Gospel-Centered Discipleship

Bring the gospel back to the center, of everything.

You’re probably familiar with the term gospel-centered. If not, perhaps:

  1. You haven’t bought a Christian book written in the past decade; or
  2. You don’t follow John Piper, Tim Keller or DA Carson on Twitter.

Don’t worry, the latter is actually OK.

There’s been a significant movement over the past decade to bring the gospel back to the center of everything.

None of us would disagree with that. The life, death and resurrection of Christ needs to not simply be at the heart but also be the heart of everything we do. When Paul was chewing out the Corinthian church, he said (and I paraphrase), “I’m kind of a lousy speaker, but it doesn’t matter as long I preach Christ crucified.”

For Paul, his only calling, his only assignment, his only job was to communicate the gospel.

And that’s because it’s only by the death and resurrection of Christ that we attain justification, which leads to sanctification, which leads to glorification. If there’s no gospel, Paul said we are to be pitied by all men, which means if the good news of what Jesus has done for us is not true, we’re all wasting our time, so let’s leave early, grab lunch and catch a matinee because this is a fairy tale. This is Frozen, without that song.

Martin Luther said that, without justification, the church of God cannot exist for one hour.

So, gospel centeredness means that we apply what Jesus has done to the center of everything we do. The question is: Are we actually centered on that truth? Does that truth bleed out of our sermons, our discipleship, our worship, our community groups, our youth program and our flower arrangements on Easter? Is the gospel proclaimed and propagated vigorously at our church and then lived out vibrantly in our lives?

Our world exerts a gravitational pull toward moralistic therapeutic deism, which essentially says that the central goal of the Christian life is to be happy; God only comes around to solve some of our problems; and good people go to heaven when they die.

How do we disciple our church members away from this way of thinking? First, we need to teach them what we have in Christ.

The what

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through Him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (Romans 5:1-5, English Standard Version).

This is an absolute monster of a text. We are justified by faith and immediately have peace with God when, only seconds before conversion, we were under His wrath and condemnation. So let’s be real clear here: If God gave us nothing more than peace with Him, we’d be awesome. If all He did was not destroy us, life would be peaches.

Now, follow what I’m saying. Since we’ve been justified by faith, we have God sparing us from the only thing we ever earned on our own, which was His wrath. But in Christ, we have been spared. And I’m of the opinion that you can never communicate that enough, ever.

But there’s more. God doesn’t just remove His hostility; He gives us His peace, or shalom. We have a full, complete permanent state of well-being with God. And there’s more. . . .

Through Christ, we obtain access to God’s grace. We don’t just have a God who says, “It’s cool, I won’t destroy you,” but we have a God who says, “I delight in you” (Zephaniah 3, Psalm 147).

Because we’ve been justified and entered into God’s grace, He’s not only not going to death-ray us every time we sin, but He actually likes us. Which is how we stand and rejoice in hope. That standing doesn’t mean standing still, but it’s like a tree firmly planted that grows and blooms and reflects God’s grace, which shines down upon us like the sun.

So with this understanding, when suffering comes—and it inevitably comes—we know we’re not being punished. Instead, endurance, character and hope are being produced in us. And God is so good to us that He pours His love into our hearts by way of the Holy Spirit to assure us that God is not a liar, but a faithful, loving father.

That’s the gospel-centered discipling piece that needs permanent lodging in our heads and hearts. We remember and remind others that serving Jesus is not a life of earning, because a life of earning leads to a life of exhaustion. God declares us righteous and delights in that declaration. This is the heart of gospel-centeredness: Justification by faith grants us access to grace. So give ’em grace. And remind them of who they are now that they have it.

The why

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by His blood, much more shall we be saved by Him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by His life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation (Romans 5:6-11, ESV).

The who we are of gospel centeredness is simply this profound realization: We are free. We have received reconciliation. We are in a category of people who now get to rejoice. This is not a life of earning. It’s not a life of moralistic therapeutic deism. We are purchased people, free of the damnable agony of self-justification.

Gospel-centeredness helps us become because-of people: Because of the gospel, I’m free to:

  • forgive: Because Jesus forgave my sins against Him, I can now forgive others when they sin against me. The gospel enables my heart to break for others because God’s heart broke for mine.
  • serve: Because Jesus served me by dying for me, I can die to myself and serve others. The gospel motivates me to be a joyful, selfless servant like Jesus.
  • suffer well: Because Jesus suffered for me, I can endure pain and sorrow with the assurance that one day I will be with Him, and I will be made more like Him until that day arrives. The gospel makes my suffering worth it because, in Christ, all suffering will end someday.
  • be generous: Because God generously gave me His gift of salvation, I can give cheerfully, openly and generously to others. The gospel destroys the idols of ownership, security and materialism that seek to enslave me.

So which do you emphasize when you disciple someone else: “What you need to do.” Or, “What Jesus has done.”

The first causes us to exhaustively pursue happiness. The second one lets us rest in joy, because joy is always “because of.” It’s not dependent on circumstances. Happiness, however, is always dependent on the “if.” And it’s this pursuit that exhausts people and causes them to be self-worshipers rather than savior-worshipers. Do we preach effort? Of course. We’ve all read James. But our effort comes on the heels of what’s already been earned. We work from glad, grateful hearts.

So don’t be afraid to course-correct yourself and your people. Jesus paid it all. It’s our job as disciplemakers to make sure that none of us are trying to buy it back.

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