Defining “Gospel-Centered”: How It Affects Justice
Moses Y. Lee | JANUARY 14, 2019 | 8 MIN READ
The phrase “gospel-centered” has become such a trendy buzzword for ministries trying to keep up with the times that its actual meaning can seem elusive. After all, who wants to be known as a ministry that’s not gospel-centered?
But what exactly distinguishes a ministry that’s “gospel-centered” from one that’s not? And if a ministry is “gospel-centered,” how is orthopraxy (correct conduct) defined and practiced?
For example, older white evangelical ministries tend to emphasize the imperative to preach the gospel as the primary characteristic of being “gospel-centered,” whereas minority ministries, especially historically black churches, tend to view both preaching the gospel and pursuing justice as equal “gospel-centered” imperatives.
In practice, however, older white evangelicals do more than just preach the gospel, taking unflinching stances against issues such as abortion, while also turning a blind eye toward other issues such as racism and xenophobia.
So who’s right? Which approach to being “gospel-centered” is truly orthodox?
Without clarity, there’s risk of losing the phrase “gospel-centered” to the meaningless void where other previous well-intended Christian monikers have ended up, such as “missional,” “radical,” or “God-centered.” At the risk of sounding reductionistic, I propose there are four main definitions of “gospel-centered” floating around -- two of which our own Reformed camp identifies with -- that we need to continue to hash out in order to dispel internal mistrust (as we’ll see below) and move forward in unity.
Definition #1: “Gospel-centered” means praying the sinner’s prayer
Over the years, I’ve visited many churches that self-identify as “gospel-centered” but have little to no mention of the actual gospel in their sermons. Usually, these churches tack on the “sinner’s prayer” to invite non-Christians to believe, but the goal of faith is not a personal relationship with Jesus but alleviating “suffering” or improving their social status or resumes.
These churches often have Old Testament sermons that tend to be moralistic or contain self-help advice, while the benefits of salvation are usually limited to health, wealth, and prosperity. This approach is typically seen in non-denominational or independent ministries that receive little to no oversight from other bodies of faith.
Definition #2: “Gospel-centered” means preaching justification by faith alone
This group is typically identified with conservative evangelicalism and fundamentalism. The emphasis of justification by faith remains central to the Christian life, in which good deeds manifest as a result of justification.
This means preaching justification by faith as a reminder to Christians and as evangelism to non-Christians is central to their orthopraxy (see Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert’s What Is the Mission of the Church? or Old Princeton’s doctrine of the spirituality of the church). Followers trace their theological roots to the Protestant Reformation, particularly to Martin Luther.
While their Old Testament teaching tends to focus on how the text is fulfilled by Christ through justification by faith, they’re sometimes accused of not being able to deliver Christ-centered teaching from the whole text and only from those passages that “explicitly” mention Christ.
In practice, these believers are sometimes accused of being unloving and lacking compassion toward the marginalized and the oppressed because of an overemphasis on “consistent” doctrine (or at the very least criticized for limiting their love for neighbor only to abortion-related contexts). This type of gospel-centered approach is typically seen in low-church contexts (those churches that have a lesser emphasis on liturgical elements, i.e., conservative baptistic, congregationalist, or Presbyterian denominations).
Definition #3: “Gospel-centered” means doing justice
On the other side of the theological spectrum are churches that define“gospel-centered” in a way that tends to neglect the actual call to faith in Christ alone for salvation.
Instead, their focus lies on the deed ministry of Christ with little regard or outright disdain toward the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. They also view the Old Testament’s reliability with skepticism, resulting in little to no preaching of salvation in Christ in the Old Testament. Often, the values of such ministries are difficult to distinguish from that of the Democratic Party’s platform. This approach is typically seen in mainline denominations.
