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A Cross Centered or Gospel Centered Legacy?

The gospel is the good news about the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.  If any aspect of his holy history is missing you do not have a gospel.  All are essential and all must be proclaimed.  

In our earliest years, we weren’t preaching the gospel.  We were preaching conversion.  The gospel was greatly obscured.  Repentance and faith were highlighted in its place.  It was commonly taught that “If Jesus wasn’t Lord of all, he wasn’t Lord at all.”  That was a recipe for disaster (and heretical).  If a true statement, no one can be a Christian because every day we fall short of Christ’s perfect lordship in our lives.  Perfect obedience is not the basis of our salvation.      

The Lord graciously corrected this unsound doctrine in April 1983 during our “Elders Week of Study” at the Holiday Inn in Johnstown, PA.  One of the messages, “What is the Gospel?”, addressed the error and provoked considerable debate.  After some intense interaction, the majority of the pastors realized the  “Lordship of Christ” message was seriously unsound.  As a result, we began to differentiate between our response to the gospel, the gospel, and our inheritance through the gospel.  The Lord got us on the right track.  The gospel became central to our theology and the Cross of Christ became central to our gospel. 

The initial Statement of Faith was written the same year.  It defined the gospel and addressed the error.  Here are a few sections. 

The Gospel

Jesus Christ is the Gospel.  The Good News is revealed in His birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension.  Christ’s crucifixion is the heart of the Gospel, His resurrection is the power of the Gospel and His ascension is the glory of the Gospel. 

Man’s Response to the Gospel

The Gospel is to be preached to all people but is only effectual to those who genuinely repent of their sins and put saving faith in Christ.  Biblical repentance is characterized by a changed life and saving faith is evidenced by Kingdom service or works.  While neither repentance nor works save, unless a person is willing to deny himself, pick up his cross, and follow Christ, he cannot become His disciple. 

Man’s Inheritance Through the Gospel

Salvation, the free gift of God, is provided solely by His grace through faith in Jesus Christ.  Anyone turning from sin in repentance and looking to Christ and His substitutionary death is born anew into eternal life by the Holy Spirit and declared to be righteous as a gift.  Through Christ’s great redemptive act an individual is reconciled to God as Father and becomes His child.  The believer is forgiven the debt of his sin and liberated from the law of sin and death into the freedom of God’s Spirit. 

C.J. learned the gospel from others in the early years.  He learned the doctrines of grace from others in the middle years.  By the time his first book, The Cross Centered Life, came out in 2002, we were long grounded in the propitiatory and substitutionary nature of Christ’s atonement.  His book and preaching had the effect of building into SGM a conviction that “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”  That was phrase taken from Stephen Covey’s #1 National Bestseller, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and used without attribution.  The catchy phrase was useful but it did not originate with C.J.  It became a mantra in SGM. 

The Cross is the central message of the New Testament.  It is the heart of the gospel.  I think it receives the greatest emphasis in Scripture though it came be argued the resurrection of Christ receives equal time and attention. 

The problem was C.J.’s almost exclusive emphasis on the Cross.  It was causing theological concerns.  Were we neglecting other aspects of the gospel?  Did we want to call ourselves “cross-centered” or “gospel centered?”  Was the resurrection of Christ getting sufficient attention in our preaching and teaching?  Were the theological implications of Christ birth, life, resurrection and ascension equally understood?  Were the wonderful benefits of these other doctrines being experienced?    

Dave Harvey, Steve Shank and I brought these concerns to C.J.’s attention at our February 2003 retreat in Orlando, FL.  We had an intense discussion.  C.J. was not pleased with our criticism or that of others in the movement.  When the retreat was over, Dave wrote this carefully worded note regarding our “stimulating dialogue” to all the leaders in his sphere of responsibility.  He put C.J. in a good light even though Dave was troubled by the discussion.  

From: Dave Harvey
Sent: Saturday, February 22, 2003 2:52 PM
To: Emily Wise
Subject: Send to Sr. pastors of my sphere, Greg and Don. CC our leadership team here 

Hey guys.  Just got back from a team retreat where I enjoyed a wonderful couple of days with C.J., Brent and Steve.  While we were together, I related the reports that some of you had regarding our “cross-centeredness” and the ensuing conversation that we all had together about whether to designate ourselves as “cross-centered or gospel centered.”  The other A. Team [apostolic team] members had been experiencing similar reports.  

