My Concern Over the Gospel-Centered Movement

Erik Raymond —  June 19, 2013

Recently I was able to sit on a panel for a discussion among some local church planters. One of the questions was, “What are you most concerned about with the gospel-centered movement?”

Before expressing any concern I want to be clear: I am very encouraged by the recovery of the center, the gospel, among many, particularly younger evangelicals. This is essential for us at this hour.

At the same time I have a cause for concern. My chief concern is not primarily a matter of theology but hermeneutics (the art and science of interpretation).

It appears that the gospel-centered movement is very good at buying books, reading blogs and listening to sermons. We excel at catching John Piper’s passion for a God-saturated, joy-effusing, expository exultation (not to mention his penchant for hyphenated descriptors). We buy in to Tim Keller’s Center Church model. We can likewise read Calvin, Luther, Edwards, Spurgeon, Owen and the rest. We have theological comprehension.

But how did we get there? Did we simply read the right books, listen to the right sermons or go to the right conferences? Do we even know how to come to these conclusions on our own? Can we see the Solas arise out of the Bible before they pop off of Calvin’s Institutes? It’s one thing to have been able to say you have been to a nice restaurant in a particular city with some friends, but if you don’t know how to get there yourself then you’ll never be able to eat that food again, much less take someone else out to enjoy the same experiences. My fear is that too many have been piling into the RC Sproul theological minivan to go eat a feast but never learned how to actually find their way to the meal.

The danger here should be obvious. Without a hermeneutical base to undergird our theological conclusions we are susceptible to losing what we have. If we are just fan-boys then we may follow a new theological band someday. If we are just fan-boys then we can’t train a new generation to discover these truths themselves.

What is needed more than simply a theological system is a hermeneutic. If the gospel-centered movement is not built upon a consistent, biblical hermeneutic then we will lose this thing as fast as we seem to have received it. Without a hermeneutic movements become memories.

Erik Raymond

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Erik has been writing at Ordinary Pastor since 2006. He lives in Omaha with his wife and kids while pastoring at Emmaus Bible Church. Follow regular updates on Twitter at www.twitter.com/erikraymond

25 responses to My Concern Over the Gospel-Centered Movement

  1. Interesting! Think I’ll start by getting “Herman Who?” over at Wretched Radio. I’ve been meaning to learn about good hermeneutics, now you’ve sparked me into action! Thank you!

    http://www.wretchedradio.com/store/product_details.cfm?id=297

    • Is it wrong that I read “Herman Who?” and immediately pictured a t-shirt with a picture of Herman Bavinck on it?

  2. Dave Sherrill June 19, 2013 at 8:53 am

    Pastor Raymond,
    Having observed the rise of the gospel-centered movement for several years, I agree with your point of concern – do we understand how to read the Bible? (Along with another related concern I have – do we actually read our Bible?)

    Can you please provide some advice on tools or books to teach/learn hermeneutics? While we may seek to model sound hermeneutics by example, there is a real need to be explicit and present the ideas in some coherent form rather than making people read between the lines to pick up on the skills. Also, any thoughts on calling it “hermeneutics class” for the general congregation – is it a good idea to stay away from the technical language so we don’t scare away the very people who need the training?

    Thank you for your blog, your ministry, and these thoughts in particular.

    God Bless You,
    Dave

  3. Excellent point Erik!

    Sorry I’ve missed you while I was in Omaha last week.

  4. Eric,
    Solid concern. Well stated. It’s a word we should heed.
    You know what they say about unclear teaching – “a mist in the pulpit becomes a fog in the pew.”
    You are saying that teaching which is clear & right but not tethered, proven & demonstrated by sound hermeneutics is going to evaporate too quickly.

    Spencer

    PS: does Sproul even roll in a minivan? I picture him in an escalade.

