by Ken Baker
There is a popular expression that is widely (and falsely) attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel. If necessary, use words.” In an attempt to be profound, it implies that one can preach the gospel without verbal proclamation. In other words, it seeks to communicate that ‘good deeds’ alone can proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Excellent articles by Ed Stetzer and Mark Galli demonstrate how this statement is blatantly unbiblical, yet its sentiment lives on. Too often, we think (and hope) that our compassionate, loving, good deeds will be so ‘Christ-presenting’ that we don’t need to say anything about Him.
If Christian people are engaged in compassionate, Christ-like activities, how does this engagement alone announce Christ? The watching world may, or may not, connect the dots and associate the motivations with ‘Christianness.’ A more likely scenario is that people will give praise to the ‘do gooders’ themselves, not to Christ. In the end, people and organizations doing good things proliferate throughout the world, and no matter how humble and deflecting they may be, they are the ones praised for their goodness.
Why would we expect that living a righteous, loving lifestyle is a complete expression of Christ’s gospel? Conversely, why would we even imagine that gospel proclamation is sufficient apart from lifestyles which testify of Christ’s love and righteousness? It seems the underlying question involves how witness as lifestyle and witness as proclamation developed separate lives.
Mark Galli is right when he correlates the ascendancy of lifestyle witness with the postmodern value of actions eclipsing words. Plus, doing good deeds is just more publically acceptable than proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. Yet, scripture itself testifies of the interdependent bond between word and deed.
Perhaps the most clear example is Matthew 5:16: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” We glean from this verse two necessary aspects for the Father to receive his due glory: (1) letting our light shine and (2) observable good works.
Note also, however, that the light is not good works; rather the light illuminates our good works. The ‘light’ is the divine presence of Christ in the collective witness of the believing community (it’s not only about individuals), while ‘good works’ are actions which display Christ’s righteous character.
In order for God to receive glory through the good works of Christ-followers, it requires identifying the source of the shining light. While we display the light, we are not its source. Without such acknowledgement (verbal witness) that the light comes from the divine righteousness of God, praise will go to those doing the good works. Verbal proclamation about the light of Christ’s good news is the only way the watching world will recognize through our good works that the light within us is not our own.
Word and deed do not live in tension, but in harmony as gospel companions, each complimenting the other as a direct reflection of the character of Christ’s kingdom ministry. This does not mean, however, that word and deed must necessarily occupy the same space and time. In the arc of a given relationship, one may yield to the other over time. Just as sowing, watering, and reaping have their appropriate timing, each remains an integral part of the same gospel narrative. And it is in the context of intentional relationship that the mission of word and deed, as well as truth and love, find meaning and purpose.
Let me share a story. The Chang* family, Buddhist immigrants from China, owned the local takeout restaurant in our neighborhood. As occasional customers, we noticed that their very young children were always at the restaurant late in the evening. Their mother lamented their quandary in managing the restaurant twelve hours a day, seven days a week with no place for their kids to go except home, school, and the restaurant.
We offered to take the kids to the park each week and help them with their English. Over time (years), we also helped the parents with immigration documentation, insurance help, teaching English, doctor visits, citizenship tests, etc., all the while taking the opportunity to plant gospel seeds.
Now faith in Christ is slowly taking root in their family. Word and deed in the context of intentional relationship—this is where the blend of witness as lifestyle and witness as proclamation make the best allies.
Ken Baker (@KenJBaker) is the international ministry training facilitator for a global organization and is currently on assignment abroad.