Over the last decade or so, the term "gospel-centered" has become very popular among some followers of Jesus. Many words have issued forth from those people as to what it means to be gospel-centered. It has also triggered much thought on the matter in me—both what it means to be gospel-centered and how that compares to the thinking of those who love the term.
The gospel is the backbone of the Bible—the basic story that all the other stories, moral teachings, chronicles, prophecies, visions, proverbs, songs, and laments in the Bible hang from.
A number of people summarize the gospel as a four-movement symphony, like this (descriptions mine):
Creation. The Triune God made all things, invisible (spiritual) and visible (physical). God made human beings, male and female, in the image of the Triune God to represent and mimic God on this planet as cultivators, beautifiers, namers, and rulers. Human beings had no guilt, shame, or fear between each other and between themselves and God.
Fall. Succumbing to the enticement of Satan (a rebellious archangel), humans sought to become like God in competition with him rather than as reflections of him. They wanted to go their own way. By rebelling—sinning—against the source of their life, they lost the immortality that could have been theirs. Guilt, shame, fear, and conflict entered human existence: between people, between people and nature, between people and their bodies, between people and their self-concepts, and above all between people and God. All subsequent people, compulsively and by nature, replicate this pattern by making substitute gods of created things. All human problems ultimately stem from it.
Redemption. God the Father sent God the Son to become human, to unite humanity and divinity into his one Person—Jesus of Nazareth, the Anointed One (Messiah, Christ). He became like humans in every way and experienced what we do in every way except that there was not a hint of sin/rebellion in him. By God's intent, humans killed him. His death was the stand-in for the death all humans deserve; by it God absorbed God's just anger against evil within God so that evil humans could receive total forgiveness—a verdict of not guilty—and become reconciled to him, adopted into the Father's family as his own children.
Re-creation. In his life, Jesus repeatedly healed the painful consequences of sin that humans suffer (such as sickness)—a foretaste of a new world. After his death he rose from the dead in a new body as the prototype of a new humanity. He returned to heaven and sent his Holy Spirit into his followers, who began transforming them into that new humanity by replacing their natural sinful tendencies and multiplying the sort of miracles that Jesus performed. Jesus will return to judge the world, removing all evil—and those spirits and humans who cling to it—to permanent destruction and establishing a gloriously perfect world for completely renewed people.
The one proper and personally effective response to the gospel is to believe it—to really believe it. Really believing the gospel necessarily (not optionally) manifests itself in:
repentance—verbally and practically disavowing one’s self-directed (i.e., sinful) life in exchange for obeying God,
faith—discarding one’s standing and self-concept as a “good” or “bad” person and taking on Jesus’ perfect standing and identity to replace one’s own,
following—learning to imitate Jesus in community with his other disciples by following his Spirit’s direction so that Jesus lives his life through oneself.
The preceding may not be what you've encountered in Christianity, but it is Christianity in a nutshell as the Bible describes it.
From what I've experienced with people who like the term "gospel-centered," they would say "amen" to everything I wrote above (except for the sort of person who wouldn't because they have to find something wrong with everything). However, many of them would NOT call all of it "the gospel."
I think that is because each of us who loves the gospel feels a greater personal affinity to one or two of the four movements above the others. That is probably a result of our personality, what God has brought us through, and the people we have spent time with who have formed us.
Most people I have ever met or read who like the term "gospel-centered" favor Redemption the most. Almost everyone else in that group favors Fall the most (which is kind of a head-scratcher for me), and Fall is the clear No. 2 for most of the Redemption folks.
It happens that these "gospel-centered" people really like hanging out with each other socially and literarily. So their discussion of the gospel becomes sort of an echo chamber that amplifies Redemption and Fall, because that's what they dig the most. The focus on Redemption and Fall becomes so great that for many people—especially those who rarely breathe the unhealthy air outside the gospel-centered bubble (sarcasm alert)—Redemption and/or Fall becomes the whole gospel. They don't deny Creation or Re-creation, but they view them as second-tier—they're good, but they're not the Good News.
This is sad and frustrating to me. For one thing, it's unbiblical.
The elevation of Redemption may result from obsessive reading of Paul as the criterion of the whole rest of the canon of Scripture. But when you read all of the places that "gospel" (or its cognate verb in Greek, often translated "preach") appears in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts, you see a little bit about Redemption, but you see Re-creation everywhere. It's called "the kingdom of God." Even though the word "gospel" does not appear in John, you see Re-creation there too—it's called "eternal life." In Acts, the apostles announce the offer of God's forgiveness, but they rarely tie it to Jesus' death. The main reason they bring up Jesus' death is to proclaim his resurrection.
Even Paul himself loved Re-creation and saw it as intrinsic to the gospel. That's why, when some people in Corinth were teaching that "there is no resurrection from the dead" (1 Cor. 15:12), Paul began his correction by saying, "Now I want to make clear for you, brothers and sisters, the gospel that I preached to you, that you received and on which you stand, and by which you are being saved" (vv. 1-2). Paul wrote that because Christ rose from the dead, Redemption is true (otherwise the Corinthians would still be "in your sins," v. 17), but the whole rest of the fifty-eight-verse chapter is a proof that Re-creation is true.
The second reason that it bothers me when people equate "gospel-centered" with "Redemption-/Fall-centered" is that it divides the church. If people who resonate most with Redemption and Fall bunch together, then people who resonate most with Creation and Re-creation—like myself—are left out for not being "gospel-centered" enough. Then when Creation or Re-creation people bunch together, they make the same imbalanced sort of judgment on people who aren't like them. It makes God sad.
And it makes the devil happy. The last thing he wants is for a united church to preach the complete gospel. (I wonder, did Mark Driscoll and C. J. Mahaney get special attention from the devil because they threatened to make Re-creation credible to Redemption types? And did they fail because they did not sufficiently believe in the ramifications of the Fall? All speculations.)
Probably none of us can become truly gospel-centered alone. To be whole, we need a church where emphases on all four are evenly represented. But when believers withdraw from each other into like-minded churches over which chapter of the gospel story is really the heart of it, how will anyone become gospel-centered?