It is tempting to think that the gospel is how someone is saved and then they grow and move on to more mature spiritual topics. But Acts 15 shows us how Paul prioritized gospel centrality as a key element in advancing the church and why we should apply the same principle in the twenty-first century.
By “gospel centered,” I do not simply mean that ministry is to be doctrinally orthodox. Of course, it must certainly be that. I am speaking more specifically of the gospel message of acceptance by grace alone. While every other religion operates on some type of performance-related principle (“I obey, therefore I am accepted”), the gospel condemns any self-righteousness and assures us of Christ’s righteousness (“I am accepted through Christ, therefore I obey”).
Martin Luther’s fundamental insight was that the principle of “religion” is the default mode of the human heart. The heart continues to work in that way even after conversion to Christ. Though we recognize and embrace the principle of the gospel, our hearts are constantly trying to return to the mode of self-salvation. By seeking other ways to save ourselves, we fall prey to pride, spiritual deadness, and strife.
In Acts 15:1-25 we see Paul, in the middle of a church-planting career, headed to Jerusalem for a big theological debate. Now, why do that? At cursory glance, it would seem that Paul’s mission work was surely of more consequence than a theological roundtable. But Paul made no bifurcation here, and right in the middle of his ministry, he attended a theological summit in order to clarify the gospel message.
The root cause of the theological divide was the issue of Gentile converts and their adherence to Jewish religious customs. It was nothing less than a crisis of early Christian identity. The earliest Gentile converts to Christianity had already become Jewish culturally; many of them were “God-fearers” who had been circumcised or who abided by the Mosaic clean laws. Paul, however, began bringing in pagan converts who had not become culturally Jewish, and furthermore, he was not demanding converted Gentile pagans to adopt Jewish cultural patterns. It was not long before a group began saying that “the Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses” (Acts 15:5). This disgruntled group had taken their Jewish cultural norms and promoted them to matters of spiritual merit. When they did that, they lost their grasp on the gospel of grace and slid into legalism.
As Acts 15 illustrates, without gospel centeredness, we can fall into legalism. On the other side of the spectrum, we can fall into relativism. When God is whomever or whatever we make him to be, then right and wrong become equally relative, and the church is drained of spiritual life and impact. If God is preached as a demanding, angry God, or if he is preached as an all-loving God who never demands anything, then listeners’ lives will not be transformed. They may be frightened or inspired or soothed, but they will not be changed at the root, because they are not hearing the gospel. The gospel shows us that God is far more holy and absolute than the moralists’ god, because he could not be satisfied by our moral efforts, even the best moral efforts. On the other hand, the gospel shows us that God is far more loving and gracious than the relativists’ god, who loves everyone no matter what they do.
The gospel produces a unique blend of genuine humility and joyful confidence in the convert. The gospel says, “I am so lost that Jesus had to die to save me. But I am so loved that Jesus was glad to die to save me.” This beautiful blend of grace and truth transforms the very basis of our identity. I can’t tell you how important this gospel-centered balance is to the foundation of all mission and ministry. Unless you distinguish the gospel from both religion and irreligion—from both traditional moralism and liberal relativism—then newcomers in our church services will assume they are being called to be good and nice people. But when, as here in Acts 15, the gospel is communicated in its unique, counterintuitive balance of truth and love, then listeners will be surprised. Modern people try to place the church somewhere along a spectrum from “liberal” to “conservative,” from relativistic to moralistic. But when they see a church filled with people who insist on the truth but without a shred of superiority or self-righteousness, this explodes their categories, since to them, people who have the truth are not gracious and people who are gracious don’t demand the truth. In contrast, Christians boldly yet humbly tell the truth that we are sinners in need of grace.
To what extent is your life currently “gospel centered”? Are there areas where you are slipping into legalism or relativism? You might pray about this and offer these things to God.
We are growing a movement of churches in New York City that are gospel-centered at their core because we think these kinds of churches will change peoples lives and can change the whole city. But no one church alone can reach the entire city. We need many more. So we are trying an experiment.
We are working with our church-planting center, Redeemer City to City, to try to raise enough money in the first 10 days of August to seed fund 10 new gospel-centered churches.