What is Gospel-centered ministry, really...
(Tim) What does it mean for a church planter to tell us he's "Gospel-centered?" Well, it means he's reading all the Acts 29 and Redeemer stuff. You can't stand in succession without talking the talk. But assuming "Gospel-centered" is a good thing, what does it actually mean?
Let's have the Apostle Paul define it:
And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)
If a church planter is Gospel-centered, he's determined to "know nothing among (his flock) except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified." Now two things, here.
First, the Apostle Paul is specific about the "nothing" he's determined not to know. He doesn't know superiority of speech or wisdom; he doesn't know strength, but weakness; he doesn't know confidence, but fear; he doesn't know how to cop a suave posture, but he trembles...
he doesn't know persuasive words of wisdom, but only the demonstration of the Holy Spirit and His power.
And why has he chosen this path of weakness, fear, and trembling as he hangs on the power of the Holy Spirit?
So that no one's faith would rest on him, but instead on the power of God.
In other words, if we communicate our strength and courage and erudition and confidence and hipness and cultural engagement and entrepreneurial moxie, we've destroyed the Gospel. When people leave our gatherings, they carry us rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. What they depend upon and talk and write about is us; not the Cross of Jesus Christ. To put it bluntly, they're not at all Gospel-centered.
"But hey," you say, "it's all about God. It's all about the Cross!"
Really? Well then, let's move on to the second thing.
To know the Cross in its Holy Spirit power is to present four things, three of which are almost always missing from Gospel-centered men and the talks they give. Here's Buchanan on those four things:
...conscience continually prompts men to (ask)—'How shall man be just with God?' or, 'How can God be just,' and yet 'justify the ungodly?' That great problem may seldom occur to those that are habitually unmindful of God, and of their relation to Him; and should it be suggested to their minds, it will probably be lightly dismissed, as long as they cherish slight views of sin, and have little or no sense of their solemn responsibilities and prospects as subjects of the righteous government of God. Some vague opinion in regard to His general mercy, or some undefined purpose to propitiate His favour by future repentance and amendment of life, before they are brought face to face with the awful realities of death, and judgment, and eternity, may suffice, in the meantime, as an answer to the accusing voice of conscience, and as an opiate to allay its forebodings and fears. But minds in this state never grapple with any of the real difficulties of the problem, and can scarcely be said to have the slightest apprehension of its true meaning. They overlook all the most momentous conditions which are involved in it, and on which its right solution depends.
Now watch, here. Buchanan is about to present those four momentous conditions that must form the structure of any true Gospel-centered preaching. Any man seeking right standing with God or eternal life must come to know and love these four essentials for a right solution to man's pain-wracked conscience.
The Gospel of Christ alone has presented that problem in all its magnitude, and in its just proportions; and the Gospel of Christ alone has offered a solution of it, based on a full view of the Attributes of God,—of the unalterable requirements of His Law,—of the principles and ends of His Moral Government,—and of the state, character, and prospects of man, as a dying yet immortal being, chargeable with past guilt, and still depraved by inherent sin.
It lays a deep foundation for the doctrine of a sinner's pardon and acceptance with God, by revealing, in the first instance, the infinite holiness of God, His intense hatred of sin, His inflexible justice in punishing it,—the spiritual nature, the supreme authority, and unchangeable character of His law, as being, like Himself, 'holy, and just, and good,'— the principles and ends of His Moral Government, as a scheme which is designed and fitted to glorify His great Name, by manifesting, in their actual exercise, all the moral perfections of His nature, and making Himself known to His intelligent subjects as He really is,—the fallen, guilty, and depraved state of man, as a sinner, subject to condemnation, and utterly unable to save himself, while he is passing on, with the swiftness of time itself, to a state of strict and eternal retribution; and it is not till after it has revealed these great truths, which might seem to render his salvation hopeless, that it reveals a method of Grace and Redemption by which God Himself has solved the problem; and announces the stupendous fact, that He gave up His own Son,—to become incarnate, to assume the burden of our sins, to endure the punishment which these sins deserved, 'to shed His own precious blood for their expiation,—and all this that the Grace and the Justice of God might be made manifest, in their actual exercise, in the Cross of Christ...
