Every now and then, pastors hear from church members or fellow church leaders who say they need to stay out of “politics” or “social causes” and “just preach the gospel.” Stay in your lane. Focus on the main thing—what Paul says is “of first importance.” Don’t lose sight of the central message of Christianity. Don’t become distracted by political proposals and social activism.

I’ve been thinking for a while about this common counsel. And I see ways in which “just preach the gospel” can be both good and bad.

The Good

At its best, this admonition speaks to a real and ever-present danger of emphasizing something less central than the gospel and moving to the background the one and only message in the world with the power to change the human heart.

The evil one works overtime to push the cross and resurrection of Jesus from the center of a pastor’s preaching, replacing the good news with good advice or inspirational self-help. If it’s a cause that replaces the cross, even a good cause, then so be it! As long as the cross is decentralized and diminished.

It’s not hard to find preachers who pontificate on all sorts of issues, whose sermons sound like running commentary on politics and culture, with a little Bible sprinkled in. And, even worse, it’s not hard to find congregations that want this kind of preaching, preferring to be temporarily inspired or politically informed than confronted and comforted by the bloody cross of Christ.

Paul’s command to Timothy to preach the gospel in season and out of season means we must reject the temptation to satisfy the people clamoring for commentary on every issue under the sun, as if the goal of the sermon is to provide biblical justification for earthly endeavors. We are preachers, not pundits.

The Bad

At its best, “just preach the gospel” serves as a needed warning to stay tethered to the central message of Christianity. At its worst, it means “don’t touch my idol.”

Too often the command to “just preach the gospel” is less about the gospel than it is the subject to be avoided. “Just preach the gospel” means “don’t talk about race.” Or “don’t mention abortion.” Or “stay away from sexuality.” Or “don’t focus on immigrants.” In these cases, “just preach the gospel” isn’t about keeping the cross, not a cause, at the center of the church; it’s a warning about placing the “wrong” cause at the center, and of course, the “wrong cause” is whatever causes discomfort in the congregation.

Of course, those who admonish a preacher to focus on the gospel think they mean it the good way, not the bad way. They think their desire is biblically based—they really want the pastor to stick with “Thus says the Lord” instead of wandering into “Here’s what your pastor thinks about everything” territory.

But the tell-tale sign that “focusing on the gospel” means something more is when the command comes from someone whose attention seems devoted to everything but the gospel. The irony is thick when someone who tells everyone else to focus primarily on the gospel hosts a Twitter or Facebook account filled with politics or social activism of various sorts. In this case, the meaning is clear: “just preach the gospel” means “please preach my politics.”

Yes, Preach the Gospel 

The gospel is what differentiates Christianity from every other religion. The gospel is the source of life change. It is the power for world change. Movements come and go. Political parties rise and fall. The gospel of Christ crucified and raised is the power of God unto salvation. So, yes, just preach it!

And, as you do, make sure you offer the gospel as the solution for all kinds of sins, not simply those your congregation prefers you speak to. Don’t rely on “gospel preaching” as a way of staying silent on matters of controversy. The gospel leaves no idol untouched.

And as you preach, make sure you lay out the gospel’s implications, which ripple out into all spheres of life. The gospel of Christ’s work on our behalf leads to our good works on behalf of the world.

This is the challenge for the preacher today: To keep the cross central and to preach the whole counsel of God.

If you would like my future articles sent to your email, as well as a curated list of books, podcasts, and helpful links I find online, enter your address.