“Pastor, Can’t We Just Preach The Gospel?”

The murder of George Floyd on May 25th provoked national outrage—from peaceful protests and marches, to prayer gatherings to riots. Our country’s long history of racism is being dragged out into the open and exposed for what it is, at the least an egregious and ongoing infraction against the ideal of “liberty and justice for all”; at most an offense against Almighty God. Our country’s long history of racism is being dragged out into the open and exposed for what it is. Click To Tweet

As far as the latter, altogether late as it may be, the evangelical world is finally acknowledging that this is an issue that can no longer be ignored. Pastors and leaders are addressing it in every available medium: blogs and articles, sermons and digital forums, and more. Even more, white pastors and leaders are thankfully starting to realize that the situation will not be rectified under the terms by which it has heretofore been defined; which is another way of saying, we’re realizing that our black brothers and sisters need to lead the way on this. We—myself included—are learning to talk less and listen more. This is good. Very good. Thanks be to God for it.

Still, there are some in our churches who are frustrated. “Pastor,” they’ll say, “why can’t we just preach the gospel?” Given how urgent this particular issue has become, one hears this less and less. But still, the complaint survives. In the interest of faithfulness to Jesus Christ, I’d like to briefly outline why the idea of “just preaching the gospel” (as it is usually defined: preaching exclusively on the forgiveness of sins and the hope of eternal life) is biblically unsound. Indeed, I’d like to show how “just preach the gospel” is actually no gospel at all. A few reflections:

1. The “Gospel” is “Good News” For the Entirety of Human Life.

When the angel appears to the shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus in Luke 2, he proclaims “good news of great joy for all the people.” And why will there be joy? “For unto you this day in the town of David a Savior has been born—the Messiah, the Lord.” (Lk 2:10-11)

The coming of the Messiah in the minds of the Hebrew prophets and poets signaled the imminent defeat of the powers that enslaved God’s good world. Isaiah’s breathtaking vision summarizes it:

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—

and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears;

but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.

Righteousness will be his belt
and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.

The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.

The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.

They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious. (Is 11:1-10)

The examples could be multiplied, but the point would remain the same and is, in any event, clear: the “good news”, the “gospel” given to and carried by the church is the gospel of the God of Israel’s saving intent for the entirety of human life, for the whole human condition, now achieved in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah and implemented ongoingly by the power of the Holy Spirit. There is simply no other “gospel” to be had. Either Jesus Christ has come among us to destroy sin and death in their every form and manifestation—individual and corporate, private and public—or he has not.

If the former, then we have an obligation to preach the fullest gospel our cloudy minds and feeble hearts can muster. If the latter, then we have nothing to talk about, no good news to give the world.

Which leads to my second point…

2. The “Gospel” Concerns BOTH Doctrine and Ethics, BOTH Belief and Behavior.

There is, as I have observed, tucked into the complaint about “just preaching the gospel” a twofold assumption. First, that if we preach about ethics and behavior it will lead to legalism. Second, that if we, instead, simply preach the good news of Christ’s saving death and resurrection, minds and hearts will gradually and inevitably be transformed, and so perhaps will society. Let’s address those in turn.

On “legalism.” Doubtless, this is a danger. It has been in every age and era. But I want to submit that the danger is more in the way our preaching relates ethics and behavior than anything else. If we preach on ethics and behavior as a way to curry God’s favor, we have surely gone astray. But if we preach on ethics and behavior as that which follows from the transformation wrought in us by the Spirit, then we are preaching like the apostles and the first Christians. Paul called the Philippian believers to work out their salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12), and then went on, as he did in all his letters, to spell out in as much detail as he could exactly what that looked like. What do human beings rescued from sin and death actually do (and not do)? That question is the burden of the New Testament.

Now we are in a position to point out what is faulty with the notion that if we “just preach the gospel,” all the needed transformations will inevitably come. If they did, Paul and Peter and John would never have written their letters. Let the divisions and sexual morass of the Corinthian church, the ethnic pride so evident the Galatian church, and the favoritism of James’ churches be exhibits A, B, and C to demonstrate that specific teachings are needed in the process of sanctification. Having been so saved, the church needed to be continually discipled. The way of the kingdom needed ongoing elucidation. Divisions and factions are out of place. Favoritism is forbidden. Jews and Gentiles are fellow heirs of the kingdom and called to share table fellowship. Hierarchies that oppress and enslave must be brought into submission to Jesus Christ. Hoarding possessions to the detriment of others is a manifestation of hell. Anger and rage are unfitting for God’s people. Sexual immorality is forbidden. And so on, and so forth. The habits of the old humanity die hard, and the apostles knew it.

