“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain” (1 Cor. 1:2, emphasis mine).
Alongside the nature of Scripture, the message of Scripture is of equal importance. The overarching drama, which unfolds throughout all of God’s Word, is the story of redemption. When referring to this message, I prefer the term “centered” because it avoids the misconception that the gospel is simply first on a list of things the Bible addresses. Rather, this terminology conveys that the gospel lies at the heart of every passage, every book, and every story. As the center of Scripture’s message, the good news we proclaim is that God has made promises to come and rescue his people from death by sending his Son to die for their sins and inaugurate his reign and Kingdom on earth.
Many times the gospel is not central to the message and work of ministry because of an over emphasis on only one dimension of the gospel. The most popular aspect of the gospel is the news (normative). This dimension tells us what happened. The gospel slips from the center when we reduce the good news to simply a positive affirmation of certain facts (i.e., Christ died for my sins). It certainly involves this, (and would cease to be the gospel if it didn’t) but it is much more. The second aspect of the gospel answers the question, how (situational). “The essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for man. Man has placed himself only where God should be, while God has placed himself where only man deserves to be.” (1) The message of the gospel is a complete paradigm shift from the modus operandi of the world. It is through the cross that Christ brought power through his service, riches through his poverty, joy through his suffering, triumph through his defeat, and life through his death. In order to maintain the centrality of the gospel in ministry, one must view and evaluate everything through this incredible role reversal and acknowledge his or her sinful tendency to usurp the place of God.
Lastly, Paul says in Romans 1:16 that the gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (existential). According to Paul, the gospel is saving power in verbal form. By this he means it is not something that simply happened in the past, but that salvation is taking place now and will ultimately be consummated in the future. Jesus did not only die for our sins, but he also lived a perfect life in our place. Gospel centrality in ministry means that the way in which I “work out my salvation in fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12) is by both believing the implications of the gospel message and by reorienting my entire outlook through it. Luther admonishes ministers, “Therefore we always repeat, urge, and inculcate this doctrine of faith or Christian righteousness, so that it may be observed by continuous use.” (2) In this way, I grow and progress as a Christian and a minister through my appropriation of the gospel (relying on Christ’s righteousness), as opposed to my own efforts alone (works righteousness). A major contributor to displacing the centrality of the gospel is the subtle shift in emphasizing one of these three over against another. (3)
If there is not an intentional emphasis on the gospel message taking center stage of each aspect of ministry, by necessity something else will become preeminent. I agree with Calvin: “the human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols.” (4) Most often, we become man-centered. Preoccupations with catering to others and to ourselves grow to such a gravitational force that all other things in ministry rotate around us. For example, this becomes evident in preaching when the hero of the sermon is us. When a vision for the gospel is lost, we will use emotion, cultural norms, pop psychology, societal injustices, and a host of other circumstantial factors to become the lens through which we understand God, ourselves, and ministry.
(1) John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Inter-Varsity Press, 1986), p.160.
(2) Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 26: Lectures on Galatians, 1535, Chapters 1-4, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 26 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 10.
(3) This tri-perspectival view of the gospel is from an unpublished article by Tim Keller entitled “What is the gospel?”
(4) John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 1997).