Sometimes, I love an unorthodox approach and Alan Cross published one a few weeks ago. It spurred my thinking on an issue that’s been roiling around in my brain since I attended the Band of Bloggers meeting a while back. I know I’m going to come across as way more confrontational and critical than I want to, but there is a key issue at stake here. My goal here is not so much to correct as to fine-tune and refine.
Alan Cross is one of those bloggers who consistently makes me jealous, leaving me to think “I wish I’d said that.” In a post with a title that would make any good Baptist gasp, Cross wrote, “Are Baptists Focusing Too Much on Missions?” Horror of horrors. Baptist heresy! Since my days in the nursery at a Southern Baptist church, it has been a truism that the difference between a good church and a bad church is being “mission-minded” (or today, “missional”). I’m sure the Baptist police are currently investigating Alan to see whether his Baptist credentials should be revoked. Alan may have transgressed years of Baptist tradition with his post, but I think he got at the heart of something fundamental to biblical Christianity.
Alan’s point is certainly less shocking than his title. Look at what he says.
The Christian life is not about mission. Neither is church life. Mission should not be the motivating factor of the Christian life. It should not be what binds us together as churches or as individuals. The motivating factor of the Christian life, what empowers us and binds us together is not a practice or a thing at all – it is the Person of Jesus Christ.
“He is before all things and in Him all things hold together.” Colossians 1:17.
I am called to abide in Christ (John 15:1-8). My life’s goal is to “know Christ” (Phil. 3:9-11). I am called to follow Jesus. Christ is to be the motivating person in my life. I am to be conformed to the likeness of Christ (Romans 8:29). Jesus is the head of the church. We don’t start or end with mission – we start with Jesus. And, we end with Him too, the Alpha and Omega. I know that this is all a given, but it needs to be restated, I think. At least it does for me.
He concludes the post with this.
Before we can be a people on mission, we must first be a people connected to Christ who treasure Him above all things. I know that many Christians, and Baptists for that matter, have things in the right order. But, more often than not, I am hearing things stated in the wrong order. We talk about mission as though a relationship with Christ is just assumed.
Perhaps we are assuming too much. Maybe our problem is not that we aren’t doing enough, but that we have forsaken our First Love.
Amen. All too often we get focused on the mission or the message or the methods instead of the bedrock fact of the New Testament – Christianity is about a person. Not a theology or a style or a culture. A Person – One who lived, died, rose again and now lives in us and works through us.
Colossians 1:27 says, “To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”
There it is. “Christ in you, your hope of glory.”
I think we forget this core truth of Christianity all too often.
I love the message of Christmas, “Immanuel” – God with us. Jesus left his lofty place in heaven and came to earth to live among us. I love the message of the Cross, “Christ for us.” Jesus died bearing the weight of my sin and paid completely for them. “Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe. My sin left a crimson stain, He washed it white as snow.” I love the message of Easter, “He is risen.” Death could hold Christus Victor. And of course, I love the message of the Ascension in which he was exalted to the highest place as Lord of all, “Jesus is Lord.” But the ultimate message that changes our lives is this one, “Christ in us.” The victorious Lord of all lives in, empowers and accomplishes his work through us and this is our hope of glory. It’s all about Jesus and his presence and power within us.
So, What’s the Point?
I think there is a constant tendency among Christians to depersonalize Christianity. Alan Cross raised the issue well in his post, pointing out that we must focus on Christ, not just on our mission in his name. I have seen another instance of this, at least from my perspective.
We love buzzwords. It took me a while to figure out how people distinguished being “missional” from the buzz-word of my generation, “missions-minded.” More recently, everyone has been talking about being “gospel-centered” or “gospel-focused.” Who can argue with the terminology? The central message of the New Testament is the saving work of God in Christ – the good news of the gospel.
But it concerns me that people are imbuing this powerful term with meanings that distract us from the key message – Christ in you, your hope of glory! I am afraid that some folks are using the term instead of living it, and thereby missing the point of the New Testament!
What Does “Gospel-Centered” Mean?
I suspect that when each of us talks about being gospel-centered it has slightly different connotations. Some of these are a part of the truth, but there is a greater truth we need to keep central.
1) Gospel as Message
For some, being gospel-centered involves keeping a salvation focus in our preaching. Of course, every sermon, no matter what the subject, needs to reflect the gospel message and every action of the church needs to flow from this gospel truth. Salvation is found in no one else and there is no other name under that can save sinners.
But the gospel is more than just a message.
2) Gospel as Theology
For others, the gospel is a theology. I sat at a large bloggers forum listening to discussions of “gospel-centered blogging” and came away with the idea that for many, the term is essentially a synonym for a Calvinistic emphasis on grace. Again, I agree with the emphasis on God’s grace. But it is unfair to co-opt the term gospel for one theology, as if those who do not agree with that theological viewpoint do not really love the gospel.
Many Calvinists have appealed to the statement by Spurgeon in his “Defence of Calvinism” which stated “Calvinism is the gospel.” Here is the full quote.
“[T]here is no such thing as preaching Christ and Him crucified, unless we preach what nowadays is called Calvinism. It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else. I do not believe we can preach the gospel, if we do not preach justification by faith, without works; nor unless we preach the sovereignty of God in His dispensation of grace; nor unless we exalt the electing, unchangeable, eternal, immutable, conquering love of Jehovah; nor do I think we can preach the gospel, unless we base it upon the special and particular redemption of His elect and chosen people which Christ wrought out upon the cross; nor can I comprehend a gospel which lets saints fall away after they are called, and suffers the children of God to be burned in the fires of damnation.”
This is not intended as some sort of exercise in Calvinist-bashing. I am a Calvinist, but I think there is a danger in elevating a theological system to equivalence with the gospel message. It is arrogant to co-opt the term gospel as a designation for the Reformed theological system. I think it may offend our Savior to equate his excelling work of grace with a particular systematized description of that work.
Calvinism isn’t the gospel. Jesus is!
3) “Gospel” as De-personalized Principle
This is the biggest problem. I’m afraid sometimes we use terms like “gospel” instead of invoking the name of Jesus. We serve a living Lord. There are some who seem to be threatened by the personal aspect of Christianity and talk about “the gospel” more than we do about the Living Lord Jesus Christ. I remember one dear Christian friend who recoiled every time I used Blackaby’s phrase, “a personal love-relationship with Jesus Christ.” If Christianity is not personal, what is it? If it is not a love-relationship with the Savior why are we called the Bride? If it is not a relationship, what is it?
We ought to be wary of those who form their theology based on their personal experiences. But we ought to be just as wary of people who do not understand that Christian is an experience – a living relationship with a living Lord. Christ is in you and that brings glory – the manifest presence of God into your life!
We ought to be wary of those who manipulate emotion in worship. But we ought to be just as wary of those who are afraid to express emotion. If you don’t get excited about the gospel message, about the love of Christ, about the privilege of a sinner like you having a personal relationship with the God of Heaven and with his Son, what would you get excited about? Raise your hands and dance in his presence. Christ is IN you! Rejoice.
Why do some get so bothered by “love songs to Jesus?” Yes, there are silly love songs that have little meaning. But are we not to love Jesus? Ought our hearts not melt when we think of his love?
Christianity is an experience of the saving grace of Jesus Christ that produces a real-life experience of the transforming presence and power of God in our lives. The process of transformation roots in the renewing of our minds through the perfect Word of God. We need to be anchored and rooted in sound doctrine and faithful exegesis of God’s Word. God’s Word is inspired, true and is used by the Spirit to accomplish God’s work in us. But if our study of God’s Word only produces knowledge and systematize theological structures, it is an aberration and a diminution of the purpose of God.
Christ did not die on the Cross so we could write books or argue theories of the atonement. Oh, yes, every believer should “survey the wondrous Cross on which the Prince of Glory died” on a regular basis. But we contemplate his love so that it would fill every pore of our bodies with the power of the resurrection. Paul did not say, “I want to know theology.” He said, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.’
Christianity is not a creed or a confession or even a system of doctrine. It is not a set of principles or duties or rituals. It is not an organization or a strategy. It is not even a ministry or a mission.
Christianity is a living relationship with the Living Lord of Heaven! He is real and he lives in me. He speaks to me, works in me, transforms me from the inside out and then displays his glory through me in this world.
Anything less than an experience of Christ is a perversion of the purpose of Christianity! Our lives ought to be supernatural – Jesus is. Our lives ought to exhibit love, because Love dwells in us. We ought to walk in peace because the Prince of Peace dwells within. I’m afraid sometimes that we settle for so much less than God intended!
We are meant to be Christ-centered, and I hope that is what you mean when you speak of being gospel-centered. The gospel is is the power of God for salvation because it refers to the historic work of God in Christ. Jesus is the gospel.
Are We “Christ-followers?”
Of course we are. Our lives are to be patterned after Jesus Christ in every way. But we are much more than Christ-followers. We are indwelled by Christ, not just following him. Not only does Christ live, but he lives in me. He doesn’t just teach me a theology or lead me on life’s paths. By the power of the Spirit he indwells me, transforms me from the inside out and empowers me to be and do what I otherwise could not be or do. I am so much more than just a follower of Christ. I’m a Christ-sanctuary. A Christ-indwelled body. The power of the Living God is in me.
Gospel Centered? It Depends…
Should we be gospel-centered? Of course! But only if we understand that the gospel IS Jesus. It is not just a message or a theology. It is Jesus. The incarnate Son who lived the perfect life we couldn’t live, fulfilling all righteousness. The Lamb of God who paid for our sins on the Cross. The Risen Lord who ascended on high and is seated in glory at the Father’s right hand. The indwelling Lord who brings God’s glory into our lives.
That is the gospel message. The gospel is too powerful to be relegated to a simple buzzword. It is Jesus! Never be satisfied with simply preaching a message or understanding a theology. Our goal is to know Christ – personally, intimately and powerfully!
Christ in you, your hope of glory!
Addendum – Alan Cross added another post, a quote by Dallas Willard. It makes the point again. Maybe I shouldn’t have wasted my time writing this, but just said, “Read Alan Cross.”
Here’s the quote, from “The Divine Conspiracy.”
“It is failure to understand Jesus and his words as reality and vital information about life that explains why, today, we do not routinely teach those who profess allegiance to him how to do what he said was best. We lead them to profess allegiance to him, or we expect them to, and leave them there, devoting our remaining efforts to ‘attracting’ them to this or that.”