The North American church leaders who would become the Council of The Gospel Coalition first met on the campus of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) from May 17 to 19, 2005. Along with his friend Tim Keller, Don Carson issued 40 invitations. All 40 showed up.
Carson and Keller settled on this plan about 10 days before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. They were meeting in New York City to discuss Worship by the Book, edited by Carson with Keller as a contributor. They’d spoken together in the U.K. for the Evangelical Ministry Assembly, organized by the Proclamation Trust, but they didn’t know any similar gathering of North American pastors.
What could result from church leaders in the broadly Reformed tradition as they met every year to talk, pray, and learn together? The invitation noted, “It is difficult to think of a regular national gathering or conference or publication or institution that is driven by a rich heritage of biblical theology combined with pastoral commitment to seriously and creatively address the present generation.”
At the time, Carson was better known than Keller, who hadn’t yet published widely. However, Carson explained that Keller, a New York church planter, had demonstrated a helpful knack for explaining sin in postmodern contexts. Three years later, Keller released his first two best-selling books, The Reason for God and The Prodigal God.
The question before this group convened in suburban Chicago was whether they could or even should rally around a new organization. Was someone already fulfilling this purpose? How much theology did they need to hold in common? What would their meetings accomplish? How could they encourage evangelicals still battling liberal theology in mainline denominations? How could they connect evangelicals laboring faithfully in their smaller conservative denominations?
In an exposition of Luke 5:12–13, Keller began the discussion by explaining how Reformed leadership fractured in the aftermath of Jonathan Edwards’s death in 1758. As the greatest American theologian to date, Edwards held together theological orthodoxy, experiential revivalism, and cultural apologetics. He critiqued Enlightenment philosophers while writing and preaching in ways that communicated the gospel in an emerging transatlantic culture.
After Edwards died, however, his followers splintered into three different groups, Keller explained. The Princeton theologians were strong on confessional theology but not on cultural apologetics. Jonathan Edwards Jr. and the New England theologians advanced cultural apologetics with more vigor than confessional Calvinism. Charles Finney and like-minded revivalists of the Second Great Awakening claimed Edwards as their inspiration but dismissed his cultural apologetics and confessional theology.
Keller saw the same fracturing in 2005 among American evangelicals. Some, especially the Reformed leaders gathered at TEDS, marched under the banner of confessional theology. Other evangelicals eagerly sought to change the perception of Christians through savvy cultural engagement and social justice initiatives. A third group promoted big events filled with evangelistic fervor using the latest technological methods.
But who would bring together the best of these three groups? Who would inherit the full mantle of Edwards in the 21st century?
Reasons for Hope
In his address, Carson offered a potted history of Western Christianity from the end of the Second World War to the turn of the century. He observed that between 1880 and 1930, evangelicals lost their hold on nearly every seminary. Yet by the 21st century, half of all master of divinity students were evangelical. Carson attributed that change, largely concentrated since 1960, to parachurch ministries that reached evangelicals in mainline denominations.
Leaders in the room represented the fruit of those neoevangelical efforts, including Kenneth Kantzer’s work to make TEDS a leading global seminary. Keller had attended Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, led by Harold John Ockenga. Many of these leaders read and had written for Christianity Today magazine, founded by Billy Graham and initially edited by Carl F. H. Henry. Christianity Today under Henry had incorporated the wide breadth of evangelicals but still spoke with a “prophetic voice from the center,” Carson said.
Even though these leaders might feel like their cause had suffered due to a secularizing culture and confusion over the meaning of “evangelicalism,” Carson found reasons for hope as he surveyed the scene. Compared to 50 years ago, biblical commentaries abounded, especially those written by evangelicals committed to confessional theology. A diverse evangelicalism cried out for biblical and historical definition, rooted in the gospel and in the Reformation tradition. When evangelicals attend church and read their Bibles, Carson said, they stand out from the world as moral exemplars.
Even though these leaders might feel like their cause had suffered due to a secularizing culture and confusion over the meaning of ‘evangelicalism,’ Carson found reasons for hope.
The ongoing shift toward cultural relativism in North America would reveal itself as morally bankrupt through intolerance. The decline of denominations opened opportunities for new associations as Christians no longer looked for their traditional church when they moved. The rise of peripheral voices such as the emerging church would stir hope in the gospel itself.
