10 February 2011

Does Gospel-Centeredness Neglect the Spirit?

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?

Good questions!

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.


Marty said...

Thumbs up brother!

To keep the gospel at the centre (in all things, not just sanctification), it seems to me, will lead to having a Trinitarian-centredness: the right placement of the Father and the Son in our Christian living. The Father has given us his Son, who won salvation once for all, now distributes his blessings from the Father's right hand through the Spirit. In other words, being gospel-centred puts the Spirit in the right place.

Gavin Ortlund said...

Great post, Dane. The part that is most helpful to me is the distinction between being in the center instrumentally and being in the center effectually.

It would be interesting to do a study on all the Bible teaches about the Spirit's work in relation to sanctification. I think you're right that the Spirit puts our eyes on Jesus. A verse that's especially helpful to me on the connection between Jesus and the Spirit is I Corinthians 12:3, where our stance toward Jesus is like a litmus test of whether the Spirit is working.

Something I'm working through in my own mind these days (and its only tangentially related to your post) is when "gospel-centered-ness" means that we focus on the gospel as in I Corinthians 15:3ff., and when gospel-centered-ness means we focus upon the person of Christ more generally. In my preaching and talking with students, "Christ-centered-ness" rather than "gospel-centered-ness" sometimes seems more consistent to the particularities of the text I am working with and better suited for the diversity of peoples' needs. But I also am very eager to talk about the cross whenever I can.

I am wondering if its similar with the Spirit - he points us to the person Christ himself, including all his work, and currently risen in glory. Something that I find helpful in my own spiritual walk is holding in balance both the grace and the glory of Christ. Without the glory, the grace isn't as amazing. Without the grace, the glory is crushing. It seems to me that the Spirit directs us not only to the grace of Christ, but also to the glory (e.g., II Corinthians 3:18, I Cor 2:9-10). I'm wondering what the proper balance of grace and glory is, but don't have clarity yet.

Thanks for bearing with the long post - just felt like processing this, since I've been mulling over it lately.

Dane Ortlund said...

Good stuff Marty and Gav.

Thanks for reminding me of 1 Cor 12:3, Gavin--very pertinent text here. I'm struck by your comments because I've been puzzling over this too--what is the precise relationship between being Christ-centered and gospel-centered? Or, might we neglect Jesus himself (!) in speaking of 'the gospel' all the time? So much depends here on how we define these terms, of course, but overall it seems to me that Christ-centered is a bit broader and more helpful as a catch-all for the kind of life a disciple of Jesus is called to. One reason I prefer gospel-centered at times is that gospel-centered speaks explicitly to, well, the gospel. I.e. many people speak of being Christ-centered but what they really mean is living like Christ, 'putting him at the center,' following him in everything, WWJD, etc--all true and crucial, but the fruit, not the root, of discipleship--indeed, the opposite of gospel-centered! I think of the many Christian schools e.g. that herald a 'Christ-centered' education that actually is drenched in moralism, not gospel.

Interesting about grace and glory. I think I am following you and would agree. I wonder...Is the glory of Christ most clearly seen in his grace? Eph 1 'to the praise of his glorious grace' and all that; Rom 15:9, 'that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.' If so then it is not so much a balance between grace and glory but mutual reinforcement. But perhaps I am now switching to a different sense of 'glory' than you were speaking of, and this comment is totally off-base. Maybe by grace and glory you mean immanence and transcendence, respectively? I.e. by glory you are talking about Christ's absolute otherness, his too-pure-to-look-upon brilliance? What Edwards meant when he spoke of Jesus as both lion and lamb in 'Excellency of Christ'? Is that what you mean? If so, then is the concern here that we not extract one attribute of Christ's (the lamb) to the neglect of the other (the lion)...? Instruct me here...

Andrew said...

Thanks for the insights and clarification, Dane. I thought your brain analogy was spot-on (if we can ever be "spot-on" about the Trinity!).

My worry is, While continual grace-/Christ-/cross-/gospel-centeredness might well motivate someone to love and obedience, will it actually lead someone in walking in a manner worthy of Christ? It seems to me that apart from explaining what to put off/put on and how to practically live as befits a Christian under the gospel, a believer may have motivation but little direction, and therefore little growth.

Gavin Ortlund said...

