With Phillip away this week, I’ve taken the opportunity of chatting to our regular North American correspondent—Marty Sweeney, director of Matthias Media USA.
We talked in particular about a debate that’s broken out in recent months in the US over the ‘gospel-centred’ label—and we could even have a squabble about the spelling of ‘centred’ if we wanted to!
To be ‘gospel-centred’ is a kind of motherhood statement and aspiration, but some are questioning whether it has become a cover for having a minimalist view of Christian involvement in anything other than church and evangelism.
What’s the debate really about, and is it possible to be too ‘gospel-centred’?
Hope you enjoy our discussion.
TP: So, Marty, what's been happening in the great US of A? You are our correspondent from Stateside.
MS: North American correspondent, I like that. I've never had that title before. I don't know if you know, but this is an election year.
TP: Yes, that news has filtered through.
MS: So yeah, that's all obviously often in the headlines. But in the Christian world, there seems to be lots of encouraging things going on, but also more of the same lot of division at times. There are lots of people squabbling back and forth about all sorts of things. Some of it is really helpful because we want to continue to refine our thinking and our ability to talk about Christianity with each other and with the world. But sometimes I get discouraged.
TP: We do manage to squabble with each other, don't we? And I don't know if you guys over there are more inclined to squabble or not. Culturally, I think you're generally a more vigorous, ‘can-do’ or ‘get out there’ kind of culture than we are here in Australia. And historically, you're more prone to church division in the sense of, “Well, I don't like this church, I'm going to start a new one.” We tend to hang on for grim death until we absolutely can't do anything else and then start something new.
I do remember that one of my favorite Christian magazine covers back in the day–when there were physical copies of Christian magazines–was a humorous, satirical Christian magazine called The Wittenburg Door. Do you remember it?
MS: I do, barely.
TP: One year, they had as the front cover a picture of a World Championship Wrestling, like WWE, a picture from one of those events. And you had this huge crowd in a stadium with lights, and they're all obviously terribly excited. And the lights are all on the ring. And in the middle of the ring, these two giant wrestlers have just both sprung off the ropes, and they're in mid-air about to grapple with each other. And the caption on the bottom was “Southern Baptist Convention meets again this year”. And I think, yes, that's sometimes the way Christian gatherings are; they are sometimes a fight fest.
MS: Yes, and I think you could substitute any denomination or gathering in there. It's like the old joke: whenever I do anything in a group, people always sit in the back and they say, “Oh, that's what we Baptists do.” But you know, I've been Presbyterian churches and they say the same thing. So I'd say that's the same truth here as well.
TP: Are there any actually important or interesting discussions going on now in debates that you think are significant at present?
MS: Yes, I think one that has come up in the last a year is this issue of gospel centrality. I don't know if it's been in Australia, but for the last 15 years, I'm mostly really grateful for what we maybe call the “gospel-centred movement”, and you can look in the publishing world, there's gospel-centred this and gospel-centred parenting and gospel-centred that. As a whole I’ve been really grateful for the kind of rediscovery, if you will, of the fact that the Bible is not just a rulebook for life, that the Bible is actually a book about Jesus Christ.
But there have been people who push back and say you know, the gospel is not the only thing that we need to talk about; we’ve got to talk about other things. And to be fair, some of those people that I've heard are thoughtful on this—it's not that they're saying we need to leave the gospel behind and move on (kind of like a Colossians error). But they're saying that we need to have the gospel infuse all of our discussions. Oftentimes, this has been in relation to politics, that we can't just say we're Christians but then turn our back on Christianity and vote however we want. So yeah, there's been a lot of debate on things like that.
What does it mean to be gospel-centred? And is that actually a helpful framework or shorthand for Christians to rally around?
TP: Do you mean in particular saying “I'm gospel-centred” can be an excuse not to really engage in social and cultural issues, the kind of cliche of the Christians who huddle in their own group and who don't think it's our place to engage in the social or cultural or political affairs of our world? As opposed to other Christians who think that it’s actually vital, that if we're not making progress or asserting ourselves or in some way leavening or influencing the culture and the politics and getting involved in all of that, then we're not being gospel-driven enough. Is that kind of what you mean?