Carson cited theonomy as a trend within the Reformed community that called for renewed attention to core theological confessions. Population decline in Europe suggested to Carson that the future of the church would be urban and multiethnic.
Back in North America, many suggested in the aftermath of President George W. Bush’s reelection victory in 2004 that cultural polarization had never been worse. But Carson recalled the Vietnam War and saw an opportunity for the church to speak truth without succumbing to political captivity on either side.
While organized religion was in decline, most Americans still claimed to be spiritual. This meant that even though they understood personal freedom in self-help terms, perhaps they could be guided by Christian formation toward more noble purposes.
As Carson delivered his talk, the most controversial public matter of personal freedom concerned homosexuality. President Bush’s reelection had been fueled by so-called values voters. Not for another seven years would same-sex marriage win a popular election. Even California voted down same-sex marriage three years later in 2008 as President Barack Obama replaced Bush. Yet Carson foresaw that homosexuality could become in the 21st century what indulgences had been in the 16th-century Reformation. Homosexuality could be the “trigger issue” that led to deeper division over biblical authority and ultimately a split across the entire Western church.
Carson turned out to be more prescient than anyone in the room could have imagined at the time. Denominations have indeed split in ways not seen since the American Civil War and even the Reformation.
Considering this threat, how could these pastors organize a prophetic movement calling churches back to the center of the gospel? Would they need a confessional statement? A theological vision for ministry? A new publication along the lines of Christianity Today that explored contemporary theology and ministry trends and shared creative, hopeful, doctrinally rooted proposals? Regional networks that collaborated on church planting and campus ministry and discipleship resources? A national conference for church leaders that modeled expositional preaching but also shared practical tips on such concerns as cross-cultural ministry? Could they wield emerging technology through the internet for greater global influence?
Less than five years later, they had already answered every question with “Yes!”
As Carson crafted his initial invite list, he sought pastors who shared a commitment to preaching expository sermons, teaching the whole counsel of God, and rooting their churches in theological and historical traditions while maintaining a contemporary feel. Though he knew many of them, they didn’t yet know each other. And they didn’t have a means of sharing what they learned with the broader church.
In 2007, many of the same pastors from the 2005 meeting reconvened as TGC to finalize their foundation documents and host their first public conference. Carson’s inaugural address as president, titled “Prophetic from the Center,” exposited the gospel of Jesus Christ from 1 Corinthians 15:1–19.
Carson examined several reasons why churches lose focus on the gospel. Perhaps his most memorable warning came as he explained “the tendency to assume the gospel . . . while devoting creative energy and passion to other issues—marriage, happiness, prosperity, evangelism, the poor, wrestling with Islam, wrestling with the pressures of secularization, bioethics, dangers on the left, dangers on the right—the list is endless.”
But as every teacher knows, students don’t remember everything. They remember what their teacher loves most. “If the gospel is merely assumed, while relatively peripheral issues ignite our passion, we will train a new generation to downplay the gospel and focus zeal on the periphery,” Carson said. “It is easy to sound prophetic from the margins; what is urgently needed is to be prophetic from the center.”
It’s not that the peripheral issues don’t matter, Carson explained. It’s that they only come into focus when we’re centered on the gospel. Same-sex marriage, then, deserves the church’s attention. But churches should prioritize the gospel so they can develop proper perspective on same-sex marriage.
It’s not that the peripheral issues don’t matter. It’s that they only come into focus when we’re centered on the gospel.
And if they’re focusing on the gospel, that means they’re devoted to a “nexus of [theological] themes—God, sin, wrath, death, and judgment”—found in 1 Corinthians 15:3. “Whatever else the cross achieves,” Carson said, “it must rightly set aside God’s sentence, it must rightly satisfy God’s wrath, or it achieves nothing.” Indeed, these doctrines show us we’re not saved by our thoughts about God. We’re saved by Christ himself. That’s good news for sinners.
In this vision for TGC, Carson underscored the transformation this good news brings about for individual Christians and their churches. “Humility, gratitude, dependence on Christ, contrition—these are the characteristic attitudes of the truly converted, the matrix out of which Christians experience joy and love,” Carson said. “When the gospel truly does its work, ‘proud Christian’ is an unthinkable oxymoron.”