Hey Dane,

I hear you on the danger of "Christ-centered" being susceptible to moralism and only seeing Jesus as our example. That's definitely a case where "gospel-centered" can be a more helpful term.

By the glory of Christ I am thinking of the glory of his risen and divine person, I think in the sense that Edwards is (though I haven't read "Excellency of Christ"), and I think in the sense of II Corinthians 3:18. I definitely think grace and glory are mutually reinforcing, and don't have clarity on their relationship - maybe its "asymmetrical balance" thing, with the grace being in the center. Not sure. My main thought is that I wonder if the Spirit's work in directing us to Jesus, following from passages like II Corinthians 3:18, directs us not just to the cross per se (though that is certainly true), but to the person of Christ himself, exalted in heaven, and abiding with believers. That's where I am thinking through the relative strengths and weaknesses of the terms "gospel-centered" and "Christ-centered."

One of my larger concerns is that we not define "gospel-centeredness" or "Christ-centeredness" in such a way that parts of the Bible - say, the book of James, or Jude - end up being non-gospel-centered. But then, we also read James as one book within the canon of Scripture, which as a whole climaxes at Calvary.

The reason its on my mind is that in my preaching I sometimes wonder whether going to the cross or going to Christ more generally is the best course. If I'm preaching from, say, Psalm 2, should I talk about the cross? Or is talking about the kingly rule of Jesus more faithful to the text and still "Christ-centered?" I'm not sure. Thanks for the helpful dialogue as I process that.


Dane Ortlund said...

Great stuff Gav. Thanks for this.

Helpful on Christ's heavenly glory. That is certainly something I do not want to neglect so I appreciate you re-sensitizing me to that.

I agree that we ought not to cultivate a hermeneutic that prohibits us from taking a bk such as James in its full force. That would be impoverishing.

I do think there is a way to be not only Christ-centered but specifically gospel-centered in each sermon, based on my conviction that the whole Bible is a gospel story, thus every corner of Scripture in some way moves that gospel story forward (I think you share this conviction though I don't want to presume anything...). I think I'd preach Ps 2 by not only speaking of Christ's kingly rule but also ending where the psalm ends--blessed are all who take refuge in him. If he is a king only, I remain terrified and will never seek refuge in him. But I do seek refuge, and invite others into that refuge, because the true king allowed 'the kings of the earth' to kill him, in my place; which is gospel.

One clarification that may (or may not) help is that I would not equate 'gospel' with 'cross' in a 1-to-1 way--as you yourself have helped me to see in your work on the resurrection! Rather while the cross is crucial (1 Cor 2:2!) I am thinking of gospel in terms of the whole event of Christ's life, death, and resurrection on our behalf, the good news of God's grace, climaxing in Christ. I like Calvin's comment that you can't mention the cross without implicitly referencing the empty tomb and vice versa.

I welcome your ongoing instruction in this Gav! It is really the heart of so much of life and ministry and the Bible.

Gavin Ortlund said...

Thanks bro. I do share your conviction that every corner of Scripture contributes to the gospel story. However, how each corner of Scripture does that seems to get pretty complicated (e.g., I find books like Esther or Ecclesiastes, or a messianic text like Psalm 45, challenging - also the book of James, as we've mentioned). Its something I need to grow in in my preaching. I often find myself resorting to, " ... and here's what we know from the rest of the Bible" - which I think is one legitimate way of being faithful to the meaning of a particular text while also situating it in its canonical context. Good clarification on the gospel not being reduced to the cross, too - that shows how close the terms "Christ-centered" and "gospel-centered" really are.

Thanks for the great dialogue.

Dan King said...

After 40+ years of a moralistic approach to sanctification, I can say that these truths stir more love to Christ and bring more refreshment to the soul than I would have imagined.

BlaCorc said...

Hmmm. I wonder if I have fallen into what you describe as in your past of focusing on the gospel to the neglect of the Spirit. I am skeptical and cynical towards people who are super-spiritual, perhaps I am just trying to justify my own non-mystical experience. Here is what I wrote the other day on this issue called "Getting Buzzed in the Spirit"


Nate Gordon said...

Great post and discussion. Personally, the 'gospel' tends to be what moves me in terms of strategy--how I work and minister. But, it has been encounters with the spirit of Jesus that have wrought all the real changes in my life and character.