The last ten years or so has seen a dramatic increase in “gospel” talk. This is a very encouraging and important trend in the evangelical movement, as thousands of churches have been planted, revitalized, or refreshed through a “gospel centered” understanding of salvation, reading of Scripture, and foundation for ministry.
But in any trend or movement, clarity is paramount. Dozens of books have been released with a title like “What is the Gospel?” and described salvation and Christian living in almost exclusively individualistic terms. We’ve also seen a number of books or articles called “Gospel Centered _______ “ that go on to explore how penal substitutionary atonement (Christ died in our place for our sins) and justification by faith (God counts us righteous not according to our works) come to bear on practical issues like marriage, parenting, work, politics, and so on. Gospel Centered Counseling. Gospel Centered Management Principles. Gospel Centered Candles. Not too mystical, just right.
If you want to sell something to hipsters, put a bird on it. If you want to publish a book for evangelicals, put a “Gospel Centered” on it.
The problem is that much of the gospel centered talk exists squarely within a Western individualistic grid and often develops under a sneaky bit of moralism.
The question is: Is the gospel primary an individual achievement with implications for life, including community? Or is the Good News of Christianity essentially relational?
Community, Then Law
Too often, people view Christianity as a system of beliefs, a moral order. And this is based on the presence of a law, a holy book. This is one of the great misunderstandings about Christianity, and many insiders (that is, Christians) describe their “faith” mostly in terms of mental assent and religious affiliation.
But look at the pattern closely: In the call of Abram, God invites Abram into relationship with himself and promises a new people, then gives directions and laws later. In Exodus, the law comes (chapter 20) after the deliverance from evil and the formation of the new community (chapters 1-19). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives the new law only after he says, “You are the new community.” Colossians 3 is a perfect example of this pattern in Paul’s understanding of the Good News.
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues, put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. – Colossians 3:12-14
Notice Paul says, “You are God’s people. You are holy—a people different from the world. You are dearly loved…. therefore live in this way…”
The Good News is that life with God is available here and now—totally by grace. The gospel is essentially the announcement of restored relationship.
Relationship with God? Restored! Entrance into the people of God, the New Community? Invited! Room at the King’s eternal table? Yes!
What is Salvation For?
It’s important for us to realize this, and to ask: “What is salvation for?” Many Western evangelicals quickly respond: “Forgiveness of sin,” or “Freedom from God’s wrath.” And, of course, those things are thankfully a part of salvation. But forgiveness, propitiation (Christ’s sacrifice that removes God’s wrath), and expiation (the removal of guilt based on that sacrifice) are the means to an end. What is the end? The new life with Christ and the New Community in Christ.
There’s a critical difference there. If your fundamental belief is that salvation is about “getting right” and escaping wrath, your Christian life will be marked only by confession and repentance and a mental assurance of salvation. But if your walk with God is primarily relational—focused on restoration to God, his Kingdom, and his people—then everything changes. Christianity is not a religion in the typical sense. The Law is not so much words and demands, but a Man with a face, with hands, with a heart.
If you think being “gospel centered” means just dwelling on substitution and repentance, you’ve got a little gospel. This isn’t gospel as a doorway to more important things; it’s a full, whole, biblical Gospel.
If you try to do religion without relationship, you’re toast. If you try to live your Christianity alone, you’re frustrating the essential purposes of God. You’re living apart from reality and from your human design.
The Gospel is essentially relational: Life with God. Life in the New Community.
Now that’s Good News.