What Is Gospel-Centered Ministry? (with French Interpretation)

Institut Biblique de Genève | Geneva, Switzerland

There’s only one kind of gospel-centered ministry that I’m interested in, namely the kind that is God-glorifying, Christ-exalting, and Bible-saturated. My deep conviction is that this kind of gospel-centered ministry can only be sustained for a lifetime by a certain kind of person, namely the person who sees the gospel of Christ in a certain way. He sees the gospel as the supreme expression of the grace of God, and he sees the grace of God as the supreme expression of the glory of God. He sees the glory of God as the supreme purpose of God in all that he does. People who see the gospel in this way will be sustained for a lifetime of gospel-centered ministry.

My aim is that you would see and feel this wonder that the gospel is the supreme expression of the grace of God, and that the grace of God is the supreme expression of the glory of God, and that the glory of God is the supreme purpose of God’s creation of the universe. I want you to have a life that is amazed at the gospel that way. So, that’s my aim.

The Supreme Display of the Glory of God’s Grace

Now, let me give you a few definitions. When I speak of the gospel in this message, I mean this. I mean mainly the death and the resurrection of Jesus, propitiating the wrath of God, and purchasing every blessing for God’s people. I have in mind centrally the event of the gospel and what it purchased. Then let me say a word about what I mean by “center”. I don’t mean the gospel is the center of a circle. That’s a totally legitimate way of thinking about the center of the gospel. You might think of the sun at the center of the solar system, and it’s blazing with glory. It’s holding all the planets in their proper orbit.

I’m not thinking about the center that way. I’m thinking about the center of a line. Everything before the gospel at the center is aiming toward it on this line, and everything that comes after the gospel on this line is made possible because of the gospel. The line stretches backward into eternity and forward into eternity. On this line are all the plans and all the works of God to bring his redeemed people into everlasting joy in his presence, which really means that everything that happens is on this line because God intends even the evil that he permits to serve the good of his people on this line of grace. The gospel is the center of this eternal line, because it is the supreme display of the glory of God’s grace.

Before the death of Christ, there was never a display of glory greater than that display. And after the death of Christ, there never will be a display of the glory of grace greater than that display. But that does not mean that those of us who live after the cross are always looking back for our joy. The past only contains memories, and memories will never satisfy the human soul. What will satisfy the human soul is the presence of the living Christ, and what will make our joy complete in his presence is that this Christ is the one who died for us and rose again. The death and the resurrection of Christ is the most beautiful act he ever performed, but to be with him in the new heavens and the new earth is our ultimate hope.

The backward look to the cross shows why we can have that hope, and as we look at the cross, we are reminded what kind of person we will be with forever. So, the gospel is the center of this line that stretches into eternity, and we have two exegetical tasks now before us. First, I want us to see that everything on this line up to the death of Christ is pointing forward to it and preparing for it, and everything that comes after the death of Christ is possible for God’s people only because of the death of Christ. If we can see those two things, we will establish the centrality of the gospel the way I’m thinking about it, and it will become plain that all of life becomes gospel-centered ministry.

The Ultimate Purpose of God

Let’s take the first exegetical task now. I invite you, if you have a Bible, to turn to Ephesians chapter one. We’re going to look at Ephesians 1:4–6. I think this is one of the most important passages about the ultimate purposes of God in history. The reason it has such power for me is because it describes preparation for the gospel before history began. It says:

[God] chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.

What this verse teaches is that the ultimate purpose in all of his saving acts is the display of the glory of his grace for the enjoyment of his people. In Ephesians 1:4, he chose us. In Ephesians 1:5, he predestined us and planned to adopt us into his family. In Ephesians 1:5, it was all according to the purpose of his will. What is that purpose? At the beginning of Ephesians 1:6, it was to the praise of the glory of his grace. So my argument is that the supreme purpose of God in all that he does is the display of his glory, and the supreme expression of that glory is the glory of his grace. He does all that for the enjoyment of his people.

I get this idea of enjoyment from the word “praise” in Ephesians 1:6. It says “unto the praise of the glory of his grace.” Biblical praise is the overflow of joy in the greatness of God. So God’s purpose in all that he has done is to display his glory, namely the glory of his grace for the enjoyment of his people, because praise is the overflow of that joy.

