of its guilt; look on Him whom thou hast pierced, and be in bitterness. Say to thy soul, ‘What have I done? What love, what mercy, what blood, what grace have I despised and trampled on! Is this the return I make to the Father for his love, to the Son for his blood, to the Holy Ghost for his grace? Do I thus requite the Lord? Have I defiled the heart that Christ died to wash, that the blessed Spirit hath chosen to dwell in? And can I keep myself out of the dust? What can I say to the dear Lord Jesus? How shall I hold up my head with any boldness before him? Do I account communion with him of so little value, that for this vile lust’s sake I have scarce left him any room in my heart? How shall I escape if I neglect so great salvation?
No one ever struggled their way through John Owen and then walked away puffed up in their theology. We need more John Owen. People like Owen can enrich and strengthen our account of gospel-centeredness.
Revelation 2-3 is one my favorite corners of the Bible. It has been a continual refuge for me in thinking about my ministry in a church. Perhaps more clearly here than anywhere else in the Bible, these 7 letters provide a window into the heart of Christ for his people in the new covenant era.
And as with Owen, no one can read them and walk away thinking that gospel-centeredness is a light and easy matter. They range from the most heart-melting commendations of faithfulness to the most dreadful rebukes of sin, and by considering Christ’s commendations and rebukes, we can position ourselves more clearly “under” gospel-centeredness with a focus on the living Christ himself, rather than “over” it as a fleshly self-distinctive or tribal distinctive.
In particular, these letters rebuke easy, frothy gospel-centeredness that downplays the brutal struggle of daily repentance. For instance, in these letters Christ says (to Christians!):
- “Repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth” (Revelation 2:16).
- “Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works” (2:22-23).
- “Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you” (3:3)
Apparently Jesus is perfectly willing to say to churches, “repent, or else.” And the “or else” includes things like coming against the unrepentant like a thief, waging war against them, and potentially even killing them (and their children).
If our gospel-centeredness protects us from the rebuke of Christ, if our gospel-centeredness diminishes the dread fear of his majesty, and the whole-hearted yearning to please him, then indeed “we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it” (Hebrews 2:1).
Past the Labels to the Reality
In the end, the terminologies and labels are not the important thing. We are guaranteed no safety in switching labels from “gospel-centered” to “Christ-centered” (or vice versa). In New Testament terminology, both Christ (the man) and the gospel (the message) are appropriate objects to be “centered” on: in the space of one letter, for instance, Paul will say “I resolved to know nothing but Christ crucified” (I Cor. 2:2) as well as “I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel … in which you stand, and by which you are being saved” (15:1-2).
Nor is “Christ-centeredness” any less possible than “gospel-centeredness” to be misconstrued, misapplied, or manipulated. It can quite naturally be correlated, for example, simply with a call toward the imitation of Christ—indeed, for some people “Christ-centered” narrowly connotes “what would Jesus do?” and lacks an explicit focus on Christ’s redemptive work for us, which of course is the strength of “gospel-centered.”
What matters is not our label, but that our theology produce in us humility, love for Jesus, and the “wisdom from above” that is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17). That is the whole point of gospel-centeredness. To that end, I still go back to this quip from the second appendix of J.D. Greear’s Gospel:
Recently I talked with a little old lady who had been my Sunday school teacher at the very traditional church in which I grew up. She said, “You know, as I lose more and more friends to heaven, I often wonder what it is really like up there and what I should be looking forward to. I know they say there are streets of gold, but that doesn’t seem to excite me very much. The one thing I really want to do is see Jesus.” This lady has never heard of John Piper and has no idea what The Gospel Coalition is, but . . . she loves Jesus, and that is the whole point of gospel-centeredness.