Over the past several years the church seems to have experienced some degree of gospel renewal. We now have conferences like The Gospel Coalition and Together for the Gospel, a fresh emphasis on preaching the gospel from all of Scripture, and lots and lots of books with the word “gospel” somewhere in the title. I think this is a good thing and consider myself largely in step with this movement.
But there is a danger of turning “gospel” into a buzzword. A few years ago, member in our church expressed confusion about how often our church’s teaching used the word “gospel.” In her thinking, the gospel was the plan of salvation and she found it confusing when we talked about the gospel being the solution to this or that problem. But she also said that when we started talking about the person and work of Christ, things clicked. That’s when she was fed spiritually and drawn into worship.
That important conversation reminded me that the good news isn’t just an abstract concept, a system of doctrine. It’s a person, Christ himself, whose doing, dying, and rising is the ultimate answer to the problems of sin and suffering in our world. What we really need, then, is to be Christ-centered: to keep all of our thinking, theologizing, preaching, writing, living, and doing tightly tethered to the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Apostle Paul is a wonderful model for us. Think about his ministry in preaching and teaching.
“For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:23-24)
“For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2)
“For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” (2 Corinthians 4:5)
A Passion to Know and Honor Christ
But the person and work of Christ wasn’t for Paul simply a topic for teaching and proclamation. Paul was consumed with a desire to know and honor Christ. This was the controlling passion of his life. Even when imprisoned for preaching the gospel and uncertain of whether he would live or die, Paul could write:
It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. (Philippians 1:20-21)
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ, and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:7-11)
And Paul’s love for Christ clearly impacted how he lived and taught others to live. That’s why he said, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). And the call to imitate Christ got fleshed out in all kinds of practical ways, in concrete real-life contexts and situations.
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (Ephesians 5:25-27)
In humble service to others:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8)
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. (2 Corinthians 8:9)
The Taproot of Christ-centeredness
But the taproot of all of Paul’s imitating, knowing, and preaching of Christ was his faith in Christ. That’s surely why he calls attention to faith in almost all of his letters, reminding us that faith is the source of love (1 Timothy 1:5), the motive of good works (1 Thessalonians 1:3), and the impulse behind all gospel obedience (Romans 1:5; 15:26).
In other words, beneath and behind all Christ-centered living, experience, and ministry is a deep, personal trust and reliance upon Christ himself.
As Paul says in another well-known verse:
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
But there is a danger even here – in placing more emphasis on faith itself than on faith in Christ. The nineteenth century pastor Charles Spurgeon warned against this, saying:
“Remember, sinner, it is not thy hold of Christ that saves thee – it is Christ; it is not thy joy in Christ that saves thee – it is Christ; it is not even faith in Christ, though that is the instrument – it is Christ’s blood and merits; therefore, look not to thy hope, but to Christ, the source of thy hope; look not to thy faith, but to Christ, the author and finisher of thy faith; and if thou doest that, ten thousand devils cannot throw thee down.”
Not I, but Christ
One of the best sermons I’ve ever heard was preached not by a superstar preacher who regularly commands crowds of thousands, but by a very ordinary, but godly pastor – my dad. He preached on just four words from Galatians 2:20, “not I, but Christ.” He said that these four words are the very essence of Christianity. And while I don’t remember the exact outline of the sermon now, his points went something like this:
Not I, but Christ…
· in his obedience,
· in his righteousness,
· in his sacrifice,
· in justification,
· in regeneration,
· in sanctification,
· And so on.
And then he ended it by saying that we could even take out three of those four words and boil Christianity down to just one word: Christ. And then he quoted Spurgeon, perhaps his favorite dead theologian, who said:
“If you leave out Christ, you have left the sun out of the day, and the moon out of the night, you have left the waters out of the sea, and the floods out of the river, you have left the harvest out of the year, the soul out of the body, you have left joy out of heaven, you robbed all of it’s all. There is no gospel worth thinking of, much less worth proclaiming, if Jesus be forgotten. We must have Jesus as Alpha and Omega in all our ministries.”
Amen. This is the focus we need. “There is no gospel…if Jesus be forgotten.” It’s all about Jesus, friends. “Not I, but Christ.”
Brian G. Hedges is the lead pastor for Fulkerson Park Baptist Church and the author of Christ Formed in You: The Power of the Gospel for Personal Change and Licensed to Kill: A Field Manual for Mortifying Sin. Brian and his wife Holly have four children and live in South Bend, Indiana. Brian also blogs at www.brianghedges.com and you can follow him on Twitter @brianghedges.