When it comes to the enduring question of word versus deed in the Christian's calling, the issue is always one of balance. How are Christians to think about the relative roles of words (proclaiming the gospel) and deeds (loving action) in what Christ has called his people to be and do? We need to set our scales to a balance that matches Scripture.
"Balance" may sound simple, but finding and maintaining our equilibrium on such a complex subject is never easy. It's like walking a tightrope. Only one direction will keep us upright and moving forward, and any number of missteps could lead us to fall off one side or the other. Misguided claims abound. Here's a prominent example.
How often do we hear these days, with passion and approval, the famous dictum attributed to Francis of Assisi: "Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary"? In this saying, the word-versus-deed question rears its head, stressing in this instance how important it is for Christians to "preach the gospel" with their actions. Let the gospel be seen rather than spoken, it's implied. Words may serve a useful backup role, but our actions must take center stage if we are to make a difference in the world.
At first blush, this sounds right. Except that it isn't.
According to those who know the relevant history well—the Franciscans—Francis never uttered these words. But more important, on its face this dictum represents a significant error. It's simply impossible to preach the gospel without words. The gospel is inherently verbal, and preaching the gospel is inherently verbal behavior.
But perhaps we should lighten up, we may say. Let us view the phrase as a mere aphorism and avoid pressing its language too literally. According to this reading, the saying is a rhetorical trope designed to emphasize the importance of backing up our gospel words with Christ-following lives.
This is an immensely important and thoroughly biblical idea. If this is all our maxim is affirming, we should deem it useful indeed. But unfortunately, many seem to want to treat it very literally indeed, precisely because they see no difficulty in doing so. They will insist that the gospel can in fact be "preached" without words. Sometimes this is called an "incarnational" approach to evangelism whereby we "preach the gospel" by incarnating it in the world.
What should we make of this claim? Can we, or can we not, "preach the gospel" with our actions? Who's right, and does it matter?
As it happens, it matters a great deal.
The stakes are surprisingly high in how we answer this question. This is not some esoteric debate reserved for theologians or technical Bible scholars. Faithful obedience to Jesus Christ is our goal, and that applies to all who call him Lord. Such obedience must begin with clear thinking about what Jesus calls us to be and do.
So let us say it again: The belief that we can "preach the gospel" with our actions alone represents muddled thinking. However important our actions may be (and they are very important indeed), and whatever else they may be doing (they serve a range of crucial functions), they are not "preaching the gospel." The gospel is inherently verbal, and preaching it is inherently verbal behavior. If the gospel is to be communicated at all, it must be put into words.
Such a statement flies in the face of a good deal of popular opinion. Can it withstand the light of examination? To answer this question, we need an appropriate framework for our thinking, one that will help us understand the issues rather than confuse them.
Syntax Versus Shoulder Shrugs
The categories we require are these: verbal communication and nonverbal communication. We have been using the terms word and deed. These correspond directly to the terms verbal and nonverbal. The difference in both cases focuses on whether we are using words.
Verbal communication refers to all the ways we communicate using a linguistic code. We call the various linguistic codes languages. Each of these codes has its own grammar, syntax, and vocabulary. We study these features when we try to master a new language.
Nonverbal communication, by contrast, refers to all those ways we communicate without words: such things as facial expressions, hand gestures, head position, eye behavior, vocal inflection ("paralanguage"), touch behavior, physical appearance and dress, posture, and our use of space ("proxemics"). Verbal codes are notoriously complicated, as anyone who has tried to learn a new language can testify. But the nonverbal codes are in some ways still more complex. There are no books of formal grammar for the nonverbal codes; nor can there be. The nonverbal dimensions of our communication are too subtle and contextual to be captured so concisely.
Human communication is endlessly fascinating, and the verbal-nonverbal distinction is only one way of analyzing it. But these two categories are the most useful for our present discussion. The following insights, drawn from the literature on nonverbal communication, are especially pertinent:
One cannot not communicate. We are constantly communicating with one another, if not verbally, then nonverbally. If we say, "I will simply remain still and say nothing," our very silence communicates.