This all prompted a stimulating dialogue.  I was particularly provoked by a comment that C.J. made in advocating the need to keep our designation “cross-centered.”  He related that many evangelicals would view themselves as gospel centered but still have no passion for the cross.  In other words, the gospel is broadly defined today and therefore, often emptied of its meaning.  It was a compelling point that I want to ponder further. 

Given the misunderstanding that can surround our “cross-centeredness” and the recent publication of his book as well, C.J. is considering addressing some comments to this issue at the Leaders Conference.  No surprise that he is already tracking this stuff and thinking about how to serve us. 

Just an fyi.


Our discussion revolved around two questions.  One, were we neglecting other aspects of the gospel in our “cross-centeredness.”  The consensus was yes.  Two, was it more biblical to reference ourselves as “gospel centered” rather than “cross centered.”  The consensus was yes.  C.J. disagreed with us on these points.  

A week later, he send out this email. 

From: C.J. Mahaney
Sent: Monday, March 03, 2003 3:48 PM
To: Dave Harvey
Subject: RE: Confidential 

One more thing.  If you are your guys aren’t comfortable with a designation of Cross centered I wouldn’t want you or the guys you work with to feel ANY obligation to identify with the book I wrote.  I don’t want anyone to think that part of being in Sovereign Grace means you have to read, recommend or feature the book.  I would hope your guys would know this but I do want to make sure. 

Dave, Steve and I were accustomed to this kind of sinful reaction by C.J.  We had been addressing this pattern for over two years.  When challenged a response like this was  almost predicable.  

Everyone loved the book.  Everyone was reading it and promoting it.  No one questioned it legitimacy.  No one wanted to distance themselves from it.  It was absurd for C.J. to be telling everyone; we didn’t need to read, recommend or feature the book because of its cross centered title.  That was not the issue.  

I used this illustration the following year at our crisis intervention meeting with C.J. in August 2004.  What follows is an excerpt from the official minutes of that meeting.  I later added footnotes for C.J. (see Response Regarding Friendship and Doctrine, pp. 19-22).    


The [apostolic] team doesn’t often hear of areas that we [the pastoral team] are correcting C.J. on, and it doesn’t sound as though the pastoral team is hearing concerns from the A-team.

C.J. can become resentful, mistrusting, withdrawn when he feels sinned against or judged by others…

Another illustration was conversations about C.J.’s book [The Cross Centered Life].  Suggested that it was TOO cross-centered, and didn’t speak of the resurrection enough.  C.J. introduced an agenda item of cross-centeredness at a retreat.  The next day, the team received an e-mail from C.J. that no one had to read, promote, or agree with the book.  When asked about it, C.J. said he didn’t want to be self-promoting like Larry T.  Brent thought the issue was self-pity, and possibly resentfulness.[1]  Asked C.J. how he ended up there.  That never got resolved…


Asked how C.J. would handle the situation with the e-mail about his book differently now.


He’d ask more questions, invite them to give him their perspective. Acknowledged he wasn’t humble.[2]


At those times, think CJ could do more heart work and self-examination.  Thinks C.J. becomes resentful and angry and bitter in those situations in a way he’s not aware.  On The Cross Centered Life issue, did C.J. resent that criticism at all and start to respond sinfully by withdrawing?  Seemed extreme.


Yes, seems extreme, and he said he’d consider it.[3]


Almost a judgment when individuals have criticized Carolyn’s book [Feminine Appeal].  There can be an attitude that no one has to agree with her.  Instead of there being a peaceful discussion, it seems as though there is anger there.


Why would the category of self-promotion be in C.J.’s mind when that wasn’t a part of the discussion?


That would have been in his mind from the day he received the book.


Thinks that’s where his heart deceives him.  They were having a theological discussion, and in response C.J. told them they didn’t have to promote it.


Has the appearance of manipulation cloaked in the virtue of humility.[4]  A more apparent explanation would seem to be that C.J.’s work was being critiqued and C.J.’s flesh was reacting to that.

Three months later Dave Harvey summarized our long term experience with C.J. 

From: Dave Harvey
Sent: Thursday, November 11, 2004 7:55 PM
To: Joshua Harris
Cc: Grant Layman; Kenneth Maresco; Brent Detwiler; Steve Shank
Subject: Confidential

To summarize, the following is my best shot at a summation of my original concerns.  To correct C.J., or to challenge his own self-perception, was to experience a reaction through e-mails, consistent disagreement (without seeking to sufficiently understand), a lack of sufficient follow-up and occasionally, relational withdrawal.  Along with this, C.J. was poor in volunteering areas of sin, temptation or weakness in himself. 

