In American evangelicalism over the last decade, there has been a resurgence of interest in what might be called “deed” ministry. Christians should not be concerned only about evangelism, it is argued, but also about caring for the practical, day-to-day needs of our unbelieving neighbors.
This sentiment is captured in a phrase that is being used more and more these days: “Preach the Gospel; if necessary, use words.” This is the next installment in the “Taking Back Christianese” series originally announced here.
Our purpose in this post (as in all the posts in this series) is simply to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of this phrase. We will do this by asking three questions: (1) Why do people use this phrase? (2) What is correct or helpful about this phrase? and (3) What is problematic about this phrase?
Why Do People Use This Phrase?
A version of this phrase is said to go back to St. Francis of Assisi, a Catholic Friar and preacher in the middle ages, though this attribution is uncertain. Regardless, most people in the modern day simply use the phrase to emphasize the importance of Christian social action.
Thus, most people use this phrase as another way to express the sentiment, “actions speak louder than words.” If Christians are going to be effective in their witnessing, we are told, then they must accompany it with actions that help the poor, downtrodden and outcast.
This renewed emphasis on social action is due, in large part, to frustration with prior generations of Christians that seemed concerned only with proclamation and not with good deeds. Younger generations of Christians use this phrase to push back against what they perceive as an isolationist/separationist mentality in prior generations.
What Is Correct or Helpful about This Phrase?
If used rightly, this phrase can capture important biblical truths. Just as Jesus’ own ministry was composed of both word and deed (Acts 1:1), so ours should be as well. Also, we are commanded to keep a close watch on more than simply our doctrine, but our lives also (1 Tim 4:16).
Indeed, Jesus himself informs us that it is our love for one another that will be an example to the world and “by this all people will know that you are my disciples” (John 13:35).
And, on top of this, we all know that our good preaching can be radically undercut by our poor behavior. As Richard Baxter stated (in a phrase that always brings conviction to my heart): “One proud, surly, lordly word, one needless contention, one covetous action, may cut the throat of many a sermon, and blast the fruit of all that you have been doing.”
What is Problematic about This Phrase?
Even with these positives, this phrase has the potential of causing a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding. Here are a number of problems (or at least potential problems) with this phrase:
1. This phrase can give the impression that good deeds are primary, and that gospel proclamation is secondary. On the contrary, the Bible makes it clear that “Word ministry”– the proclamation of the gospel and the instruction of God’s people–is the core mission of the church. While deeds of mercy might be a natural response to the gospel, and a fruit of the gospel which rightly adorns the church, it should not be viewed as a co-equal with the mission to proclaim the gospel. The Great Commission (Matt 28:19-20) makes it clear that the core mission of the church is Word and Sacrament: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them… teaching them.”
2. This phrase has been used in some quarters to raise mercy ministry above the proclamation of the gospel. Indeed, in some places, mercy ministry is done without any real efforts towards evangelizing or proclaiming the good news of Jesus. Mercy ministry in these instances has, in one sense, replaced the proclamation of the gospel. I mentioned this problem in the prior post here and called us back to a Christ-centered mercy ministry.
3. This phrase overlooks the fact that people are not saved by deed ministry. In order to for people to believe and be saved, they have to hear the message of the gospel. Paul is clear about this reality: “How are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without some preaching” (Rom 10:14).
4. This phrase is often used to promote only a certain kind of good deed, namely social action (e.g., helping the poor and needy). While these are commendable activities, little attention is giving to how the personal holiness of Christians is also a witness to the gospel. In other words, this phrase seems concerned only with social action of Christians and not so much with personal piety of Christians as a means of bolstering our witness.
In summary, we should be clear that both gospel proclamation and deeds of mercy should be part of the life of the church. We are not forced to choose. But we must also be careful to distinguish between them. Deeds of mercy are not the gospel. They are the fruit of the gospel. D.A. Carson said it well:
Some studies have shown that Christians spend about five times more mission dollars on issues related to poverty than they do on evangelism and church planting. At one time, “holistic ministry” was an expression intended to move Christians beyond proclamation to include deeds of mercy. Increasingly, however, “holistic ministry” refers to deeds of mercy without any proclamation of the gospel—and that is not holistic. It is not even halfistic, since the deeds of mercy are not the gospel: they are entailments of the gospel. Although I know many Christians who happily combine fidelity to the gospel, evangelism, church planting, and energetic service to the needy, and although I know some who call themselves Christians who formally espouse the gospel but who live out few of its entailments, I also know Christians who, in the name of a “holistic” gospel, focus all their energy on presence, wells in the Sahel, fighting disease, and distributing food to the poor, but who never, or only very rarely, articulate the gospel, preach the gospel, announce the gospel, to anyone. Judging by the distribution of American mission dollars, the biggest hole in our gospel is the gospel itself.
Carson’s point should be particularly compelling to the Reformed church. It is Reformed folks who rightly express concerns about preaching that lacks the gospel. Such preaching is mere moralism, we are told.
Would we not therefore expect the same concerns to be offered regarding mercy ministry that lacks the gospel? Otherwise, mercy ministry would be mere moralism.