MS: Yes, I think so. We have pretty strong disagreements, for example in politics. But we don't want that to divide us. And so let's just be gospel-centred and you can vote your way or advocate for that thing socially, politically, civically, and I'll advocate for my things or keep quiet. But we can still be gospel-centred and get on about the big important things of Christianity. That's kind of best case scenario or best intentions, I should say. Sometimes it's about not wanting to be divisive.
TP: There’s a good issue in the middle of all that, isn't there, about how far does the gospel cover or extend in ruling and determining our life? By saying that it's the ‘centre’, does that mean there are parts of our life that are on the periphery that the gospel doesn't touch, if you want to use that metaphor? Or does the gospel send ripples out into all of our lives? That issue is certainly worth clarifying in our lives and in our understanding of the gospel because historically, there has been a version of the gospel that is a bit reduced or truncated in that way—where the gospel really is just about me and the forgiveness of my sins, my eternal life and having Jesus in my heart, and its implications don’t then flow out into my whole behavior and how I live my life.
And in the past, you and I have had discussions about making sure we're really clear about the gospel, all those Two Ways to Live discussions we've had about gospel clarity. And part of the strength of getting the gospel really clear in your mind is that it does prevent you from falling into that kind of reduced gospel understanding.
Because the gospel of Jesus is not just that Jesus died on the cross for our sins, which is the wonderful heartbeat of it. But also just as much the heartbeat is that he rose from the dead to be the Lord and ruler and judge of all. The call of the gospel therefore is to turn back to him in repentance, to receive the forgiveness of sins by the washing and rebirth of the Holy Spirit and receive the justification from the living, risen Lord who died to make atonement for our sins. We have been crucified with him, our old life has died, and we have risen with him to a whole new life with him as Lord.
And so the gospel is the fifth box of Two Ways to Live, not just the fourth, and the two come as a completely indivisible package. Turning to him to receive forgiveness is turning to him as the Lord of all. Which is why the response to the gospel is not just trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins, it's also to repent and submit to Jesus as the Lord of your life in every aspect. And that reflects the fact that you believe this extraordinary, great, fantastic, mega news that Jesus is the risen Lord of everything.
MS: I've taught through the Two Ways to Live curriculum that you wrote, Tony, called Learn the Gospel a number of times over the last few years. And I think people have been very helped by seeing how their gospel often has been reduced to box two and box four: you're a sinner, and Jesus died for your sins. And so what you're saying is really helpful because it is the whole gospel. As we've talked before, and as you mentioned in that curriculum quite a bit, when you look at the book of Acts, you see that it's the gospel of the risen Lord that's proclaimed; it’s not set against the gospel of the death of the Christ, but in the context of emphasis, it’s that he's the risen Lord, and therefore we must follow him in repentance and faith.
I guess the question though is, a lot of people will be saying “Yep, I'm right with you, but what does it mean to live in repentance and faith as I vote, as I spend my money, and so on?” There are a lot of things in that potentially grey area. I come from a reformed background—I grew up Presbyterian and trained at a Presbyterian College—and I had to read Abram Kuyper, and his famous quote was effectively something like there's not one inch of this world that's not under the Lordship of Christ. What does that mean? I think that's the debate.
TP: I think that's right. It's why in a sense, whether or not we're gospel-centred is a little bit of a distraction in that debate because it depends how you understand gospel-centred and what the gospel means. But if you understand the gospel of Jesus being the crucified and risen saving Lord, then our whole lives are offered as living sacrifices to him. And it does extend to every aspect of our lives.
In the very chapter following Romans 12 where Paul says, “By God's mercy as we offer our bodies, our whole souls, as living sacrifices to him, to be transformed to live a whole new life”, the very next chapter speaks of our civic obligations, to submit to the authorities and to pay our taxes. It extends to every single aspect of our lives. And so the question then is, what does the living Lord Jesus say to us? How does he teach us to live for him in every aspect of our lives? How should we engage with the state and civic authorities? And what are his plans for us and his will for us? And that then becomes a question of reading Scripture together, and applying what Scripture says.
So it's not sufficient to simply say, because the whole world is under Jesus' lordship–every square inch of it–that therefore certain actions must follow; for example, therefore we must take over the government as Christians and rule every inch of Australia in the name of the Lord Jesus. Whether or not that is an implication of that comes from listening to what the risen Lord Jesus says to us in Scripture. That's his voice and constant guidance to us.
