Buzzwords have a funny way of painting their subject in the best possible light.
Consider a few examples. “Progressive”—who doesn’t want to make progress? “Attractional”—who doesn’t want to attract unbelievers into the church? “Seeker-sensitive”—why wouldn’t we want to be sensitive to those whom God may be drawing to himself?
As slaves of the Word and stewards of language, we must always critically evaluate the jargon of our evangelical subculture. This is especially true of one more popular term: gospel-centered. Like so much of our Christian lingo, gospel-centrality is a virtually self-justifying concept.
Certainly we must be gospel-centered. After all, Jesus himself indicated that all of Scripture is about his redemptive work (Lk. 24:44-46). Paul regarded the gospel as being of “first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3). And it’s this very good news that, unlike God’s law, can actually save our souls (Rom. 1:16).
None of these sentiments are wrong; the gospel does deserve our foremost attention and affection, period. The difficulty is that whenever we, as limited humans, reduce biblical theology down to a single theme or emphasis, we inevitably deemphasize some other important component of divine revelation. Just as new cars freshly driven off the dealership lot plummet in value, Christian buzzwords rapidly depreciate in meaning as soon as they are inducted into the religious vernacular.
To be gospel-centered is critical, but it’s only one facet of what it means to have our ministries and lives grounded in the whole Person and work of Christ. Rather than settling for what’s popularly dubbed “gospel-centrality”, consider three reasons why Christ-centeredness provides a firmer foundation.
1. Gospel-centrism can abstract salvation from the Savior; Christocentrism delivers Christ and his benefits together.
In one sense, the gospel is Jesus—or, as Calvin was fond of saying, Christ comes to us “clothed in the gospel.” But in another sense, there is a distinction between Jesus and his gospel, just as there’s a difference between me and my blue jeans.
The gospel is the means by which God conveys a host of his benefits to his people, from forgiveness of sins and lifting of individual guilt and shame to the renovation of cultures and the renewal of the entire cosmos. Many of us need to expand our view of these benefits—some of us have too narrow and individualistic an articulation of the good news, others of us are too absorbed in its societal implications to revel in its individual life-changing power. But we must not talk about any benefits of the gospel without focusing on the Benefactor.
The chief benefit Christ gives us in his gospel is himself—and the whole Godhead seen and savored through him. Our cry is, “I have no good apart from you” (Ps. 16:1). But to believe the gospel and to receive this benefit is not achieved simply through believing things about the gospel; we don’t inherit eternal life by merely affirming that the gospel is capable of bestowing forgiveness or spreading God’s rule.
To believe the gospel is to embrace Christ, entirely and personally, falling into his arms in utter dependence as a child to a parent. Our union with Christ by faith makes all that is Christ’s ours too—his life, death, victory, and even suffering. But most of all, he is ours.
2. Gospel-centrism can neglect the graciousness of the law; Christocentrism elevates Christ as both Savior and Lord, Redeemer and Lawgiver.
Our Western tendency towards reductionism often rears its ugly head in the strict bifurcation we erect between law and grace. This distinction is essential—the grace of God in the New Covenant alone saves us, while the moral law under the terms of the original covenant of works is what condemns us. But to create an insurmountable dichotomy between law and grace, where Scripture instead gives us a holy symbiosis, is a grave error.
In all our talk about gospel-centrism, we risk forgetting how highly the biblical writers esteem the law of God. Consider some of the 25 appearances of “law” in the ESV’s rendering of Psalm 119:
1 Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord! … 18 Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law. … 29 Put false ways far from me and graciously teach me your law! … 34 Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart. … 51 I do not turn away from your law. … 70 I delight in your law. … 72 The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces. … 77 your law is my delight. … 97 Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day. … 136 My eyes shed streams of tears, because people do not keep your law. … 165 Great peace have those who love your law; nothing can make them stumble. … 174 I long for your salvation, O Lord, and your law is my delight.
The New Testament, too, reminds us that we are in fact saved to walk in this law of love—not under its curse or as an obligation, but by the sanctifying ministry of the Spirit as a rule of love (Rom. 8:4, 12:8-10). If all we talk about is the gospel narrowly defined as the atoning and redeeming work of Christ, we may lose this nuance.
Christocentrism resolves this tension. Jesus himself says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). One can theoretically give mental assent to the aspect of the gospel which pertains to forgiveness of sins, but one cannot embrace Christ in his fullness without finding him to be both Savior and Master, both Redeemer and Lawgiver.
3. Gospel-centrism can devolve into a focus on conversion only; Christocentrism involves the whole of the Christian life.
A third danger of exclusively focusing on the gospel is that our gospel-centrism itself becomes little more than a repeated altar call—a tired old refrain inviting people to experience a moment of conversion and little else. Those who grew up within the traditions of revivalism and soul-winning know how quickly the multi-faceted, face-melting glory of the gospel can be flattened into a dull, regurgitated sales pitch.
Gospel-centrality, rightly understood, emphasizes that the whole of the believer’s life is lived under the shadow of the cross and in the warm glow of the empty grave. Nevertheless, the risk remains that we become shallow in our own articulation of the gospel, emphasizing Christ’s initial works in regeneration and justification while speaking less and less about sanctification and glorification.
Enter, once again, Christocentrism.
A relationship with Christ cannot be reduced to the moment of initial salvation any more than a marriage can be reduced to the vow exchange at the wedding. By replacing our gospel-centrism with Christocentrism we give due weight to the ongoing covenant relationship of Christ to his elect people, and the nature of their regular worship as covenant renewal. To know Christ is not only to receive justification and adoption from him, but it is also a daily renewal consummating in resurrected glory.
We cannot be too careful about the buzzwords we use. Even the most well-meaning ministry trends can give way to a criminal neglect of sanctification, God’s law, and holiness. But it is nearly impossible to fall into any sort of excess by making Christ the ground, center, and focal point of our faith and practice.