TGC, Carson explained, wouldn’t tout itself as different from everything that had come before. The leaders of TGC would celebrate the inevitable victory of Jesus the King by boldly advancing his gospel under the contested reign of this fallen world. They would trust the gospel to shape the church into a foretaste of heaven in diverse ways. Carson said,
A Christianity where believers are not patient and kind, a Christianity where believers characteristically envy, are proud and boastful, rude, easily angered, and keep a record of wrongs, is no Christianity at all. What does this say, in concrete terms, about the communion of saints, the urgent need to create a Christian community that is profoundly counter-cultural? What will this say about inter-generational relationships? About race? About how we treat one another in the local church? About how we think of brothers and sisters in highly diverse corners of our heavenly Father’s world?
This work would be left for churches affiliated with TGC to figure out in future years. They would be guided by TGC’s foundation documents, with Carson as the initial drafter of the confessional statement.
Reforming to Conform
TGC’s theological vision for ministry never claimed to speak for all Christians in all places at all times. It’s contextual by definition, occupying the middle space between unchanging doctrine and temporal practice.
In the preamble from 2007, the founding Council members of TGC identified several threats to keeping the gospel central to church life: personal consumerism, politicized faith, and theological and moral relativism. They lamented how power and affluence had replaced celebration of union with Christ. And they didn’t find a viable alternative in monastic retreats into ritual, liturgy, and sacrament.
Rather, TGC leaders committed to reforming their ministry practices to conform fully to Scripture. They returned to their Reformation roots, saying, “We have committed ourselves to invigorating churches with new hope and compelling joy based on the promises received by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.”
Since 2007, TGC’s confessional statement has been adopted by thousands of individual churches, by regional networks across North America, and by international coalitions in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and North and South America.
Unlike many other confessions, TGC’s began with the doctrine of God before moving to revelation. As Carson and Keller later explained, they wanted to avoid a foundationalist approach to knowledge that owed more to the Enlightenment than to the Reformed tradition of John Calvin. Even so, TGC would be distinguished by love and fidelity to God’s Word: “The Bible is to be believed, as God’s instruction, in all that it teaches; obeyed, as God’s command, in all that it requires; and trusted, as God’s pledge, in all that it promises.”
The founding Council members of TGC identified several threats to keeping the gospel central to church life: personal consumerism, politicized faith, and theological and moral relativism.
Anyone who heard Carson’s inaugural address would recognize the confession’s description of the gospel as personal, apostolic, historical, theological, salvific, biblical, and Christological: “The gospel is not proclaimed if Christ is not proclaimed, and the authentic Christ has not been proclaimed if his death and resurrection are not central (the message is: ‘Christ died for our sins . . . [and] was raised’).”
Though Carson worked most of his career as a professor for a parachurch ministry, TGC’s confession centered the church in God’s plan of redemption. It affirmed,
The church is the body of Christ, the apple of his eye, graven on his hands, and he has pledged himself to her forever. . . . The church serves as a sign of God’s future new world when its members live for the service of one another and their neighbors, rather than for self-focus. The church is the corporate dwelling place of God’s Spirit, and the continuing witness to God in the world.
Through the church, the world catches a glimpse of their true and coming King: “The kingdom of God is an invasive power that plunders Satan’s dark kingdom and regenerates and renovates through repentance and faith the lives of individuals rescued from that kingdom.”
Carson pushed back against kingdom-oriented narrative theology that undervalues the atoning and justifying work of Christ. But he also criticized systematic theology that fails to trace biblical themes through God’s unfolding plan of redemption.
Through TGC, Carson pointed Christians toward the “big story of Scripture” so they could see “the God who is there.” In his booklet titled Gospel-Centered Ministry, written with Keller, Carson explained that biblical theology flows toward Jesus and his gospel, while Christian life and thought flow from Jesus and his gospel.
Along with the other Council members of TGC, Carson and Keller wanted to encourage Bible reading and preaching that traces the trajectories of Scripture to reveal patterns and promises that take us to Jesus and his gospel. Then, from the gospel, we can align our situation with God’s solution. “In short, gospel-centered ministry is biblically mandated,” they wrote, “It is the only kind of ministry that simultaneously addresses human need as God sees it, reaches out in unbroken lines to gospel-ministry in other centuries and other cultures, and makes central what Jesus himself establishes as central.”
Through TGC, the term “gospel-centered” has become a fixture of the evangelical lexicon. “We wanted to build a community of churches and pastors in which the gospel was the central thing, the exciting thing, what we got out of bed for in the morning,” Carson told me.