This then becomes a question that Christians often debate a great deal of the status of Jesus’ lordship versus the lordships of this world, and we’re actually getting into a discussion of eschatology there. It becomes whether the kingdom of Jesus will be built in this world gradually, gradually, until the kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of Jesus (that’s the post-millennial position), or whether the Lordship and kingdom of Jesus will crash into this world apocalyptically in the twinkling of an eye. So then it's not a matter of whether we believe the gospel is central or not; it's a matter of how we listen to our Lord and what he's calling on us to do while we await his return. And that's probably how we should think about those debates. It's probably the subject of a whole other podcast we could have, but it's worth understanding that it’s a not a question of how central or big your gospel is, but how you see the lordship of Jesus being enacted in this world.
MS: So what we’re saying is, Christianity is not just the assurance that Jesus has died for my sins, but also the knowledge and new reality of a new life following him, listening to him, obeying him in the present time that he's given me in this world. And that takes a lifelong commitment to sitting under his scripture with his people, working out in fear and reverence our salvation. And that leads to another issue.
Something that has been just kicking around in my mind is something you said a little over a year ago, when we were editing and reviewing a book that dear Phillip wrote called The Coming of the Holy Spirit. I remember you had said to me in a personal conversation that one of the reasons you really liked the book is because it's not just done in a systematic theology way–what does the Bible say about the Spirit in the Old Testament and in the New Testament, and then what do we make of it. Rather it also starts with the gospel. In this case, it starts with the Gospel of John. You said that the gospel is the “organizing principle of all Scripture”, and therefore it needs to be the organizing principle of how we come to understand the Holy Spirit. I've been thinking through what that actually means, and so maybe it's a good time to ask you. What did you mean by that—that the gospel is the ‘organizing principle of Scripture’?
TP: I guess what I mean is that Jesus Christ himself is the centre and interpretive key of all of Scripture because that's how the Bible presents itself to us. The Bible comes to us as a big unfolding history of God's work in the world, starting with the creation of the world and finishing with the new creation and the heavenly Jerusalem coming down. And in that huge unfolding story that God has given us, the climax and centerpiece and fulfillment of the whole story (or history) is Jesus Christ himself, in whom all the promises of the old covenant are yes and amen.
And so the Bible is not a flat book with just a series of chapters that could be organized in almost any way, in much the same way as the Quran is organized–if I remember correctly–from the biggest chapter to the smallest. The Bible has an historic shape to it corresponding to God's work in our world. It culminates in time and space and history; it culminates in the Lord Jesus Christ, in his coming, in his incarnation, in his life and death and resurrection, in the pouring out of the Spirit, and in the preaching of that gospel of Jesus Christ to the world in the power of the Spirit. And what Phillip has done is basically say that if that is the shape of the whole Bible, the shape of God's revelation to us, and if it's centred on Jesus and is fulfilled in Jesus, then we read everything through that lens. You can't read the Old Testament as if it isn't heading there and fulfilled there.
And so let's start at that moment. Let's start at the moment when Jesus says, “because of who I am, and because of my death and resurrection as the Christ and the Messiah, I'm going to pour out the long promised Spirit on my people.” And so Pentecost (in Acts 2) becomes this supremely significant moment when all the plans and promises of the OT are fulfilled. And so to start there with the gospel itself and its outworking at Pentecost is the way into understanding all that the Old Testament was promising and all that the New Testament goes on to say about the person and work of the Spirit.
We’re really talking about what is sometimes called a ‘biblical theology’ way of reading the Bible–reading the Bible as a unity that comes to its fulfillment and focus in Jesus Christ himself. And the gospel is the proclamation of Jesus the Christ, the Crucified Lord, the risen Lord, the one who atoned for sins, the one who now will judge sins as the Lord of the universe, and to whom we submit and bow, and who gives us new life. Given that's who Jesus Christ is, to say the gospel is the ‘organizing principle’ of Scripture is really just to say that Jesus Christ—in his person and his work—is the central thing that organizes the whole biblical, wonderful story. Does that make sense?
