It has been in vogue for the past few years to talk about “gospel-centrality.” I don’t know about you, but I appreciate the language. Having experienced churches that had a very truncated view of the gospel (i.e., the gospel is something that only relates to your conversion, but not to the rest of your Christian life), I’m refreshed by the fact that churches have been emphasizing the sanctifying power of the work of Jesus.
A gospel-centered church is a church which focuses primarily on Christ’s work. It recognizes that Jesus’ priestly ministry doesn’t just relate to our justification (the act of our being made right in God’s sight), but to every aspect of our salvation. In gospel-centered churches, we’re continually reminded of God’s initiative and action toward us, what some theologians have called, “redemption accomplished.” It’s this good news that creates and sustains the church.
Here are three fruits of a gospel-centered community:
1. Gospel-Centered churches produce humility.
Throughout the Bible, God condemns pride. The arrogant person makes himself God's enemy (Js. 4:6). Sadly, pride is a weed that can grow in our own hearts if we aren't careful to cut it down. Moralistic churches often water our pride because they focus on human achievement. When we think we're living up to God's standards, we start looking down on others whom we deem less obedient than ourselves (Lk. 18:11). Ironically, we can even grow arrogant in our theological learning (1 Cor. 8:1). The gospel is like God's heavenly weed whacker, shredding our pride to pieces as it reveals to us how desperately we fall short of God's standard. We need more than just a little bit of assistance here and there; we need God to come to earth and fix the job we have botched.
Gospel-centered churches ought to produce radically humble disciples because the focus is always on our need and God's great grace. Since the solution lies outside of us, we have no reason to be proud in ourselves. This is precisely what Paul was getting at when, after discussing God’s free justification of sinners, he wrote, “Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith” (Rom 3:27).
2. Gospel-Centered churches produce diversity.
Sadly, this fruit of the gospel is much rarer than it should be in our churches. Oftentimes today we walk into a church and find an affinity group rather than a gospel-built community. Here's what I mean: in many of our churches, what brings us together isn't primarily Jesus and his gospel, but shared interests. This is what Mark Dever and Jamie Dunlop call “gospel-plus community” in their helpful book The Compelling Community. We're here because of Jesus—plus the fact that we're all white-collar professionals, or lower-income Hispanics, or millennials who listen to Head and the Heart. We have to understand that our churches will always become affinity groups by default unless we talk about the implications of the gospel for forming diverse communities. The gospel doesn't speak to one demographic; it speaks to sinners. Sin doesn't discriminate and neither does Jesus.
When the gospel is central to the life of the church, it should attract people from all walks of life and all cultural backgrounds. This is a fruit we should strive to see in our local churches because it's such a powerful depiction of what the good news of Jesus is capable of. No one is surprised when a bunch of friends sit down for a meal; everyone is surprised when two people with nothing in common—indeed, people who had even harbored hostility toward each other—sit down to break bread. Among Jesus' first disciples you had one guy who wanted to terrorize the government (Simon the Zealot) along with a corrupt official who had been colluding with the government (Levi the tax collector). Mortal enemies by the world’s standards, they were brought into Jesus' church to serve side-by-side. When the world tastes this sweet fruit of the gospel, they'll have a hard time denying its power.
3. Gospel-Centered churches are welcoming toward sinners.
Gospel-less churches don't know what to do with sinners. So many of us have experienced this type of church that we're curious about whether it's safe to be ourselves around other Christians.
A pastor in Germany named Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy” (Life Together, p. 110).
We live in a merit-based world where people can’t be honest about their failures. This culture sometimes seeps into the church, and we can have a “pious” fellowship that’s ultimately built on pretending. The gospel breaks through this fake piety and allows us to be honest with each other about our failures. It allows us to bring our sins into the light because Christ’s blood can cleanse us and remove our shame. When we stop pretending we’re perfect, we become a people who welcomes sinners instead of looking on them with an “us vs. them” mentality. We are them, who have been mercifully washed by Jesus. Building a culture of transparency and dependence on the gospel helps other sinners see that there’s a God who isn’t afraid of them.