The gospel is enough.
It has always been enough. It will always be enough.
If we remove anything from it, it's not the gospel any more. If we add anything to it, we don't enhance it, we dilute it.
That’s why almost every young minister has been implored by an older pastor to, “just preach the gospel.” Usually after the younger minister has suggested or attempted a new way of presenting it.
"Just preach the gospel" sounds like great advice. And I appreciate the heart behind it. But it’s actually naïve, incomplete, even unbiblical advice.
Before you grab your pitchforks, hear me out.
My desire for "just the gospel" is the greatest passion of my life. I am on a relentless quest to strip away anything but Christ and him crucified from my life and ministry.
(My, that’s such a big three-letter word, isn’t it?)
As much as I want it to be true, it’s impossible for any human being to “just preach the gospel.” For two reasons:
1. If It's Just Preaching, It's Not the Gospel
Jesus didn’t just preach the gospel. Neither did Paul, Peter or the early church. And they told us not to just preach the gospel, either.
Why? Because it’s not the gospel if it’s just preached. It has to be lived.
Jesus didn’t just go around just preaching the gospel. He also “…went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.” (Acts 10:38 – NIV)
Paul reminded us that “…my message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power.” (1 Cor 2:4 – NIV)
And John implored us “…let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 3:18 – NIV)
Sometimes, when we say “just preach the gospel”, we unintentionally send a message that saying the right words is all we need to do.
Talk is never enough.
2. We All Bring Baggage into Our Understanding and Preaching of It
Every other part of our life impacts the way we hear, live and filter the gospel message.
No matter how pure we think we are, when the gospel message flows through us – as it must – it is affected by our lives. Everything from the clothes we wear to the building we preach in, to the history of the speaker and the hearers, affects how the gospel is lived, preached and received.
If you think you've ever heard an unfiltered presentation of the gospel, think again. The best we ever hear is what sounds good through the filters we've become accustomed to. That’s why two people who hear the same clear presentation of the gospel can react so differently to it. One is in tears because of “such a powerful message” while the other leaves angry over “watered-down tripe.”
We can't even read "just the gospel" from the New Testament. It was written within the context of a first century, middle-eastern, Jewish mindset – a mindset no one in the twenty-first century can fully share. And, unless you're proficient in ancient Hebrew and Greek, it's also being filtered through choices made by the translator. Jesus didn't speak in King James English.
The Humble Messenger
So what’s the point of all this?
Actually, there are two points, based on each of the above principles.
First, we need to back up our preaching with doing. Too many preachers spend all our time encouraging others to do ministry while doing very little, if any, hands-on ministry ourselves.
Certainly, equipping the saints is our primary task in the pastoral role. But that doesn't exempt us from getting our hands dirty. The further we remove ourselves from real-world ministry, the less we're able to equip others for it.
One of the reasons I’m a champion of small churches (while still loving and appreciating big churches) is that it’s almost impossible to pastor a smaller congregation by remote control. We have to get our hands dirty. But even then, it’s very easy for us to believe the lie that our preaching and study time is an adequate substitute for actually ministering to real people in real-life situations.
The message we preach with our mouths must be tempered and tested through the actions of our hands and feet.
Second, we need to recognize the filters of culture, language, race and economic status (for starters) that all of us bring into our presentation of the Gospel. Then we need to factor that bias into the equation as best we can whenever we preach or teach it.
The best any of us will ever preach is “the gospel as I see it.” The rest is up to the power of the Holy Spirit.
The key is humility.
Is There a Real Gospel, Or Is It All Interpretation?
The big challenge when we’re talking this way is to go so far that we start thinking there’s no real truth to be found. That it’s only about different interpretations.
I reject the unbiblical notion of “there's no truth, just interpretation” with every fiber of my being.
But I also reject the false alternative of “I don’t interpret the bible, I just read it and do it.”
We can’t read or hear anything without interpretation. Because reading and hearing are interpretive acts by definition.
For instance, when I write or say the word “dog” what comes to your mind? For me, it's our golden retriever, Trixie. For you, it may be a poodle, a pit bull or the dog that bit you when you were a kid. That’s interpretation.
Our individual concepts of “dog” have their differences, but they have enough in common for all of us to agree that a dog is not a cat. Or a car. Or a mathematical equation.
That’s what happens when we read and preach the gospel. Some things are non-negotiable. But many things look and feel different from one person to the next.
For instance, when a pastor says “God is our father”, one person has a warm, fuzzy feeling because they had a great relationship with their dad. The person next to them might bristle at it because their father was abusive. The next person over might feel grateful, because their father died before they were born, so God has been to them what he promised – a father to the fatherless.
It's possible to agree that God is our father, while interpreting what that means in different ways.
We can either be aware of our interpretational baggage or we can ignore it. But it always exists. And it always affects how we preach it and how others hear it.
Preach the gospel. But don’t just preach it.
Live it first. People are less likely to misinterpret it when we do that.