The Gospel Prepared Before Creation

Now, the question is what does all that have to do with the gospel? Paul answers that by pointing in three ways to the preparation of the gospel before creation. All of the planning of God to treat us with grace was happening through Jesus, so don’t miss the centrality of the word grace in Ephesians 1:6, which says “unto the praise of the glory of his grace.” Let me show you these three places where the gospel is pointed to.

First, it’s in Ephesians 1:6 in the phrase “in the Beloved.” What he was showing is that there’s electing grace and predestining grace and adopting grace. All of these plans for us were “in the Beloved.” So as God looked from eternity into the future, he saw the Beloved, and only because of the Beloved, Jesus Christ, could he elect graciously. He was predestining graciously, and he was adopting graciously. The reason it was gracious is because we were considered as sinners. Grace is something we don’t deserve. In fact, positively, we demerit this grace. We don’t have any right to it at all because of our sin. That’s the way God was thinking about us when he chose us and predestined us and adopted us.

So all of these acts in the mind of God before creation were gracious. And that’s why they had to be in the Beloved. The gospel was conceived before creation so that sinners could be elect. The gospel was conceived and planned before creation so that he could adopt sinners like us into his family.

Let’s see it a second time. We see it in the phrase “in Christ” in verse four, which says:

Even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world . . .

God chose us thinking of us in union with Christ. There would be no possibility of him choosing and predestining and adopting us except for our relationship to Christ. So Christ is crucified and risen and alive and able to be united to a people before the foundation of the world in the mind of God. So God has the center of history, the gospel, in view from eternity.

Now, here’s the third place we see this. In Ephesians 1:4–5, we see the phrase “through Jesus Christ.”It says:

In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will,

So all of the grace of predestination and election and adoption is coming to us through Jesus Christ. In the mind of God, he’s seeing us as absolutely unworthy sinners, and he’s choosing us, and he can only do that because of Christ. So now we’ve seen three times that God has treated us graciously before creation in relation to Jesus Christ — in the Beloved, through Jesus Christ, in Christ. So he sees the gospel and he sees Christ crucified from eternity, and because of that, he can choose sinners for his own.

The Lamb’s Book of Life

Now, let me try to confirm this perspective with two other passages of Scripture. One is from my text yesterday. Second Timothy 1:9 says:

[God] saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began . . .

Notice, it’s grace that was given to us before the creation of the world. Grace is what comes to sinners, and it was before the ages began. How could grace come to sinners? Notice the phrase that says “which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.” So in the mind of God from eternity, he planned to give grace to sinners, and he could only do this because he did it through Jesus Christ. That Christ crucified is the center of the history to which all this planning leads.

Here’s a second confirmation, Revelation 13:8. John has a picture in his mind here of those who do not worship the beast. He says the reason they don’t worship the beast is because their names are in a book. He says their names were written there before the foundation of the world. This is John’s picture of election before the foundation of the world. Because their names were in the book, they did not yield to the beast. Now, what’s the name of the book? In Revelation 13:8 it’s called “the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.”

Now, picture this. In eternity, there’s a book. It has a name, and the name is “the book of the life of the Lamb who was slain.” In that book are names, those who would be guarded from the beast thousands of years later, which means that God was planning for protecting his people, and the reason he could protect them is because the Lamb had been slain for them. It was in the mind of God before eternity. As he planned history, he planned for that Lamb to be slain at the center of history.

The Reason History Exists

Let me try to summarize what we’ve seen so far. On the first half of this line, everything is leading to and pointing to Jesus Christ crucified. That gospel is the supreme expression of the grace of God, and the grace of God is the supreme expression of the glory of God. The display of the glory of God’s grace is the reason that the line exists. So the gospel is the goal of everything leading up to that center.

One more passage might be illuminating on this first point. Second Corinthians 4:4 says:

In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

That’s an amazing description of the gospel. It is “the gospel of the glory of Christ,” which confirms for me that this point in the center of history is the point where the glory of God shines most brightly. So the ultimate purpose of this line of history is that God’s glory might be displayed.

That’s why he created the world. That’s why he does everything he does. It’s to display his glory. And the grace of God is the supreme expression of the glory of God, and the gospel at the center is the supreme expression of that grace. That’s the end of our first exegetical task, to see that everything from eternity up to the gospel is leading to the gospel and preparing for the gospel.

All Made Possible Through the Death of Christ

Now, here’s the second task we have, to see that everything on the other side of the death of Christ is made possible by the death of Christ. Here, we move closer to the idea of gospel-centered life and ministry. All of God’s help, and all of God’s promises, and all of God’s gifts of every kind for his people, are owing to the death of Christ. I’m going to take those one at a time.

First, all of God’s help for us is owing to the gospel. I invite you to turn to Hebrews 13:20–21. It says:

Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.

Everything we do in ministry, and everything we do in life that has any spiritual value at all, is possible only because God is at work in us. Look at Hebrews 13:21. It says, “working in us that which is pleasing in his sight.” The only way you can do anything that pleases God is because God is working in you to enable you to do what’s pleasing to him. So, how do we do life? How do we do ministry? How do we do ministry that pleases God? Answer, God has to be working in us.

Now, I’m a sinner. I don’t deserve to have an infinitely holy God working in me. So, how does it come about that I am able to have an infinitely holy God working what is pleasing to him in me? The answer to that is found in that little phrase in Hebrews 13:21 which says “through Jesus Christ.” It says, “working in us that which is pleasing in his sight through Jesus Christ.” What this author has in mind when he says “through Jesus Christ” is the Christ of Hebrews 13:20, and the Christ of verse 20 is the one who shed his blood of the eternal covenant.

Now, let this sink in for just a minute. What is the blood of the eternal covenant? This is the blood of Christ shed for the sake of purchasing all the blessings of the New Covenant. Do you remember when Jesus held up the cup at the Last Supper? What did he say? He said, “This cup is the New Covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). That means that when he sheds his blood, he purchases all the blessings of the New Covenant for you. What were those promises? He says, “I will take out your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26), and, “I will write my law on your heart” (Jeremiah 31:33), and, “I will cause you to walk in my statutes” (Ezekiel 36:27). That’s exactly what Hebrews 13:21 is opening for us.

He equips you with everything good to do his will, and he’s working in you what is pleasing in his sight. In other words, he’s fulfilling the New Covenant promises in your life and ministry. How is that possible? It’s through Jesus Christ, through the blood of the eternal covenant. You can’t do anything that pleases God apart from the blood of the covenant. The only reason God is at work in your life to enable you to do ministry is the blood of the covenant. So, my point on this line is that from the death of Christ onward, everything is possible only because of the blood of Jesus.

All the Promises of God

Let me give you two more texts on this. One of them is 2 Corinthians 1:20. What we see here is that all the promises of God are because of the gospel. Our experience of the fulfillment of any promise is owing to the blood of Jesus. It says:

For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory.

Now, that is an amazing statement. All the promises in the word of God come to the people of God in Christ Jesus. When I was raising my four sons, and now while I’m raising my daughter who’s still at home, I tried to teach them that we live by the promises of God. We get up in the morning and remember a promise of God, and we had several favorite promises as a family. Anytime they would take a trip, or I would take a trip, we would lay hold of Isaiah 41:10. Just before we came over here, my daughter and my wife and I made a little huddle in the kitchen, and I said:

Fear not, for I am with you;
     be not dismayed, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
     I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

That’s our main family promise. What I’ve tried to help them see is that they don’t deserve to have that answered. Satan is always going to say to them, “You don’t deserve to have that promise come true.” I wanted my children to be able to say, “I know that I don’t deserve it. That’s not why I expect it to come true. I expect it to come true because all the promises of God are yes in Jesus.”

If I’m united to Jesus, they’re mine. That’s the way I wanted them to live their lives. I think the entire Christian life is a life of faith; meaning, we live by the promises of God. Every aspect of life and every aspect of ministry is by faith. Every time you trust a promise of God, you are banking on the gospel, because he died so that every promise could be yes in him. Sinners can expect to have God fulfill his promises only because of the gospel, which means that every moment of your life is a gospel moment. You’re trusting in the purchase of the cross at every moment of faith. So God’s help comes through the gospel, and God’s promises come through the gospel. I have one more: all of his gifts of every conceivable kind (for God’s people) come through the gospel.

All Things in Jesus Christ

Now, I’ll take you to what may be my favorite verse in the Bible. Romans 8:32 says:

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?

