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Why ‘Just Preach the Gospel’ Doesn’t Cut It

The four words that drive me absolutely bonkers in the aftermath of a tragic death (usually of a black man at the hands of police or vigilantes) are ‘Just preach the gospel.’ This is usually said in response to Christian leaders who speak out against the sin of racism. Forget the fact that these very same people don’t live by their own advice in regards to their advocacy against abortion or same sex marriage. This is more than an issue of hypocrisy; it’s rooted in a flawed understanding of the gospel itself.

In my opinion, one of the greatest detriments to the church is the adoption of John 3:16 as the end all be all verse. Although it is often quoted as a quick summary of the Christian faith, John 3:16 is not the full gospel message, because merely believing in Jesus is not the goal of the Christian. If even the demons believe and tremble (James 2:19), more is required to distinguish the believer from Satan’s minions. Believing in Jesus is just the tip of the iceberg.

The truth is, it doesn’t make sense to say we need to preach the gospel to end injustice and sin, because Jesus didn’t come to Earth for that purpose. Rather, Jesus came down to Earth to draw us to Him.

“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit…”

– 1 Peter 3:18 (NKJV)

Jesus came to bring us into fellowship with God through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Even after professing faith, we all sin (1 John 1:8) and will continue to do so until we are made perfect when we enter His presence. Therefore, the power of the gospel doesn’t peak at conversion—it carries us through to the end of our days. Perhaps our failure to recognizing this is why the demons tremble, but many of us do not. As so eloquently stated by Pastor Christopher Hutchinson:

“People hear the facts of the gospel with their minds, but the Holy Spirit must convince their hearts. It is, as Jonathan Edwards says, the difference between knowing that honey is sweet and tasting its sweetness.”

Rediscovering Humility, by Christopher Hutchinson, New Growth Press (2018).

There is a difference between knowing the doctrines of salvation (as even many atheists do) and being in a loving, committed relationship with Jesus. Christians need to stop acting like the gospel is nothing more than John 3:16, and that the Great Commission is all that is required of us. Until God calls us home, we must walk joyfully with the Lord, with the realization that sin will not be eliminated until Jesus’ second coming. This is only possible through the Holy Spirit.

The fullness of the gospel isn’t something to consider only in times of tragedy, but everyday. Although many Christians are quick to preach about ‘fire and brimstone’, when Jesus was asked about what we must do to inherit eternal life, He didn’t bring up repentance, or even sin.

“And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested Him, saying, ‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’

He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?

So he answered and said,  ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘your neighbor as yourself.’ 

And He said to him, ‘You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.’

But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?'”

— Luke 10: 26 – 29 (NKJV)

Jesus then told the Parable of the Good Samaritan, but notice Jesus’ earlier response. He said eternal life is obtained through loving God and loving others. We are enabled to love God by the forgiveness of ours sins; our justification is a means to that glorious end. If the gospel you preach is limited to ‘Stop sinning, or you’ll go to hell,’ you are fundamentally misrepresenting the fact that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone.

The minimization of the gospel in message and influence in the church is a tragedy. So much of what is wrong in Christendom today is because of a lack of understanding about the pervasiveness of the Good News in all areas of our life. Our salvation is not the elementary part of the Christian faith that we graduate from to pursue deeper ends. This seems to be a common misunderstanding in Pentecostal circles (of which I am very familiar), where ‘gifts of the Spirit’ are sought after to the point of neglect of the Word.

The reason many Christians still have silly, immature questions about faith and the Bible is because they have yet to realize, as Jared C. Wilson calls it, the phenomenon of ‘gospel wakefulness’:

“Gospel wakefulness doesn’t lead to asceticism. It does not lead to a withdrawal from society and simple pleasures into a monastic religious regimen. Rather, gospel wakefulness is foremost about orienting your spiritual system around the sun. When the sun is at the center of the system, the planets and moons don’t cease to exist. In fact, they exist more securely, more beautifully, in their proper positions and proportions. With God at the center of your universe of worship, with the gospel at the center of your life, all other good gifts—people and pleasures, thoughts and things—take their proper place and proportion in our lives.” (page 59-60).

Gospel Wakefulness, by Jared C. Wilson, Crossway (2011).

Is our Christian identity a facade, merely religious lip-service to appease our fellow believers? Or are we so sold out for Christ that in every situation, we want to bring glory and honour to Him? Until we realize that the gospel governs every aspect of our life, we can never truly live in the freedom Christ purchased for us.

If our faith was centered on the person of Jesus and His message of salvation, we wouldn’t have young people leaving the church over silly theological issues. There would be less questions about tattoos or piercings as permissive for the Christian. There would be much less division if we simply focused on the unifying truth that is the Good News. The reason we haven’t been awakened by the gospel is because we relegate Jesus to a harbinger rather than the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2).

We are often guilty of thinking the gospel is no longer necessary for those of us who have believed it for some time. The grand irony of demanding that the gospel be preached to ‘those people over there’ is that this goes against the nature of the Good News itself. The biblical gospel begins with the realization that all men have fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), including ourselves. As said on Twitter by a writer for The Gospel Coalition:

“When the gospel is truly preached, it comes for you first.”

— Hannah Anderson

If we were focused on the gospel, we’d yank the planks out of our eyes before reaching for others’ specks. We must live in the power of the gospel ourselves before we can attempt to convince others of its truth. We need to be reminded of His grace that was so lavishly given to us first. If the gospel hasn’t transformed our lives, then how can we expect it to have an effect on those who’ve never heard it before?

