Gospel-Centered Movement Rearing Off Course? Pastors Share Their Concerns

Twenty years from now, when looking back on the “return to the Gospel” movement that is currently gaining speed throughout the world today, what are some things that have gone a little off course?

That’s the question that three pastors and authors, J.D. Greear, Trevin Wax and Greg Gilbert, asked themselves on The Gospel Coalition recently, wondering if they are neglecting certain things or might already be seeing trends where this Gospel-centered movement is going off in the wrong direction.

“Is it possible for us to already start to see certain trends of where this movement may go less than what is biblically faithful?” Greear, pastor of The Summit Church in Durham, N.C., reflected. If so, there needs to be a change, the men agreed.

For Wax, an editor at LifeWay Christian Resources, there was an issue of the mind versus heart.

In watching the movement – of evangelicals committed to renewing their faith in the Gospel of Christ – unfold, he found that sometimes, in seeking clarity on the Gospel, which he believed to be a good and necessary thing, the focus would solely remain on “getting the bare facts right” instead of experiencing the beauty of the Gospel.

“We can sort of have this knowledge at the cerebral level, but not really be what’s captivating our hearts, what’s affecting our hearts,” he shared.

“We’re able to easily say, ‘Hey, there’s something wrong with that guy’s preaching,’ or ‘There’s something wrong in that book,’ or ‘This guy’s confusing Gospel and implications and whatnot,’ but it’s not the beauty of the Gospel and the God of the Gospel that’s actually captivating our hearts, our affections, our emotions.”

It’s up here, Wax said, pointing to his head, but not in there, he said, referring to his heart.

Greear, affirming Wax’s concern, shared a story about meeting a “little old lady” while visiting his home church who exemplified that very issue.

“I was at my home church and there was a sweet little old lady there who would not be able to articulate any of the terms for Gospel-centeredness. She would probably have never heard of John Piper or Tim Keller, but she started to talk about it in a way that just exuded love for Jesus, gratefulness for his grace and the cross.”

“And I remember standing there and it was like God knocked me down about four levels because the whole point of Gospel-centeredness is love for Jesus, and this woman had it,” Greear said.

“It’s possible for us to … forget that the point of Gospel-centeredness is not being able to point out who doesn’t use the terms of Gospel-centeredness, the point is loving Jesus.”

The Summit Church lead pastor highlighted the irony of the movement, stating that though it was supposed to draw Christians back to the Gospel, it was actually pushing people away from it. People were turned off by the pride of those who looked down on others if they did not have the right terminology or systematic theology down.

“I mean, the demons have the systematic theology right down, but they’re still devils,” Wax added, stressing, however, that it was still important to think clearly about the Gospel.

“There’s ... that kind of knife’s edge balance between thinking and doing,” Gilbert, author of What Is the Gospel, added, “and you can fall into one or the other and neglect the other.”

“I don’t think the Christian life and the Scriptures allow us to fall off the knife’s edge though. You need to be thinking about the Gospel and nailing down exactly what the message is,” while still doing it, or fulfilling the Great Commission and proclaiming the Gospel message to others.

Gilbert warned, “We want to be very careful that we’re not just proclaiming the Gospel in a great Gospel Coalition circle and getting it closer and closer without setting things outward.”

The Gospel-centered movement could stray off course if it only sought to define what the message was without any resultant action.

“We need to constantly be immersing ourselves in the truth of the Gospel as a way of motivating the life change and the life transformation that comes from the Gospel,” Wax highlighted. “But I think at the same time, though we want to be careful, the end goal is not a bunch of people walking around preaching the Gospel to themselves.”

“It’s [about] people that are transformed by the Gospel [and] then living on a mission, [who] are actually going out witnessing to their neighbors.”

Clarifying further on the work accomplished by the Gospel message, Greear stated, “I think one of things to realize is that there is a balance in how the Bible puts forward the Gospel but then gives us commands so that we are able to take these things that are capturing our heart and ... [see] what it actually looks like to love God and to love each other. You don’t want to be more Gospel-centered than Jesus.”

It was a question of emphasis, he explained. “You preach the commands of God but you teach the people to adore the Gospel because that’s what gives them the power to obey the commands.”

“The laws of God are like railroad tracks that tell us the way to go but are powerless to push the engine along the tracks, and the Gospel does that.”

Additionally, the three pastors believed it was important not to take the effects of the Gospel or the fruit of salvation and substitute it for the Gospel itself. The Gospel-centered movement needed to be just that: Gospel-centered.

“If the Gospel is the fuel, that’s going to make us people who care about the poor and who are wanting to be involved in mercy ministry, and wanting to evangelize to the lost. You put these things in the wrong place or you give them the emphasis that is not their due, the irony is that you create a cycle that’s not going to be able to last over a long period of time,” Wax explained.

The whole idea of fruit was that it came from something that was alive, Greear also stated. “Like human offspring comes as a result of a man and woman loving each other... spiritual fruit is the offspring of loving intimate encounters with Jesus Christ and that produces spiritual fruit.”

Remembering the words of theologian John Piper, Gilbert responded, “You can’t take the fruit and try to stick it down in the root. That’s not where it belongs.”

True transformation is always the fruit from the root, Wax acknowledged.

“It pushes from the bottom up and you can fall very easily into taking those fruits and sticking them down into the root as if they are the things that drive righteousness and drives our standing before God,” Gilbert concluded. “You don’t want to do that.”

To watch the entire discussion, click here.

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