We tend to grant nonverbal messages more credence. When they contradict, we tend to believe nonverbal messages over verbal messages because the nonverbal dimensions of communication are much more difficult to control.
Nonverbal channels are especially effective in communicating attitudes, moods, feelings, and relationships. The power of nonverbal communication lies in its ability to express the affective dimension of our messages. Whatever a speaker may be saying verbally, how she feels about her subject matter, or about her listeners, or even about herself is what tends to come across nonverbally.
Nonverbal channels are inadequate for conveying cognitive content. If nonverbal channels are extremely effective in communicating moods, feelings, relationships, and attitudes, they are for the same reason largely incapable of conveying cognitive, abstract, and historical information.
This is easily demonstrated. Imagine you have been assigned the task of communicating the following idea to a particular individual: Aristotle tutored Alexander the Great at the Macedonian court between 342 and ca. 339 B.C. Unfortunately, you discover that your pupil has no previous knowledge of either Aristotle or Alexander, what a tutor is, what Macedonia is, who Christ was, or consequently, what B.C. means. What's worse, you do not have the verbal code available to you. Your pupil does not speak your language, and you do not speak his. All you have available are nonverbal channels of communication. How would you go about your task?
Your assignment would be impossible. You cannot communicate this type of content nonverbally. What facial expressions, or gestures, or eye behavior, or actions could express information about Alexander or Macedonia or B.C.? The nonverbal code is incapable of bearing this kind of weight. You require a verbal code—that is, words and sentences and paragraphs—to convey your meaning. Without them, your task is undoable.
The Verbal Gospel
In 1 Corinthians 15:1-8, the apostle Paul offers a brief summary of the gospel he had announced to his readers. He had communicated to them "as of first importance,"
that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (All Scripture citations ESV)
Even this summary of the gospel is impossible to communicate nonverbally. One could no more communicate these ideas nonverbally than one could communicate our message about Aristotle nonverbally. The cognitive content of the message renders this impossible. That's why the notion of "preaching the gospel" with our deeds is foreign to the Bible. The biblical gospel is inherently verbal, and by definition, communicating it requires putting it into words.
We have stressed this point for a reason—not because we wish to diminish the importance of the nonverbal dimensions of our calling (deeds), but because it is all-important that we keep the respective roles of our verbal and nonverbal witness clear. How we talk about these issues shapes and/or reflects how we think about them, and how we think about them in turn shapes how we behave. Obscuring or conflating the respective roles of word and deed can have serious consequences.
First, it can lead to an eclipse of our verbal witness.
Westerners live in a generation that is allergic to almost any truth claim, much less the scandalous, all-encompassing claims of the gospel. Ours is a time when language itself is devalued. Postmodern culture is skeptical of words. Images, experiences, and actions hold the high ground. In such times, the verbal witness of the church will often carry a special stigma. The world may well affirm the church's efforts to feed the hungry or release the oppressed. But we will be disappointed if we expect the world to applaud the "word of the Cross." The vast truth claims inherent in that word cut against the cultural grain, exacerbating the already inherent human tendency to resist the truth (Rom. 1:18ff.).
In such an environment, the idea that we can preach the gospel with our actions enables us to gravitate toward those parts of our calling that receive cultural approval while shying away from the part that generates cultural censure—all without abandoning "evangelism." We still care about "preaching the gospel," we assure ourselves, but we're just doing it with our deeds rather than our words. In this way, our confusion of terms enables us to deceive ourselves into a benign neglect of our verbal witness.
Second, it can deceive us into thinking the power of the gospel lies within us. Some today will claim that there is no true evangelism without "embodied action." In fact, according to one critic, "Unless [Christ's] disciples are following the Great Commandment, it is fruitless to engage in the Great Commission." According to this view, the gospel is without its own potency. Its "fruitfulness" depends upon us.
