By Eric Beach:
Over the last decade, the term “gospel centered” has grown in popularity among parishioners, pastors, and publishers. While I commend many of the gospel-centered resources available today, some purveyors of a “gospel-centered” message unintentionally end up neglecting the entirety of the Bible’s teaching on both the law and the gospel.
From the earliest days of the Protestant Reformation, the magisterial reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin recognized that Scripture contains both the law of God (his commands) and the gospel of God (his promises of salvation). They, and many of their heirs, saw this paradigm as important for understanding and applying Scripture rightly. As a result, the Lutheran and Reformed traditions understood the vital importance of teaching the law and the gospel to both non-Christians and Christians. Today, teachers who emphasize the gospel and functionally deemphasize the law can generate a number of unintended pastoral problems.
TEACH CHRISTIANS HOW TO OBEY
First, “gospel centered” preaching that functionally excludes “law and gospel” vitiates the right use of the law as an instrument of sanctification and instruction in the Christian life, leading to a soft antinomianism. A number of “gospel-centered” sermons follow the same basic outline: “We’ve sinned and cannot obey God. But, Christ died for us. So, rejoice!” While this message is biblical as far as it goes, it misses the goodness and importance of God’s commands for Christians. A number of the New Testament epistles open by recounting human sin and God’s salvation (e.g., Eph. 1–3; Gal 1–4; Col. 1–2; Rom. 1–11); but they also instruct Christians on how to live (e.g., Eph. 4–6; Col. 3–4; Gal. 5–6, Rom. 12–16). If the Apostles spent substantial time giving Christians commands and exhortations distinct from the gospel, should not our teaching be similar to theirs? Likewise, we should learn from the example of pastors from centuries past who went to great lengths to exposit God’s instruction to Christians from texts such as the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount.
A Christian who does not regularly hear God’s law as instruction for holy living is a handicapped Christian who is susceptible to antinomianism. Exhortations and applications in our sermons should generally reflect the New Testament’s emphasis on obeying God. Pastor, preach the whole counsel of God to your flock—both the promises of salvation and the commands for holy living.
Second, without a right emphasis on the law “gospel-centered” preaching can lead to a shallow repentance and easy-believism. The law keeps us from sidestepping the depth of human depravity. It also keeps us from sidelining the cost of following Christ. According to Scripture, the law exposes our sin and leads to repentance. In the New Testament, Jesus and the apostles spend considerable time explaining the law and what repentance toward God requires. On multiple occasions in the gospels, Jesus spends so much time explaining the depths of human sin and outlining the high cost of following him that people walk away. If pastors move too quickly from the law to the gospel, they run the risk of cheapening the gospel and making space for superficial repentance.
One practical way to implement more reflection on God’s law in your church is to lead your congregation in a prayer of confession. This practice helps catechize members on the depth of human sin and models genuine repentance. Meditating on God’s law and our sin does not make Christians introspective or morbid. It makes us more fully aware of the sweetness of the gospel.
PREACH THE WHOLE COUNSEL OF GOD
Third, “gospel centered” without an emphasis on the full counsel of God can lead to important but secondary issues like ecclesiology being largely ignored. The Bible contains many commands about topics that are not essential to the gospel but are nonetheless important. If a pastor’s commendable zeal to preach the gospel leads him to neglect careful reflection on important but secondary issues, he is undermining the long-term vitality of his ministry. Pastor, do the people listening to your sermons understand the Bible’s instructions about topics such as the church, the poor, and the conscience? Scripture speaks at length to all of these and we should too.
DON’T LET LAW BECOME GOSPEL
Fourth, an emphasis on “gospel centered” to the exclusion of the law means that other themes in Scripture such as loving your neighbor can end up getting squeezed into “gospel,” thereby confusing the gospel.
My wife recently read a multi-author Christian book on motherhood. After finishing a few chapters, she remarked how different authors repeatedly exhorted moms to “live the gospel.” My wife noted the oddity of this language. Nowhere does Scripture command us to “live the gospel” and this way of speaking confuses law and gospel. Scripture speaks about the importance of loving your children, teaching your children, correcting your children, and forgiving your children as Christ forgave you. We should speak according to these same patterns and preserve the biblical distinction between the promises of God and his commands. A Christian’s obeys the law in the light of the gospel, but that obedience is not the gospel. Christians live daily in view of the gratitude and eternity-altering realities promised by the gospel. Yet even in our cross-shaped obedience, a vital distinction always remains between the law which we obey with gratitude and the gospel which we trust for salvation.
As my wife continued, she noticed other authors continue to demote or ignore the biblical category of the law of God. Thus, as they addressed issues of race, justice, or the poor in their writings they turned to the only category they had left for biblically important matters—the gospel. But instead of calling Christians to perform the gospel (as these authors did), we should instead call them to obey the commands of God. If we unintentionally imply that the gospel is something we do instead of something Christ did which we receive by faith, then we fatally change the gospel (cf. Gal 1:6–10).
Scripture contains both commands to obey (law) and promises to believe for salvation (gospel). These are not antithetical to each other. Instead, they play indispensable yet different roles in the lives of Christians. A “gospel centered” hermeneutic which unintentionally downplays or sidelines the commands of God for Christians will often result in significant problems over the long-term. The solution is not to downplay the gospel with a soft moralism or sideline the law with a soft antinomianism. Rather, teachers should proclaim both the law and the gospel. Pastor, preach the gospel of Christ the glorious savior in every sermon. But also preach the whole counsel of the word of God. Give your sheep God’s instructions and his commands for holy living.