Maybe it's a bit much digesting Buchanan, so here's the summary. If man is to believe the Gospel, he must know it. And if man is to know the Gospel, it's not enough for him to have slight thoughts of God's attributes, God's Moral Law, judgment, Heaven and Hell, and intimate thoughts of God's love and mercy, and Jesus' love and mercy and grace. Notice how Buchanan proceeds; the order is as important as the content.
Any Gospel-centered shepherding or preaching will start with the attributes of God. All of them in all their horror and beauty. And seeing the attributes of God will leave us trembling at the foot of Mt. Sinai where we receive God's Moral Law, which reveals even more clearly many of God's attributes, His perfections. So we start with the character, the attributes, the perfections of the Only True God. And this is no "God is for the city" vision. We're not close to that, yet.
Then, we move to God's Law. First, His attributes; second, His Law. We preach the Law in all its brutal severity, trusting in the Holy Spirit to lead the souls under our care through that horror, to grace. But we trust so much in that horror, that we refuse to hop over it. Gospel-centered preaching never neglects the Schoolmaster that alone leads us to the Cross of Jesus Christ.
First, the attributes of God. Second, the Law of God. And third, the coming judgment and the horrors of Hell prepared for all who have violated God's attributes and Law. Again, only those who trust in the power of the Holy Spirit rather than themselves, their contextualization and entrepreneurial moxie, will preach and teach and counsel God's holiness and justice, His Law, and His coming throne of judgment driving every man to the eternity of Hell torments.
Then Buchanan says this:
...and it is not till after it has revealed these [first three] great truths, which might seem to render his salvation hopeless, that [Gospel-centered preaching] reveals a method of Grace and Redemption by which God Himself has solved the problem...
Only when the first three truths have been firmly lodged in the hearts of the precious souls giving themselves to our care, will we give them the fourth great truth: that God in His great mercy and grace, has sent His Son to bear His wrath and justice for all who believe on Him. And those who believe will be justified freely by His grace, hearing a "not guilty" verdict at the Throne of God and being welcomed into His Holy Heaven.
How do we know if the souls under our care have been brought to the fourth through the first three Gospel truths?
Because of their attitude, their posture, and their words. They tremble. They cry out. They melt in tears. They fall on their faces. They turn red in the face and charge, fully intending to kill us.
Look across Scripture's Apostolic preaching (which is true Gospel-centered preaching) and see the response to the clear presentation of God's character, Law, judgment and Hell, and the Cross. When Stephen finished his Gospel-centered ministry, we read: "But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears and rushed at him with one impulse" (Acts 7:57).
The Apostle Peter finishes his sermon on the Day of Pentecost with these words: "Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ--this Jesus whom you crucified."
And the souls under his ministry and care responded: "Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, 'Brethren, what shall we do?'"
To which the Apostle Peter responded: “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.”
But Peter didn't stop his Gospel-centered ministry quite yet. He continued in the same theme and direction he'd been going for quite some time already: "And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, 'Be saved from this perverse generation!'"
So, was the Apostle Peter perfectly contextualized for the city of Jerusalem when he cried these words out to the assembled throng? Would any of us have thought he was Gospel-centered and "for his own city?"
It's almost laughable, isn't it?
But what happened? Was there fruit; and if so, how much? "So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls" (Acts 2:36-41).
Read the Apostle Paul's sermons--for instance, his sermon to the Areopagus in Athens--and you'll see these same four themes.
So we learn two things about Gospel-centered preaching and ministry.
First, that people leave it with little thoughts of us and large thoughts of God. Their recollection of us will be that we are simple, trembling, direct, basic, afraid, but clinging to the power of the Holy Spirit.
And second, our hearers' large thoughts of God are disciplined in four--not one or two or even three--directions: God's character; God's Law; man's eternal damnation fast approaching as his life quickly passes and he comes ever more closely to the Judgment seat of God and Hell; and then (and only then) God's mercy in the Person and work of Jesus Christ Who was made a sin offering for sinful man that all who flee to Him might be saved.
May God give us a truly Gospel-centered ministry, weak and foolishly trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit so we never skip over the holiness of God's character, Law, and Judgment.