  5. Colin Kertson June 19, 2013 at 8:46 pm

    I’d love it if believers, let alone church people, clamored for hermeneutics. Fact is, they don’t. They need Bible teachers with solid hermeneutics who are informed by the faithful exegetes of the past. Once people are converted and have this basis of truth in their hearts and minds they will desire to know how to rightly divide the Word of truth for themselves. Preaching is the God given means by which people are converted and encouraged to grow…not hermeneutics. We first learn, embrace, and love truth from Holy Spirit filled and gifted teachers…then we learn to find it for ourselves. Perhaps this is a void to be filled…not a defect in the amazing teachers we have today.

  6. Excellent article and valid concern I believe.

  7. The law (what ‘we do’) ought not be used to make us better…but to kill us off (expose our sinful nature and being).

    The gospel is then announced. Handed over. Free of charge. To hopefully, by God’s grace, make us alive again. Forgive us. Renew us.

    A lifelong battle for the Christian.

    Thanks.

  8. I am not opposed to hermeneutics…at age 50 however, and having many friends as pastors/teachers, I clearly see differences in their emphasis on certain areas of the gospel. I am reminded of what Saul of Tarsus did right AFTER his conversion… He went and shared the gospel, not going down to Jerusalem to check-in with the apostles until years (15?) later. When the demon filled, chain-breaking mad man was delivered and then wanted to join Jesus and the disciples, what did Jesus tell him? Go to the Decapolis (10 cities) and share your testimony there! No Intro to the Church 101 class. Go and tell…Show and tell.

    I am not opposed to being taught by pastors/teachers, but the best instruction comes from Holy Spirit. Where is the POWER of the Gospel???

    I see the problem most clearly in ME…
    and in our comfy, North American based church culture. Are we not teaching a watered down, powerless Jesus that fits into a block of time between breakfast and the football games on Sunday?

    With our hearts turned toward God and a hunger to know the Truth, and the POWER from Holy Spirit to obey, we could render hermeneutics as well as other church marketing strategies unnecessary!

    I pray that God will help me to break free from this comfortable, western culture theology!! Jesus said, that (with the Holy Spirit) we (believers) would do greater things than Him in advancing the Gospel. Have you? I sure have NOT! Do you know ANYONE walking with THAT power of the Holy Spirit? I don’t! Not personally. I read about it… In India..and Africa..and South America.

    God help us!
    GOD HELP ME!!!

    I have been wrestling with God on TOTAL surrender… considering quitting my job and just trusting Him to lead me…to provide for me on a daily basis…no healthcare… No savings account. Selling everything and giving it to the poor. TOTALLY TRUSTING HIM ONLY!!!

    BUT HOW CAN I DO THIS WHEN I cannot even muster the strength to deny myself my daily Dunkin Donuts coffee!!! I am weak and pathetic!!!

    There is something wrong and IT ISN’T the TRUTH OF THE GOSPEL!!!!

    If this quickens anyone, I ask for your prayers. Prayers for courage, obedience and discernment.

    God’s will be done!

    • I’m pretty sure God doesn’t expect us to choose homelessness and not work for our physical providence….

    • Dave Sherrill June 27, 2013 at 6:16 am

      John,
      I wonder if your wrestling hasn’t resulted in pulling a muscle. Must there be a “second blessing” or “higher life”, some form of super-spirituality that all Christians are called to walk in? I get a very different impression from Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians.

      —————————
      II Thess 3:10 For even when we were with you, we used to
      give you this order: if anyone will not work, neither let him eat.
      11 For we hear that some among you are leading an
      undisciplined life, doing no work at all, but acting like
      busybodies.
      12 Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord
      Jesus Christ to work in quiet fashion and eat their own bread.
      13 But as for you, brethren, do not grow weary of doing good.
      14 And if anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter,
      take special note of that man and do not associate with him,
      so that he may be put to shame.
      15 And yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish
      him as a brother.
      —————————————

      Therefore, I admonish you as a brother in the faith. Do not be weary in doing good. Ask the Lord for help living a disciplined life, and then pursue godly disciplines; working in quiet fashion, eating your own bread, and sharing with those in need.

