Trevin Wax: Mitch, the title of your book would have seemed strange to most of us a few years ago: "The Gospel Is For Christians". And yet, we're seeing a gospel-centered movement in our day that is making this very claim, that Christians need the gospel for sanctification just like we need the gospel for salvation. Why do you think this message has grown in popularity? What is the gospel-centered emphasis a reaction to?
Mitch Chase: Thanks for this conversation, Trevin, and what a great way to start! The notion of gospel-centeredness indeed seems to be growing in popularity, and hopefully the ultimate reason for this is the nature of the gospel itself, which should still be compelling and powerful for believers to hear. In one sense, this gospel-centered movement has gained momentum from the books and sermons of Tim Keller, Jerry Bridges, Mark Dever, Sinclair Ferguson, J. I. Packer, C. J. Mahaney, John Piper, and others. These contemporaries have faithfully proclaimed the gospel and helped countless others - like myself - see that its power is central for Christian living.
The prevalence of "gospel-centered" language is a reaction to the kind of failed discipleship methods that many of us once thought would sustain our Christian faith. Church leaders haven't always rooted discipleship in the gospel, so for many Christians the biblical mandate to grow in faith has led to continual frustration. What's been proclaimed is an endless array of steps, secret formulas, or studies that lead to deeper truth. Therefore, many of us once considered the gospel as essential for believing in Jesus but unimportant for actually following Jesus. So what's crucial in this gospel-centered movement is its fresh emphasis on Christ's work for our growth and obedience.
Gospel-centeredness is a critique of our consumeristic culture, in which new is better and the latest is greatest. Contrary to this mindset, Christians don't grow in faith by discovering the latest formula or completing the program with the newest "truth." Human growth methods have no power to conform sinners to Christ for the glory of God. What Christians need isn't something new but something old - the Old Story of Christ Crucified and Risen. So the gospel-centered movement certainly appeals to believers who recognize the spiritual bankruptcy of "Christian" consumerism. There is no greater news, no deeper teaching, than the gospel.
Trevin Wax: It's interesting you bring up discipleship materials. There are always people asking for "deeper Bible study" or for a "deeper walk" with Christ. But what people mean by "depth" is not often clear. Some people think in terms of information. They want to know more facts, whether they come from history or theology. Information dump. Others think "deep" means a practical tidbit for my life tomorrow. They think in terms of immediate application. But this can turn the Bible into a self-help manual.
The gospel-centered movement has the opportunity to redefine what "depth" means. We shouldn't see depth as "more info" or "life insights" but gospel-centrality. Going deep means we immerse ourselves in the truth that Jesus Christ bled and died to save helpless sinners like you and me. We've got to see the depth of our sin and the depth of God’s grace in such a way that it is clear we can do nothing to make ourselves more acceptable to God. Depth means going deeper into the gospel until it confronts the idols of our hearts.
You've got a chapter called "Preaching the Gospel to Yourself." I'm hearing this phrase more and more nowadays. What do you mean by "preaching the gospel to yourself" and why should Christians be doing this?
Mitch Chase: "Preaching the gospel to yourself" refers to the practice of speaking to our hearts about Christ's redemptive work: on our behalf Christ has broken the power of sin and paid the penalty for sin. Essentially the idea is to dwell on the meaning and accomplishment of Jesus' death and resurrection. C. J. Mahaney says that preaching the gospel to yourself is the most important daily habit a Christian can establish.
In my book, I give two main reasons for preaching the gospel to our hearts. First, we are sinners - redeemed ones, to be sure, but sinners still. While believers are new creations in Christ, we face constant temptations to return to the flesh and fulfill its desires which war against the Spirit (Gal 5). The gospel is necessary for the pursuit of holiness, because salvation doesn't produce morally perfect people. The power of the gospel saves sinners by grace and then sustains and empowers them in that grace. In order to obey God, our hearts must dwell on the perfect obedience of Christ on our behalf, becoming a curse for us and satisfying His Father's wrath.
Second, we need to preach the gospel to ourselves because we are prone to forgetfulness. In this culture, we can be so bombarded with information that we don't know what to retain or reject. These cultural messages seek to define our lives, our priorities, our ambitions. So we need the gospel because of our wandering hearts. We sing, "Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love." The Old Testament also testifies to this tendency, for the Israelites constantly forgot the Lord and forsook his commandments. It can happen easily, subtly, in times of blessing or trial. Our blessings can become our idols, and our trials can become deterrents to relentless trust in God. In running the race set before us, we must keep our eyes on the Author and Perfecter of our faith (Heb 12:2).