Definition #4: “Gospel-centered” means pursuing cosmic redemption
This definition emphasizes the cosmic implications of Christ’s redemptive work on the cross which includes both justification by faith alone and cultural engagement (i.e., justice issues, creation care, the arts, etc.). Though Christians are to preach justification by faith alone, the Christian call to pursue a “gospel-centered” life encompasses both Word and deed ministry as two sides of the same coin (see Bill Edgar’s Created & Creating, Al Wolter’s Creation Regained, or N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope).
In practice, these Christians are sometimes accused of being Marxist/progressive, especially when cosmic redemption includes the reformation of institutions and social structures (in addition to individuals) or when the word ministry is sidestepped by cultural engagement.
While their Old Testament teaching tends to have implications for orthopraxy for Christians of all ages and tends to focus on typological fulfillment through the person and work of Jesus Christ, they’re sometimes accused of employing allegory for seeing Christ in passages where Christ isn’t explicitly mentioned. Followers trace their theological roots to the Protestant Reformation, particularly to Calvin’s Geneva and the Kuyperian side of the Dutch Reformed tradition. This approach is typically seen in moderate or evangelical-left Presbyterian and Dutch Reformed circles as well as in Anglicanism.
I believe Reformed churches are split between definitions #2 and #4. Much of our misunderstanding and theological debates on social media and blogs (with one side accused of racism and the other side accused of Marxism) boils down to this point: Does “gospel-centered” mean preaching justification by faith as central to the Christian life or does it mean to pursue the cosmic redemption of the world, encompassing both justification by faith and cultural engagement?
Functionally, I believe definitions #2 and #4 could theoretically play out very similarly (regardless of whether one leans more Two Kingdoms or Kuyperian). While both definitions adhere to justification by faith, the difference lies in their ethical imperatives for evangelism as preaching grace and doing justice. Yet, if doing justice flows out of justification by faith according to definition #2, then both sides should find more common ground than not.
However, the narrative of white evangelicalism’s origins binds adherents of definition #2 only to issues that arose during the Fundamentalist versus Modernist controversy of the 1920s and 1930s. This results in continued disagreements over definition #4’s framework of doing justice. For many white evangelicals following definition #2, any diversion from or minimization of justification by faith raises concerns of modernism’s resurgence, and any mention of social structures is seen as echoing the Marxist impulse for revolution. In other words, by seeking to win the justification battles, these #2 definition white evangelicals risk losing the cosmic redemption war.
While #2 definition evangelicals’ concerns are often legitimate, their practice (as mentioned before) isn’t often consistent. Moral issues, such as abortion, fail to escape the purview of institutional and structural reform and engagement.
This inconsistency is best explained by the grip of whiteness as a social structure over the imagination of evangelicalism in America. Issues pertaining to or threatening America’s white population frequently take precedence over other issues, especially those that concern immigrants and minorities (hence white evangelicalism’s collective silence over Japanese incarceration during World War II or Latinx children currently separated from their parents).
Even the issue of restricting abortion has a lopsided bias against minorities. As published by the National Institute of Health, minority women of lower socioeconomic status have higher rates of abortion than white women of higher socioeconomic status. Without addressing the underlying causes of socioeconomic disparities, the restriction of abortion will have little effect on black and brown abortion rates but lead to greater health disparities as abortions are driven underground. Ignoring the social construct underlying abortion while restricting it only compounds injustice and gives credence to the existence of an evangelical moral imperialism.
Therefore, whether one adheres to definition #2 or #4, a gospel-centered approach must address all forms of injustice in addition to or as a result of preaching the justification by faith. A truly gospel-centered approach compels us to own up to the past mistakes of our forefathers and theological tradition(s), and it seeks to make amends now so as to not repeat history. A truly gospel-centered perspective pursues a holistic engagement of societies and individuals, both body and soul, with respect to their dignity based on the imago dei in light of our union with Christ.
Moses Y. Lee is a church planting resident in the PCA and serves in the D.C. metro area. He's a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM), where he wrote his thesis on North Korean cinema. He regularly blogs at The Gospel Coalition. You can follow him on Twitter @MosesYLee.