If you read books or go to conferences with the word “gospel” in them, you’re likely to hear phrases like this:
“The gospel is not the ABC’s, but the A to Z of salvation.”
“We never move beyond the gospel; we move deeper into the gospel.”
“The gospel is not just what we need at the beginning of the Christian life; it’s what we need to sustain our Christian life.”
I agree with each of these statements and have said similar things before. I believe you can back up these statements with Scripture, the manner in which the biblical authors seek to foster spiritual growth among the early Christians.
What About Hebrews and Leaving the Basic Gospel Message?
But if there’s one passage that should give the gospel-centered movement pause, it’s Hebrews 6:1-3. After challenging a lack of maturity on the part of his hearers (they want milk when they should be eating solid food), the author says this:
Therefore, leaving the elementary message about the Messiah, let us go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, faith in God, teaching about ritual washings, laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And we will do this if God permits.
The logic of the passage seems to work against what the gospel-centered slogans say. The writer connects “going on to maturity” with “leaving the elementary message about the Messiah.”
What elementary message are we talking about? The author lists six fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith:
- Repentance from dead works and faith in God is a good description of the conversion experience. We repent of sin and believe in Christ.
- Ritual washings and laying on of hands probably refer to baptism and what it means to be empowered by the Holy Spirit to do good deeds.
- Then there are the basic beliefs in eternal realities, bodily resurrection for the faithful and eternal judgment for the wicked.
To counter the idea that we should keep going back to the gospel, some might say: “See? These fundamental doctrines are just for the beginning of the Christian life. Once we get the basics down, we can move on. If we keep coming back to these, we will stunt our spiritual growth.”
Leaving and Building
There’s a legitimate concern here, but I don’t think this is what the author meant by the word “leaving.” Notice he uses the example of laying a foundation. If we’re going to follow the logic of his construction metaphor, we come to this conclusion: You don’t leave the foundation; you build on the foundation.
So, it’s not that the author sees these doctrines as something you move past. No, he sees them as the foundation of everything that follows.
God doesn’t intend for you to move past the gospel or the basics of Christianity; He intends you to build your life on the gospel and the basics of Christianity.
Furthermore, as Bobby Jamieson points out, if we are to take into consideration the author’s own example, this word about leaving behind “the elementary message” is immediately followed by several chapters where we wade in the deep pools of gospel truth regarding Christ’s identity as our High Priest and perfect sacrifice. Whatever “leaving behind the elementary message” means, it can’t mean moving past the good news of Christ’s work, or the author has contradicted himself.
A Warning To Be Heeded
There is, however, a warning for the gospel-centered movement here. It’s a warning against being so excited about the foundation of Christianity that we fail to do anything with the good news we’ve been given.
Imagine a congregation that is about to start a building program, but the people are so fascinated with the concrete slab that they never erect the walls and put the roof on. They just gather and sit on the concrete slab. That’s spiritual stuntedness. And that’s a good picture of what the Hebrew audience here is like. They’ve laid a good foundation, but they’re not building anything! They’re like construction workers who are having a coffee break that never ends, always admiring the foundation that’s been laid, but never getting on with the structure.
Gospel-Centered Talk and the Church’s Missional Actions
The gospel-centered movement will enter a Hebrews 6 phase of immaturity if all our talk about the rudimentary doctrines of the Christian faith becomes just that: talk. Gospel-centrality is not a simple rehearsal of basic facts week to week; it is seeing the gospel as central to everything else, and then moving on to maturity by building our lives, our ministries, our mission on it.
God’s people will never be missional if all we do is sit around and inspect the foundation. No, the mission requires people who are grounded in the truth, empowered by the Spirit, and who are fueled and shaped by the cruciform love of Christ.
Gospel-centrality is not sitting back and admiring what Christ has done. It’s building on His foundation with faith in God’s grace – past, present, and future.