Gospel-Centered Reduction: Slighting The Spirit

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.

Author: Nate

I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

20 thoughts on “Gospel-Centered Reduction: Slighting The Spirit”

  1. Excellent, excellent, excellent.

    It was only yesterday I received an email from someone who wanted to complain that a video wasn’t gospel-centred. I then had to write back what they meant by that because I hear it all the time and its lost so much meaning or is devoid of it to say te least.

    I’ll add a few more to your list too:
    Journey
    Connect
    Story
    Like minded
    Share
    Space
    Dialogue
    Doing life together

    Thanks. Jon.

  2. I like what you said about being as deliberate as the Bible in pointing out that it is the Holy Spirit who is the actor. And yet I think there is biblical precedent for the use of the Gospel as the subject of the work of God to save and sanctify.

    I would suggest that when the Gospel is used as the subject it is being used as Romans 1:16 sets it up to be used. Romans 1:16 says that the Gospel is the power of God for salvation. If this is true then you could write your example sentence this way:

    “The power of God [the Gospel] changes us by showing us our need for grace as demonstrated on the cross.”

    Therefore, I would say two things must happen in order to faithfully (even biblically) use the word “Gospel” as a subject or reified actor.

    1) We must understand the theology behind the use of the word Gospel. The Gospel is essentially annoucement. It is proclamation of the news of the person and work of Jesus Christ with the cross as the climatic moment of that news. This news proclaimed and believed by faith is “the power of God” at work by means of the present saving and sactifying work of the Holy Spirit. I will also note that God Himself is the first proclaimer of the Gospel to our hearts (2 Corinthians 4:6).

    2) If we are going to use the word Gospel in such short-hand, reified way we must also and often explain this use by pointing to such texts as Romans 1:16. Personally, when I say just about anything about the Gospel I take at least one more sentence to explain more clearly what was meant. Unfortunately, this is not always the case and so I commend your article above.

    Here’s a quick example. In your example I might say:

    The Gospel changes us by showing us our need for grace as demonstrated on the cross. The Gospel is God the Son, fully God and perfect man, dying in our place on the cross. What is this perfect God-man doing on the cross? Why is it not me? I am the sinner! It was I who deserved to die! When I see Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross I see how serious is my sin and my need for grace. When I hear the Gospel I am confronted with perfect grace! As we place our faith in what He has done in the perfect, substitutionary, gracious and merciful work of the Gospel we are changed.

    * By the way, I’ve taken to the habit of capitalizing the word Gospel because I am talking about a particular good news, “the Gospel.” This is not because it is a more important word than other words in scripture or to deify the Gospel, but because it is not “a gospel” it is the particular Gospel proper. In part, it just makes me think every time I write it, “Is this the actual Gospel of Jesus Christ or am I cheapening the word?”

    1. Jeremiah,

      I think Romans 1:16 is probably the only example of Gospel being used an agent, though it’s not technically the subject. I had that verse in the back of my mind while writing this, but just didn’t address it. Thanks for drawing out the conversation.

      I think your principles work, and am glad you take the extra sentence to really explain what you mean. My main concern is that buzzwords and other short hand are a step toward assuming the content. One generation assumes, the next forgets, and then everything goes downhill. Also, I think reification is always wrong because it doesn’t accord with reality, but if there is biblical precedent in Romans 1, then this isn’t reification.

      One thing, and hopefully this doesn’t feel nit-picky, but technically in your closing extended example, you didn’t proclaim the Gospel entirely. There is no mention of the resurrection, yet it is because of the resurrection that we are justified (Rom. 4:25). I realize I just used the cross in my own example, and giving you the benefit of the doubt, I can assume you meant “cross and resurrection.” But, this further illustrates the problem of assuming. If Gospel is just shorthand for the cross, which is shorthand for the whole death, burial, resurrection event, then we have a shorthand of a shorthand, which is ultimately not helpful. I think we need to follow your footsteps in making things explicit, but keep going and make it even more explicit (like warning sticker level explicit). I’m sure in a full sermon, you’d do just that, and this is a truncated example in blog comments. But, if we are going to proclaim a full blown Trinitarian gospel, it means making explicit who all is involved, what all happened, and how it all applies.

      I appreciate your concern here and am glad for your work over at CP Coast.

      Nate

      1. Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Nate.

        You’re right on. I thought of the resurrection as I was writing it, but wanted to address the example specifically of how the cross points to grace.

        The key, I think as we both agree, is that we never lean on catch phrases and shorthand snippets.

        You’ve made me think twice about my own use of Gospel as subject. Hopefully all listening in will 1) point often to the specific work of the Spirit, 2) have a clear understanding of the full counsel of the Word as it pertains to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and 3) often reminds their congregation and one another of what they mean when they use certain words such as Gospel.

        And if we have to go “warning sticker level explicit”, and I agree we should, now you can see why my sermons often exceed 50 minutes. In fact, sometimes my blog comments can do the same.

  3. I agree! I reminds me of how the phrases “prayer works,” or “prayer changes things.” They are well meaning, but turn prayer into a magic tool and leave God totally out of the equation.

  4. Thank you for writing this. I personally have been growing very tired of the whole “gospel centered” language and just haven’t been able to verbalize as well and complete as you have here. I hope we can quickly move on from the superiority complex the “gospel centered” community has brought to the conversation and lets return the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to their rightful place in our vocabulary.

  5. I think much of what you say is good but you also might be hanging yourself at the same time, because you indicate that some of our terminology is already found in the word Christian. However “Christian” can mean almost anything and is only used three times in scriptures and is not defined anywhere. Therefore people use other terms to narrow the gap. Thanks.
    Mike

    1. I would agree that Christian can be used to mean almost anything, but the term itself doesn’t mean almost anything. Originally, it was a pejorative term that meant “little Christ.” The implication then is that the term means someone who is a imitation of Christ. This implies the individual is Christ-centered, which is also gospel-centered. I don’t think the argument rests entirely on using words how Scripture uses it, but it is telling that “gospel” is not a personal actor that does things in Scripture, rather God is.

  6. My pastor and I had a conversation along these lines yesterday. The concern I expressed was that all the “gospel-centered” lingo is leaving out the person of Jesus. A After all, we are called to repent and trust a person, in order to be reconciled to God. This is the good news of the gospel. It’s just like so many words that get overused (i.e. love) and become devoid of meaning. Once a word’s meaning has been lost, one can use it in any context and there are no checks and balances on it’s usage.

    1. Checks and balances are significant. It is notoriously hard to monitor language, much less “lingo.” I prefer to aspire to being “Christ-centered” since that seems to be more what Paul was up to, though he was certainly “gospel-focused” as well we could say.

  7. Thanks so much for writing your article. Buzzwords come and go and, for me, are unnecessarily distracting. When I teach, I teach. When I come home from vacation, I unpack.

    1. Haha, love the “unpack” comment. Yep, only the cool pastors “unpack” the text. ….Sorry, I was gone for a minute to go gag.

  8. I so agree with your article Nate. New fads in lingo among Christians have always bothered me. You are right that they end up saying the same things we’ve always said, only now they have a label that takes them to the “next level of relevance.” Sometimes they don’t even mean much of anything. Someone above mentioned one that still drives me nuts—“doing life together.” What does that EVEN MEAN??? Are they taking people into their homes for communal living so that everyone can have mentors up-close-and-personal 24/7? Like you said, the intentions behind the new phrases are usually very good. I just don’t see the point of creating a new vocabulary in order to draw in “the REALLY serious.” Sad thing is though…it works. People think they’ve joined the new bandwagon and this sets them apart in a special way. But that’s also the problem. It creates an “us” versus “them” mentality in terms of who is conversant in the new style and who is not. Believe me, I can use all those new terms all day long and be no different of a person than if I didn’t use them. I choose not to use them. They annoy me. Maybe because I’m 38 and becoming a fuddy duddy. Maybe because the old concepts and words were good enough. Maybe because I realize that the reasons people aren’t reached are not because we don’t use the right terminology but because we don’t reach out as much as we should and the world isn’t going to like the gospel no matter what words we use until the Holy Spirit enlightens their hearts. Oh well, I’m gonna go do my life journey with someone in a relevant, gospel-centered kind of way now. It’s really authentic. Peace.

    Angela Hogan
    Houston, Tx
    DTS 2014, Woot!

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