Now, that is simply spectacular. It is a rhetorical question. He expects you to know the answer to the question. Here’s the question again: he who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not with him graciously give us all things? The answer is yes, he will. It’s a logic called a fortiori, an argument from the greater to the lesser. If God did the greater, he will surely do the lesser, and what’s the greater here? The greater thing is that he did not spare his Son. He didn’t spare him spitting. He didn’t spare him beating. He didn’t spare him mockery. He didn’t spare him being tortured to death on the cross. If God did not do that, Paul says, he will give you everything with him.

Now, do you see the logic? If you don’t see this logic, you won’t see how all of life is gospel-based and gospel-centered. Everything God does for you, everything he gives you, even though you’re a sinner, is because God didn’t spare his Son. That’s the way we’re supposed to think about every blessing that comes to us. It’s the way we’re supposed to think about all the help God gives us. It’s how we should think about all the promises that we trust in hour by hour, all the grace that flows through us in ministry. All of it is because God didn’t spare his Son, which means every moment of your life, you’re living in the power of the gospel.

This is simply staggering. What’s staggering about it is not only what God did, but the words “all things.” What does that mean? All things are yours. Let’s just make sure we see the amazing nature of that promise. Look at Romans 8:16–17. It says:

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs — heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ . . .

It’s an amazing thing to be a Christian. To be a child of God is to be a fellow heir with the divine Son of God. What is Jesus going to inherit? Everything. Everything will be under the feet of Jesus. So Jesus tells us in the book of Revelation that we’re going to sit on the throne with Jesus. It is just breathtaking what we are promised as the children of God, and all of that is because the Father didn’t spare his Son. At the middle of this line was the greatest event in history. Everything before it from eternity was leading to it, and all the blessings that come to the children of God forever afterwards are owing to it. That’s the way I’m thinking about being gospel-centered. The gospel is the center of all things.

The Gifts We Need

Look at 1 Corinthians 3:21. We just have to feel the wonder of this promise in Romans 8:32. It says:

So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future — all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.

Surely, there are many of you right now saying nice words, but my wife has cancer. My kid is not a believer. My church is about to shut down. So what’s the point of saying we have all things? Are these just words? I mean, what would it even mean to believe this? Now, I love the apostle Paul, because he’s so relentlessly realistic in Romans 8. When he is finished with Romans 8:32, he goes on, and he asks:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us (Romans 8:35–37).

So when Paul said back in verse 32 “all things are yours,” he included things like martyrdom being yours. Starvation may be yours. Nakedness may be yours. Isn’t that the same thing he said over in 1 Corinthians 3:22? He said life is yours and death is yours. So what does he mean when he says, “Because he died for you, everything is yours”?

Let me make the problem just a little worse. How many times have you read Matthew 6:33? Don’t be anxious. Don’t be anxious. Don’t be anxious. And then he says, “Seek first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be added to you.” Really? Jesus, what do you mean? I mean, he’s going to say a few chapters later, “Some of you they will kill” (Matthew 24:9). Now, my approach to the Bible is not to sit in judgment on it. My approach to the Bible is to let it judge me, and to submit my mind to it, and try to find, if I can, the coherence of it. Here’s the way I put it together. When Romans 8:32 says, “Since he didn’t spare his own Son, will he not give you all things with him?” he means “all things that you will need to please him and glorify him.”

He doesn’t mean you won’t get cancer. We know that from Romans 8:23, where our bodies are groaning, waiting for the redemption of our bodies. He doesn’t mean there won’t be problems in the church. Jesus had problems with his own disciples. He means that in every challenge we face, he will be enough for us. All the grace will be there to endure for him with joy in him. Or as Romans 8:28 says, all these things are going to work together for your everlasting good. So I stay by Romans 8:32. Since he did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, he will absolutely, certainly give me everything I need for my ministry.

If I need the grace to endure criticism, he’s going to give it to me. If I need the grace to be voted out of my church for standing for truth, he’s going to give me this grace. And if I need the strength to suffer and die for him, he’ll be sure to be there for me.

In Reliance Upon the Blood

Let me see if I can sum up where we’ve been. What I mean by gospel-centered is not the center of a circle. That’s an absolutely right and good image. The gospel is the blazing sun at the center of the solar system. It fills the solar system of our lives with light and glory. Its power holds all the planets of our lives in proper orbit. But today, I’m thinking about the center of a line, and everything from eternity past is leading to the central glory of the gospel in that line. Everything after that gospel into eternity, all those blessings, are coming from that gospel.

