On the Gospel Coalition podcast, Trevin Wax, J.D. Greear, and Greg Gilbert discuss “The Dangers for the Gospel-Centered Movement”. While I resonate with some of the things that they say (e.g. the danger of diminishing love for Jesus in the name of the truth about Jesus), I would like to express concern regarding the way in which the discussion is framed by the lead question in the podcast’s description: “Is it possible to be more gospel-centered than Jesus?” To say the least, I find it strange to see this question posed by representatives of the “Gospel Coalition”. The question itself is not merely provocative or rhetorical, for it emerges from a statement made by one of the participants in the discussion who asserts that it is possible, in fact, to be more gospel-centered than Jesus. This assertion finds its context in a section of the discussion in which the participants emphasize the need to provide “balance” in gospel preaching by maintaining a proper focus on God’s unchanging law as a rule for the Christian life.
While I in no way intend to downplay the importance of holiness in the life of the believer (though I would want to articulate this more in terms of Calvin’s concept of duplex gratia), I find this question troubling not simply because I think the answer given is false, but because the question itself begins from false premises that render it a complete non-starter. In order to gain any traction, the question must presuppose a disjunction between Jesus and the gospel, between his person (who he is) and his work (what he does). Contrary to this, and to put it bluntly, Jesus himself is the gospel, and to ask whether it is possible to be more gospel-centered than Jesus assumes that gospel is merely about Jesus rather than Jesus himself. I do not, of course, want to deny that the gospel has propositional content about Jesus and what he accomplished, but I do not think we can separate this content about Jesus from the person of Jesus himself. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:30, Christ Jesus himself is our “wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” Or as Calvin would say, Christ never comes to us bare but always and only as he is “clothed in the gospel” (Institutes, III.ii.6). We dare not tear asunder that which belongs inextricably together. The gospel is not merely the means by which God communicates truths about himself to us, it is the means by which he communicates his very self to us in self-giving, reconciling love.
Moreover, the idea that we need to “balance” the preaching of the gospel with the law for believers seems problematic for two reasons. First, it seems to assume that Christ’s uniting us to himself by the Spirit is insufficient for producing the fruit of sanctification (hence the need to add the law). Paul says, however, that “the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith of/in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). In context, Paul is arguing that it is not the law which provides the power and rule of his life (vs. 19: “for through the law I died to the law”); rather it is Christ himself, always as he is clothed in his gospel (3:2-3: not by “works of the law” but by “hearing with faith” that we are perfected by the Spirit) that alone our “law” (Gal. 6:2)!
Second, this emphasis on “balance” presupposes that ultimately what matters in our relationship with God is obedience to the law. It implies that at the end of the day, we fundamentally relate to God (or better that he fundamentally relates to us) on the basis of law and justice. The problem is that this distorts the very way in which believers are to conceive of God as self-revealed in Christ, not as primarily a Law-giver that must be appeased but as a loving Father who has pursued us to the point of giving his own Son over to death to adopt us by grace as his children. As Paul declares in Galatians 4:4-7: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” No longer slaves, but sons! Ultimately I am concerned about the view of God that the notion of balancing the gospel with law entails and the insecurity that it can produce in the lives of believers who think that despite having been justified by faith, we still need to obey the law in order to maintain peace with God. This is false; in Christ we are sons of God, and we know that nothing can snatch us from our loving Father’s hands.