Gospel Centrality: What are we really talking about?
“Gospel-centred”. Perhaps you’ve heard that phrase thrown around in the last few years! Indeed, it’s language I myself have adopted, as I’ve exhorted my congregation. “Live a gospel-centred life!” “Let’s be a gospel-centred church!” But what do I mean by that? That’s something I’ve been pondering for a while now. After all, if I’m not clear what I mean, you can be sure those I encourage won’t be clear either. As Spurgeon reportedly once said: if there is mist in the pulpit, you can be sure there’s fog in the pews!
So what does it mean to be gospel-centred? As I’ve thought about it, I’m increasingly convinced that gospel-centrality isn’t monochromatic, but multi-faceted. So let me propose a taxonomy of 4 images that collectively, make up a gospel-centred life.
1. The gospel as engine
Firstly, to be gospel-centred is to acknowledge that the gospel is not just necessary to our conversion, but also for our sanctification. Too often, we think of the gospel like a ticket to a concert. It’s necessary to get us into the concert hall, but once we’re in, into the bin it goes! It’s no longer needed – after all, we’re in already! That’s how many Christians subconsciously think of the gospel. The gospel is necessary for non-Christians to enter into God’s kingdom, but once we’re in and become Christians, we can move on to something else.
However, if we’re gospel-centred, we will treat the gospel less like a ticket, and more like an engine. Just imagine a race car. It can look impressive on the outside, but take the engine out, and it won’t be able to move an inch! It’s not capable of racing! Similarly, Christians need the empowerment of the gospel daily to run the race of the Christian life. As Tim Keller is fond of saying: The gospel is not just the ABCs of the Christian life. It is the A-Z.
Do we find this in Scripture? Yes, I believe so. For instance, in Colossians 1:6, we read this: “In the same way, the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world – just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace.” What is really interesting is the suggestion contained within this verse that the gospel continues to do something in us beyond conversion! It continues to grow in us and renew us, from the day we first heard it. The gospel is what is needed to keep us living for the Lord.
That’s why later on in Colossians 2:16-23, the apostle Paul warns us against trying to make religious activity (v.16-17), extraordinary spiritual experiences (v.18-19), or harsh external rules (v.20-23) the foundation of our Christian lives. Instead, he makes sure to put our focus squarely on our union with Christ (Col. 3:1-4). The gospel is not merely the truth that Christ died for us as our substitute – though that is of course gloriously true – but also that we are now in Christ. We have died and risen with him, not just as a figure of speech, but in a real, vital and intimate way. Therefore, as those who participate in the risen life of Christ, and have become new creations with a new identity, we put to death sin (Col. 3:5ff).
Or take John 15:4-5:
“4 Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. 5 ‘I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.
These verses make clear that apart from abiding in Jesus, there is no possibility of our bearing fruit. We are totally dependent on his continued nourishment. True obedience and good works can only emerge from a context where we dwell continually in the life-giving love of Jesus. As the theologian Marcus Johnson puts it: “Sanctification, like any other soteriological [i.e related to salvation] blessing, is a direct result of being joined to Christ in the glorious fullness of who he is.”1 To be gospel-centred, therefore, is to treat the gospel as the engine of our Christian life.2
So what’s the pay-off for us? For one thing, it makes holiness attractive and attainable. So often, we see holiness as a bar we can never reach or a set-up for certain failure. Worse still, we believe God is disappointed in us when we do fall. But when we are gospel-centred, we’re reassured God is for us – Christ has justified us! At the same time, we are motivated to keep making the effort – we are no longer our old selves!
2. The gospel as goal
However, that does not exhaust the meaning of gospel centrality. A gospel-centred person does not merely see the gospel as the engine, but also the goal of the Christian life. In other words, they recognise that their highest calling in life is to help someone know Jesus.
We see this especially vividly in Philippians 1:12-13. Paul is literally in chains, and it would have been easy for him to complain incessantly about his circumstances. But when we look at verses 12-13, what do we see? We find him describing his time in prison as simply another gospel opportunity! Instead of seeing himself as chained to his guards, he sees his guards as being chained to him, thus gifting him with a captive audience. Therefore, “I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has served to advance the gospel!” he says, with an air of delight. That’s the mindset of a gospel-centred person. They are single-minded in the pursuit of their goal, to help people to know Christ. All their circumstances are evaluated in light of how close they are to achieving their goal.
We find the same mindset when we keep glancing down the rest of the chapter. In Philippians 1:14, Paul rejoices because his chains enable others to proclaim Christ more boldly! In 1:15-17, he rejoices that Christ is preached, even though he is being preached by rivals seeking to undermine him! What does it matter, as long as the goal of the gospel being proclaimed is being reached? In Philippians 1:25-26, after agonising over whether it is better to die and be with Christ or to remain here on Earth, he settles on the latter, because that way, he can see the gospel bearing more fruit amongst his fellow Christians. In everything, the gospel is the overriding priority. That is the mindset of a gospel-centred person – to make its proclamation the goal of the Christian life.
I find this mindset vividly illustrated in the life of a young Singaporean man named Elliot Soh. As a young man in his 20s, he discovered he was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. However, he did not complain about his situation, but chose to use it to point to Jesus as much as possible, right up to his dying breath. (You can read more of his story here.)
3. The gospel as lens
Yet we can still say more. What else does gospel centrality involve? It’s to recognise the gospel as lens. This can work out in two ways.
Firstly, it means bringing the gospel to bear on every area of life. It’s to filter all areas of our lives through the lens of the gospel, so to speak, so that whether we are considering issues of sexuality, society or self-image, we are trying to let the gospel shape our perspective on those issues. After all, Jesus is Lord over everything (Col. 1:17)! Therefore, he is relevant to every issue in every age!
