The Spiritual Dangers of Being Gospel-Centered

There is a movement of “Gospel-Centered” everything going on in the church today. The sentiment is, no doubt, a generally good one. We can certainly consider plenty of worse things to be centered on than the Gospel! I’m not interested in critiquing this movement, per se, but what I want to do is simply point out some areas of potential blind spots. Every positive idea, no matter how “biblical” or not (please refer to my “Why ‘Biblical’ Often Tends to Be Unbiblical” post), has areas of temptation. It is no different with the notion of “Gospel-Centeredness.”

One of my first inclinations when I heard the term “Gospel-Centered” was, “Why not be Christ-centered?” This might seem like a cheap shot, but it isn’t meant to be. Our language is deeply important, and it is all too easy to solidify a well-meaning phrase only to allow it to blind us to the ways it misconstrues our vision of the Christian life. Jonathan Edwards shared a similar concern with the Westminster Confession. In a passage central to their notion of the Gospel, the Westminster theologians claim that faith is the instrument by which we receive salvation. This seems harmless enough. But Edwards wanted nothing of it. “No!” he proclaimed. Faith is the instrument by which we receive Christ, and in Christ, we are saved. The subtle temptation with removing Christ from our terminology is that we can easily allow “the Gospel” to become formulaic—like a magical text. Our being able to subscribe to “Gospel-Centeredness” now atones for our sins—it makes us feel better about our deficiencies because we are “in the right.” Rather than standing before Christ giving an account for ourselves, we can hide behind the ever-so-comfortable formula of the Gospel.

Two quick points here. First, our account of the Gospel should always lead us to stand before Christ—to deal with him in the truth of ourselves in light of the truth of himself. In my recent book, co-written with Jamin Goggin, we turn to the image of dust to narrate this truth. A correct hearing of the Gospel is hearing it as God’s dust, yes, but not only God’s dust—God’s beloved dust. We must draw close to God in the truth of ourselves, in the midst of our brokenness, sinfulness and fleshliness, even as Christians, and then (and only then) can we really embrace who Christ is for us. My worry about self-identifying as “Gospel-Centered” is that instead of standing before Christ, I can stand before a theological declaration I affirm (and then feel good about myself for being so right when others are so wrong).

Second, it can be all too easy to accept the yoke of “Gospel-Centeredness” in the flesh. In Galatians, Paul lets us see the profound truth that even as Christians we can choose to sow to the flesh rather than sowing to the Spirit (Gal. 6:8). We can do ministry in fleshly ways. We can pray to God in the flesh rather than in the Spirit. We can be Gospel-Centered in the flesh. The temptation in all of this is to create a way to avoid this question—to create an affirmation that allows us to feel “right” rather than embrace a Lord who calls us to himself in love. Ultimately, of course, the Gospel should do this, and “Gospel-Centeredness” should ultimately lead us here. But do not deceive yourself. It does not take too much searching to find, right now, Gospel-Centeredness being used as a way to generate a platform in the power of the flesh. We see bullying, self-righteousness and anger being sanctified by Gospel-Centeredness. It is easier to take a proposition like “Gospel-Centeredness” and wield it in the flesh than it is to do so with Christ. When I hold the term in my hand, even in all of my agreement with it, I feel much more powerful than when I gaze upon my crucified Lord. Before the cross, my embrace of self-willing is undone in a way that isn’t true about “Gospel-Centeredness.”

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Kyle Strobel
Kyle Strobel is an assistant professor of spiritual theology at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, and co-founder of Metamorpha Ministries. He is the author of Formed for the Glory of God: Learning from the Spiritual Practices of Jonathan Edwards (IVP) and co-author of Beloved Dust: Drawing Close to God in the Truth About Yourself (Thomas Nelson), which comes out this October. Find him at Metamorpha.com or on Twitter at Twitter.com/KyleStrobel.