But this is not the testimony of the New Testament. According to Paul—whose itinerant ministry met few of the "embodied action" criteria—the power of the gospel does not reside in us; it resides in the Spirit's application of the message itself. "I am not ashamed of the gospel," Paul said. Why? Because "it"—the verbal gospel, the "word of the Cross," the Good News of Jesus Christ proclaimed—is "the power of God for salvation" to everyone who believes (Rom. 1:16). So strong was Paul's confidence in the gospel's inherent Spirit-infused power that he could rejoice even when it was being preached, not merely in the absence of "embodied action," but out of overtly sinful motives (Phil. 1:12-18).
Few would deny that the holistic mission of the church is the best possible platform for our verbal witness, and that our jaded generation will be more inclined to give us a hearing if we are living it out. (Indeed, the longest section of my new book, Word versus Deed, is devoted to the crucial role of our deeds.) But this does not permit us to hold the gospel hostage to our shortcomings. When has the church been all it should be? When, short of glory, will the church ever be all that God wills for it? The church has been messy from the beginning, falling far short of living out the Great Commandment. Yet despite our failures, the gospel itself remains marvelously potent, the very "power of God unto salvation" to those who believe.
The gospel's inherent power does not fluctuate with the strengths or weaknesses of its messengers. This truth is humbling, but also immensely liberating. In the end, my inability to answer objections, my lack of training or experience, even failures in my own faithfulness in living it out do not nullify the gospel's power. Its potency is due to the working of God's Spirit. Even when we are at our best, the gospel is powerful in spite of us, not because of us. Thanks be to God.
Third, it can put us out of step with God's own modus operandi in the world.
In 1 Corinthians 1:21, Paul says, "For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe." Paul is referring here to what we have been calling the verbal witness of the gospel. This is God's chosen modus operandi, Paul says, "so that no human being might boast in the presence of God" (v. 29).
Jesus said that "as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life" (John 3:14-15). Later, he claimed that when he was "lifted up from the earth" he would "draw all people to [himself]" (John 12:32). As John explained, "He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die" (12:33), lifted up as a public spectacle on the cross, drawing to himself all who were willing to look upon him in faith for healing. Our verbal witness to Jesus continues that process of lifting Jesus up. "It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified," Paul says of his preaching to the Galatians (3:1). Similarly, by our verbal witness we placard the crucified, risen Christ, displaying him for all to see, so that he, by his Spirit, might continue to draw men and women to himself. Failing to appreciate this unique role of the verbal gospel places us out of step with God's chosen way of operating in the world.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is a verbal thing, and communicating it requires putting it into words. This verbal witness is scarcely the whole of our calling, but neither is it dispensable. Nothing can replace it.
Let us celebrate the reality that the power of the gospel resides not in us but in the Spirit's application of the message we proclaim, the message that declares a crucified Lord and Savior. Let us rejoice in the awareness that, as water is relevant to thirst, as food is relevant to hunger, as medicine is relevant to sickness, so this verbal message—the truth that in Christ "God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them" (2 Cor. 5:19)—is relevant to the deepest and most profound need of every human heart. May we never lose heart in giving word to it.
Duane Litfin is president emeritus of Wheaton College and author of Word versus Deed: Resetting the Scales to a Biblical (Crossway), from which this article is adapted.
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Duane Litfin's previous articles Christianity Today include:
Clothing Matters: What We Wear to Church | Why what we put on may be more important than we think. (January 11, 2012)
The Burden of 2012 | The real issue at Baylor is the relationship between faith and learning. (February 16, 2005)
Other CT articles on evangelism include:
Saving the Superheroes: Ministering to the Emergency Dispatch | Portland-based ministry Responder Life sees police officers, firefighters, and dispatchers as an unreached people group. (September 8, 2011)
Evangelism as Sacrament | Velcroed to a high-felt need: Jerry Root says evangelism is seeing how God is already working in someone's life. (April 28, 2011)
Super Bowl Evangelism | Why Jesus did not say, "Market your neighbor as yourself." (February 3, 2011)
Sexy Evangelism | Why our narrative about sex, dating, and marriage is a gospel priority. (June 15, 2010)
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