Philippians and the Language of Gospel-Centrality

In the past decade we’ve seen an upsurge in the use of the word “gospel.” It seems that everything needs to be gospel-centered these days. As Tim Challies recently observed, “Gospel-centeredness is all the rage today. We are told to live gospel-centered lives, to pray toward a gospel-centered faith, to have gospel-centered humility, to be gospel-centered parents, to form gospel-centered churches, to have gospel-centered marriages, to say goodbye at gospel-centered funerals. The gospel, we are told, must be central to all we are and all we do.” He also compiled a list of a few dozen books with the language of gospel-centrality in their titles.

Mild Concerns

No everyone is on board. Some have mild concerns about this. One concern is that it can come across so repetitious. Why do we need to say “gospel” all the time? I’ve known Christians who seem to be put off by a continual focus on the gospel, and especially a continual use of the word.

Another concern is that we will use the word “gospel” without being clear on what we actually mean by it. We can talk about the gospel all the time without knowing what it actually is. What do we mean by “gospel”? What do we mean by “gospel-centered”? We certainly cannot assume we all know what we mean. I asked a Mormon friend of mine why she enjoyed one of her evening church gatherings so much. “Because it was so gospel-centered,” she said. If I could go back, I’d ask her what she meant. No doubt, I would find that we have different ideas of what the gospel is and what it means to be gospel-centered.

Paul’s Example

The apostle Paul forges a way forward in the book of Philippians. To those who are bothered by the potential over-use of the word, “gospel,” I think Paul would simply say, “what’s the problem?” Look at how much he uses the word “gospel” in this short letter:

He is thankful for their “partnership in the gospel” (1:5) and their partnership with him “in the defense and confirmation of the gospel” (1:7). His imprisonment has “served to advance the gospel” (1:12), partly because people know that he is put there “for the defense of the gospel” (1:12). While he is in prison, he wants these Christians to live “worthy of the gospel” and to strive side by side “for the faith of the gospel” (1:27). He also speaks of Timothy, who has “served with [him] in the gospel” (2:22), as well as many others who have likewise “served with [him] in the gospel” (4:3). Indeed, this whole church has been in partnership with him from “the beginning of the gospel” (4:15).

Sure, Paul references the same idea with words other than “the gospel.” He refers to speaking the word (1:14), preaching Christ (1:15, 17, 18), growing in the faith (1:25), and the work of Christ (2:30). But “gospel” is clearly a favorite, and he isn’t bashful about using it: partnership in the gospel, confirmation of the gospel, defense of the gospel, worthy of the gospel, faith of the gospel, serving in the gospel. That’s a lot of gospel-talk.

What about the second concern? Won’t this lead to a lack of clarity about what we actually mean by the phrase? It could. But Paul doesn’t let that happen. He doesn’t just use the word, he also explains what it means. Philippians has one of the more lengthy, poetic summaries of the gospel in the New Testament.

“Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (2:5-11).

Here is Jesus’ eternal existence, incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and the subsequent call to submit to him as Lord.

Learning From Paul

So, Paul’s example in Philippians leaves me with three takeaways:

  1. Use the word “gospel” as much as you like. If someone voices a problem, consider pointing him or her to Philippians.
  2. Don’t only use the word “gospel.” Paul used other words and phrases to refer to the same reality, and outside of Philippians often preferred to refer directly to Jesus himself.
  3. Clarify what you mean. Don’t assume you or others know what you’re talking about when you talk about the “gospel” or “gospel-centrality.” Use the word – over and over – but stop every once in a while to explain yourself like Paul did in Philippians 2:5-11. And, like him, get poetic about it if you’d like. While we’re thinking about it, I highly recommend this short clarification of the gospel and gospel-centered living by Joe Thorn.
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