December 4, 2020

Scott Lencke: The Problem with Being “Gospel-Centered”

Note from CM: Thanks to Scott Lencke for today’s post. Scott blogs at The Prodigal Thought.

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The Problem with Being “Gospel-Centered”
By Scott Lencke

Over the past decade or so, many churches in America have been espousing that they are “gospel-centered.” Just as in culture, there are many buzzwords within the church: missional, organic, intentional, etc. And another one happens to be gospel-centered.

But what’s the problem with being gospel-centered? That’s a good thing, right?

Let me go ahead and say up front that being gospel-centered is not necessarily a problem. One the one hand, being gospel-centered is important, just as being kingdom-centered, Jesus-centered, even church-centered is important. However, identifying as gospel-centered becomes problematic when it stringently runs the gospel through one particular (and narrow) set of theological lenses.

You see, particular groups have, in one way or another, hijacked the word gospel and strictly applied it to their own theological view. I find this typically happens within a new reformed, Calvinist setting. The problem is not so much reformed theology – by this I mean the problem is not with a more historic, robust reformed theology. Rather it’s with the particular new Calvinism that has arisen in the past couple of decades.

How has the word gospel been hijacked by certain groups?

I see it as having happened primarily in two ways.

1) The adding of many peripheral doctrines into this “gospel-centered” view.

In my engagement with many groups championing a gospel-centered faith, they also tie in other secondary issues to the gospel. Perhaps not outright, but there is a kind of sleight of hand to make secondary issues more central to the gospel than they should be. One of the great “add-ons” is that of complementarianism – the belief that men and men alone are to be the leaders in the home and church. Here’s an example of how this is done, this one coming from, Denny Burk, now the Director of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

In the article, Burk says complementarianism is a secondary issue. But he then works really hard to show the dangers of being egalitarian – the belief that both men and women can be leaders in the home and church. His third and final point even uses the scare tactic of the slippery slope. Anyone who knows a basic knowledge of rhetoric would be aware that the slippery slope is an invalid argument. Burk notes a couple of egalitarians who have not gone down the path of liberalism (Millard Erickson and Roger Nicole). But he then uses anecdotal evidence as to how the slippery path is real.

So, let’s be clear: just because one is an egalitarian does not mean he or she will become liberal, not to mention that our understanding of the role of men and women in leadership is not a gospel issue!

Connecting complementarianism to the gospel is problematic.

Others raise similar issues by saying we must hold to such views as:

a) A literal reading of Genesis – because to deny a historical Adam puts a wrench in the cog of a specific view regarding Romans 5.

b) A reformed view of justification – which espouses a particular view of penal substitutionary atonement.

c) An Augustinian view of original sin – though they may say it’s a “biblical” view of original sin, not an Augustinian view.

Let me go ahead and say that none of these are gospel issues. To not realize this is to show one is not aware of the breadth of views on these issues across church history.

Let me say the opposite as well: holding to these specific secondary issues (complementarianism, literal reading of Genesis, etc) does not inherently make one gospel-centered.

The gospel (or evangel) is centered in the proclamation that the kingdom of God has come near, God is doing what he said he would always do, and he has done that in and through Jesus the Messiah. This is good news within the biblical story. And this is what it truly means to be evangelical – to be centered in the evangel, the gospel, the good news.

Secondary and tertiary issues do not determine whether one is gospel-centered.

2) Gospel-centered folk primarily center their theology of the gospel in Paul.

Now, before we jump into this point, let me note that I am not against Paul – not at all! – nor am I for pitting Jesus and Paul against one another (as some critical scholarship has done). Paul is important, indeed. Jesus and Paul were working from the same framework, both being first-century Jews who explained how the story of Israel was coming to completion through God’s Messiah, that Messiah being Jesus.

Paul good.

Jesus and Paul were together.


What I find from these same gospel-centered folk is that they spend their predominant time forming their perspectives from Paul, particularly the letters of Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians. Paul has the meat and potatoes of the gospel, they conclude. Everything else, including the gospels themselves, feed into Paul’s theology of the gospel. However, folk like Scot McKnight (e.g., in The King Jesus Gospel) and NT Wright (e.g., in How God Became King and others) have done well to expose this problem. And, yes, it is a problem.

The trouble lies in the fact that most gospel-centered groups jump straight over the gospels themselves. But, as McKnight notes:

If you want to read the gospel,
hear the gospel,
or preach the gospel,
read, listen to, and preach the Gospels. (loc.1255)

He goes on to note that these four accounts of Jesus were identified as gospels because, well, they tell us the gospel. It’s an innovative thought for some, but it’s deep truth that could revolutionize our theology if we’ll grasp it.

Yet so many see the gospel as a four point list of what to believe, centered in the good ol’ meaty theology of Paul. And the gospels are the story behind everything, but they are just that – story, history. And we develop theology from the epistles, not the history portions of Scripture. Hence, Paul easily takes precedence.

I say it’s rubbish.

I would argue that we need to a) start with the gospels (though not pitting Jesus and Paul against one another) and b) re-envision Paul in light of the gospels, which is to re-understand Paul as connecting into Israel’s long story now being summed up in the Jesus story as told in the gospels.

