Recently, I’ve noticed a bothersome use of language in Christian circles. What’s new? you might wonder. Not a whole lot, just the latest issue of Christian buzzwords, which I have a long history of hating.
For instance, in seminary, everything was “missional.” That was the coveted adjective for every book, movement, and public figure. No doubt this started with motivations above reproach. Later it seemed to become a code word you could use to let people know your new initiative or book was hip and with it.
I hated it.
First off, I didn’t see anything in the adjective “missional” that wasn’t already in the noun “Christian.” That is to say, there is no genuine Christian who isn’t missional in the best sense of the terms. Saying this or that movement or person was “missional” implies that others without the label aren’t. That may or may not be intentional, but I think it happens. In short, I saw it as less than clarifying as well as something people just said to show they could speak Christianese.
These days, I don’t have much of a problem with “missional.” It has receded into less aggressive usage, and we can all rejoice. But, since nature abhors a vacuum, the death of one buzzword hails the rise of another. This one has a hyphen so you know it means business.
I am speaking of course of “gospel-centered.”
This is déjà vu all over again. Like missional, there isn’t anything in the adjective “gospel-centered,” that isn’t already included in the noun “Christian.” Also much like missional, I think it is something that should be something true of many Christian endeavors. But, it is also code for “better” in some uses, and that is not particularly helpful. If I write a book on Christian living, and you write a book on gospel-centered living, your book isn’t necessarily better because it has the “right” adjective at the front. It may well be, but calling things “gospel-centered” doesn’t baptize them into some special rank of first importance. In fact, just because you label something “gospel-centered” doesn’t mean it is. Some of the best “gospel-centered” writing I’ve read and sermons I’ve heard never use the terminology.
While I could go on about how I don’t like the use of the lingo, that’s not the point. Just so we’re not confused, I have no qualms with the concept, and agree with our need to be gospel centered in our various ministries. I would say in everything we do, but I don’t think that’s the case. We should be “God’s glory centered” in all that we do. This is not synonymous with “gospel-centered,” but it is also not opposed to it. You can do both.
My real problem here is how we “reify” the gospel. In case you’re not familiar, “reification” is giving a concept or abstract idea a concrete existence. We do this in our Christianese when we talk about the gospel, but use it as the active subject of a verb. For example, if you say something like “The gospel changes us by showing us our need for grace as demonstrated on the cross.” In this usage, “the gospel” is the subject of the sentence and it is treated as something that acts upon an object. This is just one example, and I just made it up, but I think you’ll find that language floating around. I could do a search to prove it, but I don’t want to implicate anyone and I’d rather just keep writing.
The first reason I think this is a problem is that it is not the way the Biblical writers use the term. Certainly we aren’t limited to the way Scripture uses theological terms. But it should give us pause that in 76 uses of the word “gospel” in the New Testament, it is only used as the active subject of a verb once (1 Thess. 1:5) and in that case, there is no reification since it is talking about the way in which the content of the gospel was delivered. Of the other 5 instances when it is a subject of a verb, 4 times it is being preached, and once it is veiled. In all cases, it is a passive recipient of the action of the verb. So when we use “the gospel” as an actor that does things in, to, and for believers, we are using it in a way that, is foreign to the biblical writers. If I were being uncharitable, I could say it is unbiblical. I’d rather say it is a usage that doesn’t fit the biblical logic of what the gospel actually is.
The second, and more important reason I think this is a problem, is that it cuts God out of the picture. To go back to the previous example: “The Holy Spirit changes us by showing us our need for grace as demonstrated in the gospel.” In this case, the change is attributed to the action of a real divine person rather than an abstract concept. When people misuse the gospel as an actor in our sanctification they are slighting the Spirit without realizing it. A better theological subject verb agreement would involve the Spirit being the agent and the gospel being part of the means.
If the gospel isn’t an actor that accomplishes things, we should not speak about it as if it is. Rather, we should speak of the God of the gospel who works through the gospel to accomplish his purposes. If we insist on making the gospel itself an actor in the drama of redemption, we are engaging in a kind of gospel-centered reduction. I doubt anyone intends to do this, but it is an unintended consequence of buzzwords. They can be helpful, but often are not. Instead, they shortchange clear thinking by leading to reductions in our language. We rely on them as shorthand, but in this case, what gets left out is what is really of first importance.
We would do better to speak with accuracy of the God of the gospel, even if that means not using the word gospel. We can be gospel-centered in the way we talk about God and the Christian life without using the term “gospel-centered.” If what we are saying really is gospel-centered, people will be able to tell. And if it is really “gospel-centered” it is ultimately “God-centered.” What God has done in Christ and continues to do through the Spirit should be front and center. And our language should reflect that in our subjects, verbs, and everything else.