When we fail to recognize our need for grace, we turn evangelism into legalism. Are we preaching the gospel because we were commanded to, or because we care about the souls of the lost? Are we reducing the Great Commission to an obligation that must be fulfilled? Saying we should “‘just’ preach the gospel” implies that the Great Commission is a basic imperative, when it isn’t. The gospel should fuel every part of our life, not serve as a convenient addendum to our arsenal that can be accessed when needed.

We’ve often heard the phrase, commonly attributed to St Francis of Assisi, ‘Preach the gospel; if necessary, use words.’ I cannot tell you how much I despise that advice. It would be like telling people to feed the poor and only use food if required. The gospel message is more than just words—it causes a radical transformation in how we live. A more accurate and biblical command would be to say, ‘Preach the gospel; it is always necessary to use more than just words.’ God didn’t shout out His message of salvation from heaven—He came down to us as a man to save us.

How we speak about the things of God, especially to nonbelievers, has eternal implications. Jesus told us we would be accountable for every careless word we speak (Matthew 12:36). In an earlier post, I discussed the meaning of the word ‘careless.’ It refers to words that don’t build up, or are useless. In the same post, I discussed how Jesus commands us to be shrewd (Matthew 10:16) in our dealings with others, specifically when approaching them with the gospel message (this command was given when He sent out His disciples in pairs). He also asked us to not cast our pearls before swine (Mathew 7:6).

The message of God’s salvation should be shared with everyone, but at the appropriate time. Many love to bring up how the gospel is the solution to societal ills while simultaneously downplaying the very serious issues being discussed. This does not build others up, and rather paints a picture of Christians as lacking compassion. When the message of the cross is not welcome, you must move on. This isn’t practical advice to keep one from getting insulted; this is biblical evangelism. However, we must make sure that we are not turning people off to the Good News by our abrasiveness.

When Jesus preached, it was the religious, not the humble, who were uncomfortable. The thing about Jesus is He was never about shaming the downtrodden. Consider the woman caught in the act of adultery. She never repented, nor admitted wrongdoing, but Jesus sent her away without condemnation and a warning not to sin. The thief on the cross simply admitted that he was a sinner, and was invited to spend eternity with Jesus. We complicate soteriology and salvation even though Jesus said we must become like little children.

Jesus spent three years preaching the gospel. Yet, isn’t it quite telling that despite Him being the very Son of God, His ministry wasn’t enough to even stop His own disciples from sinning? Did Jesus overthrow the Romans? Stopping sin and injustice was not Jesus’ ultimate goal. That being said, the solution to these problems cannot be found outside of Him, either. As described in the wonderful book, Jesus Manifesto:

“Jesus Christ has never been a social activist or a moral philosopher. To pitch Him that way is to drain His glory and dilute His excellence. While justice is important, justice apart from Christ is a dead thing. The only battering ram that can storm the gates of hell is not the cry of justice, but the name of Jesus. Jesus Christ is the embodiment of justice, peace, holiness, righteousness, and every other virtue…(p. 105)”

Jesus Manifesto, by Leonard Sweet & Frank Viola, Thomas Nelson (2016).

Jesus did not come to dismantle existing social systems and hierarchies, so should Christians take this responsibility upon ourselves? We are the light of the world and the salt of the Earth, after all. Light illuminates; salt purifies and preserves. Yes, the world must be changed by our very presence in it, but I’m not here to say that God called us to fix all the ‘isms’ and woes of the world. We were specifically called to preach the gospel, but we are also called to live it out. We can fight injustices using God’s Word.

Moreover, our evangelistic endeavours must do more than show people that their actions are evil and offer them new lifestyle alternatives. The problem is that many in the church are not even aware that Jesus, not morality, is the center of their faith. Notice that Jesus never said, ‘Follow me, I know the way.’ He said that He is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). We need to bring people to Jesus, but not just during times of unthinkable tragedy. We must also not insinuate that Jesus is only needed when things have gone awry. Ultimately, preaching the gospel should come from an outflow of love for God and His people, not a desire to right others’ wrongs, or to downplay their concerns about what is happening in the world.

If we were focused on the gospel, we’d see that all sins must be equally condemned (sexual immorality, abortion, racism, and more) with no push-back from our fellow Christians for simply speaking out. Racism is a sin, and black lives matter. If either of these statements offend you, check your heart, especially if you don’t have the same visceral reaction when other sins are condemned from the pulpit. You can believe these truths without subscribing to critical race theory or defending riots. Simply acknowledge that many people are still judged solely based on the colour of their skin (although I’m not black, I have experienced this), and ask the Spirit to help you not participate in such wickedness. Pray for everyone who is grieved, for law enforcement, and even the looters.

If you really believe that preaching the gospel is the solution to all the world’s problems, then you should rejoice when racism is denounced by fellow believers. The truth should unite Christians, not cause factions to form. The solution to this vile hatred is not just to point people to their sin, but to Jesus. Only a relationship with our Saviour can satisfy our longing to be made whole, and only in Him is true justice found.


  • Photo by Luis Quintero from Pexels
  • Rediscovering Humility by Christopher Hutchinson can be purchased here
  • Gospel Wakefulness by Jared C. Wilson can be purchased here
  • Jesus Manifesto by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola can be purchased here
  • Hannah Anderson Tweets
  • New King James Version (NKJV) Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved

Further Reading

What George Floyd’s Death Should Remind Us About Justice And the Gospel

Note: ‘God is the Gospel’ by John Piper was my first introduction to the idea that the gospel is more than just forgiveness from sins and being seated with Christ in heaven. A more contemporary book with the same theme is ‘Gospel Wakefulness’ by Jared C. Wilson. I highly recommend these books if this idea is new to you.

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