The first time I heard the phrase “gospel-centered,” I thought it was arrogant. I remember thinking: “Who isn’t gospel-centered?” After some reading, I realized the phrase was actually very helpful and contained many of my own sentiments about discipleship.
Everyone Responds to Rules
In my own struggle as a disciple, it has become plain that we are often motivated by the wrong things to follow Jesus. Some use the pitchfork, goading one another on with threats. In the conservative circles, discipleship is often motivated by rules: “Keep God’s rules and he will accept you.” Read your Bible, pray, go to church, maintain good character, share your faith and you’ll be on God’s good side.
Now, you might think these religious people are unthinking and silly, but they aren’t the one only ones who are rule-centered. Often those who pride themselves on escaping from this way of thinking also end up rule-focused. Instead of keeping the rules to gain God’s acceptance, liberated Christians break the rules in search of an alternative acceptance. They are motivated, not by the pitchfork, but by the proverbial carrot. A better identity dangles in front of them: “If I can gain the favor of my family, peers, society, vocational elites, or cultural icons, then I’ll be content. It isn’t really what the religious rules that matter; it’s what certain people think about me that makes a difference, the people I identify with.”
We all gravitate towards the pitchfork or the carrot, keeping the rules or breaking them. Jesus died and rose to change that.
Conservative & Liberal Motivations
Both conservative and liberal motivations for following Jesus are self-destructive and dishonoring to God. The conservative Christian thinks spiritual performance will land them on God’s good side, but it’s Jesus’ performance that puts us there. Because of Jesus we are already on God’s good side, which should lead to a life of increasing devotion to God. Since all of God’s “bad side”, his holy wrath, has been poured out on the Suffering Servant, we are freed us to serve God out of his marvelous grace. Grace is a much better motivation.
The liberated Christian, however, subtly believes that a better life can be found outside of God. The things of God begin to recede in importance as they dip their longings deep into other pools for acceptance, worth, and meaning. Identifying with vocational influence, a social cause, a group of people, or a place to live, they identify primarily with something other than Christ. In the end, these surrogate identities won’t hold up; they’re not made to. Our work, causes, peers, and cities can only offer us temporary roles in society. Jesus extends us an enduring identity—his beloved disciple in the kingdom of God. In Christ we have everything, but outside of Christ we will chase anything.
In the end, both the conservative rule-keeper and the liberal rule-breaker keep rules at the center of their relationship with God. The conservative obsesses about religious rules, whereas the liberal reactively runs from rules. Together, they obsess and react to the wrong thing. We need a new motivation for following Jesus. Instead, we should obsessively react to the shocking grace of God in Christ. When the rules condemn us, Christ forgives us. When we fall, Jesus is risen, at the right hand of God, praying for us. When we run away, he runs toward us with open arms.
When we are struck afresh by the heart-stirring news that Jesus died and rose to keep the rules for us, and to replace them with his grace, worshipful obedience will spill out. When we see Jesus Christ in the center, we are provoked to honor him. When we understand that the identity he provides is more enduring, and the grace he offers is more enticing, only then will the Christian life begin to make sense, ring with authenticity, and motivate a gospel-centered discipleship.
If Jesus died and rose to replace the rules with the gospel, then we too should replace our center. Together with the Father and the Spirit, Jesus changes the heart of his disciples with a new motivation. He woos the heart with grace, not rules, walking us right into the presence of a holy God, fully loved and fully accepted. Having the gospel at the center changes everything.
Jonathan Dodson (M.Div, Th.M) is happy husband to Robie, and proud father to Owen, Ellie & Rosamund. He is also the lead pastor of Austin City Life church and directional leader for PlantR and Gospel Centered Discipleship. Jonathan is also the author of Gospel-Centered Discipleship and Unbelievable Gospel: How to Share a Faith Worth Believing. He blogs at jonathandodson.org, enjoys listening to M. Ward, watching sci-fi, and following Jesus. You can connect with him on twitter.