“If only we could orient this church around the gospel more comprehensively, we would be much healthier”.
Of course, I was right. But, I was also naive.
One beauty of the gospel is its adaptive characteristic—on the one hand, it is simple enough to rhyme in a children’s story book, while simultaneously providing an unsearchable depth for a lifetime of scholarly attention. But, this complexity has also provided us with a great challenge.
We are facing a wave of gospel-centered confusion.
Take for instance a recent conversation where the question, “What is the gospel?” was posed. I was astounded at the variance I encountered. Of course, we gospel-centered folk are poised to eradicate any heretical gospel iteration we encounter, but the plethora of views I encountered were different.
On reflection, most views fell somewhere on a spectrum that had, at one end, the gospel as purely didactic truth—and, at the other, the gospel as incarnate kingdom values. It was the classic ‘word’ or ‘deed’ argument.
In my experience, it has been helpful to confront gospel-centered confusion by differentiating between gospel proclamation and gospel implication.
Rather than purchasing front-row tickets to watch ‘word’ and ‘deed’ duke it out, like some sort of gospel-centered rumble in the jungle, it is helpful to intervene early in the discussion by defining the aspects of the gospel we’re really talking about.
Gospel proclamation is focusing the conversation around the message. After all, the gospel truly is ‘good news’—and good news is something which is told. When Paul quotes, “How beautiful are the feet of him who preach good news!” in Romans 10, it is because he has just linked together a tremendous chain between saving faith and the preaching of God’s Word.
Or, when Peter shuffled into Cornelius’ crowded house, he looked about him and began his address with an account of Christ, and only paused when he was interrupted by the commotion as the Spirit of God rushed in.
Again, consider Philip—dusty feet and all, he scrambles up onto the plush cushions of the Ethiopian's chariot and unravels the mystery of Isaiah.
"Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus." - Acts 8:35
Whether it starts there, or ends there, the gospel is incomplete unless some type of proclamation is involved.
It is unhelpful to pit ‘word’ and ‘deed’ against each other. Like Rocky and Apollo, they’ll both crash to the canvas, even while they’re still swinging vicious left hooks. Yes, gospel proclamation is vital, but what happens next provides a full-orbed understanding of what God has in mind for our lives.
Gospel implication is focusing the conversation around the fruit of the gospel—what it achieves. When Jesus mused over the marks of true disciple, he didn’t identify their ability to recite good doctrine. Jesus has always been concerned with the fruit of righteousness. To Jesus, fruit matters.
"You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?" - Matthew 7:16
The gospel has implications for our lives. Of course, the first and primary implication is that we would repent and turn in faith to Christ. Jesus, himself, declares in Mark 1:15 that the proper response to his arrival is to “repent and believe in the gospel”.
But then, the gospel must take and shape our lives. As has been often said, we do not graduate from the gospel—there isn’t a true ‘Christianity+’ course you can take that isn’t rooted and established in the life giving message of the gospel. The gospel is meant to shape us as the covenant community of God.
Here we must default to James, that great saint of the Jerusalem church, who put to bed the argument that grace alone was not sufficient for the Gentiles (see Acts 15). As James pens his gritty epistle, he writes with his usual abrupt style:
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!
Clearly, gospel implications are vital to understanding of what it means to be gospel-centered.
My naive desire to just be ‘more gospel-centered’ was founded in a poorly defined understanding of the term gospel. I’m not interested in the ‘word versus deed’ argument anymore. It’s not this or that—it’s both/and.
We will only be truly gospel-centered as we cling to true gospel proclamation, and as we live in line with true gospel implications.