      Sincerely Praying for You,
      Dave

  9. Amen! I’ve recently realized that I know plenty of theology, but I don’t know the Bible. It’s not enough even to use commentaries, knowing how to interpret the Bible is essential. The “fan boy” scenario is a real danger and this article is highly appropriate alongside the other article linked on Challies speaking to Personal Fulfillment Ministry. One leads to the other…

  10. Heather Thieneman June 20, 2013 at 2:02 pm

    As I wrote on Facebook recently, “There are people who love the Bible because it is the reformed thing to do and there are people who love reformed theology because it is the biblical thing to do… And there is a world of difference between the two types of people. To turn a phrase around “they are so far and yet so close.” This seems to dovetail with some of your concerns. The Bible has to come first or everything else is sinking sand. Thank you for reminding us of the importance of hermeneutics.

  11. It’s interesting how people see a need, in this case to recover (not re-cover, but you know) the gospel. It’s done very successfully. And then people have concerns about something that was done where a need was met in the church. I’ll admit that I don’t understand what these problems are. In a small group Bible study that I was in, they badly needed this. In my other circles I don’t see the need for concern. I’ve benefitted greatly from the few books I’ve read on it, and it clarified my need to dwell on the gospel everyday and what the gospel is.

    I think you’re talking about a very small group of people. Much much more evangelicals need this than need a warning. But maybe it’s warranted, after reading the responses.
    Jeff

  12. Right. So how do we do that?

  13. Ever take a look at Graeme Goldsworthy’s Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics ;) But I’m not sure reading another supplementary book is what you are aiming at, right? Rather, we need to be diving into The Book like thirsty men at the Spring of Life.

  14. Follow-up…

    We shouldn’t conclude that we just need to read more Bible and less other books.

    It’s probably useful to point out the difference between reading styles. I can read to know all the “right” beliefs. But I can also read more slowly to understand how the author came to these conclusions.

    More of this second type of reading will make us read less, but develop better hermeneutics.

  15. Melissa Rhyne June 21, 2013 at 8:54 am

    I almost never comment on these things that are posted in facebook statuses. However, I disagree that a hermewhatever is essential. First, the Bible clearly calls itself the only thing needed, and if we would spend more time immersed it it we would have far fewer differences in our interpretation of what God Almighty actually wants. Second, you seem to miss the fact that all believers must have some sort of foundation for their faith, and not all of them are seminary students or graduates. Again, the Word of God, ministered to the believer by God’s very own Spirit, is the only truly inerrant basis for faith in Christ. Spending time, words, ink, bandwidth and clicks trying to answer any question about continuity of faith without pointing directly and singularly back to the only perfect and holy source of documentation about our faith is, well, either naive or overeducated. My answer to those who seem “off track” has, and always will be, that they must read their entire Bible at least twice, preferably in two separate translations, before even thinking about what their theology is. You’d be horribly surprised at how many otherwise credentialed men and women have not done so.

    Lest it be missed entirely, my point is that it is completely up to God and His Spirit to tell me and you what He means. I think a focus on interpretation or any other noun couched in a high-sounding word ending in “tics” is the reason for the impotent mess the church is in today. The study of studying is absurd. There is one Lord, one faith, one Word, and He is entirely capable of disseminating that knowledge and wisdom to anyone who honestly asks.

    Simple? Childish? Absolutely. He is all I need. He is my Father and my Brother.

    • Melissa,

      Hermeneutics deals with how we read the Bible so as to see and take hold of its main message. In John 5:39, Jesus said to the Jews, “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life – but they are they that testify of me, yet you will not come to me that you may find life.” They read their Bibles – but they didn’t get the message.

      In Luke 24, two times Jesus met with disciples and opened to them the Scriptures (the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms) to show them how the Old Testament testified of Jesus.

