Apparently Jesus is perfectly willing to say to churches, “repent, or else.” And the “or else” includes things like coming against the unrepentant like a thief, waging war against them, and potentially even killing them (and their children). If our gospel-centeredness protects us from the rebuke of Christ, if our gospel-centeredness diminishes the dread fear of his majesty, and the whole-hearted yearning to please him, then indeed “we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it” (Hebrews 2:1).
Kyle Strobel recently wrote a piece on the spiritual dangers of being “gospel-centered.” I’m probably not the best person to write a detailed response, since I don’t know Kyle or the context for his concerns, and since my experience of gospel-centeredness has been positive where his has been negative. In fact, in the circles I run, the label “gospel-centered” has referred to theology and attitudes and behavior and instincts that serve precisely the end of Kyle’s concerns: to humble people under the Lordship of Christ, not raise them up in the power of the flesh. I hope someone who understands Kyle’s post better might respond to it more closely.
Instead of responding, I’d like to try to receive Kyle’s critique and consider what we who espouse the label “gospel-centered” can learn from it. After all, he does raise some valid concerns—for instance, about gospel-centeredness becoming formulaic, or about the work of Christ eclipsing his person. I don’t doubt that some expressions of gospel-centeredness do fall into these errors, even while healthier variations of gospel-centeredness should remain aware of them as potential dangers. So I’m writing to those sympathetic to the idea of gospel-centeredness and asking: how can we avoid imbalance, formulism, or a sectarian mindset?
Amidst a myriad of other things we could also do, I have two suggestions: (1) read the Puritans and (2) study Revelation 2-3.
The Message and the Man
One of Kyle’s repeated concerns throughout his article is that we can so emphasize our conceptual understanding of the gospel that we lose sight of the actual person of Christ. “Rather than standing before Christ giving an account for ourselves, we can hide behind the ever-so-comfortable formula of the Gospel.” My brother Dane made this same point well in his review of Barbara Duguid’s Extravagant Grace:
[Some books] are rich in exploring the gospel but feel a bit formulaic. The word of grace is reflected on but not the Man of grace. Ironically similar to the Roman Catholicism with which such book are otherwise in stark contrast, “grace” becomes almost a substance, a thing, a stockpile, that is lavishly given to us.
This is an important concern because the gospel does indeed come to us most deeply not as an idea, but as a Person. We receive grace in the context of vital union and communion with him: moment-by-moment repentance, worship, listening to his voice, striving to please him, etc. Just as in Narnia, the fundamental impulse of the children isn’t cognitive reflection on the Stone Table: they just love Aslan and long for his appearance. Any expressions of gospel-centeredness that lack this full-blooded, experiential dynamic are defunct or defective.
It is just here that I think the Puritans can help us. Why the Puritans? Well, they are the direct spiritual and theological forbearers of the modern gospel-centered movement, and simultaneously provide the richest theology of sanctification in church history. The Puritans were “gospel-centered” and “Christ-centered” (in all that is good about those terms) before it became hip, and they avoided the mistakes that we tend to make today. In particular, I suggest we read more books like:
- Richard Sibbes, The Bruised Reed
- John Owen, The Mortification of Sin (or anything by John Owen)
- Thomas Watson, The Doctrine of Repentance
The Puritan vision of the Christian life was rich in the doctrines of grace while remaining sensitive to the dynamics of how grace operates in everyday life. It was grounded both in the man and the message; it was both intellectually deep and spiritually wise. Owen would speak of those who “decay in grace,” for instance. Is that even a category for us today in our understanding of gospel-centeredness?