Did Jesus Have a “Gospel-Centered” Ministry?
POSTED BY RICK PHILLIPS
We often read today of a “gospel-centered”TM ministry as opposed to a legalistic or otherwise sub-Christian approach to salvation. When used in this trade-marked sense, “gospel-centered” usually means that we must exclusively present God’s forgiveness for sinners through faith alone in the blood of his Son. We must not emphasize (or perhaps even mention) God’s standards of conduct, methods for becoming more holy, or the application of spiritual effort in Christian living.
Of course, there is an important and right sense in which we must be gospel-centered, wherein Jesus in his person and work is the center of our message. This will certainly lead to an emphasis on justification through faith alone and forgiveness through Christ’s blood, but it will extend to include the entire scope of his redemptive work and will. It is in this sense that we may contrast a Christ-centered ministry to the kind of “gospel-centered”TM ministry that presents forgiveness + nothing as the gospel. This raises the question to me as to whether Jesus himself can be said to have a “gospel-centered”TM ministry?
To satisfy my curiosity, I turned to the Gospel of Mark, which is currently being read during the morning worship services of the church I serve. I do realize that the Gospels are not given as a statistical sample of Jesus’ ministry day-to-day. Still, we should be able to get a fair sense of our Lord’s own priorities if we categorize the types of messages recorded in his Gospels. For simplicity’s sake, I noted 4 main types of ministry emphases highlighted by Jesus in Mark:
1. Jesus declaring his deity as Messiah, together with his teaching about God and salvation (i.e. theology and redemptive history).
2. Jesus preaching the gospel: pointing out his hearers’ need to be forgiven and God’s wonderful remedy through his saving work. Included here would be calls to prospective disciples to believe and follow Jesus.
3. Jesus training and reproving his disciples, including ethical and spiritual instruction and his call to evangelistic labor.
4. Jesus exposing false teachers and religious opposition. This includes the confronting and correcting of false doctrine.
Armed with this grid, I worked my way through the Gospel of Mark. Passage-by-passage, I asked what Jesus was doing. His call to believe the gospel (Mk. 1:15) and for the disciples to leave their boats to follow him (Mk. 1:16-20) were both put down as 2. Preaching the gospel. His healing of a man with an unclean spirit (Mk. 1:21-28) was 1. Declaring his deity as Messiah. The healing of the paralytic in Mk. 2:1-12 was counted in three ways: 1. Jesus declaring his deity, 2. Preaching the gospel, and 4. Exposing religious opposition. I admit that these decisions are subjective, but I do think they will give a fairly general summary of the content in Jesus’ ministry. So, working through the Gospel of Mark, how would we categorize Jesus’ ministry?
The answer is that Jesus’ primary emphasis was in 1. Declaring his deity as Messiah and teaching theology. Working through Mark, I made 30 tick marks under this category. The next emphasis was 3. Training and reproving his disciples. I noted this emphasis 22 times. Third was category 4. Exposing false teaching and religious opposition, which occurred 16 times. The least frequent emphasis was 2. Preaching the gospel, which was observed 8 times.
I would invite others to replicate this survey of Jesus’ teaching in Mark’s Gospel. Due to the non-technical nature of my assessment, others will no doubt come up with different numbers. But the picture is likely to be the same. As Mark records it, Jesus primarily ministered to reveal himself as the Divine Messiah, he regularly reproved and instructed his followers, he routinely confronted false teaching and religious opposition, and he often presented to sinners the offer of a free salvation.
This brings me back to the original question: did Jesus’ have a gospel-centered ministry? The answer, it turns out, depends on whether or not the trademark is applied. Under the “gospel-centered”TM rubric, a true ministry must constantly and almost exclusively hammer home the free offer of forgiveness through faith alone in Christ’s blood. Teaching theology is deemed irrelevant, instruction is legalistic, and confronting false teaching is ungracious. In this approach, the biblical evidence shows that Jesus did not have a “gospel-centered”TM ministry. In fact, most of what Jesus did in Mark’s Gospel involves messages that a “gospel-centered”TM ministry does not approve.
How can this be? How can Jesus himself fail to be “gospel-centered”TM? The answer is that, biblically speaking, the gospel does not have the trademark given to it today. Indeed, the Bible shows that Jesus is himself the gospel, so that the good news involves all that he said and did. So, removing the trademark, we ask again: Was Jesus gospel-centered? The answer is Yes! But how was Jesus gospel-centered? The answer is that he revealed himself as the divine Messiah and enlightened man about God, he showed the power and grace to live a new kind of life, he exposed darkness and unbelief as false and ungodly, and he offered forgiveness to broken sinners. This was Jesus’ gospel-centered ministry, and what good news it is! May we, following our Savior, likewise present fully-orbed gospel-centered ministries to the church and the world in Jesus’ name.
Rick Phillips is pastor of 2nd Presbyterian Church of Greenville, SC and blogs at REFORMATION 21.