This community, in Carson’s vision, would never assume the gospel or drift toward a minimal understanding that overlooks other entailed doctrines. TGC would speak to the broader church but from the Reformed heritage. In keeping with Reformed theology, this gospel would speak to all of life, but in such a way that tied the cross and resurrection to contemporary challenges such as social justice.
The relationship between the organization called TGC and the gospel itself has sometimes confused observers. Carson has explained that TGC never sought to be a boundary-bounded set, meaning a group fixed on who’s inside and outside. Instead, he cast a vision for TGC as a center-bounded set, which is less concerned about the periphery than about a robust gospel definition at the center. Thus, anyone could read the website or attend the annual conference if he or she found something useful. But for TGC’s institutional leaders, he expected robust allegiance to the gospel core.
I’ll never forget when he hired me in the summer of 2010. He was clear that if I ever transgressed the foundation documents, I’d lose my job as editorial director. But beyond that core, I was free to feature differences and even debate. And that’s how he led as the president. Even when he asked me to publish one particularly controversial article, he never thought it was the only or final word on the subject. He expected peripheral matters would be treated as peripheral, even as we sought to work out the implications of the gospel for each new day’s challenges.
Carson has often observed that TGC grew more quickly than he anticipated. But more than 15 years later, TGC looks much like he envisioned: an international network developed largely along the lines of Carson’s decades of travel, with several friends initiating national TGC organizations in their home countries.
His prodigious teaching and publishing built trust among pastors who joined councils in Canada, Australia, Italy, French-speaking Europe, and many other regions he visited as TGC’s president. Carson’s focus on the gospel core allowed international coalitions to develop with close doctrinal affinity to each other and also independence to address the most pressing needs of their contexts.
The website played a supporting role in Carson’s early hopes for TGC. But he took early steps to leverage the unique reach of the internet to promote gospel-centered ministry for the next generation. Themelios, a journal for students of theology and religion in Great Britain, ceased publication just as Carson was bringing TGC online. Published by the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship (UCCF) in Great Britain, Themelios couldn’t justify the costs of printing and distributing as they mostly reached pastors instead of their core audience of students. Four groups bid to take over the brand of Themelios, which is Greek for “foundation” (see, for example, 1 Cor. 3:11).
Carson cast a vision for TGC as a center-bounded set, which is less concerned about the periphery than about a robust gospel definition at the center.
In the end, UCCF chose TGC, which has published Themelios ever since as a free online journal for pastors as well as theological students. Every issue features columns, articles, and dozens of book reviews overseen by an international team of editors who ascribe to TGC’s foundation documents.
Carson anticipated readership would multiply by a factor of 10 once the journal moved online under TGC. His goals were too modest. In 2022, Themelios attracted more than 1.9 million page views from readers in 235 countries.
Carson envisioned TGC’s website as a simple way for friends in ministry to stay connected between conferences. None of us could have foreseen 15 years ago the pandemic shutdown of March 2020, but as churches closed, in perhaps the greatest disruption to the Western church since the Black Plague in the Middle Ages, pastors looked online for help.
In those bleak first two months, the TGC website served more than 11.2 million unique users with nearly 25 million page views, including an invitation to fast and pray for God’s help. TGC now publishes one of the largest Christian websites in the world.
When Carson and Keller met to conceive what would become TGC, they wanted to help younger church leaders struggling to adjust to the rapidly changing world of the internet age. Just a generation ago, despite the tumult of the 1960s and ’70s, even nominal Christians and unbelievers shared many moral assumptions with evangelicals. But that world has largely disappeared. Parents can hardly understand the world their children hold in their hands via smartphones. Secularism has become more unabashedly anti-Christian. Disagreement and indifference to evangelical beliefs have been replaced by anger and incredulity.
In 2011, Carson and Keller wrote,
The American evangelical world has been breaking apart with wildly different responses to this new cultural situation. To oversimplify, some have simply built the fortress walls higher, merely continuing to do what they have always done, only more defiantly than before. Others have called for a complete doctrinal reengineering of evangelicalism. We think both of these approaches are wrong-headed and, worse, damaging to the cause of the gospel.
Together, Carson and Keller set out to do something constructive. They called for the church to be prophetic from the center. They convened pastors who get out of bed each morning excited about the gospel. They envisioned the gospel spreading to all the world and applying to all of life. Their hopes became TGC, under Don Carson as the founding president.