Beatles - Sgt Pepper

“. . . a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”  Luke 7:34

What does it mean for a church to be gospel-centered?  That’s a popular concept these days.  Good.  What if we were scrambling to be law-centered?  But the difference is not so easy in real terms.

A gospel-centered church holds together two things.  One, a gospel-centered church preaches a bold message of divine grace for the undeserving — so bold that it becomes the end of the law for all who believe.  Not our performance but Christ’s performance for us.  Not our sacrifices but his sacrifice for us.  Not our superiority but only his worth and prestige.  The good news of substitution.  The good news that our okayness is not in us but exterior to us in Christ alone.  Climbing down from the high moral ground, because only Christ belongs up there.  That message, that awareness, that clarity.  Sunday after Sunday after Sunday.

Two, a gospel-centered church translates that theology into its sociology.  The good news of God’s grace beautifies how we treat one another.  In fact, the horizontal reveals the vertical.  How we treat one another reveals what we really believe as opposed to what we think we believe.  It is possible to say, “We are a gospel-centered church,” and sincerely mean it, while we make our church into a law-centered social environment.  We see God above lowering his gun, and we breathe a sigh of relief.  But if we are trigger-happy toward one another, we don’t get it yet.

A gospel-centered church looks something like this album cover — my all-time favorite.  A gospel-centered church is a variegated collection of sinners.  What unifies them is Jesus, the King of grace.  They come together and stick together because they have nothing to fear from their church’s message or from their church’s culture.  The theology creates the sociology, and the sociology incarnates the theology.  And everyone is free to trust the Lord, be honest about their problems, and grow in newness of life.

The one deal-breaker in a gospel-centered church: anyone for any reason turning it into a culture of legal demandingness, negative scrutiny, finger-pointing, gossip and other community-poisoning sins.  A church with a message of grace can quickly and easily stop being gospel-centered in real terms.

A major part of pastoral ministry is preaching the doctrine of grace and managing an environment of grace.  The latter is harder to accomplish than the former.  It is more intuitive.  It requires more humility, self-awareness and trust in the Lord.  But when a church’s theological message and its relational tone converge as one, that church becomes powerfully prophetic, for the glory of Jesus.

May the Friend of sinners grant beautiful gospel-centricity in all our churches.

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Comments:


21 thoughts on “Centered on one or the other”

  1. Rob says:

    Great post. Thanks.

  2. Chris Johnson says:

    Thank you Ray. God used you to open my eyes to his greatness over 10 years ago. I will never be the same, you let God out of the box for me.

    1. Ray Ortlund says:

      It was a privilege, Chris. So glad Gary is feeling better. God bless.

  3. Will says:

    Any advice from your experience on how to manage an environment of grace? How does one carry out church discipline in an environment of grace?

    1. Ray Ortlund says:

      Seeing the opposite of a gospel culture was the thing that finally alerted me to the massive importance of this. It was eye-opening.

      When someone’s sin is of such a nature that it starts jeopardizing the gospel culture, then discipline becomes relevant. General rule: If the offender is penitent, then the offender should be protected from the church. If the offender is defiant, then the church should be protected from the offender.

  4. Craig says:

    Ray, thank you for writing this. And thank you for pastoring Immanuel Church in such a way that it truly is gospel-centered, by the grace of God. I learned so much from the brief time I was able to sit under your teaching, and I am so grateful to God for your example.

    May we never tire of hearing and proclaiming the bold message of divine grace for the undeserving, and may all of our churches become places where the weary find rest, everyone who mourns is filled with comfort, all who have failed are strengthened with hope, and sinners find refuge in the Savior, Jesus Christ!

    Thank you for boldly proclaiming the GOOD NEWS of THE GOSPEL OF GRACE!

    1. Ray Ortlund says:

      We miss you all so much it hurts.

    2. Craig Cooper says:

      Very kind of you to say this, Ray. We feel the same way about you all.

  5. Steve Martin says:

    ” A gospel-centered church is a variegated collection of sinners. What unifies them is Jesus, the King of grace. They come together and stick together because they have nothing to fear from their church’s message or from their church’s culture. The theology creates the sociology, and the sociology incarnates the theology. And everyone is free to trust the Lord, be honest about their problems, and grow in newness of life.”

    Amen!

    They are drawn together (by Him).

    1. Ben says:

      U are always commenting on blogs, srsly dude, do u work?

  6. Curt Day says:

    I like the concept of translating theology into sociology. And I like the pic of what the gospel-centered church should look like. But in translating theology into how we treat others, I find that most gospel-centered churches can do that in terms of preaching to individuals about personal sins. However, most gospel-centered churches I know do little if any preaching to society as a whole about group and system sins. Such preaching would find many more listeners and greater variety of them that what such churches find now by preaching to individuals about personal sins only.

  7. Wayne Wilson says:

    Great article. Unfortunately, too many professing “Gospel-centered” churches have turned to very heavy handed leadership that exalt pastoral (and sometimes, daringly, “apostolic”) authority to dangerous levels. You are so right that a “church with a message of grace can quickly and easily stop being gospel-centered in real terms.” That is happening all too often, and especially when celebrity culture is in play very little is ever done about it…until the Lord intervenes. Thankfully, He often does, but usually after much pain has been inflicted on the people.

  8. John says:

    Ray,

    Are Wilson’s comments above what you were referring to, regarding the “deal-breakers” of gospel-centered ministry? In addition to the benefits and necessities of gospel ministry, I feel like there was another point you were trying to communicate but it seemed more implied and I wanted to hear more. I feel like you were, in order to preempt license, driving toward the need for preaching the law in proportion to the gospel, hence your initial question about being law-centered.

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Ray Ortlund


Ray Ortlund is senior pastor of Immanuel Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and serves as a Council member with The Gospel Coalition. You can follow him on Twitter.

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