In the tribe of New Calvinists, “gospel-centered” is a buzzword become vernacular, so much so that people barely bat an eye on a given Sunday when it is written on their bulletins, term-dropped in their sermons, and used in conversations post-service. Even the curators of this movement feel compelled to comment on its ubiquity and warn against its potential loss of meaning from use ad nauseam.
“Gospel-centered” has become the choice prefix for anything and everything under the sun. Gospel-centered church. Gospel-centered ministry. Gospel-centered evangelism. Gospel-centered discipleship. Gospel-centered preaching. Yet I’ll say upfront that I like this term. I think it is good and useful. In all aspects of our Christian lives it is necessary to be reminded that the gospel is central, for the human heart moves naturally toward pride or despair, humanism or nihilism, and the message that “we are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope”  takes us by the hand away from those dark valleys.
All in all, the gospel-centered movement is a well-intentioned attempt to filter all of what it means to be Christian through a comprehensive paradigm—and a helpful one at that. It has been and continues to be a useful corrective against the human tendency towards self-effort. But like every human paradigm that attempts to be comprehensive, I would argue that it falls short, and I see and sense its shortcomings most keenly in the area of preaching.
Defining gospel-centered preaching is a slippery task as definitions can differ from community to community, but this article by Trevin Wax does a great job of capturing what is usually meant by the term in New Calvinism. Gospel-centered preaching could thus be paraphrased as: Preaching that makes central the proclamation of Christ’s death and resurrection as not only the ignition for the Christian life, but the fuel for the entire journey as well (to borrow some of Wax’s imagery). Gospel-centered preaching then is distinct from say exposition-centered preaching—where the focus is on explaining Scripture. In such cases, even if the gospel is mentioned, it is not the blazing sun in the solar system of that sermon, but more like a scrap of a tail, fastened slightly askew by the last contestant in a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey.
I believe that gospel-centered preaching is an essential aspect of good preaching, a part that constitutes the whole and a necessary condition, but it is not sufficient for good preaching. A good sermon should be gospel-centered, but it should also be more—it should be Christ-centered as well.
Now the difference between the two terms, gospel-centered and Christ-centered, is the difference between the propositional and the personal. Note in the definition above that gospel-centered preaching “makes central the proclamation of Christ’s death and resurrection.” Gospel-centered preaching has a tendency to focus on the gospel as a set of propositions—statements, facts, or declarations. And for good reason, since the gospel is typically defined as the good news, and news is typically viewed as a set of statements, facts, or declarations. Yet the danger is to focus so heavily on the gospel as such that it becomes a gospel-out-there, several very good, true, amazing facts—(1) we are all sinners, (2) we need a Savior, (3) God provided that Savior in Jesus Christ, etc.—but still a set of facts that seem to be at a certain distance from the life of a Christian. A gospel-centered sermon will remind people of these true statements time and time again, calling people to trust in them, to believe in them, and to apply them to their lives. Yet with each progressive hearing, such sermons can begin to feel static and lifeless because the focus is on a static set of propositions that do not live and move and sing with the dynamism of a person.
In contrast, a defining characteristic of the Triune God is that he is personal. He is personal in both in his oneness as the one God and his threeness as the three persons. The personal aspect of God has existed from eternity as the three persons have lived and loved in community from eternity. Thus, a great profundity actually underlies the overused and much-maligned Christian slogan, “It’s not about a religion, but it’s about a relationship.” The slogan recognizes that one of Christianity’s most attractive features is a God who longs to relate and does relate to his creation. A God who is not abstract but personal, who comes near and condescends by assuming human nature and becoming God with us, as Jesus.
So as much as people need to be reminded of the propositional gospel, they also need to be reminded of the personal gospel—Jesus Christ. Jesus is the good news, and good news is not just propositional. Imagine if your loved one became quite ill and was bedridden in the hospital. Good news is hearing from a friend that he or she is better. But good news is also drawing back the curtains in that hospital room and seeing a beaming face smiling back at you. In the same way, when preaching shows Christ for all of who he is, as one with scars in his hands and side, but who now sits upon the throne, that is the gospel because seeing Jesus is seeing the good news of death conquered and resurrection secured right in front of us.
In Galatians 3:1, Paul admonishes the Galatians for returning to a works-righteousness when “It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.” Paul did not merely speak about Jesus to the Galatians in a set of propositions, but he made Jesus real to them in their preaching. There was an intensely personal aspect to this preaching, where Paul could say that it was as if Jesus was actually crucified before them. This personal aspect to preaching, where the hearer is brought into contact with the living Word of God, where Jesus is presented in a real, personal way to those listening is why Christ-centered preaching is so important.
Because we are created in the image of a relational God, we too are fundamentally relational. Almost nothing can shape, change, and transform a person more than his or her relationship with another human being. We all know of friends who have fallen in love and suddenly seem re-energized about life, career, and hygiene. How much more then would an encounter with the risen Christ be transformative? Paul knew this very well given his own dramatic encounter with the risen Christ on the Damascus road, and thus he was committed to know nothing among the Corinthians “except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
Christ-centered preaching aims to show people Christ in all his multi-faceted splendor. Our hearts need to see Christ in ways we’ve never seen him before. We need to see him in all parts of our Bible, both Old and New. We need more than a set of propositions about truth and good news, we need to see the good news, and to know the person who is the gospel.