Gospel-centeredness is a vital strategic principle for ministry in the 21st (and the 1st!) century. I do not simply mean by ‘gospel-centered’ that ministry is to be doctrinally orthodox. Of course it must certainly be that. I am speaking more specifically.
(1.) The gospel is “I am accepted through Christ, therefore I obey” while every other religion operates on the principle of “I obey, therefore I am accepted.”
(2.) Martin Luther’s fundamental insight was that this latter principle, the principle of ‘religion’ is the deep default mode of the human heart. The heart continues to work in that way even after conversion to Christ. Though we recognize and embrace the principle of the gospel, our hearts will always be trying to return to the mode of self-salvation, which leads to much spiritual deadness, pride and strife, and ministry ineffectiveness.
(3.) We must communicate the gospel clearly – not a click toward legalism and not a click toward license. Legalism/moralism is truth without grace (which is not real truth); relativism is grace without truth (which is not real grace). To the degree a ministry fails to do justice to both, it simply loses life-changing power.
Text: Acts 15:1-25
Here we see Paul, in the middle of a church-planting career, going to Jerusalem for a big theological debate. Now, why do that? Surely we ministers need to be about the work of evangelism, not going in for theological discussions! But Paul makes no bifurcation here. Chapter 15 is down the middle of Paul’s mission! It’s clarifying the gospel itself.
(1) The cause of the debate is that the earliest Gentile converts to Christianity had already become Jewish culturally. That is, many of them were “God-fearers” who had been circumcised and/or abided by the clean laws and the Mosaic legislation.
(2) Then Paul began bringing in real pagans or God-fearers who had not become culturally Jewish. And he was not demanding that, when they became Christians, that they had to adopt Jewish cultural patterns.
(3) Then a group arose (15:1) saying, “unless you are circumcised according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved”. They had taken cultural norms and promoted them to be matters of virtue and spiritual merit. When they did that, they lost grasp on the gospel of grace and slid into ‘religion’.
(4) The Council on the one hand in Peter, got hold of one end of the stick: v.6-11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we [Jews] are saved, just as they are.”
(5) But, wouldn’t you know it – James gets a hold of the other end of the stick. He agrees with Peter, but rightly asserts that Gentile Christians, though free from any requirements as to salvation, are not free to live as they like as members of a Christian community. They are obliged to live in love and to respect the scruples of culturally different Jewish brethren. So they are ordered (we tend to miss this) to live in such a way that does not offend or distress their brethren who are culturally different. (They are not to eat raw meat, they are to abide by Levitical marriage laws, and so on.) There could hardly be a better case study of the old Luther – proverb that expresses the balance of the gospel. We are “saved by faith alone, but not by faith that is alone.” We are not saved by how we behave, but once we are saved we behave in love.
So “religion” just drains the spiritual life out of a church. But you can “fall off the horse” on the other side too. You can miss the gospel not only through legalism but through relativism. When God is whoever you want to make him, and right and wrong are whatever you want to make them – you have also drained the spiritual life out of a church. If God is preached as simply a demanding, angry God or if he is preached as simply an all-loving God who never demands anything – in either case the listeners will not be transformed. They may be frightened or inspired or soothed, but they will not have their lives changed at the root, because they are not hearing the gospel. The gospel shows us that God is far more holy and absolute than the moralists’ god, because he could not be satisfied by our moral efforts, even the best! On the other hand the gospel shows us that God is far more loving and gracious than the relativists’ god. They say that God (if he exists) just loves everyone no matter what they do. The true God of the gospel had to suffer and die to save us, while the god of the relativist pays no price to love us.
The gospel produces a unique blend of humility and boldness/joy in the convert. If you preach just a demanding God, the listener will have “low self-esteem”; if you preach just an all-loving God, the listener will have higher self-esteem. But the gospel produces something beyond both of those. The gospel says: I am so lost Jesus had to die to save me. But I am so loved that Jesus was glad to die to save me. That changes the very basis of my identity – it transforms me from the root.
I can’t tell you how important this is in all mission and ministry. Unless you distinguish the gospel from both religion and irreligion – from both traditional moralism and liberal relativism – then newcomers in your services will automatically think you are simply calling them to be good and nice people. They will be bored. But when, as here in Acts 15, the gospel is communicated in its unique, counter-intuitive balance of truth and love, then listeners will be surprised. Most people today try to place the church somewhere along a spectrum from “liberal” to “conservative” – from the relativistic to the moralistic. But when they see a church filled with people who insist on the truth, but without a shred of superiority or self-righteousness – this simply explodes their categories. To them, people who have the truth are not gracious, people who are gracious and accepting say “who knows what is the truth?” Christians are enormously bold to tell the truth, but without a shred of superiority, because you are sinner saved by grace. This balance of boldness and utter humility, truth and love – is not somewhere in the middle between legalistic fundamentalism and relativistic liberalism. It is actually off the charts.
Paul knew that ‘getting the gospel straight’ – not falling off into either legalism on the one hand or license on the other – is absolutely critical to the mission of the church. The secret of ministry power is getting the gospel clear. To be even slightly off to one side or another, loses tons of spiritual power. And people don’t get really converted. Legalistic churches reform people’s behavior through social coercion, but the people stay radically insecure and hyper-critical. They don’t achieve the new inner peace that the grace of God brings. The more relativistic churches give members some self-esteem and the veneer of peace but in the end that is superficial too. The result, Archibald Alexander said, is like trying to put a signet ring on the wax to seal a letter, but without any heat! Either the ring will affect the surface of the wax only or break it into pieces. You need heat to permanently change the wax into the likeness of the ring. So without the Holy Spirit working through the gospel, radically humbling and radically exalting us and changing them from the inside out, the religion either of the hard or soft variety will not avail.
Conclusion: Who is sufficient for these things? Not me! But fortunately, Jesus is the great church planter! He said, “I will plant my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it!” (Matthew 16) and “Therefore, go to every ethnic group and bring them to be my followers.” (Matthew 28). It’s a good thing he is really the church planter–or we’d have no hope. But since he is the church planter, we have all the hope in the world!
This article by Tim Keller is part 2 of a 4 part series titled Advancing the Gospel to the 21st Century. These articles were originally published in The Movement, the e-newsletter of Redeemer Church Planting Center – now known as Redeemer City to City.
To read the series click: