Did Jesus ever say, “Only preach the gospel?” Is that his directive for pastoral ministry?
Perhaps the ready mind jumps to Paul’s words of introduction to his short summary of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:3, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received. . . .” Many people read “of first importance” and seem to conclude “of only importance.”
Or maybe another Pauline passage springs to mind: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). There Paul contrasts his plain preaching of the gospel against the “lofty speech” or sophistry he steadfastly avoided. Some who read “I decided to know nothing . . . except Jesus Christ and him crucified” go on to conclude that we should only preach the gospel.
Without question the gospel is of first importance. Nothing should come before it. Without question the preacher should make the gospel plain. I would go so far as to say every sermon preached should include a proclamation of the gospel and a call to repent and believe in Christ.
However, if we take this to mean that only the gospel should be preached, or if we selectively shy away from other subjects the Bible addresses, we do something neither Jesus nor Paul ever does. We contract the scope of God’s concerns to the nucleus while ignoring the rest of the nucleus-informed cell. We reduce our vision to sun’s central place in the solar system but neglect its effect on the remaining planets and stars that orbit it. Isolate the sun in this way and you soon fail to see how the sun’s gravitational pull holds the rest of the solar system together, how it affects the temperatures of planets, how it gives light to other bodies, and how all of that creates life.
We should understand the gospel in that way. It’s the nucleus that provides mass and weight to the cell of the church. It’s the sun around which everything orbits, is held together, and derives its light and life.
But the gospel is not the only thing in the Christian solar system. There’s marriage and parenting and public worship and responsibility to government and leadership and ethics and . . . you get the point.
So the preacher’s job is to “declare the whole counsel of God,” as Paul said of his ministry to the Ephesians. This is the same Paul who decided to know nothing among the Corinthians except Jesus Christ and him crucified. That declaration of the whole counsel was how the apostle could consider himself innocent of the blood of all his hearers (Acts 20:26-27). He told them everything God required, so he was innocent regarding the course of their subsequent lives.
Or, take the Lord Jesus Christ. His concluding charge to the nascent church is “go into the world and make disciples . . . teaching them to obey everything I have commanded” (Matt. 28:19). He does not say, “Go into the world and only preach the gospel.” No one can be a disciple unless they hear, believe, and obey the gospel (Rom. 10). In that way, too, gospel preaching is of first importance. But no one can keep the Great Commission unless they also go on to obey everything Jesus commands. What would that be? For starters, that would include the new commandment to love one another (John 13:34-35). But it would also include “the weightier matters of the law: mercy and justice and steadfastness” (Matt. 23:23).
A “gospel-centered” evangelicalism that becomes a “gospel-only” evangelicalism ceases to be properly evangelical. “Gospel-only” Christianity stands staring into the sun until it’s blinded to the solar system. It carves away the rest of the cell with its membrane, ribosomes, vesicles, and organelles. For such a “gospel-centered” evangelical, the cell loses its function. The solar system ceases to operate as a system. In the end, we fail to keep the Great Commission, because we failed to declare the whole counsel of God and to teach disciples to obey everything the Lord demands.
“Gospel-only” Christianity even creates a hearing impairment. When well-intentioned Christians discipled to be “gospel-only” hear parts of the Bible outside their “only” grid, they actually respond as if it’s something foreign to the Bible and faith. Obedience becomes legalism. Ethics become liberalism. Suspicion poisons belief in and practice of the whole counsel of God.
“Gospel-centered” and “gospel-only” are not the same thing. The former gives life to our spiritual universe. The latter blinds itself to the world and the gospel’s effect on it. When that happens, little wonder that the only real “heroes” of the Christian are preachers, and the greatest focus ultimately becomes “preach the gospel to yourself.” However wonderful a blessing a preacher is (Eph. 4:11ff) and however necessary it is to remind ourselves of the gospel, the Bible clearly teaches there’s more to the Christian life. Many may be living well beneath their calling as Christians because they’ve been taught the faith is only to preach the gospel when it’s not. Spend a little prayerful time in a pastoral epistle like Titus and you’ll see that God has more for us to do in addition to preaching the gospel.