Therefore, in Romans, Paul is telling a story, one that is a very Jewish story connected deeply into Abraham. Everything he has to say about the gospel, Jesus, justification, the righteousness of God, the Spirit and more is centered in that long story that had been unfolding for centuries upon centuries. And understanding Paul’s details on this journeyed story means we need to understand the Israel story of the Old Testament and the Jesus story of the gospels.

As some have countered the gospel-centered movement, we may better off being gospels-centered.

Is being gospel-centered problematic? Not necessarily. But, if a) we are making secondary and tertiary issues central to our understanding of the gospel and b) if we are setting aside the gospels as telling us the gospel, then the claim that we are gospel-centered becomes problematic. Very problematic. We are missing some very important details on the gospel.

It’s time we become gospels-centered, understanding the gospel in light of the Jesus story, which connects into the long-held Israel story of the Bible.


  1. Good points.

    In my Calvinista days I began noticing that the “Doctrines of Grace” were being consistently equated with the Gospel. When I pointed out that a systematic theology is an attempt to explain “how things work” I was looked at as though I was speaking Vulcan. Just another booster rocket in my reaching escape velocity out of the “Evangelical” gravity well…

    • Tom, I experience that too in my church during a recent trend—equating Calvin & Complementarianism with the gospel. It seemed like the word “gospel” was tossed around too loosely. I was reminded of Inigo Montoya: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

      But back to Jesus and Paul: while it’s true, as Scott Lencke said, that Paul has the gospel, Jesus IS the gospel (John 14:6). Paul points to Jesus, not the other way around.

      • Or, in the words of that great theologian Tom Waits, “Well you say that it’s gospel, but I know that it’s only church.”

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Wartburg Watch has been covering this for a long time. Regarding your points:

        1) Gospel(TM) has become just another meaningless buzzword.

        2) Jesus has become only a justification for Paul (and Calvin), nothing more. No narrative, nothing human, only a checklist of one-verse axioms.

      • >But back to Jesus and Paul: while it’s true, as Scott Lencke said, that Paul has the gospel, Jesus IS the gospel (John 14:6). Paul points to Jesus, not the other way around.

        Yes, but let’s remember: The four Gospels are not Jesus, either; they also only point to him.

        • You’ve been reading N.T. Wright? Always a good idea.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          But they are the original source documents, one step closer than the derived sources.

          Like ha-Torah is the original source and Talmud a derived source.

      • Patriciamc says

        Paul points to Jesus and not the other way around. Yes! So many Christians, particularly the Reformed group, pay lip-service to Jesus yet actually worship Paul. The way I see it, no one, not Peter, Paul, etc. can create doctrine. Only Jesus can do that. The others can just explain the doctrine and give us examples for how to apply the doctrine. So, Paul on his own leads to the husband is the boss and the wife must obey. Reading Paul through the lenses of Christ and reconciling what Paul says with Christ’s teachings leads to actually including Ephesians 5:21 with the rest and shows how these verses are an example of how to love one another, as Christ commands.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      Not Reformed here, but not dissimilar experience. But I get it. When I was younger I really believed the Intellect was in charge/important, so Theology and Answers seemed of primary importance; then the attraction to the Epistles – especially Paul – makes so much sense. That is the kind of language he *seems* to be talking [although I now doubt that too]. The Gospels, when you are in that frame, can be frustrating – Jesus is constantly answering people’s questions with questions or, maybe worse, with directives, rather than answers. I wanted Answers-n-Solutions not Mythology.

      Now that the Intellect has been dethroned it is easier to read the Gospels. Now much of Jesus’ rhetorical deflection makes so much sense – his point is clear. But you have to get to a Human frame first, that can be tough in a Spiritual environment.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        When I was younger I really believed the Intellect was in charge/important, so Theology and Answers seemed of primary importance; then the attraction to the Epistles – especially Paul – makes so much sense.

        From a former kid genius:
        Ever heard of “Intelligence 18, Wisdom 3”?

        And have you ever run into Pure Intellects to whom even Global Thermonuclear War was just an abstract intellectual exercise? (“Only a three-point-five Gigadeath situation….”)

        I wanted Answers-n-Solutions not Mythology.

        You wanted a checklist of abstract intellectual axioms; you got The Old Story.

  2. Trevin Wax did a nice job of gathering how various individuals and organizations have defined “the gospel” over the centuries:

    I agree with McKnight’s comment above, and as he and others also stress, one can look to summaries of that in 1 Corinthians 15 or in the sermons in Acts (such as Acts 2).

  3. Ronald Avra says

    Good observations by Lencke.

  4. Uangelion
    translated good news…..isn’t it interesting it there are so many interpretations…..the bad news with a good intention gospel has been popular lately…..
    since it is bottom line…..Jesus Christ….you would have to include the stories of Him from beginning of time to his life, death, resurrection, and rule. Just as Scott Lencke writes. It is obviously something achieved that couldn’t be done by us humans. Not something like a repentance that we do. Not our faith. Not commandments to us. Definitely not religion.
    You know, it does lead to faith. And Chaplain Mike was right about that the other day when he mentioned that many think that is what makes you strong to be right and weather the many storms……when in fact the opposite is true,,,,you know you need the rightness of another, and are very weak and need someone else to see it through.

