The Danger of a Half-Gospel

Sometimes trying to put things right is when you are most vigorously putting them wrong. One of the current trends of evangelicalism is so-called “Gospel-centered preaching” (GCP). This is a method of preaching that purports—wait for it—to have the Gospel of Jesus Christ at the center. The problem is not the goal. The problem is that many who practice “GCP” put a reductionistic Gospel at the center of their preaching.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news that Christ came to save sinners. Saving sinners refers to salvation. Salvation implies saved from and saved to.

What does “GCP” say you are saved from? The “GCP” I’ve heard has less to do with sin before God and more to do with failure before man. The message is that through Christ you are unconditionally loved, so no matter your failures, shame, or embarrassments, Jesus loves you. You are saved from failure before man. You are saved from not measuring up to the person more talented than you. You are saved from feeling sorry for yourself. You are saved from the guy one cubicle over who personally slighted you.

What does “GCP” say you are saved to? The “GCP” I’ve heard says you are saved to freedom. Freedom to feel no failure before man, freedom to feel like who you are is enough, and freedom to boost your self-esteem. The Pharisees preached a similar message that emphasized justifying yourselves before man. Jesus used the a-word to combat the error calling it an abomination in the sight of God (Luke 16:15).

So you have the damning situation where much “GCP” is nothing of the sort, kind of like how family-friendly programming has a family with two dads. Not so family-friendly by God’s standard. Not so Gospel-centered, by God’s standard.

“Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, 18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.”

Romans 6:16-18

What does the Gospel save sinners from? Slavery to sin. What does the Gospel save sinners to? Slavery to righteousness. It’s not that Paul doesn’t talk about freedom. He does. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Gal. 5:13). Notice what “freedom” is contrasted with. A “yoke of slavery” (referring to slavery to sin) and “opportunity for the flesh” (another reference to sin). When Paul talks about freedom, he means slavery “to righteousness leading to sanctification” (Rom. 6:19). In other words, through faith people are saved from sin to righteousness.

What does this mean for preaching that truly has the Gospel at the center? It means that to preach the Gospel is to preach justification and sanctification. It is a message that proclaims forgiveness in Christ’s name, where through faith one is made right with God. But preaching can’t stop there. Preaching must then, as Jesus said, teach “them to observe all that I have commanded” (Mt. 28:20). Teaching the commandments of God is part of preaching the Gospel. It’s the saved to part of the Gospel proclamation. Jesus is very clear that preachers who fail to teach the commands of God “will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” Preachers who preach a full Gospel, including the commands of God “will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:19). While it is true that preaching the doctrine of justification by grace alone should invite the question, “Shall we go on sinning that grace may abound?” (Rom. 6:1), the answer should be a Christo-centric “by no means!” 

Now for a bit of tedious spadework. No one at this fine establishment opposes preaching that truly has the Gospel at the center. We oppose the common practice of talking about grace in such a way that leads people to think they are free from the need for future obedience. We oppose preaching that hopes to change man, yet renounces the right to bring God’s Word to bear on what the new man should look like. There is a problem when justification by faith is less about God accepting you and more about you accepting you. There is a problem when the third use of the law is ignored. Chapter 19 of the Westminster Confession of Faith explains that for Christians the law is “a rule of life informing them of the will of God, and their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly.”

Preaching that doesn’t call God’s people to repentance silences the life-changing Gospel in favor of a puny one. It is common now to think that proclaiming the commands of God and calling God’s people to repentance is the opposite of “Gospel hope.” Preaching repentance is likened to legalism. John Stott had a word of rebuke to such a likening, “To teach the standards of moral conduct that adorn the gospel and insist that our hearers heed them is neither legalism nor pharisaism but plain apostolic Christianity” (Stott, The Challenge of Preaching, p. 35).

Christians are justified by faith, through Christ’s work alone. This means that Christ’s work on the cross—Christ’s work alone—pays the penalty of sin and makes a believer holy and blameless before God. Faith is the instrument that connects believers to Christ’s work. Thus, the Reformation slogan sola Christus—justification is in Christ alone.

In the work of sanctification, while Christ enables obedience (Phil. 2:13), it is the individual believer who carries out obedience (Phil. 2:12). The individual Christian prays (1 Thess. 5:25), loves their neighbor (Mark. 12:31), and resists the devil (James 4:7). Christians walk by faith, depend on grace, and live by the Spirit’s power. The Christian does these things. And it’s Christ enabling the Christian to do it. If the Christian makes a habit of not doing these things, then that is evidence they are not “born of God” (1 Jn 3:6, 9). It is legalism if you call people to obedience without acknowledging divine enablement. It is antinomianism if calling people to obedience isn’t the natural consequence of justification. Notice what Peter said, “[Christ] bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Pt. 2:24).

Preaching that emphasizes justification and sanctification is Great Commission preaching. If the preacher proclaims that Christ is mighty to justify but not mighty to sanctify, then the preacher has preached a half-Gospel, a half-Christ. When the preacher proclaims that Christ saves from sin and to righteousness, he has preached the whole Gospel, the whole Christ. William Gurnall once said, “There is nothing more unworthy than to see a people bold to sin, and the preacher afraid to reprove them.” The shortest way to cultivate presumptuous sin is to relax the least of God’s commandments, and the surest way of refuting brazen sin is to teach all the Christ commanded from the high ground of Golgotha.

Jason Cherry is a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville, Alabama. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.