      Today, man y people read without looking at all of Scripture through the lens of Jesus. They may read for history, for moral teachings, for “proofs” of the authenticity of the Scriptures (or even to disprove the Scriptures), or for many other reasons. Most of these are helpful in one way or another – BUT if we do not read to meet Jesus, we will miss the main thing in the Scriptures, both old and new testaments.

      The problem with many approaches to hermeneutics is that people try to turn it into a set of rules applied indiscriminately to all parts of the Bible. A good hermeneutic will try to see every passage in the context of its place in Scripture.

      What is said before and after the passage? What sort of book is this? To whom is the author speaking? Why was it written? How should those receiving it have understood it? What did the author intend them to understand from it? What kind of book is it anyway? Law? History? Wisdom? Poetry? Prophecy? Gospel? Epistle? Apocalypse?

      There are things unique about each of these, though all come from God – and in one way or another, all testify about Jesus. But to read poetry as if it is law or wisdom literature as if it is gospel means that we are likely to miss the message.

      Everyone reading the Bible has a hermeneutic, even if they’ve never heard the word. “It says what it means and means what it says” is a hermeneutic – though it may not appreciate the figures of speech, the significance of the stories, or the meanings of idiomatic expression that are strange to our ears but would be as plain to the early readers as “it’s raining cats and dogs” is to us!

      While appreciating the call for a sound, healthy hermeneutic, I still applaud those who are looking for the gospel – but the gospel was announced first in the Old Testament, not in Paul. Those authors such as N. T. Wright, Scott McKnight, and many others who struggle against the reduction of the gospel to the “plan of salvation” are doing the church a favor by drawing us into “the full gospel,” not in the Pentecostal use of that phrase, but into the fullness of the message of God as we are able to see it fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

      This is the only sound hermeneutic that I know: Jesus is the ultimate message of the Scriptures. If we miss Him, we miss everything.

  16. Michael Krogstad June 21, 2013 at 9:31 am

    My wife and I have had over the last 20 years a ministry to parents and their ability to impact the lives of their children through Biblical principles. Over the last couple of years, I have come in contact with a number who have fallen on the Gospel Centered wagon and read all the right books and listened to all the right speakers through podcasts and simulcasts and the like. They would consider themselves as having a passion for the Gospel. However, I would agree that when it comes to the hermeneutics of it all, they are challenged to get there. They have become so saturated with all the right things that they have lost their ability to think and reason through it to create a logical representation based on scripture to have a defense.

    But I would have to say, they have a bigger issue. I would put out there that the hermeneutics is very important, however, unless you can take it and apply it or as I use as an example with my kids wield it effectively like a sword to produce changed lives, I would contend that you will still lose out as it has no impact on those around out. In the case of those I am thinking of, they have a grasp of God’s love and the Gospel and the need people have for it. However, they are the blind leading the blind. I would contend that although they believe it and have an accurate interpretation of what it means, it has not impacted them personally to be an impact in their spheres of influence. They have no time in their lives for those who are dirty, for those who are in need, for those who need real discipleship…which will take hours, weeks, months, years to produce change.

    I would agree with John Farr when he talks about being in a comfortable, western society. The church has filled its time with all those things that look good, but have not pursued what is best. As Mother Goose quipped,

    Good, Better, Best
    Never let it rest
    Til the good gets better and the better gets best.

    We need to be pursuing what is best in our live and what we are really called to.

    Again, I agree that we need the theology, need the hermeneutics, need the gospel, but what we really need is the change in the heart desire and motivation to take an apply that gospel message to our lives in a way that creates a curiosity and desire for change in the lives we have in our sphere of influence. The stories are told in changed lives.

  17. I think you hit the nail on the head, Erik.

    The gospel must be central. And gospel ministry must be imitable (able to be imitated). If the next generation of leaders can’t replicate what the prior generation did – and understand how they got there from the Scripture – they’re doomed to drift.

    “Be strengthened by grace…and what you have heard from me…entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim 2:1-2).

    As we learn from past and present teachers, we also have a great opportunity to help people learn how to study the Bible for themselves.

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