Let’s give an example. Consider the world of Instagram. How might the world view Instagram? From the world’s perspective, Instagram is a place where we can play God, though of course it won’t use such language. After all, on Instagram, we get to control how our image is projected – such that we can project perfection, like God. We can conceal our shortcomings and our sin. Instagram can also be a place to play God in the sense that it can give us the illusion of being able to see into the lives and places of many people at once. As I open up Instagram, I get to see what feels like the whole world, just like God. And it can become addictive. I need to see what’s going on in the lives of others. I need to experience what my friends experience in real-time.3
But what if we look at the world of Instagram through a gospel lens? It might mean remembering that in this world of images, Jesus Christ is the true image of the invisible God, who is now renewing us in his image. We no longer need to feel the need to use Instagram to construct perfect images of ourselves online, because our sense of self is now dependent on God’s grace. It might mean re-imagining Instagram as a place of testimony. We are always created to praise something or someone, and the gospel now orients us to praise the true and living God. Accordingly, we now take photos to testify to our wonderful Creator, who has made creation the theatre of his glory.
Secondly, it means letting the gospel shape the way we read our Bibles. When we read an Agatha Christie detective novel, for instance, we will eventually reach a climactic scene where all is revealed. Thus, when we go back and read the story for a second time, we now view it in a different way.4 We understand better why certain scenes are constructed in a certain way, or why certain characters act the way they do.
In an analogous way, the same is true of the Bible. The Bible is one big story of which the gospel is the climax. At the same time, the climactic “scene” of the gospel causes us to read the rest of the Bible with fresh eyes. We understand better, for example, why the Bible makes a big deal of the Exodus, especially the Passover, because it is pointing forward to the gospel. This means whenever we read the Scriptures, it no longer is read as a series of vignettes about obscure historical events! Instead, we now experience it as the living and active word of God that constantly directs our gaze to Jesus so that we can behold his glory. No wonder the writer of Hebrews, to take one of multiple examples, can quote Psalm 45:6-7 and dare to say: This is about God’s Son! (Heb. 1:8)5
4. The gospel as mother tongue
Finally, to be gospel-centred is to learn to become “fluent” in the gospel. It’s to encourage one another with the truths of the gospel, and to keep supporting each other to live with the gospel as the engine, the goal and the lens. In Ephesians 4:15-16, we are encouraged to “speak the truth in love” to one another, as a means to grow towards maturity in Christ. Interestingly, in the book of Ephesians, every other time the word “truth” is mentioned, it is always explicitly connected with Jesus! Have a look at Ephesians 1:13 and 4:20-21:
13And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation.”~ Ephesians 1:13
20 That, however, is not the way of life you learned 21 when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus.~ Ephesians 4:20-21
Therefore, we should strive to speak the gospel to one another, so that we will not fall into the snare of a sinful, unbelieving heart (Heb. 3:12-13). You could say it should become our “mother tongue”!
How does that happen? We must first of all speak the truth in love to our own hearts. After all, if we’re not personally experiencing the encouragement of the gospel, it’s going to be very hard to encourage others with the gospel. We need to look for communities where we can receive the encouragement of the gospel.
We then seek to take a genuine interest in others. The gospel tells us God moved towards people, even when they were not very attractive! We do the same. We patiently listen, giving others our full attention.
We also then ask good questions. This is a skill all of us, myself included, can keep growing in. We ask the everyday questions: How are you? What did you do yesterday?, but we slowly seek to peel some of the layers by asking questions that begin to go a little deeper: How did you feel about that incident yesterday? What has that been like you? Then we try to think how a gospel truth might speak into that matter.6
Of course, we will struggle with making the gospel our mother tongue! That’s how it is whenever we’re trying to become fluent in a language! We will sometimes sound silly and childish, and risk misunderstandings! Yet, if we wish to master a language, we have to keep practicing. There is no other way.
So there you have it. What does it mean to be gospel-centred? I hope this article would have thrown some light on that question. It is to grasp that the gospel is our engine, our goal, our lens and our mother tongue. Of course, this might not be the only way to explain gospel centrality, and I won’t claim this is the last word on the subject. But my hope and prayer is that this would still prove to be a helpful way in, and even more, to act as a catalyst to live truly gospel-centred lives.
1 Marcus Peter Johnson, One with Christ (Crossway: 2013), p.121.
2 One more example can be found in Titus 2:11-14.
3 I owe some of these insights to Robin Ham, Filtered Grace (self-published:2015), 35.
4 If you haven’t read, for instance, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, you’re missing out!
5 A good book introducing someone to the Bible as one big story is Vaughan Roberts, God’s Big Picture (IVP: 2002). To see how specific themes such as the temple, the priest, the covenant and so on develop throughout the Bible and culminate in Christ, look at the individual volumes contained in Crossway’s Short Studies in Biblical Theology.
6 If you wish to explore this a little more, see Paul Tripp’s Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands, (P&R:2002). Tim Chester’s paper ‘4Gs’’, which can be googled online, is also helpful.
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Pastor Brian King currently serves as the pastor of BEM Kuching Evangelical Church. He is married to Chin Yin and they have 2 children. Born and bred in Kuching, Pastor Brian holds degrees in English Literature from the University of Oxford, an MA in Publishing from the University of the Arts, London, as well as a Master of Divinity (M.Div) from Sydney Missionary & Bible College. He is grateful to Jesus for rescuing him while he was still lost in sin, and longs for people to grow in Christ and follow him wholeheartedly as they hear his Word taught. Pastor Brian enjoys reading all sorts of things, playing badminton, following the NBA and watching crime shows.
In addition to his role as pastor of BEM KEC, Pastor Brian has been serving on the committee of KVBC NextGen since 2015, including as its chairman (2020-present).
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