That's a criticism I hear from time to time. (By 'gospel-centered' I have in mind an approach to the Christian life that views the gospel of grace--perhaps crystallized best in 1 Cor 15:3-5--as not only the gateway into the Christian life but also the pathway of the Christian life.)
Isn't this whole way of thinking, the objection goes, focusing on the second Person of the Trinity to the neglect of the third? The objective to the neglect of the subjective? While taking nothing away from the gospel--what magnificent grace it is!--shouldn't we describe the 'center' of Christian growth, progressive sanctification, as the Holy Spirit?
Three responses--a tiny one, a small one, and a big one.
1. Tiny response
Yes, it is possible to neglect the Spirit.
2. Small Response
There is an appropriate multiperspectivalism to contemplating the 'center' of growth in godliness.
From one perspective the Spirit is indeed the center. From another perspective the gospel is the center. To use categories from historical theology, the Spirit is the center effectually. Yet the gospel is the center instrumentally.
To those who snort in response to such flabby/everybody-wins/postmodern 'multiperspectivalism,' may I ask a question--what is the center of the human body?
Answer: it depends on the perspective. From the perspective of geometry, somewhere around the belly button. From the perspective of neuroscience, the brain. From the perspective of biblical psychology, the heart. All are right. Complex realities such as the human body--or spiritual growth--will be greatly impoverished if only one 'center' is allowed, from only one perspective (along these lines see Vern Poythress' Symphonic Theology or John Frame's Doctrine of the Knowledge of God). This is not only a defense that gospel-centeredness is compatible with Spirit-sensitivity, but also a rebuke to some of us who have ourselves viewed growth monoperspectivally—only from the perspective of gospel instrumentality. I think I have fallen into this in the past.
In brief: the answer to the objection, 'The Spirit, not the gospel, is the center of sanctification!' is: 'Yes--if we're talking about effectual empowering.'
2. Big response
The main way I would respond to someone who thinks that self-consciously centering on the gospel in sanctification neglects the Spirit is to ask: What does the Spirit do?
'Well,' you say, 'the Spirit animates us, impels us, transforms us.'
Yes and amen. And how does the Spirit do that?
The New Testament's answer is: By giving us eyes to see the beauty of Christ. By opening our eyes to the wonder of the gospel. The work of the third Person is to rivet our eyes, in increasingly joyful astonishment, on the second Person.
Several passages teach this. I'll briefly cite three and reference a few more.
1. Throughout John 14-16, Jesus comforts the disciples by teaching them, among other things, that it is good for them that he go away, so that the Spirit can come. And how does Jesus describe the work of the Spirit? The Spirit 'will bear witness about' Jesus (John 15:26). The Spirit 'will glorify' Jesus (16:13-14). The third Person spotlights the Second Person. The Spirit’s animating impulse is not a raw, faceless power. The subjective work of the Spirit works in tandem with the objective work of Christ.
2. The most startling passage to me is 1 Cor 2:12. 'We have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.' Why do we receive the Spirit? In order that (hina) we might grasp what we have freely received--the phrase 'freely given' is one Greek word, the verb form of the noun 'grace.' The Spirit opens our eyes to see what we have been ‘graced’ with. And note further the strongly Christocentric context of 1 Cor 2, both before and after v. 12--the Spirit opens our eyes to see what we have been graced with in Christ.
3. The seeing-metaphor I'm using in this post is explicitly used by Paul in 2 Cor 3, where he speaks of 'beholding the glory of the Lord' (Lord = the exalted Lord Jesus--note also 4:3-6) as what transforms believers. And all this 'comes from the Lord who is the Spirit' (not a conflation of Christ and the Spirit, but simply a most intimate association--cf. Rom 8:9-11). In brief: the Spirit effectually causes us to behold Christ in such a way that transforms us.
I'll leave the textual evidence at that, though there are other texts that reinforce the notion that one major role of the Spirit is to rivet our eyes on the gospel of what Christ has done in our place. Note, for example, Gal 5:4-5; Eph 5:18-20; Phil 3:3; 1 John 4:2-3; 1 John 5:6; maybe also Rom 8:2-4.
It would be horrid to reduce the total work of the Spirit solely to opening our eyes more and more to the gospel. Even within the specific realm of sanctification, another major strand of NT teaching is the new impulses toward godliness that the indwelling Spirit gives believers. But as the Spirit relates to the role of the gospel in progressive sanctification, I believe the criticism that gospel-centeredness neglects the Spirit is wrongheaded and unbiblical.
In a single sentence, here’s what I am trying to communicate: Yes, the Spirit is the effectual cause of transformation, and a (the?) major way the Spirit transforms us is by opening our eyes more and more to the wonder of the gospel of grace. The Spirit applies what the Son accomplished. Yet in thinking of the Spirit 'applying' salvation we should think not only of how the Spirit joins us to Christ but also how he makes subjectively real to us what is objectively true of us by virtue of that participation in Christ’s death and resurrection. (You don’t focus on your brain when you look at your wife and ponder how beautiful she is. You focus on her, and enjoy her. Your brain is what effectually causes that enjoyment. But what would you say to someone who told you you’re neglecting your brain by being so wife-centered? You’d say—if it weren’t for my brain, I would not be able to enjoy my wife at all. Praise God for a brain. But I don’t look at my brain; I look with my brain. Yes, yes, in lots of ways the analogy breaks down, but I think you get the point.)
O to walk in the power of the Holy Spirit. In working slowly through Lloyd-Jones on revival, just last night I read a sermon on what it means to live in a demonstration of the Spirit and of power. I want that. Take my degrees, I'd rather have 1 Corinthians 2:1-5.
But Christian growth in holiness is not a see-saw, one side representing the Spirit and the other side the gospel, such that if we put weight on one side then the other must necessarily go down in neglect. No, the two sides of the see-saw rise and fall together. Both or neither. To the degree that we are Spirit-filled, to that degree we will be gospel-centered. And to the degree that we are gospel-centered, to that degree we will walk in the power of the Spirit.
Feel free to leave a comment if you think I need correction here at any point.