Have you ever heard the phrase, “gospel-centered?” It could be a church or pastor stating they are a “gospel-centered church” or are focusing on “gospel-centered teaching.”
Much of the motivation for such talk within evangelicalism is positive. This has taken on the aura of a mantra in many quarters. You might have seen conferences with this theme. And I believe they have value in calling the evangelical world back to the significance of the gospel of Christ and away from the rather empty teaching that dominates much of our social media, television, and airwaves. I am not lambasting all of the media-centered teaching, just those who are radical in their orientation and who present no clear gospel. One popular television teacher in particular leaves me wondering if he is ever going to present the gospel of Christ so that people will understand it. I have not yet heard it.
On the other hand, I want to focus on the following question: Should we be gospel-centered, God-centered, or Christ-centered? Arguments can be made for each of these for doing theology. In doing ministry, especially at the local church level, one can see that the gospel would or should be prominent as the church reaches out to its culture. After all, the apostle Paul told the Corinthians, “For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2, NASB). However, should the gospel itself—understood here as the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ (1 Corinthians 15:1–8)—be the central interpretive motif for our entire theological worldview? I think that is a different question than ministry focus. Paul is not excluding or diminishing the value of other areas of doctrine. Nor is he necessarily saying that one’s entire worldview is built upon the gospel alone as the core.
The advantage of a Jesus-centered approach over a gospel-centered approach is that it is inclusive of all that Jesus has done, is doing, and will do for His people.
Some would argue for God-centeredness. Culturally, the need is great. We live in an era where Islam is resurging and New Age mysticism with its Hinduistic ideas has such an influence in the Western world. The issue here is the nature of God. Within evangelicalism there is the open theism debate which also highlights the very being of God as crucial in our time. The debate over sovereignty has heated up with the Reformed resurgence. Biblically, can anyone imagine any theological category in the Word of God that is more important than God?
However, as I think about central interpretive motifs and know that people have a penchant for having them, I remember all the attempts to find the center of the message of the Bible. Some of the candidates for the unifying theme of the Bible have been Kingdom, covenant, promise, redemption, dispensation, holiness, already-not yet, the glory of God, etc. To highlight one is sometimes to diminish the others. Does any one of these concepts actually integrate all the others? There exist also agenda-driven theologies such as feminist theology, the social gospel, black theology, and other attempts to take one issue and view all of theology through that one lens. Such an approach to doing theology does not take the text as it was meant to be taken and may devalue other teachings that the Word of God gives.
Lately, I have been talking more and more about Jesus-centered theology although I have an open mind as I continue to consider this issue. The advantage of a Jesus-centered approach over a gospel-centered approach is that it is inclusive of all that Jesus has done, is doing, and will do for His people. Does this succeed as a central interpretive motif? Probably not. However, it does fit with several passages that give gospel appeals. Even in 1 Corinthians 15, the resurrection chapter, the gospel lends itself to the discussion of the future resurrection of believers. Eschatology along with some of its details is not far behind Paul’s famous definition of the gospel. (See 1 Corinthians 15:20–28, 50–52).
Of special interest to me is Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill in Acts 17. The outline of the content of Paul’s message is clear: God is the creator; men must repent of their sins against Him; if they don’t, they will be judged; if they are judged, they will be judged by the Man (Jesus) whom God raised from the dead. (See 17:22–31). The framing of the gospel presentation includes some eschatology. There is a future time of judgment to come. In this way, the entire gamut of what Jesus does is highlighted, not just the cross-work. The cross is certainly the basis for the forgiveness of sins. One must depend upon the finished work of Christ on the cross to be saved. However, the Bible often speaks of the “package” of all that Jesus does across time.
One other major passage which speaks of the career of Jesus, so to speak, would be Romans 8:29–39. There the promise is given that God finishes what He starts based upon the various aspects (past, present, future) of the ministries of Jesus. It is also interesting that both Peter and Paul highlight a future focus as the hope of oppressed Christians (1 Peter 1:4–5, 7,13; 5:4; 2 Thessalonians 1:5–12). I doubt that Peter was actually devaluing the cross when he made the following statement: “Therefore, gird your minds for action, keep sober in spirit, fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:13). This focus on the Second Coming was necessary and commanded with clarity. Yet theologically, one might be criticized in today’s theological climate as overdosing on eschatology if one emphasized this truth.
So, I have come to a conclusion. To emphasize the Second Coming at the expense of the First Coming is to spit on the cross. However, to emphasize the First Coming and the cross at the expense of Christ’s future glorious work is to deny the glory of the God we worship. So, at least for the time being, you will find me emphasizing more and more a Jesus-centered theology that glories in all that Christ is and all that He does throughout all of history.
Editor’s Note: This has been adapted from Dr. Stallard’s personal blog, our-hope.org/blog