Ultimately, the main issue here is that the Gospel is not ours, but Christ’s. It is his Word, his message, about himself. We don’t get to wield it as if we own it, but we always stand beneath it and in judgment by it. As theologians like Jonathan Edwards and Dietrich Bonhoeffer remind us, when we center our thought on a notion other than Christ—even if it is faithful to his Gospel—what we easily do is package it in a way that allows us to control it. Furthermore, attached to this is my concern as a systematic theologian. I find too many of my seminary students who call themselves “Gospel-Centered” who think that articulating the Gospel is just saying the right words in the right order. To find out if someone is “Gospel-Centered” only takes a simple quiz—do you claim that the Gospel is x, y and z, yes or no? But that is decisively sub-Christian. We can get the letter right and still miss the Spirit. This is what Jesus’ disciples discovered when Jesus asked them the ever-important question, “Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29). Peter received an A on the test, but an F on the Christ’s identity in the Spirit (see Mark 8:33). We too can do the same with the Gospel.
So does this mean we shouldn’t use the term? No. Rather, we need to be careful. We need to be careful when we talk about the Gospel when we should explicitly be talking about Christ. We need to be weary of de-personalizing God’s self-giving to us in Christ. We need to be cautious not to use an affirmation as a way to determine if someone is “in” or “out” or “with us” or “against us.” Ultimately, we need to remember how easy it is to use God rather than be with him, and we need to recognize the temptations and blind-spots of every term we use. Jamin and I wrote Beloved Dust as a “Gospel-Centered” kind of book. It is an account of the Christian life with God’s self-giving as its entire focus. But pastorally, we had to narrate all of the places we try to use that to deceive ourselves, to hide and cover from Christ as Adam and Eve hid and covered in the garden. We are confronted with the truth of ourselves too much to deny that we couldn’t use “Gospel-Centeredness” to hide in the same way.