Gospel of Deeds?

The May edition of Christianity Today has an article by Duane Litfin (president emeritus of Wheaton College) on the inherently verbal nature of the gospel.

He especially has it in for the saying of the great saint, Pseudo-Francis (who will be seated next to Deutero-Paul and Trito-Isaiah in the heavenly banquet hall, no doubt!):

Preach the gospel at all times, when necessary use words.

I have shared Litfin’s disdain for this saying. I have shared his concern that a non-verbal preaching is, simply, a category mistake. Words are necessary for giving interpretation to the actions that people see.

My own position on this has changed somewhat. This is due, in large part, to seeing the importance of the Gospels as demonstrations of the gospel.

Litfin summarizes his point:

…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.

I want to affirm what Litfin affirms (the necessity of words) but it’s also important to affirm what he denies.

Mark tells us of Jesus’ ministry and summarizes it thus:

Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” (Mark 1:14-15, CEB)

Per Litfin’s point, Jesus preaches with words.

However, the subsequent chapters of Mark contain virtually no teaching of Jesus. He is engaged in a proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom’s advent by calling people, healing the sick, casting out demons, teaching with authority, forgiving sins, eating with the outcast.

The proclamation entails the advent of the Kingdom–something that is not present when only words are in play, but is only present when deeds are enacted as well.

Or, in the theology of the dictum of Pseudo-Francis: Jesus was proclaiming the gospel with his deeds.

This reading is bolstered by Jesus’ own declaration of his disciples’ identity in the Sermon on the Mount:

You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16, CEB)

How is the God of Jesus’ followers glorified? By the nations seeing their good deeds and ascribing glory to their heavenly Father.

To be sure, the world will need to know the one in whose name we are acting. There is a demand for words. But the proclamation entailed here is a proclamation of deed that is in no way secondary to the word.

In the article, Litfin employs a couple of passages for his cause that I do not think support his point.

In John 3:14-15 and John 12:32, Jesus says that his being lifted up will draw all people to himself. This is not an indication of preaching about the cross in words, it is an indication that the action itself is the good news that draws all people to Christ.

Similarly, in Gal 3:1, Paul says that the gospel was “placarded before your eyes.” There is a visual demonstration of the gospel (I would argue in Paul’s own suffering in addition to the works of the Spirit) that makes it known, not merely words.

I see Litfin’s article, and my uneasiness with it, reflecting a larger on-going shift and/or fault line in Evangelicalism. Evangelicals are learning afresh what to do with Jesus. We are learning about the importance of narratives. We are learning about the significance of living out the faith to which we are called.

In our reading of Jesus we are seeing that the feeding of 5,000 is as much a proclamation of the kingdom as the parable of the sower that tells us about abundance coming from scarcity.

In our reading of Paul we are realizing that his plea for himself as an authentic agent of the gospel is inseparably tied to himself as a suffering servant of the Suffering Servant.

The Spirit works not merely because the correct words are spoken. The Spirit works as an agent of glory inside jars of clay. The Spirit works as the agent of resurrection life in the midst of an agent who, enacting the gospel of the crucified Christ, is carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus.

Must we speak? Yes.

But is that all? No.

Is it sufficient? No.

Are our deeds the proclamation of the gospel? Yes. Without a doubt.

16 thoughts on “Gospel of Deeds?”

  1. The question you don’t ask at the end of your piece might go like this?

    Are words without deeds a sufficient proclamation of the gospel?

    I would say no. And I would appeal to your own concern for narrativity. This is the core problem for deeds without words–they are (at least usually) bereft of a larger narrative into which they fit and in which they find their meaning. That certainly doesn’t mean that words have to accompany each deed, and that some deeds without words might be entirely fitting, if the larger narrative eventually becomes clear.

    But I think there’s an even more basic problem with deeds bereft of words: deeds cannot (at least usually) by themselves witness directly to Jesus. But if isn’t clear to whom we are pointing, it really doesn’t matter if we use words or don’t–we not proclaiming the gospel.

    1. According to the words of Jesus deeds witness far more effectively and directly to him than words: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

      The New Testament preference for deeds over words is stark:

      The Parable of the Two Brothers tell about one brother who said the right things, but did the wrong one, and another brother who said the wrong thing, but did the right. Jesus makes it clear which one God prefers.

      The Parable of the Good Samaritan is about two guys who have all their doctrine and preaching correct, but fail in compassion, while the Samaritan who has his doctrine all ass backwards succeeds in compassion. Again Jesus makes it clear which one God prefers.

      In Jesus’ instructions about prayer and fasting he advises private anonymous prayer over public witness – again preferring a doer over a teller. In Jesus’ arguments with the Pharisees he accuses them repeatedly of hypocrisy for not doing what they say, but he never once rails against someone for failing to say aloud what they already do.

