Gospel-centered. It’s everywhere. Not quite as ubiquitous as air, but it feels like it sometimes. We even use it at Western Seminary to describe the core of our mission: Gospel-Centered Transformation.
But what does it mean? And what difference does it really make for life and ministry today? Is it just a slogan? Or does it matter?
What does it mean to be gospel-centered?
The Gospel Coalition
Although others have been involved, the Gospel Coalition stands out as one of the more significant voices in the conversation. The Coalition began in 2007 as ”a fellowship of evangelical churches deeply committed to renewing our faith in the gospel of Christ and to reforming our ministry practices to conform fully to the Scriptures.” Responding to a variety of perceived weaknesses in the evangelical church, the leaders of the Coalition declared that the time had come to renew our commitment “to invigorating churches with new hope and compelling joy based on the promises received by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.”
Like any good evangelical organization, Coalition members began by writing out their statement of faith. But then they did something different. They wrote out their theological vision for ministry. In other words, they were (and are) convinced that theology matters for doing ministry (and vice versa). And they took the time to spell out the relationship between the two.
That document repays careful reading. But ministry is too complicated to address in one, albeit thorough, document. So the Coalition unpacked their theological vision in a series of 14 booklets, each addressing a different theological or ministerial issue. And now they’ve compiled all of those booklets into one book, The Gospel as Center: Renewing Our Faith and Reforming our Ministry Practices (Crossway 2012), an essential resource for understanding many of the issues involved in being gospel-centered in today’s world.
I won’t try to unpack all fourteen chapters. That would take too long, and you would probably get bored and stop reading long before I finished. Instead, let me quickly summarize what the book does, highlight a few of the chapters that I liked the most, and then comment on a couple of weaknesses. Although I strongly recommend the book and think it deserves a place in any minister’s library, it’s not perfect, as I’ll explain below.
The contributors are all noted pastors and scholars addressing a range of important topics: Gospel-Centered Ministry (D.A. Carson and Tim Keller), Can We Know the Truth? (Richard Phillips), The Gospel and Scripture (Mike Bullmore), Creation (Andrew Davis), Sin and the Fall (Reddit Andrews III), The Plan (Colin Smith), What Is the Gospel? (Bryan Chapell), Christ’s Redemption (Sandy Wilson), Justification (Philip Ryken), The Holy Spirit (Kevin DeYoung), The Kingdom of God (Stephen Um), The Church (Tim Savage), Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Thabiti Anyabwile and Ligon Duncan), and The Restoration of All Things (Sam Storms).
So that’s the summary. It’s an impressive array of authors addressing important issues. And what binds them all together is the conviction that theology and ministry are intimately related and that the gospel lies at the center of that relationship. Although most of the chapters are worth reading, a couple stand out as particularly helpful.
- Gospel-Centered Ministry: If there’s a must-read chapter in the book, it’s this one. And that’s certainly why they put it first. In just a few pages, Carson and Keller explain what they think it means to be gospel-centered in ministry, what it looks like, and why it matters. Well done.
- What Is the Gospel? Any book about gospel centrality, must explain what “gospel” means. And Bryan Chapell tackles that in chapter 7. Chapell offers a nice summary of several themes central to the gospel, trying to avoid the twin dangers of reducing the gospel to individual salvation and neglecting individual salvation entirely. This chapter would be a good starting point for discussing the central themes of the gospel and what should be included in any brief summary.
- Justification: This one is tough because justification is such a hotly debated issue today. So Philip Ryken focuses on explaining clearly the traditional Protestant view of justification. And in this he excels. This isn’t a good chapter for understanding the nuances of the contemporary debate. But it’s excellent for gaining a clear view of what justification has traditionally meant and why it’s important to the gospel.
- Other commonly neglected topics: I won’t go into detail here, but kudos to the Gospel Coalition for having chapters on creation, the Spirit, the church, and the restoration of all things (eschatology). All four of these are too commonly omitted in books on the gospel. So it’s good to see the Coalition challenging people to think about how these are related to the gospel and why it matters.
Like I said, I think this is a great book for anyone involved in ministry. But I do have a few concerns. Or, more correctly, I have some questions that I would have liked to see get better answers.
Do you have to be complementarian to be gospel-centered?
The Gospel Coalition is a complementarian movement. Their statement of faith clearly states that men and women are equal in creation, but that they have different, divinely-ordained roles in the family and the church. So it’s no surprise that The Gospel as Center is a complementarian book. What is surprising is that they don’t even engage the question of whether you really have to be compementarian to be gospel-centered. That has been one of the biggest and most enduring criticisms of the Gospel Coalition, something that several Coalition members address in this video. So I was startled to see the complete failure to address the issue in the book. They touch on complementarianism in a few places, but never in depth.And the book never explains why this issue is important, or even relevant, for being gospel-centered. That is unfortunate.
Can you believe in evolution and still be gospel-centered?
As I mentioned above, I was pleased to see a chapter on creation in the book. And Andrew Davis raised the important question of whether evolution has any bearing on being gospel-centered. But he didn’t provide a clear answer, which isn’t surprising given that there’s disagreement among Coalition members on this point. More critically, he didn’t engage the difficult question of whether Adam and Eve were real, historical individuals, something that has received a lot of attention in recent years.
What does the gospel have to do with sanctification and discipleship?
This is another topic that received surprisingly little attention in the book despite the fact that it’s been the subject of hot debate among Coalition members. How do we understand biblical passages that emphasize obedience and duty from a gospel-centered perspective that is suppose to be all about grace and freedom? And what practical implications does our answer have for ministry today? I would have liked to see much more discussion of this important topic.
Do you have to be reformed to be Gospel-centered?
This last point may not be entirely fair. The authors never suggest that you have to be reformed to be Gospel-centered. But they all lean toward the reformed end of the theological spectrum. And each chapter is certainly written from that perspective. So you walk away with the feeling that being gospel-centered means having a reformed theological perspective. I’ve been told by some Coalition members that this isn’t the case, so it would have been nice to see a chapter on theological and ecumenical diversity as it relates to being gospel-centered. (The closest they came to this was the fascinating exchange on baptism and the Lord’s supper. That was a good start, but more was needed.)
None of these are deal-breakers. They just point out a few (critical) areas in which I would have liked to see more discussion. But that just means that if you do use this book in your own ministry, you’ll have excellent opportunities to dig into these questions for yourself!
The Bottom Line
- Highly recommended
- Excellent resource for: (1) understanding what people mean by “gospel-centered,” (2) understanding the “young, restless, reformed” movement, and (3) reflecting on what it means to “think theologically” about ministry.