So here’s what gospel ministry means for me. It means doing everything in reliance on blood-bought promises. I can do nothing apart from the grace of God. This grace comes to me moment by moment every day. It sustains me right now as I try to think while I’m being translated. I’m just desperately hanging on to grace moment by moment. I’m saying, “Don’t let me lose my place.” Therefore, all of my life in reliance on grace is based on this gospel at the center of history, because none of this moment-by-moment grace could come to the sinner, John Piper, if there was no blood for me. So, the first thing gospel-centered ministry means for me is this, doing all my ministry in moment by moment reliance on blood-bought promises.

The second thing that gospel ministry means is this, doing everything I do with a view to displaying the glory of the grace of God in the gospel. I think God created us and gave us ministry for this purpose. He wants you to live and minister to make much of Jesus, and the most beautiful thing Jesus ever did was to die for sinners and rise again. I want to live in such a way as to show the supreme, all-satisfying value of that grace, which means you live to show that it is more valuable than money. It’s going to transform the way you do ministry if Christ crucified and risen is more precious to you, more satisfying to you than money.

Christ crucified is more precious and more satisfying than sex. This is the way you fight pornography. You don’t just say, “No. No. No.” You say, “Yes, he is infinitely more valuable.” Why would I want to contaminate my mind and make it harder for me to see him, know him, and enjoy him? We live to make sure he is more precious to us than fame. We want to show that he’s more precious than comfort, so we won’t try to surround ourselves with all kinds of expensive comforts. We want to live to show that he’s more precious than our family, and more precious than our health, and more satisfying than life itself. Psalm 63:3 says that the steadfast love of the Lord is more precious than life.

Those two things are what it means for me to do gospel-centered ministry — trusting moment by moment in blood-bought promises, and trying to make all the ministry choices of my life to display the all-satisfying worth of Jesus.

Question and Answer

If God is sovereign, why should we practice evangelism?

That’s a question I get everywhere in the world. It’s a natural question, and a helpful question. The answer is not difficult. God, not only ordains ends, he ordains means to the ends. If he predestines that a nail would enter into a board, he also predestines that a hammer would hit the head of the nail. If he ordains that a person be born again, then he ordains 1 Peter 1:23, which says that we are born again not of perishable seed, but of imperishable seed, the word of God. If you drop down to verse 1 Peter 1:25, that word of God is the gospel which we preach. God doesn’t save anybody apart from the gospel. Your role in securing the eternity of the elect is essential. Nobody is saved without evangelism. Is that clear?

I have just one little anecdote that might help you embrace this. At a big missions conference in 1967, my wife and I were there. This man stood up and said, “20 years ago, if I believed in predestination, I wouldn’t be a missionary.” Now, that’s where that question came from. And then he said, “Now, after 20 years in Pakistan, and dealing with the hardness of the human heart for 20 years, I say that I would never be a missionary unless I believed in predestination.” That simply means this. Only God can save sinners. I mean, picture it the other way. Suppose God was not the decisive cause in bringing people out of darkness to light. It would mean you are finally dependent on your ingenuity and their autonomy. That is not a hopeful situation for evangelism.

I have one last very personal comment. Not all of my children are following Jesus. I would die in a minute to change that. I have looked into the face of one of my children 100 times pleading and sharing and longing, and I am totally helpless to make life happen there. Do you know what my hope is? It’s 2 Timothy 2:25. It says, “God may perhaps grant repentance . . .”

So with my wife, every day, we are laying hold on God, and we pray the way Paul prayed in Romans 10:1. He said, “My heart’s desire and prayer to God for my kinsmen is that they would be saved.” I really mean God saves them. I say, “Save him.” How do you pray for your unbelieving family? Do you ask God to do it, or don’t you ask God to do it? Do you just pray that God would make a few suggestions? Do you say, “Don’t exert too much power on him”? Nobody prays that way. We want them saved, and we can’t save them. Only God can, and so we ask him to. So the reason evangelism is necessary, even though the names are written in the book of life, is because God has ordained that nobody be saved apart from evangelism. So whether you understand it or not, obey.