The debate continued with C.J. for numerous years.  We were still citing our concerns in 2006 when he wrote Living the Cross Centered Life

In my most recent blog post, “C.J. Mahaney’s ‘Transition’ Out of Sovereign Grace Ministries” (March 15, 2013), I erroneously wrote the following.

“C.J. understands the doctrine of salvation and I too am grateful for the gospel centered emphasis he brought to SGM.  That is his greatest legacy.” 

I changed this sentence a couple days later to reflect our actual history.  We had to fight with C.J. over “cross-centered” or “gospel centered” terminology.  More importantly, we had to contend with C.J. over “cross-centered” or “gospel centered” theology.  We were the ones constantly working with C.J. to make “the gospel more clear.”       

“C.J. understands the doctrine of salvation and I too am grateful for the cross-centered emphasis he brought to SGM (others brought a gospel centered emphasis: the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ).”

This is more than theological hairsplitting.  The cross is central but the birth, life, resurrection and ascension are also vital.  So many other importance doctrines flow from these aspects of the Good News (e.g., the Incarnation, the Virgin Birth, Jesus’ temptation and sympathy, his active and passive obedience, imputed righteousness, the defeat of sin, death and Satan; union with Christ, the supremacy of the Holy Spirit, the resurrection of the dead, Christ’s victorious reign, baptism in the Holy Spirit, the charismatic gifts, the final Consummation, and many more).

I praise God for the contribution C.J. made to the cross centered emphasis we enjoyed in Sovereign Grace Ministries but the revisionist history provided by the Board of Directors in their “A Note of Thanks to C.J. Mahaney” (March 8, 2013) should be corrected.  Others played a critical role in defining and explicating the full gospel for C.J.    

I’m glad SGM is finally referring to itself as gospel centered.  I hope they begin to teach and experience in fuller measure all the great doctrines related to the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension.  Keep the cross central but don’t keep the rest peripheral.

A legacy, in contrast to a legend, should be based upon history, not a rewriting of history.  In this regard and others, the Board has introduced revisionist elements into their “A Note of Thanks to C.J. Mahaney.”  Thanks is appropriate but in proper proportion to the truth.


SGM Board: A Note of Thanks to C.J. Mahaney
March 8, 2013

Our family of churches owes a debt of gratitude to C.J. Mahaney for co-founding and leading Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) to establish and build gospel-centered churches for the past three decades.  C.J.’s leadership and example have helped to instill so many of the values that have shaped our family of churches, and none more so than our gospel-centrality.  We are grateful for the central role his preaching and personal passion have played in making the gospel more clear and more precious to all of us in SGM.  His desire to transfer the gospel to the next generation has helped keep our mission central, leading directly to the founding of our Pastors College where 252 men have been trained since 1997.  C.J.’s vision to see theologically rich songs written and produced for congregational singing resulted in the formation of Sovereign Grace Music which recently released its 61st album.  And his influence and leadership in the larger body of Christ have enriched SGM by introducing a breadth of relationships and teaching to our churches.  

As previously announced, C.J. will transition from his role as President on April 12 at the time of the polity ratification vote.  Though no longer serving in this leadership capacity, we are grateful that C.J.’s influence and partnership do not end here.  We share his joy in seeing him back regularly preaching and pastoring in Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville, and we look forward to benefitting from C.J.’s continued investment in the mission of SGM through his service there and in the larger body of Christ.  Please join us in praying for C.J. and his family during this transition.


[1] Three months later you [C.J.] confronted me for saying “you were resentful” when I simply suggested the possibility – a suggestion you were utterly closed to.  You didn’t ask forgiveness for this abusive correction.  

[2] This was a passing remark.  You never asked forgiveness.  We never discussed it further.  For instance, whether you were resentful. 

[3] You “consider[ed] it” but came to the conclusion I was wrong for even suggesting the possibility.  You ruled out any resentment, anger or bitterness.

[4] This was  a very important statement by Grant.  Your response that “no one had to read, promote, or agree with the book” was manipulative.  For trying to discuss the issue of “cross-centeredness” we received this punishing response which was “cloaked in the virtue of humility.”  You frequently say or do things that appear humble but are motivated out of a love of reputation.  You want to look good by looking humble.


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