Many in the church today live under the banner of “gospel-centered.” It’s in our Twitter bio. It’s in our books, our conferences, our worship. The phrase defines an entire philosophy of ministry. It even curates the content we consume—after all, you did visit Gospel-Centered Discipleship to read this.
When does gospel-centered, and all it represents, go too far? You might chafe under the notion that gospel-centeredness may not be the be-all and end-all of our lives and ministry, but allow me to explain.
THE FOREST AND THE TREE
One of the most haunting condemnations Jesus hands down is found in the Gospel of John. Jesus had just miraculously healed a disabled man, allowing him to walk again. When the man discovers that it was Jesus himself who made him well, he reports what happened to the Jews. They were furious at these reports and confronted Jesus, accusing him of performing these works on the Sabbath, which went against Jewish religious practice.
Jesus’ response only made them angrier: “My Father is still working, and I am working also” (John 5:17 CSB). Not only was Jesus working on the Lord’s Day, but now he was making himself equal to God! (John 5:18).
As the Jews derided and persecuted him, Jesus rebuked their inability to understand the point of it all. After exhorting the crowds, he stuns the Jewish leaders by saying, “You pore over the Scriptures because you think you have eternal life in them, and yet they testify about me. But you are not willing to come to me so that you may have life.” (John 5:39-40).
Jesus diagnosed their problem as being so consumed with the message that they missed the Messiah. Eugene Peterson paraphrases Jesus’ words this way: “You miss the forest for the trees!” The Jews were so concerned with the what of their faith that they failed to see the who behind it all.
And so we often do the same. We drive home the need to focus on Scripture as narrative, but sometimes forget to focus on the Protagonist. Less-than-careful preachers point their church to theology, and somehow, not to Christ. We walk through the forest and fail to notice the beauty of the one mighty Tree before us.
Gospel-centered goes too far when we miss the forest for the trees; when we’re so gospel-centered that we miss Jesus.
This is more than mere semantics. We must remind ourselves that the gospel is only something worth centering our lives on if, standing at the center of that gospel, is Jesus Christ. “He is before all things, and by him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). “Your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). Indeed, the news of the gospel is only good because of who it proclaims.
PREACHING CHRIST IN OUR GOSPEL
In his new book Spurgeon on the Christian Life, Michael Reeves observes that Charles Spurgeon felt compelled to say that he was preaching Christ, “because of how easily we reduce ‘the gospel’ or ‘the truth’ to an impersonal system.” Reeves notes that “Spurgeon saw theology much like astronomy: as the solar system makes sense only when the sun is central, so systems of theological thought are coherent only when Christ is central. Every doctrine must find its place and meaning in its proper relation to Christ.”
The book cites multiple excerpts of Spurgeon commending preaching Christ, including this one:
“Yes, it is Christ, Christ, Christ whom we have to preach; and if we leave him out, we leave out the very soul of the gospel. Christless sermons make merriment for hell. Christless preachers, Christless Sunday-school teachers, Christless class-leaders, Christless tract-distributors—what are all these doing? They are simply setting the mill to the grind without putting any grist into the hopper, so all their labour is in vain. If you leave Jesus Christ out, you are simply beating the air, or going to war without any weapon with which you can smite the foe.”
I appreciate the wide lens with which Spurgeon applies our need for preaching Christ, because this is not just a pastoral issue. Yes, preachers have an obligation to preach the same message—“Christ!”—every Sunday. But this is also true for the youth pastor, the children’s ministry worker, the elder or deacon, the layman.
This is not a call to abandon the “gospel-centered” banner. But it is a call to remember that standing at the core of our message is Christ—the Word made flesh (John 1:14). Yes, our biblicism and crucicentrism and conversionism and activism and all our other -ism’s are all fundamental to our gospel-centeredness. But each of these attitudes fall miserably short if Christ is not present and precious in all and through all.
KEEPING THE MAIN THING THE MAIN THING
If we believe that Christ belongs at the center of our solar system of faith, then we will see that he affects everything and holds all things together. Here are just a few implications of a faith focused on preaching Christ.
- Preaching Christ affects how we read Scripture. Too often we limit discussion of Jesus to the New Testament, but as Jesus affirmed in John 5, the Old Testament is all about him, too. It’s more than a few passages here and there, like Genesis 3:15 and Isaiah 53; the whole of the Old Testament is centered on the person of Christ. As Tim Keller reminds us, “Each genre and part of the Old Testament looks toward Christ and informs us about who he is in some way that the others do not.” The echoes of Christ ring through the hallways of Proverbs and Hosea and Exodus. The Old Testament is an unfolding of God’s redemptive plan, but rest assured, Christ is there throughout.
- Preaching Christ affects how we pray. Prayer is one of the most personal tools we have to communicate with God, and when we remember our prayers are to a Person, we begin to speak as we ought. We do not pray to the abstract or the impersonal. We pray like a child of God showing love and crying out to his Father who hears him and takes notice.
- Preaching Christ affects how we sing. When we gather for worship, it’s easy to sing about the gospel—that “Christ has died for us”—but which word do we emphasize? Too often, we emphasize for us, when it is Christ that should get the emphasis. A worship service focused on Christ will join together in songs that turn our eyes off of ourselves and onto Christ, helping us engage in more vital worship.
- Preaching Christ affects how we serve. Serving because it’s part of the membership covenant is a poor reason to serve. Yes, the gospel’s good news compels us to live as servants of all, but a stronger motivator will always be our love for someone—namely Christ. May the gospel compel us to serve and live sacrificial lives, but may we be even more compelled to lay down our lives because of the Savior who did so for us.
To put it simply, what makes us Christian is Christ. We ought to keep the main thing the main thing. As Spurgeon quips, “If [Christ] be omitted, it is not the gospel…you are only inviting them to gaze upon an empty table unless Christ is the very centre and substance of all that you set before them.”
Continue to be gospel-centered, by all means. But as we invite people to the table, let’s not forget to invite the Guest of Honor.
Zach Barnhart currently serves as Student Pastor of Northlake Church in Lago Vista, TX. He holds a Bachelor of Science from Middle Tennessee State University and is currently studying at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, seeking a Master of Theological Studies degree. He is married to his wife, Hannah. You can follow Zach on Twitter @zachbarnhart or check out his personal blog, Cultivated.