      Paul, James, and John in their letters are all unanimous and fervently so that faith without works is dead; that tongues and prophecy without love is a clanging gong; that even the demons “believe” in God and it does them no good; that anyone who ‘says’ they love their neighbor but fails to offer them compassion is a liar; and similarly anyone who claims to love God, but fails to act in a loving way has no truth in them.

      I’m really quite surprised Duane Lutfin, or anyone, could attempt to make an argument that the importance of deeds to the gospel is “foreign to the bible”. It is as ancient as the prophets crying that God desires mercy not sacrifice.

      1. Aric, have I told you lately how glad I am to have someone else who’s an Enneagram 8 commenting on mine and related blogs?

        Carry on! :)

        This is a helpful and important summary of biblical evidence weighing on the other side of the scale. Thanks for the comment.

        1. Heh. I’m glad to have so many stimulating conversation partners in the blogosphere. I strive to lean toward the helpful side of 8, offering challenge and provocation without emnity or callousness. Hopefully I succeed most of the time.

          This conversation is interesting because of its obvious connection to the classic protestant formulation of salvation by grace through faith. I often think the slogans of the reformation hold us back in our interpretation of scripture more than they help us. We miss the obvious because we’re so determined to cling to what we already know is true.

      2. May I add to your Pauline evidence a specific passage? In 1 Thessalonians 2:1-11 Paul specifies that the message into which those in Thessalonika (I always cringe when scholars spell it with a “k”) put their faith was more than verbal. In fact Paul specifically emphasizes the non-verbal quality, emphasizing not the verbal message but the manner of life by which Paul and his cohorts “declared” the good news to the Thessalonians. I have found that it is a very neglected passage in this regard (as is 1 Thessalonians itself when it comes to Pauline theology on the whole).

  2. It seems to me that the gospel is inherently *factual*: that Jesus really was the Christ, that salvation really is in Him, that the Kingdom is really is near at hand, and whatever we put into words can’t be more than a shadow. “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain.” The world is the “larger narrative” that always points to God despite itself, within which all our doings resonate. Recall the commonplace that God has always made use of deeply flawed people to accomplish His purpose.

    … Not at all to deny that good verbal preaching is good for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness.

  3. Thanks for this, Daniel.

    I am reminded of John 1:14: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

    The incarnation seems to push back against a rigid word-flesh dichotomy.

  4. Let’s not forget the teachings of St Peter on the efficacy of observable enacted grace:

    Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.(1 Peter 2:12 ESV)

    Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct. (1 Peter 3:1-2 ESV)

  5. Hi Nice article

    I am a street chaplain http://www.streetchaplain.com

    We show our faith by what we do – cleaning up people who vomit, blood, the drugged and drunk, helping stop fights (prayer and physical). escorting women to cabs, you name it Street Chaplains get their hands dirty.

    Often we get the chance to share the gospel, and it only seems to work when we are doing as much as speaking. Do a kind act for someone and they are more open to trust you and see yeah this human has a heart. Rather than a religious zealot trying to convicne someone of their own convictions, devoid of love they are but an empty vessel or soundless gong (as Paul rightly states) and as we all know, rather annoying
    Jesus was a doer, that is why I adore him. He is the Man-GOD of action. The God-man of compassion The Son of God of mercy and the Holy one of sacrifice.

    He isnt a resounding oracle or guru sitting in a cone of inaction speking truths as pearls of wisdom. No. He is covered in dirt, road grime, his hands touch lepers, women with internal bleeding, he sits with drunks, the drugged, the homeless. He rebukes the self rightous and challenges the lazy. Man do I love the Lord. And boy does he keep me busy!


  6. Daniel, please tell me if I’m wrong–but are you suggesting the preaching of the gospel is something even beyond deeds as well as words? When you speak of the sufferings of Paul and carrying about in our bodies the dying of Jesus aren’t you talking about our actual lives, and not just our deeds? Suffering isn’t necessarily something I do, it’s what happens to me, but plays a central role in redefining who I am. Phil. 3:8. Are you saying the “agent” himself bears responsibility beyond simply telling the story of Jesus? I really need to hear your take on this.

  7. Maybe it is just a funny construction in the Greek, but I find Acts 1:8b, you will be my witnesses, supportive of your thesis here. If the emphasis was on speaking, one would expect “you will bear witness.” Instead the emphasis is on identity, which includes more than simply words in the same way that being a credible witness always includes more than simply true words.

    1. Nate, good point. It should also be noted the word “be” is in the middle voice. The middle voice is arguably the richest, as well as the least understood component of the greek language. What Daniel is beginning to talk about here has the potential to reframe the very meaning of being “in Christ”. I cannot think of anything more critical in this world or the one to come. Very few, however have the resolve to follow this through. There are too many other topics and ideas that titilate men’s ears. After all, most are in this game to appeal to as many people as possible. One more note: Did you know almost every time the verb “preach the gospel” is used it is in the middle voice as well?

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