“. . . a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” Luke 7:34
What does it mean for a church to be gospel-centered? That’s a popular concept these days. Good. What if we were scrambling to be law-centered? But the difference is not so easy in real terms.
A gospel-centered church holds together two things. One, a gospel-centered church preaches a bold message of divine grace for the undeserving — so bold that it becomes the end of the law for all who believe. Not our performance but Christ’s performance for us. Not our sacrifices but his sacrifice for us. Not our superiority but only his worth and prestige. The good news of substitution. The good news that our okayness is not in us but exterior to us in Christ alone. Climbing down from the high moral ground, because only Christ belongs up there. That message, that awareness, that clarity. Sunday after Sunday after Sunday.
Two, a gospel-centered church translates that theology into its sociology. The good news of God’s grace beautifies how we treat one another. In fact, the horizontal reveals the vertical. How we treat one another reveals what we really believe as opposed to what we think we believe. It is possible to say, “We are a gospel-centered church,” and sincerely mean it, while we make our church into a law-centered social environment. We see God above lowering his gun, and we breathe a sigh of relief. But if we are trigger-happy toward one another, we don’t get it yet.
A gospel-centered church looks something like this album cover — my all-time favorite. A gospel-centered church is a variegated collection of sinners. What unifies them is Jesus, the King of grace. They come together and stick together because they have nothing to fear from their church’s message or from their church’s culture. The theology creates the sociology, and the sociology incarnates the theology. And everyone is free to trust the Lord, be honest about their problems, and grow in newness of life.
The one deal-breaker in a gospel-centered church: anyone for any reason turning it into a culture of legal demandingness, negative scrutiny, finger-pointing, gossip and other community-poisoning sins. A church with a message of grace can quickly and easily stop being gospel-centered in real terms.
A major part of pastoral ministry is preaching the doctrine of grace and managing an environment of grace. The latter is harder to accomplish than the former. It is more intuitive. It requires more humility, self-awareness and trust in the Lord. But when a church’s theological message and its relational tone converge as one, that church becomes powerfully prophetic, for the glory of Jesus.
May the Friend of sinners grant beautiful gospel-centricity in all our churches.
Books by Ray Ortlund: