The Gospel-Emptiness of Gospel-Centeredness

The recent resurgence of gospel-centrality in the American church encourages me. Though it has been around for most of my life, when I look back on church history I am grateful there has been a recovery of gospel-focused writing, teaching, preaching, singing, thinking, and so on.

The gospel is the metronome of the biblical story—the cadence with which God wanted to communicate Himself to us.

The gospel is, well, central.

For all it gets right, it seems gospel-centered theology is involved in a strange predicament. Those of us in the “gospel-centered tribe” have been conditioned to behold the gospel in all of life and Scripture. And as a result, I have watched many, many people I know fall into the trap of practicing their gospel-centrality before others, and I think it’s a subtle danger.

I can see it in them because I’ve seen it in my own heart.

Can We Have Too Much Gospel?

First off, I want to make clear that I don’t think “too much gospel” is a thing. That phrase sounds incoherent to me. There can never be “too much” of the gospel in anything. It is the lifeblood of the church and the mission of God in the redemption of humanity.

Additionally, nothing can rob the gospel of its power. One could be motivated by fame or fortune in the preaching of the gospel, but if the apostolic teaching of the gospel is what is truly being communicated then I believe the Holy Spirit can pierce the hearts of the hearers. The gospel is that powerful, and God is that big (but I wouldn’t encourage this behavior, obviously).

I don’t think our desire for gospel-centeredness is empty. I’m just afraid many of our attempts to be gospel centered aren’t truly concerned with love for God and neighbor—that they often amount to little more than gospel-centered thumb wrestling matches, hoping we will one-up or out-gospel those in our theological clique.

In other words, I worry our gospel-centrality will turn out gospel-less if we aren’t careful.

Here’s a question worth asking: “Am I keeping the gospel in focus because I believe it is the power of God for salvation to all who believes? Or am I merely grandstanding, hoping to fit in a little better or get looks of incredulity out of my peers, mentors, professors, or influences?”

A little gospel-centered pizzaz can go a long way, and our hearts are incredibly deceptive. Let’s not get caught up thinking we can’t do the right things for the wrong motives. Keep watch, for your gospel-centrality can quickly turn into gospel-one-upmanship.

How to Keep Your Gospel-Centrality Full of Gospel

I think, at times, all of us become guilty of prioritizing theological correctness over genuine concern and love for God and neighbor—especially those of us who read theology and care about having right doctrine in our churches.

That said, I don’t want this article to come off as finger-pointing, assumptive, or any other descriptors that add a nonexistent degree of intensity to what I’m saying. I’m mostly speaking to myself here, as I catch myself doing this all the time subconsciously.

I have to keep myself in check at all times or else I will easily become more concerned with being gospel-centered than I am concerned with being centered on the gospel, and these are a few things that have helped me.

1. Make a list of the people with whom you spend the most time.

If the majority of your time is spent hanging out with people who go to your church or consider themselves gospel-centered, you might be misunderstanding what it means to be missional. The proclamation and/or spread of the gospel is a natural outflow of gospel-centeredness, so if you’re in a gospel foxhole all week long, your gospel-centrality might be empty.

2. Make a habit of nixing jargon that won’t make sense to lost people.

Your gospel-centrality should lend itself to an approachability. Don’t ditch theological terms wholesale—Scripture is packed with them, and they are necessary because they make boundaries around our beliefs. That said, a lot of us are guilty of over-theologizing everyday sentences, trying to turn everything into theological debate, or pressing people on issues they haven’t even thought about. (Let’s face it—I can think of maybe one or two people who could talk about fourth century Trinitarianism within a twenty-five mile radius of me.)

3. Make sure someone makes you repent of sin.

There is nothing more gospel full than living out the story of redemption. When we repent of our sins, we are confronted anew with the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection, and we are reminded of how we ought to live in light of it. Repenting of sins humbles us and causes us to realize our smallness. In seeing Christ as big, we will see his purposes as big. In a sense, though it hurts and is humbling, repentance is something of a gospel recharge. Get a friend, a group of friends, a community group, or an elder to regularly force you to repent of sins—not in an awkward way, of course, but in your everyday conversation or lifestyle. You’ll be amazed at just how big the gospel gets when you are confronted with your sinfulness and God’s graciousness day in and day out.