We might say that any preaching of the gospel that doesn’t address ethics and behavior would be unrecognizable to the apostles.

If we said that, we would be exactly correct. Part of the power of a cultural moment like this is that it is exposing deficiencies in our discipleship. Let me put a very fine point on it: pastors who don’t address these matters are betraying their calling. Any preaching of the gospel that doesn’t address ethics and behavior would be unrecognizable to the apostles. Click To Tweet

3. The “Gospel” is For the Whole World, Not Just the Church.

Some may say, in response to my second point, “Indeed. But the church has no business telling the world what to do. Pastors should just mind their own flocks and let the world do what the world is going to do. We don’t see Paul leading protest rallies in Rome, do we?

Well no, and yes. No, Paul wasn’t leading rallies in protest of the inhumanities of Rome. But then again, a great deal of recent New Testament scholarship has shown how much of the Gospels and apostolic writings are in fact not-so-veiled critiques of the powers that be. To call Jesus the Son of God and Savior of the World was a direct contradiction to the Imperial Cult of Rome—for whom Caesar was those things and more. It was an announcement of the Kingdom that would finally upend all worldly kingdoms. And when the apostles had an opportunity to say so, they did. Why else was John the Revelator exiled on the island of Patmos?

The people of God have always been called to speak the truth of the reign of God to power. The tradition goes all the way back to Moses, who threatened plague upon Pharoah if he did not repent; and to the prophets, whose message rang out not just in Israel but to the nations. Beyond the Bible, the tradition lived on in courageous saints like Justin Martyr, Origen, Perpetua and Felicitas, Cyprian of Carthage, Augustine, Francis of Assisi, William Wilberforce, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Each in their own way carried the good news of God’s liberating, humanizing, dignifying reign into the ears of powerful, obstinate cultures and rulers, and each paid the price for it.

Brothers and sisters, let us acknowledge that this is just what we do. It is our calling. We speak truth BOTH to ourselves AND to power “in Jesus’ name.” To fail to do this is to admit the gospel’s practical irrelevance to the great problems of the world, and to thereby leave it to its own devices and (likely) consign it to self-imposed doom.

But such is not God’s will. The will of God is that the world would know that there is a better way, the way of Jesus Christ, and so be saved.

One final observation:

4. Any “Gospel” That Doesn’t Address Evil Aids and Abets It.

One of the most sickening aspects of the long legacy of racism in our country is how blatantly and heinously it has hidden its violence and inhumanity in the church, under the very cloak of a supposed “gospel.” Frederick Douglass’s autobiography goes into lurid detail outlining how slave masters would sing songs of worship to the resurrected Christ on Sunday mornings only to resume lashing their slaves on Mondays. In his postscript, he denounces such an empty form of Christian faith:

What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels.

Clearly, the “gospel” proclaimed in these churches did not go deep enough, for it did not address this sin. So at least we need to say: purported “gospels” that leave sin intact are no gospel at all. One of the most sickening aspects of the long legacy of racism in our country is how blatantly and heinously it has hidden its violence and inhumanity in the church, under the very cloak of a supposed 'gospel.' Click To Tweet

But I think we need to go further. I think we need to say that explicitly or implicitly yielding ground to the Enemy in the name of Jesus is by definition blasphemy. The slaveholding religion of our forefathers and mothers was blasphemous. We perpetuate the blasphemy when we continue to let this unclean thing live in the house of God, concealed under the cloak and guise of the gospel.

The announcement that Jesus is Lord, friends, must reach down to our depths. On this issue, clearly, it hasn’t yet gotten there. But perhaps, by God’s grace, it’s starting to. Perhaps, by the might of the Spirit, ground that we have previously yielded to the Enemy is being regained.

Pastors and leaders who are striving to name and preaching a holistic gospel, one that has something to say about these most current incidents of racial tension: I want to say to you, please keep up the good work. Jesus the great Liberator, the true and better Moses, will be magnified. Our people will be discipled. And our world, perhaps soon, perhaps late, will be healed.

May it be so.

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