Pastor Bill Streger, a pastor in the Acts29 network, has posted an interesting post (with which I do not necessarily agree on everything), Gospel-centered Legalism, asking the question: Is it possible to be legalistic about "Gospel-centeredness"? As he later clarifies in a comment:
My worry is not that we would be to centered on the gospel, but that rather than actually being centered on the gospel itself we would become enamored with “Gospel-Centered” as a catchphrase that includes all of our own theological distinctives and excludes those who don’t share them.
My fear is that we will create insider language and jargon that becomes the qualifiers for whether or not we judge someone to be orthodox, rather than what they actually believe.
My fear is that “gospel-centered” would become “the next big thing” in Christian marketing and countless pastors will use it as a badge of honor to wear (much like “missional” has become over the past decade) rather than a true state of our hearts.
My fear is that instead of actually being gospel-centered we would settle for simply talking about it.
From my personal interaction with the New Calvinist crowd, I am similarly worried regarding such a scenario. As I have rhetorically asked in my initial paper on the New Evangelical Calvinism [probably going to be withdrawn soon], and repeated in my CREDO500 paper,
Will we aim for rational and lifestyle consistency even in our profession of the Gospel, or will we settle merely for outward compliance to the Gospel and perhaps agreements on the major flashpoints of the culture wars like homosexuality, complementarianism, racism and missions? What makes these flashpoints more worthy of contending for as compared to the other doctrines and practices of Scripture?
On the surface, my contention with the New Calvinists has to do with the issue of "tone" and of the necessity of discernment and calling out heretics. This Neo-Evangelical "mood" permeates at least the New Calvinist crowd over in Singapore and Tim Challies in Canada. However, despite whatever heat may be generated by such issues, these are not the fundamental issue of contention. The fundamental issue of contention boils down to the issue of Sola Scriptura. As I have written in my paper on this topic:
During the Reformation, the material principle was the principle of Justification by Faith alone, while the formal principle was Scripture Alone or Sola Scriptura. In an interaction on a blog ..., there has been the insistence that Gospel-centeredness is enough, for Gospel-centeredness will necessarily preclude what I call Gospel-Onlyness — the view that everything is decided with respects to its impact on and consequence of the Gospel. Does embrace of the material principle therefore necessarily implies the embrace of the formal principle? Why then does the Reformation consists of two principles instead of merely one, and the insistence on the supreme authority of the Scripture for all of life as much as the Gospel itself was the issue of contention?
The formal principle of Sola Scriptura deals with the epistemological foundation of the faith within which the Gospel will thrive. Without the foundation, there are no set boundaries on what the Gospel actually is limited to. This does not mean of course that the Gospel does not have implications on various sundry issues, but the fact of the matters is without an epistemological foundation, upon what authority can agreement on the major issues be made, and what basis can defence be made against sophisticated denials of the Gospel which professes to be Gospel-centered like for example New Perspectivism, or as we have discussed previously in the case of Douglas Wilson, Federal Vision? ... While it is true that emphasizing belief in Sola Scriptura does not necessarily preclude anyone from denying it in word or action, at least Scripture can function as a safeguard within which all matters of life and doctrine can be settled, instead of a vague, general appeal to the Gospel without its corresponding epistemic foundation.
In the controversy us Reformed folks have with the YRR (Young, Restless, Reformed) New Calvinists over the New Evangelicalism, the key point actually lies not with the doctrine of separation, important though it may be, or other points of doctrinal differences . The issue is with the supreme authority of Scripture over all of life INCLUDING our praxis. As Streger points out, the phrase “Gospel-Centered” can degenerate into a mere "catchphrase that includes all of our own theological distinctives and excludes those who don’t share them", especially uniting these New Calvinists around the various "flashpoints" which they love to champion (ie homosexuality, complementarianism, racism, missions). The term "Gospel" and "Gospel-centered" thus functions in the New Calvinism as a dividing line by which they differentiate between those who are "in" and those who are "out" based upon their theological perspectives instead of the Word of God.
That is why the correct emphases must be placed on Sola Scriptura as well as Sola Fide and Sola Gratia. The Gospel IS NOT the determining factor of what constitutes orthodoxy. As the material principle, it is the subject of orthodoxy but never the arbiter of it. The arbiter of orthodoxy must always remain the Scriptures alone. When the material principle is made to bear the full weight of orthodoxy when it was never designed by God for that purpose, distortion of the Gospel inevitably happens sooner or later.
Just like the monocovenantalist who attempts to collapse the two covenants into one, the mono-emphasis on the Gospel in being "Gospel-centered" will create the type of as-of-now hypothetical scenario Stretger rightly fears and decries. In point of fact, as monocovenantalism can degenerate into its legalistic and antinomian branches (conditional covenant versus unconditional gracious covenant), the mono-emphasis on the Gospel can degenerate into Gospel-centered Legalism and Gospel-centered Antinomianism (whereby all are believed as orthodox as long as they preach the "Gospel" - as long as it somehow sounds like the Gospel), which seems to be practiced by John Piper in the case of Douglas Wilson.
The only corrective for the New Calvinism is to recover the proper emphasis on Sola Scriptura. It is not enough to simply have Sola Scriptura as a truth to be believed in, but it must be a truth to be embraced with just as much passion as the Gospel. Instead of calling themselves "Gospel-centered" people, perhaps they should be "Gospel-and-Word-centered" people, putting both principles in their proper places.
It is only in this light that progress can be possibly made on any issues and doctrines. It is feared that currently, any discussion of "tone" etc will be based upon whether such is "Gospel-centered" or not. The New Calvinist may very well be, probably unintentionally, bringing their unbiblical view on this matter to the topic, and disguising it based upon his agreement with the Gospel message proper. Using the epistemic standard of Sola Scripture however forces all involved to deal with the actual teachings of Scripture on this subject, instead of leaving room for errant views of ministry etc to hide in the darkness. It is only then that we can work for resolution of our doctrinal differences. May God grant us a renewed focus on the absolute authority of His Word alongside a renewed zeal for the Gospel. Amen.