The theological foundation of the church is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Churches fall into error whenever they move away from the gospel as their foundation. Alan Hirsch reminds us that, “Discipleship, becoming like Jesus our Lord and Founder, lies at the epicenter of the church’s task. It means that Christology must define all that we do and say…It will mean taking the Gospels seriously as the primary texts that define us.” Therefore, the gospel of Jesus Christ that saves individuals is also the gospel that grows individuals through discipleship in the church.
One of the major problems in many churches is bad ecclesiology and a man-centered view of ministry. The recent development of trends in North America such as mega-churches, seeker churches, and emerging churches has brought the issue of ecclesiology to the forefront of debate/discussion for church leaders. Many churches in North American have a pragmatic approach to ecclesiology that focuses on church growth more than church health and on cultural accommodation rather than biblical faithfulness.
The result is that many churches produce consumers and not radical disciples of Jesus Christ. Contemporary churches are being shaped more by contemporary trends than by the biblical ecclesiology. Some churches have either adopted a hierarchal structure that resembles a corporate business structure or they simply have no church structure at all. The truth is that church structure is extremely important for the overall health of a local church and the discipleship process.
Understanding the Gospel
Discipleship begins with understanding the gospel. Many Christians have a watered down, man-centered version of the gospel. The result of not having a solid grasp on the gospel is a dysfunctional and fragmented faith. C.J. Mahaney warns that three things result when we move away from the gospel: legalism, condemnation, and subjectivism.[i] There is a need for a clear understanding and a rediscovery of the gospel in the 21st century. Jerry Bridges writes, “The gospel is not the most important message in history; it is the only essential message in all of history. Yet we allow thousands of professing Christians to live their entire lives without clearly understanding it and experience the joy of living their lives by it.”[ii]
What is the gospel?
The gospel is the declaration of the good news that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that He died for our sins on the cross of cavalry. Simply put, there is no gospel without the sinless life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Tim Keller beautifully describes the gospel as, “The person and work of Jesus Christ, God fully accomplishes salvation for us, rescuing us from judgment for sin into fellowship with him, and then restores the creation in which we can enjoy our new life together with him forever.” [iii]
Doctrines of Grace
To be gospel-centered requires that one knows the doctrines of grace. Men like Martin Luther and John Calvin fought to bring a reformation to the church that would put faith back into the hands of the people. Arising out of the period of the Protestant Reformation were five foundations which summarized in part what the Reformers were trying to do. These banners were known as the “Five Solas” (Latin for ‘only’ or ‘alone’) of the Reformation: the authority of scripture, salvation in Christ alone, by Grace alone, through faith alone, and to God Alone Be Glory. These five solas of the faith are as important now as they were then.[iv]
A gospel-centered view of salvation is completely Christocentric. Christianity begins and ends with Jesus Christ. The word Christian literally means “Christ-like.” Therefore, a proper Christology is the place to start if we are really going to talk about salvation. Gospel-centered theology distinguishes between man-centered and God-centered views of salvation.
Salvation involves the redemption of the whole person and is freely offered to all who repent of their sins and accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. By His blood, Jesus has obtained eternal redemption for every believer. We are “saved by grace through faith, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Therefore, salvation is the work of God from beginning to end. Salvation is wholly dependent upon the work of God’s grace. God credits His righteousness to those who put their faith in Christ alone for their salvation, thereby justifying them in His sight.
Applying the Gospel
The gospel has implications for every Christian believer that reach far beyond salvation. Christians should live gospel-centered lives. Believers are saved by the gospel and called to live by the gospel. The gospel is for all of life. Not only should every Christian have a clear understanding of the gospel, but we should also apply it to every area of our lives.
The gospel is to be applied to every area of thinking, feeling, relating, working, and behaving.[v] Christians must never move beyond the gospel. C.J. Mahaney writes that believers should memorize the gospel, pray the gospel, sing the gospel, review how the gospel has changed our lives, and finally we should continually study the gospel.[vi] This is the reason why the gospel is the foundation for discipleship.
There is an important connection between the gospel, ministry, and discipleship. Our theology has a direct effect on our ministry and discipleship. In many ways, our discipleship is the fruit of our theology. Sadly, many church leaders use church growth principles to add people to the church; however, only the gospel can grow people into disciples of Jesus Christ.
In conclusion, a Gospel-centered church does not only preach the gospel. The gospel is not an addition to our ministry or even a beginning point; rather, the gospel must saturate every part of our church’s life. Each stage of our discipleship process should also be gospel-centered. From assimilation, to preaching and teaching, to counseling, to leadership development, the gospel must be central. Even our worship should be gospel-centered.
The church should reach lost people with the gospel through community outreaches, personal evangelism, and missional living. The church should develop and grow disciples with the gospel through small groups, Bible study, service, and the teaching of spiritual disciplines. It should seek to reproduce disciples grounded in the gospel through leadership development and the mentoring of godly men who will become elders and deacons. Let the gospel be the heart of your church from beginning to end.