Keeping the Gospel at the Center of your Church
We have all been asked this question, whether from a visitor at church, a new acquaintance or a family member: “So what type of church do you have…are you part of any denomination or something like that?” Personally, I have a love-hate relationship with that question. I am thrilled the person is interested enough to ask; at the same time, I know they won’t understand the answer without an explanation.
”We have a Gospel-centered church” is my reply. Usually, the follow-up question is along the lines of, “Yea, I know, but what I meant is, are you Baptist, Methodist, traditional, or one of the more modern type churches?” The bubble in my head produces the caption: “I’m pretty sure you don’t know,” but that would be impolite and not very helpful for church growth.
Of course, this leads to the question, “What is a Gospel-centered church?” The short answer is that the Gospel permeates every fiber in every ministry of your church. But what exactly does that look like?
For me, it was an evolution. I came from a seminary where we were taught to faithfully exposit the authorial intent of the text we’re preaching. But then I ran up against 1 John.
We all know the challenges of preaching 1 John—the repetition of the three themes: truth, obedience, and love. As a result, you hit your head against the wall hoping to knock a wisp of inspiration to keep you from repeating what you have already said every way you knew how. I was in about the fourth cycle of preaching the theme of obedience and all my ammo was spent, when I read Jerry Bridges’ books, Transforming Grace and Disciplines of Grace. Here is where I learned the Gospel is the answer not just for our salvation, but also for our obedience or sanctification. I had a long phone conversation with Jerry Bridges, who was very gracious with me, enduring my questioning about monergistic vs. synergistic sanctification with respect to the Gospel, until it finally clicked.
Later, reading C.J. Mahaney’s Living a Cross-Centered Life and Elyse Fitzpatrick’s Counsel from the Cross was very helpful. I asked someone who had a great understanding of modern church history: “Who was the first one to bring the Gospel to the surface for our sanctification?” The person believed it was Tim Keller, who epitomized the Gospel for our sanctification by this quote, which you may have used more than once in your preaching:
“The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”
That was it! If someone believes this truth, he or she will be set free from any life-dominating sin.
On our best day, in our best gear, our righteousness is like filthy rags before God (Isa 64:6). We always deserve an “F” (James 2:10). But Christ lived a perfect life under law and got an A+ (Rom 5:19). By faith in Him, He writes your name on that test, so you always get an A+ even on your worst day. We stand before God forgiven and with 100% of Christ’s righteousness. The result is we are just as loved by God the Father on our worst day as on our best.
The result is we are just as loved by God the Father on our worst day as on our best.
Even more astounding, we are loved by God the Father as much as He loves His Son because of our union with Christ.
If the goal of church is for the lost to be saved, the saved conformed into the image of Christ, and the Gospel is the answer, then this truth needs to be part of a church’s DNA. So then how do you keep the Gospel at center of your church?
Share your need for the Gospel personally. Take opportunities in the pulpit to be vulnerable and transparent (within reason) and show your personal need for Christ and the Gospel. As a pastor, you are not a super Christian, but a sinner saved by grace just like those to whom you’re preaching.
Teach our need for the Gospel collectively. Constantly remind your congregation that the church is a hospital and that we are all sick in various stages of recovery and no one has arrived. The ground is level at the cross—no one is better than anyone else. We all fall short and need the saving grace of God through the Gospel. It is important for your leaders to model and emphasize this in small groups. By doing so, they will be promoting transparency and authenticity. Most pastors are painfully aware that people generally ask for help after they’ve already fallen off the cliff. A married couple are falling in mid-air and only then does the husband say, “We could use a little help in our marriage: my wife wants to divorce me.” Keeping the Gospel at the center of small groups will free people to share their struggles without fear of what people may think or condemnation; as a result, and by God’s grace, you can disciple and counsel people during the earlier stages of their problems—before they fall off the cliff.
Preaching the Gospel. Be faithful to the text, while finding connection points between the main proposition of the text and Christ. For example, if you are talking about obedience, end with Christ being obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross. If the theme is suffering, then mention how Christ suffered so we don’t have to. If speaking on fear or anxiety, talk about Christ’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane and ultimately satisfying the wrath of God, so we don’t. (Tim Keller’s book, Preaching, has plenty of examples.)
Use the Gospel as a filter for the various ministry and outreach opportunities in which your church engages. Does the ministry opportunity advance the Gospel? Yes, there are plenty of Scriptures to show we should care for poor, oppressed, widows, and orphans. If you want to keep the Gospel at the theological center of your church, then filter out ministry opportunities that do not incorporate and emphasize the Gospel and select ones that do.
If you want to keep the Gospel at the theological center of your church, then filter out ministry opportunities that do not incorporate and emphasize the Gospel and select ones that do.
This includes small group studies, children’s ministry curriculum, women and men’s groups, compassion ministries, missions, etc. I am reminded of George Mueller in this regard. He engaged in the care of orphans, only to put the faithfulness of God on display and address the spiritual needs of the children under his care. He took care of orphans with a Gospel-centered approach.
It is finished! Leave the congregation with the great sense that Christ has satisfied everything required of them to have eternal life and be eternally loved by Him. When this is grasped, then obedience will be a demonstration of our love and appreciation for all that Christ accomplished for us. Personally, I hammer the second aspect of justification--the imputation of Christ’s righteousness as a means of achieving this goal. When you think the congregation is sick of you saying it, keep hammering, because the default DNA of the flesh is legalism. So, when people ask what type of church do you have? You could answer that question based on certain distinctives of your church. Are you a reformed church? Yes, we are reformed soteriologically. Are you a Baptist church? Yes, we hold to believers’ baptism by immersion. But the flag we raise is the Gospel—we are a Gospel-centered church. Although some won’t understand the meaning or the full implications, we should gladly take the time to explain, teach, and disciple them to the glory of God.