  5. It’s not just the phrase “Gospel-Centered” but also the words “Biblical” and “Godly.” The more I hear any or all of those from a particular group, the more wary I get. They are usually code words for the group’s self-proclaimed superiority of doctrine, belief, and personal righteousness.

    The strange thing is, most of them seem to know the secondary issues aren’t really gospel, but they just can’t help themselves. If they don’t outright condemn those who see things differently, they’ll feign sadness and pity and proclaim the person to be misguided and on the wrong track, etc. It’s all weirdly passive-aggressive. And kind of tribal. Then again, most of white evangelicalism in American is fairly tribal these days. I don’t have a lot of hope for it. I see the church in the rest of the world doing a better job of following Jesus at this point.

  6. Great observations. I’ve urged people to do the same thing Lencke does: If you want to know Jesus, read one (or more) of the Gospel accounts at least once a year. Don’t dwell on Paul and his writings. Paul’s purpose was to illuminate Jesus and the Good News, not to create a Paul-centered theology.

  7. I have a Robert Farrar Capon quote here on my wall that comes to my mind every time I’m faced with mandates from the self-appointed gospel gatekeepers:

    “We are not saved by what Jesus taught, and we certainly are not saved by what we understand Jesus to have taught. We are saved by Jesus Himself, dead and risen. “Follow Me, ” He says. It is the only word that finally matters.”

    There was a time when I thought my doctrine saved me. I’m younger than that now, and I finally have peace.

  8. Let me go ahead and say that none of these are gospel issues. To not realize this is to show one is not aware of the breadth of views on these issues across church history.

    This is a remarkably gracious response.

    I’ll be less gracious: they don’t care. Facts are facts, and your’s are fake facts. Everyone knows. Stop denying what you know in your inner most being to be true. Quit being a contrarian. If it was good enough for our fathers, it’s good enough for us. You are a deceiver, a liar, and the truth is not in you.

    Etc, etc.

    • Which is exactly what the Pharisees said to Jesus. His reply… “How do hope to escape the fires of hell?”

  9. Burro [Mule] says

    Wisdom! Attend!
    Let us hear the Holy Gospel.

  10. But what is the “center” of the gospel? As far back as you go in the tradition you find believers disagreeing about what it all means. Useful to remember that most of Paul’s opponents in his letters are not unbelievers but Christians with other ideas about what it all meant. The gospels themselves don’t even agree about who Jesus was. Contrast Jesus the human being in Mark adopted by God as His Son because of his righteousness with the pre-existent divine being in John. Compare Matthew’s insistence that the followers of Jesus must meticulously obey the Law with Paul and Mark’s view that salvation is by grace through faith alone.

    Most theological controversies over the last two thousand some odd years have been based on the mistaken assumption that the New Testament writers all were saying the same thing (and of course our group has figured out what that is). If there is way forward for the Church it will at least partly consist of the realization that the ‘gospel” is an ongoing argument and has been from day one.

    • And yet the pre-existent divine being in John cries at his friend Lazarus’ grave, and makes wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee after his mother bothers him into doing it, because they had run out of wine.

    • But I agree with you: there was tremendous theological diversity in the early church, and the NT depictions of Jesus are not always harmonious, even within a single Gospel.

    • Stephen –

      I’m ok with noting all NT writers weren’t all saying the exact same thing. But I also don’t want to see them pitted agonist each other with great fervor. But each writer had different intentions & perspectives for what they were writing.

  11. So, let’s be clear: just because one is an egalitarian does not mean he or she will become liberal….

    Notice how Lencke provides a path of plausible deniability for himself against those who might call him a liberal, or accuse him of promoting liberalism. Everyone knows that being labelled a liberal in the evangelical world is the kiss of death, and a theologian has to make sure to shield himself against the possibility that that label might stick to him. Oh, no, I’m not a liberal! Heaven forbid! Never! And I would never do anything that would aid and abet liberal theology, he insists.

    • Yes, I refer to it as the L-word. There’s also the H-word, heretic. Both are thrown around with ease!

      • I guess establishing plausible deniability becomes an unconscious, protective reflex in such circumstances, something done without thinking. It’s a damn shame. I suppose that your comment acknowledging the situation also risks exposure. Again, it’s a shame.

    • Clay Crouch says

      I noticed that as well. I went to his blog and asked him to elaborate. 24 hours later my comment is still in moderation.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Oh, no, I’m not a liberal! Heaven forbid! Never! And I would never do anything that would aid and abet liberal theology, he insists.

      During coverage of the Got Hard/ATI sexual harassment scandal over on TWW and/or SSB, someone in the comment threads pointed out that such over-vehement denial is often an unintentional admission of guilt — they protest too much. And “Heaven Forbid! No! Never!” was almost Got Hard’s exact words when he first came under scrutiny.