[Editors note: This blog post originally appeared at The College Park Blog and is being recycled here to tie into other posts on sanctification.]
My pastor beats the gospel drum with regularity, not as an afterword to the message, but as the fulcrum. I can hear his passionate voice: “God is holy, we’re not, and that’s a problem.” Sunday to Sunday our church progresses through a sermon series, and our pastor refreshes us not with something new but with something that never gets old. The unconverted must awaken to their biggest problem in life, their sin, and so we hold up before them again and again God’s graciously given solution, Jesus Christ. We the converted presume there must be a different word we need to hear but again we‘re told: “God is holy, we’re not, and that’s a problem.” We are gospel-centered, in practice not merely in theory, because the gospel must guide every area of our lives as Christians.
Think through how quickly we move past the middle part of that message: “we’re not [holy].” When we gather together in small groups or in one-to-one relationships we often speak and act as if the problem is no longer our sinfulness, but rather our lack of discipline, effort, or commitment. When we first believed the gospel it was clear our performance couldn’t overcome the impasse that God is terribly holy and we’re tragically sinful. We used to be the problem and only God could provide the solution, but now we tend to jettison faith and think we’re capable of fixing our problems. Stuart Smalley’s classic quip soon describes how we live: “We’re good enough, we’re smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” When we ignore indwelling sin and see ourselves as basically good, our performance becomes central because we figure the answer must be somewhere within.
Here’s where being “gospel-centered” reorients us. We must recognize that our default mode is to turn back to good works we do to make things right instead of trusting in the truly good work Jesus accomplished that made us right. How can you tell if you’ve fallen into this thinking? Consider how often, in small groups and discipleship, we give advice instead of the gospel, turn to effort instead of repentance, and live out of self-sufficiency instead of need. We must be vigilant, therefore, lest the tide of self-reliance pulls us away from the safe shores of the gospel.
News, Not Advice
Since you’re an acute reader with a disdain for obscurity, you’re likely asking what I mean by “gospel.” Most simply, it means good news. The gospel in its full-length version unpacks many important details and implications. But, for a truncated summary, it is the news that the God-man Jesus redeemed sinful men and women back to God through his redemptive death on the cross and victorious resurrection from the tomb. The good part of the news asserts anyone can receive this redemption through free grace from God.
I know, your reading pace picked up because you’ve heard this song a hundred times. But don’t miss out on this subtle truth: news isn’t advice, opinion, or motivational speech. News reports—whether on TV, your mobile device, or that ancient script called a newspaper—spread the word about what already occurred in history, not what I think should happen.
So where might our actions betray a gospel-centered perspective? Trouble arises when we resort to offering sage advice to one another, giving opinions, or dispensing the latest spiritual maxims. For the gospel (and no shabby replacements) to remain the center we must regularly remind one another of the good news of Jesus Christ. We retell this accomplished, objective, historical news and unpack the never-ending applications gushing from it.
In Transformational Discipleship, the authors draw a clear line in the sand between advice and news. “Advice often masquerades as the gospel. Messages filled with advice to help people improve their lives or turn over a new leaf are in contradiction to the nature of the gospel—news we respond to, not insight we should consider heeding.” If the majority of our conversations sound like “you should try doing this or that” instead of “Jesus has already done this for you” then we’re quickly heading out to the stormy sea of advice and opinion.
I sense the nervousness in you heating up, so yes, almost every situation we come up against does lead to some next steps with legs on them. However, that happens after firmly rooting ourselves in the news of the fully sufficient work Jesus already accomplished for us.
Repentance, Not Resolve
Unlike a lot of other news, however, the gospel is dynamic; it does something to us. It grabs us and shakes us back into the reality we quickly forget: sin is a big deal and our hearts reek of it.
I avoid thinking of myself or my sin in these stark terms. Instead of confessing my sin, I pray that I would “do better.” Instead of seeing my cutting tongue as sin requiring humble repentance I might piously say, “I’ve not done a good job in my speech this week and I need to make that a higher priority.” Talk about a weak and surface-level disclosure! How much more freeing would it be if I would simply admit that my hurtful words are sins and they come out of my rotten heart? Through my language of “doing better”, “trying harder”, or “being more disciplined” I create the mirage of being a good person. All I need, I tell myself, is to dig deeper into my inner reservoirs of strength and goodness. In reality, I need more God-dependent and self-humbling repentance and less self-sufficient and God-ignoring resolution.
Repentance allows us to move beneath the surface and deal with our need for true heart change. When we don’t identify sin as sin, but merely call it a weakness we fail to adequately deal with it. The Bible paints sin as rebellion against God and choosing our own way, whereas our culture tells us we simply struggle with flaws needing improved upon. Repentance of sin to one another must replace recounting our struggles and the self-will behind resolving to try harder. Confessed sin calls upon our community of faith to both lead us back to the gospel for forgiveness while walking with us in a life of righteousness holding out the greater joy.
Need, Not Self-Sufficiency
Once we choose repentance from sin instead of improvement of our weaknesses, it becomes clear we can’t dig out of the problem we got ourselves into. And yet again, we have to intentionally avoid speaking and acting as if our maturity in Christ simply makes or breaks itself depending on my strength. I don’t just need more discipline. The problem isn’t primarily that I’m not trying with enough vigor. The performance foundation teeters because we make our growth self-centered instead of gospel-centered.
The gospel frees me by taking the yoke off my back as I live in the truth that Jesus atoned for my sin and gave me his righteousness. It also liberates by putting God in charge of my sanctification instead of me (deep exhale). When I stop relying on myself and my resources and collapse into trust in God, I see He possesses the power I needed all along. Not only does He supply the power for change, but when we shift our focus from what I should do to what Jesus has done, it changes our motivation and fuels a genuine longing for God. “What I needed is what all of us need—continual belief in the depth of God’s forgiveness and the resilience of his genuine approval in Christ. In brief, what I needed was more Jesus, not more discipline.”
In our small groups and discipleship we must cease speaking as if we only need to grit our teeth, be more disciplined, and fight harder to overcome where we’re falling short. To be gospel-centered in practice and not just in name requires us to honestly tell one another that you’ll never be able to look like Jesus by your performance and energy. Jesus has already redeemed us so as we ask the Holy Spirit to take over and change our heart, to convince us of our identity in Christ, and to help us live as a new creation—one who rests in God’s power, not our own. And we do it for God’s glory, not our own.
The Center HoldsGospel-centered isn’t a label we claim to feel like we’re in the right camp. It’s something we live by to enjoy and experience Jesus in our lives. The first thing we need to hear isn’t a pile of “do’s and don’ts” or “should have’s and next time’s.” Instead, our greatest need is to go back to the well of the gospel to discover fresh life in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Being gospel-centered means we turn to the news of the gospel instead of advice and we meditate on what Jesus has already done before thinking about what I need to do.
 Several recent books deal with the wide ranging scope of the gospel, including: Jared Wilson, Gospel Deeps (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012); Daniel Montgomery and Mike Cosper, Faithmapping (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013); Milton Vincent, A Gospel Primer for Christians (Minneapolis: Focus Publishing, 2008).
 Eric Geiger, Michael Kelley, and Philip Nation, Transformational Discipleship (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2012), 72.
 Jonathan Dodson, Gospel-Centered Discipleship (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 39.