We had a great chapel this week disambiguating “empathy.” If you’re curious, look for the video when it comes out in a future email. At some point I’d like to write a book disambiguating another term: “gospel-centered.” Do a quick Google search, and you’ll come up with dozens of books with titles like Gospel-Centered Discipleship or Gospel-Centered Mom or Conducting Gospel-Centered Funerals—and that’s to say nothing about the spate of books with close-cousin variations (e.g., Gospel Shaped Work or Gospel Growth). I’m not worried about its overuse. Good words should be used and reused. Still, frequent use can and often does lead to confusion. I’m convinced, in fact, that people don’t always know what they mean when they use the word. So, to that end, let me here sketch four parts of this word’s rich semantic range, commending each along the way.
(1) Gospel-centered sometimes means something like “regeneration-centered.” It refers to the amazing reality that Christians have been given new abilities. Because they’ve joined God’s family, because they’ve been united to Christ and received God’s Spirit, they can and—best of all—will follow Jesus with ever-increasing consistency (see 2 Cor 3:18). This way of thinking about the gospel changed my life when I first discovered it back in 2007. (I talk about my own experience here and reflect on it here.) In other words, it’s first in my list for a reason.
(2) Gospel-centered sometimes means something like “justification-centered.” I call this the “Martin Luther variation.” This way of thinking about the gospel emphasizes the believer’s imputed or alien or extra-nos righteousness. It emphasizes the fact that believers, though not intrinsically righteous, have been declared righteous, thanks to their faith in and union with Jesus Christ. As Luther put it, Christians are “simul justus et peccator” (simultaneously righteous and sinful). Back in the early 2000s (my unscientific Spidey-sense of when “gospel-centrality” took off) this way of thinking about the gospel was leading the pack. I sometimes fear that advocates of this approach, however well-intentioned, tend to underemphasize the believer’s responsibility to obey God’s commands while almost singularly emphasizing the believer’s new status, especially positional status. Not always, of course. But often. (See, for example, the debate summarized here.) In any case, our status in Christ is indeed a precious reality that we should celebrate more often than we do.
(3) Gospel-centered sometimes means “follow Jesus’ example” or, if you were around in the 90s, “WWJD.” This approach to the term rightly underscores that the gospel gives us a new example to follow: Jesus. We are after all, as Charles M. Sheldon reminded us a generation ago, called to walk “in his steps” (cf. 1 Pet 2:21). Thus we find texts like John 13:34 saying, “as I have loved you, so you must love one another” and others, like Eph 4:32, saying “forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” This use of the term helps us to remember that the gospel gives us not only new abilities and a new status but also a radically new example of virtue. And what a beautiful and personal example he is!
(4) Gospel-centered sometimes refers to a way of reading the Bible—to what Graeme Goldsworthy calls Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics. This one insists that we must read the Bible recognizing that Israel’s story—the OT’s story—climaxes in Jesus Christ, even while it continues in the church and culminates in the new creation. In other words, it’s a way of understanding the Bible’s plot. The Bible’s tension—the thing that carries the plot forward—is fundamentally resolved by Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. Humanity’s exile east of Eden is finally ended for believers by the gospel. If that’s true, then it should shape the way we read every part of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.
There is more, of course, that could be said about each of these. But all this is sufficient to show that the term gospel-centered has a wide-semantic range, and we don’t want to lose any of it.
Jared Compton, PhD
Assistant Professor of Greek and New Testament Theology
- Pray that we each live gospel-centered lives in how we think and act.
- Pray that our students would finish the school year well.
- We have two months remaining in our fiscal year. Currently, 89 Serious Joy Scholarships remain to be funded. Our streamlined operations depend upon God’s provision through contributions to the Serious Joy Scholarship. Pray that God would supply our needs in Christ Jesus. And then perhaps consider whether you or someone you know might resonate with our vision for Education in Serious Joy and be led to contribute.
- Pray that God would bring us full cohorts of the students he intends to grow and use for his glory at Bethlehem.