Preaching the gospel to ourselves, then, is a biblical and practical strategy that goads us onto the path of remembrance and obedience. A key aspect of discipleship and Christian growth is learning what to remember, what to return to again and again.
Trevin Wax: I think the idea of preaching the gospel to yourself is great. We certainly need to have the truths of the gospel massaged deep into our hearts.
I wonder though how preaching the gospel to ourselves relates to our preaching the gospel to others. I worry that we might take something great - like this idea of gospel-centrality - and invert it into something self-centered and self-focused. Take a daily quiet time in prayer and Bible study for example. Such times are a great gift from God, but if they become the standard of evangelical activity, they can lead to a rather lopsided view of Christianity. In other words, we always face the temptation to confuse make means the end.
So, how do we guard against doing this with self-preaching? God's purposes are much bigger than Christians walking around reminding themselves of the gospel. How do we connect gospel-centeredness with Christian mission?
Mitch Chase: You point out a great danger. How tragic if our flesh used gospel-centeredness for self-centeredness!
In a sense, the answer to such a danger is not less of the gospel but more. The gospel is crucial in God's overarching plan for the world. He blessed the nations through Abraham's seed, who is ultimately Christ Himself (Gal 3). In Revelation, we see multitudes of every nation, tribe, and tongue, people bought by the blood of the Lamb who was slain. In Colossians 1, Paul spoke about the gospel bearing fruit all over the world. These Scriptural examples show that the gospel has a global perspective that should correct extreme individualism.
The key, therefore, is to connect the truth of the gospel to God's unfolding purposes for the world. Jesus died for individuals who compose the Church (1 Cor 12), and through the proclamation of the gospel by His people Jesus is drawing sinners from the nations. This perspective challenges our individualism and reminds us of the global nature of the Christian mission. Christians need to be immersed in this global perspective. The mission of the church is to make disciples of the nations (Matt 28:19-20). Jesus is the Light of the world (John 8:12). Christians must also be aware that our salvation is a work of new creation that will culminate in God renewing the whole world and uniting heaven and earth (Rom 8; Rev 21).
Biblically speaking, then, gospel-centeredness is inseparable from Christian mission and God's unfolding purposes. If Christians seek to separate the two, then they become self-centered (rather than gospel-centered) and disobedient to the Lord's commission to His Church.
I'm curious, Trevin, whether your upcoming book Counterfeit Gospels addresses the question you posed to me. What wisdom would you share in connecting a believer's gospel-centeredness to God's mission in the world?
Trevin Wax: I do address this subject in Counterfeit Gospels, albeit from a different angle. My concern with a self-centered view of "gospel-centered" goes back to the nature of the gospel announcement. If the announcement of Jesus Christ crucified and raised is public news that is about the actions of our missionary God to rescue us from sin and death, then it follows that this gospel will create a community of people who put on display that kind of missionary heart.
If we think we are "gospel-centered" and are not compelled to share our faith, love the community of faith, help the poor, give to the needy, and so on, then my question is: what kind of gospel are we preaching? And what kind of disciples are we making? If our idea of "gospel-centered" is a large number of people in a church on Sunday grateful for personal salvation but unaware or uninvolved in the brokenness and lostness around them, then I wonder how gospel-centered we really are.
Being gospel-centered doesn't mean we are obsessed with a factual truth. It means we are smitten with a beautiful Savior. And the more we love Jesus, the more we will look like Him.
Mitch Chase: I completely agree! The nature of the gospel announcement must be the starting place. If the gospel announcement is defined entirely individualistically (and thus incorrectly), then the inevitable result will be self-centered "disciples." True gospel-centrality should actually stir missionary zeal, not stifle it. One mark of a gospel-centered church, then, is a global mentality. A small church of 30 people should think globally, because the gospel is global and because the Christ of the gospel is Lord of the world.
I hope that one of the effects of the gospel-centered movement is to spur on the Church to obey the Great Commission with even more faithfulness, perseverance, and willing sacrifice. And this effect should surely be driven by an even greater desire: to see the nations praise our God who is worthy of worldwide adoration. As true gospel-centrality empowers churches to proclaim and live out the gospel in the world, we will see the truth of John Piper's statement from Let the Nations Be Glad!, "Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is." Believers should want to be gospel-centered people because we want the nations to exalt the world's true Lord.
Trevin Wax: May all of our passion for the gospel be directed to that end! Thank you for the conversation, Mitch.
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