One of the current manifestations of the culture of conversionism is so-called “Gospel-centered preaching” (GCP). This is a method of preaching that purports—wait for it—to have the Gospel of Jesus Christ at the center. The problem is not the goal. The problem is that those who practice GCP—at least those I’ve heard—put a reductionistic Gospel at the center of their preaching.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news that Christ came to save sinners. Saving sinners refers to salvation. Salvation implies saved from and saved to.
What does GCP say you are saved from? The GCP I’ve heard has less to do with sin before God and more to do with failure before man. The message is that through Christ you are unconditionally loved, so no matter your personal failures, shame, or embarrassments, Jesus loves you. You are saved from failure before man. You are saved from not measuring up. You are saved from feeling sorry for yourself. You are saved from the guy in the neighborhood who personally slighted you.
What does GCP say you are saved to? The GCP I’ve heard says you are saved to freedom. Freedom to feel no failure before man, freedom to feel like who you are is enough, freedom to boost your self-esteem, freedom to fall into sin, again and again, you know, because we are all broken and Jesus loves me even if I don’t give up my porn habit.
In GCP, when you are saved from failure before man and saved to freedom before man, this is labeled “Gospel hope.” According to the rubric of GCP, if your sermon doesn’t have Gospel hope it is devoid of the Gospel.
So you have the damning situation where GCP is nothing of the sort, kind of like how family-friendly programming has a family with two dads. Not so family-friendly by God’s standard. Not so Gospel-centered, by God’s standard.
“Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, 18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness” (Rom. 6:16-18).
What does the Gospel actually save sinners from? Sin-slavery. What does the Gospel actually save sinners to? Slavery to righteousness. It’s not that Paul doesn’t talk about freedom. He does. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Gal. 5:13). Notice what “freedom” is contrasted with. A “yoke of slavery” (referring to slavery to sin) and “opportunity for the flesh” (another reference to sin). When Paul talks about freedom, he really means slavery “to righteousness leading to sanctification” (Rom. 6:19). In other words, through faith people are saved from sin to righteousness.
What does this mean for preaching that truly has the Gospel at the center? It means that to preach the Gospel is to preach justification and sanctification. It is a message that proclaims forgiveness in Christ’s name, where through faith one is made right with God. But preaching can’t stop there. Preaching must then, as Jesus said, teach “them to observe all that I have commanded” (Mt. 28:20). Teaching the commandments of God is part of preaching the Gospel. It’s the saved to part of the Gospel proclamation. Jesus is very clear that preachers who fail to teach the commands of God “will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” Preachers who preach a full Gospel, including the commands of God “will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:19).
This is where I have to anticipate an objection. In GCP legalism is the boogeyman and antinomianism is the backup quarterback. The coach doesn’t want to have to play the backup quarterback, but if he goes into the game every once in a while, there is no harm. Satan has fooled a lot of people to think that if a preacher calls God’s people to obey the commands of God, then that is legalism. On the flip side, if the preacher talks about grace in such a way that leads people to think they are free from the burden of obedience, well, that’s just the price of preaching the Gospel. Nothing to see here. We’re just running out the clock on this sermon.
GC Preachers find themselves almost unable to call God’s people to repentance. In their thinking, proclaiming the commands of God and calling God’s people to repentance is the opposite of “Gospel hope.” It is legalism.
GCP confuses justification and sanctification. It says that the response to sin is simply to believe the Gospel more and more. I once attended a church that flaunted their misunderstanding of sanctification by training members to battle sin with this question, “What are you not believing about the Gospel that is causing your sin?”
The underlying mistake is this: GCP usually agrees that Christians are justified by faith, through Christ’s work. GCP also says that Christians are sanctified by faith, through Christ’s work. This is a radical form of substitution. It is true that Christ’s work on the cross—Christ’s work alone—pays the penalty of sin and makes a believer holy and blameless before God. However, in the work of sanctification, while Christ enables obedience, it is the individual believer who actually carries out the obedience. The individual Christian actually prays (1 Thess. 5:25), loves their neighbor (Mark. 12:31), and resists the devil (James 4:7). Christians walk by faith, depend on grace, and live by the Spirit’s power. The Christian actually does these things. And it’s Christ enabling the Christian to do it. If the Christian makes a habit of not doing these things, then that is evidence they are not “born of God” (1 Jn 3:6, 9). Its legalism if you call people to obedience without acknowledging divine enablement. Its antinomianism if calling people to obedience doesn’t fit with your interpretation of the Gospel.
The hypocrisy of the Gospel-centered preaching is that it is not Great Commission preaching. If the preacher proclaims that Christ is mighty to justify but not mighty to sanctify, then the preacher has preached a half Gospel, a half-Christ. When the preacher proclaims that Christ saves from sin and saves to righteousness, he has preached the whole Gospel, the whole Christ. William Gurnall once said, “There is nothing more unworthy than to see a people bold to sin, and the preacher afraid to reprove them.” The shortest way to cultivate presumptuous sin is to relax the least of God’s commandments, and the surest way of refuting brazen sin is to teach all the Christ commanded.
To read part two of this series: Click Here.