MS: It does. I mean, there's lots to work out what it means to live in this world with Christ as Lord, but also with Caesar as Caesar, or with Joe Biden as President. So I guess the question is, how do I help the average person in my church understand this? I had a senior pastor tell me very wisely, “Don't just preach 2 Timothy—about the Bible as the inspired Word of God. Show it to them in how you preach week in and week out.” So I can go and tell people that the gospel is the organizing principle of Scripture, but how does it show itself when I lead a Bible study or talk with someone about a topic?
Tony, could you leave us with a few pointers on this?
TP: It fundamentally means keeping that framework of the whole in our minds as we read and think about each part. It means when we come to read any passage in the New Testament, we recognize we can't just look at this on its own. We've got to see it as part of a bigger story.
1 Corinthians is a fascinating and great example because the whole book is all about the death and resurrection of Jesus. It starts with the death of Jesus in chapter 1 and finishes with the resurrection in chapter 15. It frames the whole argument of Paul in regards to how our whole life—our experience of living as one of Jesus's people, our experience of the Spirit, our experience of church—takes place between the death and resurrection of Jesus, between Jesus dying and rising as Lord. And he's coming again, when all will be changed in chapter 15 at the great resurrection day at the end of time.
And so in one sense, it's a matter of good reading, and teaching and modeling that, whether it's in our Bible studies or in our sermons. We need to show we’re constantly seeing the gospel as the organizing reference point that shapes the way we're reading any particular chapter of the Bible. Of course, it applies when we’re reading the Old Testament; we read it looking backwards as spiritual people in the new age of Jesus Christ being the risen Lord. And it's really important to teach and preach the Old Testament, showing both how it points forward to Jesus, but also how it constantly provides examples and encouragement and hope as 1 Corinthians 10 says, “For the life of those who now live in the age to come, the fulfillment of the ages.”
And it's a matter of continuing to do that over time. I think you can pull people aside, and you can do a Bible study that particularly teaches this kind of thing to get them thinking about these issues. So I'm thinking about a study that Bryson Smith wrote years ago called “Full of Promise” that Matthias Media sells that I still think is an excellent way of showing how the whole Old Testament lands with Jesus. That's partly what we want you to do with Two Ways to Live in the sense that it is a really brief schematic picture of that whole story of creation, sin, judgment, and Jesus. And so it does give you a pattern to keep thinking about.
MS: So first we need gospel clarity. We have to understand the gospel is absolutely about Jesus's death and atonement, but also equally as important about his resurrection and lordship. So the first principle to work out is how to read Scripture through the lens of Jesus to get clarity about the gospel, and then from there, we never leave it.
And back to the Colossians issue, as Paul says in Colossians 2, “Just as you receive Christ Jesus as Lord, so walk in him, rooted and build up in the faith in Him.” And so we will never leave that behind. But I think the misunderstanding is that we have to conclude every Bible study with Jesus died for your sins. And that's not what you're saying, either. If anything, it's should be that we keep following Jesus as our Lord, because he so graciously died for our sins, and we keep following and living for Him who for our sake died and was raised.
TP: Yes, every Bible study in a sense will finish with some gospel application that might help us understand more deeply the sin that we've been rescued from, which helps us understand and grasp just how huge and wonderful the atoning mercy, love and grace of God is to send his Son to die for us. It may help us to understand something more of the risen Lord Jesus and his rule, and help us to understand God who created the whole world and whose wonderful plan this is and who comes to his fullest visible expression for us in the Lord Jesus Christ who is the very radiance of his being. And so the more we understand Jesus in the Gospel, the more we understand God, because Jesus is the one who fully reveals God to us in that sense.
And so very often, depending on which part of the Bible we may be reading, it will show us something about the good works that he has purified and redeemed us to pursue. It says in Titus 2 that he's brought us together as people who live under his lordship so that we are completely different people. And often Scripture will be showing us what that looks like in all of our lives, just as the rest of Titus goes on to talk about in all sorts of different ways. Coming right back to our discussion at the front, it includes our cultural life, our social life, our submission to authorities, and our showing perfect courtesy to all people, because we too were once foolish and lost. We're all the same. So the gospel will inform our whole attitude and stance towards the world and its culture in every aspect of our lives.
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