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.