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Preach the Gospel Always. When Necessary, Use Words: Part 2

A while back I wrote a blog post on the often cited quote, “Preach the Gospel always, when necessary use words,” which is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi.

The blog addressed a difficult and challenging relationship of Christian proclamation aka word vs demonstration aka deed.

One inquisitive reader raised the following questions:

1) Jesus seems to prioritize his teaching ministry over his “deed” ministry at various points (e.g. Mark 1:35-39, 3:7-19, 4:1-2 and the parallels in the other synoptic gospels).

2) Jesus seems to describe the ‘self-sacrificial’ life of following him to ‘adhering to his words,’ and doing so is for his sake (which is equated to the gospel’s sake) in Mark 8:31-38.

3) In commissioning his followers, Jesus does not command them to “do good works,” but only to “make disciples” by means of “baptizing” and ‘teaching them all that Jesus commanded’.

4) There aren’t any blanket imperatives in the Bible to “do good works” in a context of evangelism. There are plenty of imperatives to do good things, and good works seem necessarily incidental to those imperatives as a matter of Christian living. But it seems that even in those moments which might suggest a prioritization of works over words or even an equivalency of works and words (e.g. Ephesians 2:10, James 1:19-27, James 2:15-26), the author is subordinating ‘works’ to teaching on ‘faith’ and ‘grace’ (Ephesians 2:8-9, James 1:18, James 2:14). A person comes to faith (through grace) in the New Testament only ever by the Word of God preached and explained (cf. Romans 10:10-17).

These are good questions and I believe represent why so many Christians struggle with fully embracing the integration of word and deed. To further explain my position I’d like to briefly respond to the four questions:

1) Does Jesus prioritize his teaching ministry over his “deed” ministry?

If we look carefully at Jesus, we see the perfect integration of word and deed. I would go so far as to say that Jesus would not even be comfortable with that categorization.

The Mark 1:35-39 passage shows Jesus in prayer, then he goes to preach and at the same time drive out demons. Driving out demons is a form of deed ministry. Thus even in this “preaching” text I really don’t see any prioritization at all.

Furthermore, Jesus was once directly asked for priorities:

One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question:

"Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" (Matt 22:35-36).

Jesus famously responded by saying Love God is the greatest commandment and to love your neighbor as yourself is the second. To illustrate what he meant by loving one’s neighbor he told the story of Good Samaritan in which there is no mentioning of proclamation whatsoever but is rather a story that exemplifies faith in action.

Now I do not extrapolate from this passage that “deed” is more important than “word.” But I don’t see how you could possibly come away saying that “word” is more important than deed.

2) Does the equation of a “self sacrificial” life with Christ’s words mean that proclamation is more important than demonstration?

I would actually say quite the opposite. The Mark 8:31-39 passage shows the interdependent relationship of action and words. If you don’t act (deed) on Christ’s words then your faith is pointless. This passage, like many others, demonstrates that word and deed cannot be parsed out as it is by so many in our contemporary culture.

3) Doesn’t the Great Commission elevate proclamation over demonstration?

Again, when looked at clearly, Matthew 28:19-20 shows us the interdependence of proclamation and action. This passage has frequently been distorted to be a purely evangelistic commissioning. That is unfortunate. The call to “make disciples” is much more encompassing than simple conversion or evangelistic proclamation.

These two verses contain several key action terms (deeds) such as “Go” and “obey all that I command.” Both of these again show that action is what should flow out of teaching or other forms of proclamation. One is not more important than the other. They are both vitally necessary and important which is why we should always be focused on doing both!

4) Is teaching priority to deeds?

The final question raises a number of points which might be addressed more fully in another blog entry. However, for now, I would just reiterate that the categories cannot be parsed out so distinctly.

If the Bible makes clear that we should do good deeds (which it does) then why would we feel the need to make sure that teaching or preaching or whatever else is more important. To me it is kind of like saying which is more important: tell my wife I love her or show her that I love her.

Some husbands may answer this one differently but I think I should do both as much as I can. The same is true to the gospel. What is more important to live the gospel through our deeds or share the gospel through our words? We should be doing both as much as we can.



I think you could also convincingly make the point, in regards to the great commission, that the very term "disciple" implies that one is not merely using words, but showing a person how to live. A disciple, when placed in the Rabbinical context that Jesus used for his own ministry, was not a "hearer of the word" only, but a doer also. Discipleship meant a radical reorientation of one's life to (attempt to) conform to the life of the rabbi (in this case, Jesus), which would include one's actions and how one dealt with others. I think we also see in the early life of the church (Acts) that the early church also felt that proclamation could effectively be made through acts or deeds.

Not to mention, obviously, that Jesus set the tone for self-sacrifice through his actions. Or the beatitudes, which all seem to stem from actions indicative of who a person is (a character is what a character does, in short- mourners mourn, peacemakers make peace, etc.). Thus little Christs should be like Christ. I think that would cover both teaching AND proclamation through acts, as you are saying.

Hey mark, interesting comments. Actions vs. Words seem to always be something that we find ourselves pitting against one another. I have always struggled with the "modern" church because there are a lot of words and not so much action to support those words, words without actions seems like faith without works! It seems to be much easier to talk about something than it does to do something. It takes no life change to speak a truth, but it takes total change to do that truth. The gospel doesn't necessarily require any abandonment at all to say, but it takes radical abandonment to do and to be! In fact, I preached a sermon a few weeks ago at my church and I told them that if they had faith and no works then whatever they had, it wasn't faith. My pondering is this, and I hope this makes sense because I am infamous for saying things that make sense in my abstract mind and not in the minds of others: What about the Word vs. who God is. I had someone ask why God couldn't breach His word, why He didn't lie and break promises He made in the Bible. I told this young lady to not so much see it as a promise but rather as an indication of just who God is. He's not putting forth a law that he has to actively choose to follow, he's putting forth a narrative in the law that is a total indication of who he actually is. "Though shalt not lie" is not him being forced to obey his own law to humans, but rather it seems that it is a descriptor of who God is. "Though shalt not lie" may well be translated into "I do not lie, therefore you should not, because you are to be holy as I am Holy." The Word cannot be breached by God because the Word is God, it is like a portrait of who He is I suppose. Often times I read my bible and say, "What does this reveal to me about the character of my sweet God/Jesus/Holy Spirit?" Then we say, the Word is truth! But is it truth because God made it truth or because it is obeyed, slash because it is an accurate indication of reality, God's reality, the reality that is God...the character of God. My point is this, I wonder if it is possible to change our language, to change our language and begin to teach people that those who speak the gospel but do not actualize it in this reality aren't actually speaking the Gospel. The Gospel IS action, it IS works, it IS radical change and radical -though I would argue not reckless, because what is reckless about following the supreme being of the universe who has promised deliverance?- abandonment. What if when we heard people saying something that was TRUE, such as "I love you" but when they were never supporting that with actions that instead of perhaps descending a slippery slope of saying that actions may well become more important than words, we stand on a firmer foundation of saying, "your words are not Truth, though they may be true, because the words you speak are part of a greater Truth that includes actions and you have none, therefore you speak false truth?"
Sorry, long response, but you got my holy juices -that sounds dirty, but it's not haha- going in my brain this morning. I hope that all makes sense and isn't too, vague or abstract...You're a smart feller, you can handle it I know!

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