Just Preach the Gospel
Updated: Nov 3, 2021
“Just preach the gospel.”
It’s almost a conservative evangelical buzz-phrase. Sometimes it’s the knee-jerk response to people who seem to be getting a little big for their theological boots. At theological college, as I grew more excited about the wonders of systematic theology, and the importance of understanding culture to enable effective engagement, I lost count of the number of times a well-meaning pastor placed their hand on my shoulder and smilingly said, “careful now. Just… preach the gospel brother.”
As people keep using that phrase, though, I’m not sure it means what they seem to think it means.
In a sense I know what those pastors were doing, and I’m grateful. They were kindly urging me not to get distracted from the task in hand. They were urging me to imitate Paul (as he imitated Christ) and to “know nothing… except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
But I still get a sinking feeling when I hear that phrase. Is that a shocking thing for a pastor to say? Maybe it is.
Recently I’ve noticed it becoming a standard reply (on social media and even in real life) from certain evangelical corners to anyone responding to some of the most complex situations. Black Lives Matter and racial injustice? Just preach the gospel. The environment and climate change? Just preach the gospel. Global and national inequality? Just preach the gospel.
Again, I understand. I led a series of Bible studies in Nehemiah recently. It’s an amazing book (and it’s not about building walls, but that’s for another time). As God restores his people in his place and they re-commit themselves to him, the climax of comes as the people renew their covenant commitment to God in chapter 10 and worship him in chapter 12.
But then comes chapter 13. Inside 12 short years, the people systematically unpick every single feature of that covenant of 10:28-39. In fact, the way chapter 13 is structured takes readers backwards through that covenant, undoing it from end to beginning.
Meanwhile Nehemiah becomes a very ambiguous figure, apparently bad-tempered and grumpy. But then, wouldn’t you be?
The overall message couldn’t really be clearer: outward reforms won’t achieve lasting inward transformation. As the final act of Old Testament history, Nehemiah 13 leaves us aching for the one who cries, “the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15)
Which means, of course, that if any response to the complex questions the world might ask overlooks or omits Christ and him crucified, it has no power to effect the change for which we might hope. “Just preach the gospel” we may cry!
But what was underlying all those responses I received at theological college? Often it was a concern that all of that stuff about theology, or about listening to culture, risked obscuring the main thing. Now, that’s always been a legitimate reason for taking great care, but the assumption behind the caution is often a belief that, ‘that sort of thing’ unavoidably and necessarily obscures the main thing. We need to strip all that away and, well, just preach the gospel.
The same goes for the objection to many Christian responses to societal issues. There’s a fear in many quarters that even attempting to articulate a ‘Christian approach’ to racial justice, or beginning of life issues, or social inequality, or climate change etc, means abandoning the gospel.
But does it? It seems to me that ‘just preach the gospel’ doesn’t always really mean preach the gospel. It reduces to ‘report’ the gospel. We’re encouraged to articulate the message of the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus (although often the ascension seems to be optional—that’s also for another time!) and leave it there.
Which makes sense, since we know that it’s that message alone which has the power to transform lives, and therefore the complexities of life in a fallen world.
But is that really ‘preaching’ the gospel?
No. Unless we’ve outlined, clarified and applied the gospel, surely we cannot say we’ve preached it. Preaching requires application. The gospel is too big to be treated as a mere news report.
Paul Tripp helpfully speaks of ‘the gospel gap’ which can stunt our growth as Christians and cause us to despair of seeing change in our lives. I’m convinced that ‘just preaching the gospel’ without actually preaching it feeds that problem. We report the news of sins forgiven, the news of certain future hope, but are slow to apply the power of God’s grace in Christ, whether to individuals or to the communities in front of us.
Yet, the New Testament won’t let us do that. Paul, who resolved to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified, spends significant portions of all his letters carefully applying that gospel of Christ crucified to his readers’ lives. The other New testament writers are no different. Marriage, family, wider household structures, working relationships, relationships with the poor and marginalised, with widows and orphans, relationships with governments, both local, national and international, and responses to the prevailing values of wider society are all brought under the influence of the gospel, which is carefully applied to each.
Which means, if we want to follow the lead of the New Testament in preaching the gospel, we must be prepared to ask some searching questions about where and how the gospel applies.
Perhaps we’re more comfortable when we’re asking them on an individual level: What is the power of the gospel to effect change in a troubled marriage? What is the power of the gospel to bring freedom and change for an addict?
But the New Testament makes it abundantly clear that the gospel does not just have individual implications. God is at work to put himself on display through the church: a community made to be the display case for trophies of his grace. So, among other questions we might be led to ask: What is the power of the gospel to effect change in a world of racial injustice? What is the power of the gospel to bring freedom and change to a community riddled with inequality? What is the power of the gospel to transform our relationship with the rest of Creation?
It seems to me that unless we’re prepared to both ask and attempt answers to questions like these, we haven’t actually preached the gospel at all. Sin has more than individual ramifications, and the gospel which not only brings salvation from, but also overcomes the power of sin is the only solution with the authority that we need.
Our job, then, surely must include showing how that gospel applies to the specific problems we see as we travel onwards, to glory.