What is a gospel-centered life?

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures”
1 Corinthians 15:3-4

Not without good reason, the phrase “gospel-centered” has become a prominent feature in the latest slew of buzzwords for the Church. You can fill bookshelves with books about “gospel-centered parenting”, “gospel-centered preaching”, “gospel-centered finances” and so on. The near-comical ubiquity of the phrase aside, it is a rather good thing that we be devoted to a “gospel-centered life”. That said, many will wonder exactly a “gospel-centered life” is and what it actually means for this idea to become a lived reality for us.

A Matter of first importance

In his book, The Cross-Centered Life, CJ Mahaney references Paul’s writing in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 as having life-shaping weight. He writes about this message of first importance: “Nothing else- not even things that are biblical and honorable- are of equal or greater importance than this: God sent His Son to the cross to bear His wrath for sinners like you and me.” This is certainly not unique to Paul’s writing to the Corinthians; in fact, there are many such instructions found throughout the NT (Rom. 1:16–17; 1 Cor. 1:18; 15:3–4; Gal. 1:6). But why exactly is the simple message of the gospel a matter of first importance?

Not the least of these reasons is found in one of the first recorded defenses of the faith we see in Acts 4. As Peter and John set about proclaiming the gospel message, they are confronted by the Sadducees and asked to give an account for this shocking, disruptive and “annoying” message of a resurrected Jesus (v.2). Offering a powerful and prophetic interpretation of Psalm 118:22, Peter boldly proclaims that Jesus, “chief cornerstone”, has rejected by the builders. Embedded in this claim is a compelling idea that Jesus is the cornerstone. Ancient builders followed a particularly methodology of laying the cornerstone first, which would be the intersection of the walls as well as the essential piece of foundation for building above. The cornerstone was indispensable for the construction of the building and the piece on which the integrity of the entire structure depended. The point, then, is that Jesus was the cornerstone for all of life; all purpose and meaning, the direction toward which all of history has pointed, is to Jesus. And Jesus is not only essentially central, but also uniquely essential. In v.12, Peter continues saying, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” Thus Jerry Bridges says, “it is not only the most important message in all of history, it is the only essential message in all of history”.

Centered on the gospel

Have you ever gotten up from your seat in the middle of a movie only to come back a few minutes later without any clue what is now happening? It seems that only a few minutes can undo hours of storytelling work. Evidently, in moments, you can somehow miss the one integral piece of the story that leaves you confused until the credits roll. We can see the majority of a film only to have it fall flat by our missing the central idea that ties the whole film together and gives it all meaning. In the same way, we can miss the eternally important truth that Jesus is the essential center piece of the story of redemption. If we miss this, we’ve missed it all.

As believers in Christ, the whole of our lives should be built on the foundation of Christ’s life, death, burial and resurrection. A gospel-centered life is one whose purpose and meaning has been built on this gospel message and because of this, every motivation, action and affection is the result of God’s work of grace in our lives. And this is a lifetime of re-learning and re-orienting. Recovering this radical grace at the center of your life is essential for your flourishing as you follow Jesus faithfully and it’s a truth you need to be reminded of continually. As Dane Ortlund writes, “We move forward when we hear afresh the strangeness of grace, relaxing our hearts and loosening our clenched hold on a litany of lesser things—financial security, the perfect spouse, career advancement, sexual pleasure, human approval, and so on.”

So what habits and rhythms are you walking in that are breathing life into you and constantly reminding you of the gospel of grace? Where are you finding joy in the new mercies of Christ daily? Maybe you need to ask yourself the opposite: what desires and affections are keeping you from keeping the gospel at the center of your life? We need to minimize the noise that distracts us and attune our ears to hear the symphony of grace that is at work in our lives. You’ll wither in your forgetfulness if your forgetfulness draws you away from the joy, hope and peace that is found in the gospel of Jesus alone.

The gospel as the wellspring

This exercise of self-examination is difficult, but it isn’t a labor without gain. I’ve written on this elsewhere, but a life not centered on the gospel is subject to the futility of a broken creation; it is frustrated attempts to fill broken cisterns. It is exhausted efforts trying to find rest, hope, encouragement, happiness and fulfillment. It is mindless toil without yield. However, the key to seeing redemption take deeper root in your life isn’t more complicated than centering on Jesus and the gospel. But to see the gospel become the center of our lives, it requires that we shift our focus from the gospel being the destination of our living to being the source of our living.

Maybe you’ve spent the entirety of your life trying to better yourself; maybe you know doctrine better than a systematic theology textbook, maybe you haven’t sinned in a week (yes you have), maybe you’re the model church member who is committed to their community and using their gifts to serve others. But here is a profoundly simple truth that I hope rattles in your head as you walk this journey of self-improvement: You never graduate from the gospel. Our lives in Christ will be a perpetual state of learning, growing, failing and continuing on in understanding and experiencing what it means for us to be radically shaped by the gospel. As J. Knox Chamblin writes, “the Spirit does not take his pupils beyond the cross, but ever more deeply into it”.

To live a gospel-centered life is to find the Cross at the core of everything you are and everything you do. Every emotion, every compulsion, every motivation, every habit, and every action ordered rightly behind the matter of first importance will keep us centered on the gospel.

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