“Our church is grace-centered.”
“We need more gospel-centered preaching.”
The terms “grace-centered” and “gospel-centered” are sometimes used to describe the emphasis of a church or ministry, but I suspect that not everybody knows what they mean. “Don’t all Christians believe in grace?” “Don’t all churches preach the Gospel?” In this post, I want to briefly explain what these words mean and why they matter. (Some people might draw a distinction between “grace-centered” and “gospel-centered” but in practice they are largely interchangeable)
Like most technical terms, the expressions “grace-centered” and “gospel-centered” have developed in reaction to something else. All broadly evangelical or pentecostal churches (or even liberal churches) would say that they preach grace and love the Gospel. And, of course, the words “grace” and “Gospel” show up in most discussions of Christianity. But are they at the center? Is “grace” the main thing which shapes the thinking, speech, and actions of your church? Is “gospel” something that only needs to be preached for evangelistic events? Is “gospel” simply a type of music? Is “gospel” used loosely as a umbrella term for any nice, Christian thing you do to help your community?
While people use “grace” and “gospel” in different ways, those who use the terms “grace-centered” and “gospel-centered” generally define them somethings like this: Grace is God’s unmerited favor towards sinners. The Gospel is God’s promise of salvation to all who repent from their sin and trust in Christ alone. Those definitions could be expanded on with more theological precision and nuance but the important thing I want to bring out in this post is what it means to have the Gospel of grace at the center of the life of a church. Here are three reasons why “grace-centered” churches believe it is necessary to put grace at the center of the life of the church (aside from the fact, of course, that the Gospel of grace is the center of the teaching of Scripture).
1) Receiving Grace is an On-Going Event
Many people view grace as something you receive when you believe the Gospel. And that is true. But we need to receive God’s grace again and again throughout the Christian life because we still sin. In Martin Luther’s famous “95 Theses”, the first thesis was “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent’" (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” We are not perfect yet, so we need to repent again and again, and receive God’s grace afresh. That doesn’t mean that we are continually losing and gaining our salvation. Our daily sins do not affect our position with God (naughty children are not disowned!) but they do affect our relational distance to God. We feel far from God. We wonder, “How could God still love us even though we’ve messed up yet again?” Christians need to be regularly reminded of God’s grace towards sinners so that they don’t get discouraged and give up following God. We also need to hear about grace and sin repeatedly so that we don’t try to improve our goodness to convince God to love us. As long as we still sin, we need to receive God’s grace on a regular basis.
2) Grace Should Shape Our Daily Attitudes and Actions
What do you do when someone cuts you off on the road? When a co-worker drops the ball? When your children are screaming at each other over some perceived slight… again? How do you respond? We get upset. We get indignant. “How dare they!” “Why can’t she get her act together?” “What’s their problem? Just stop it!” In our humanness, we usually judge the faults of others harshly but go easy on ourselves. “If everyone was more like me, the world would run a whole lot more smoothly.”
We need to hear the Gospel of the grace of Christ towards undeserving sinners (us!) again and again so that we are reminded to show grace to others just like God in Christ has shown grace towards us. We need to be reminded that we are wretched sinners and that our attitudes and actions are wicked and perverse in God’s sight, but He is patient towards us. He lovingly yet firmly calls us to repent and be reconciled to Him. We need to be reminded that we are not nearly as righteous as we think we are so that we will have the humility of spirit to be patient with others as God is patient with us. A “grace-centered” church is one that helps its people to behave towards others in a way that is consistent with the grace that God has shown us in Christ.
3) Nominal Christians and Non-Christians in Our Churches
Most churches have non-Christians in them, whether they are just visiting or are long-term members who are unrepentant and may not know it. If the message of the grace of God towards sinners is tucked way in the cupboard and only brought out for special occasions, the non-believers in the church may not hear the Gospel when they need it, and nominal church members will go on their merry way, thinking that they are Christians when they really aren’t. Many people need to hear about God’s grace again and again until they “get it.” That doesn’t mean that every sermon is the same canned Gospel presentation, slightly repackaged. But it does mean that the grace of God towards sinners is an ever-present theme that comes up again and again in the teaching and preaching of the church because it comes up again and again in the storyline of Scripture.
It is vital that the message of grace is front and center in churches today because the grace of God in the person and work of Christ is the central message of Scripture. Grace is not front-and-center in every single passage of the Bible but it is the main theme of the Bible as a whole.
There are many churches today who are not centered on the Gospel of grace, despite the fact that the grace of God is the main emphasis of Scripture. Two types of churches are popular alternatives to a “grace centered” church:
1) The Power-Centered Church
This type of church focuses on accessing the power of God for various blessings, victorious living, or experiencing the presence of God. Various methods are used to access that power, whether it be positive declarations, claiming promises, passionate worship, intensive prayer, or some other method. If that power can be obtained, then the believer can receive all the blessings that God intends and God’s power will wipe out sin, weakness, and afflictions. Grace is not totally absent from this type of church, but the grace of God towards people is often assumed, and only needs to be preached directly in evangelistic presentations to non-Christians.
2) The Law-Centered Church
This type of church values the message of grace for evangelism, but once a person has become a Christian, the center of the Christian life is obedience. Blessings, joy, and the good Christian life are dependent upon learning how to obey God more consistently. The message from the pulpit is obeying God better and learning ways to fix weaknesses and failings in your life in order to be more pleasing to God. The way to remedy your remaining sins is to learn to do better. Obedience is the key to a happy Christian life.
Undoubtedly, the power of God and the law of God are important, repeated themes in Scripture. We need the empowering of the Holy Spirit to live as God calls us to. We need to know the Law of God so that we will know how we are sinning and what God requires of us. But to put forward either of this as the center of the teaching and preaching of the church would be to take something important and make it most important. Power and law are good in their places, but if either of those are the focus of a church, it is off-center and guilty of neglecting the primacy of the Gospel of grace in the life of the church.