Words are necessary

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When we share the gospel, we need to speak

by Ed Boschman, USMB executive director

Many of us have used this quote attributed to Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” What we usually mean to communicate is that the most important communication plan for the good news is our actions rather than our words. While it sounds good and draws attention to the fact that both words and deeds matter, it just isn’t right.

Duane Litfin points this out in his Christianity Today article, “You Can’t Preach the Gospel With Deeds” (May 2012). Long before reading this article, the tension of word and deed witness has given me occasional spiritual indigestion. From my observation of some personal and corporate witness initiatives in recent years, I have wondered whether the good news of salvation is getting through.

Some of you have been tracking with us as we aim to succinctly summarize our USMB core theological beliefs. We have pared the words down to: being Bible believers, being Jesus centered and Spirit led, encouraging a believe-obey relationship with Jesus in both word and action, partnering in believers church communities and living as agents of reconciliation.

Did you notice the italics? This is one of the reasons that the subject has been working me over.

In recent years I have heard of Jesus and/or his Spirit revealing himself without human presence or words. But this has mostly happened in the contexts where our missionaries are on assignment among the least reached peoples of the planet.

While it is exhilarating to hear of times when the Spirit of Jesus chooses to communicate in miraculous ways his saving grace to someone, this is not the pattern he set in place for his disciples. The mandate was to tell the “Jesus was God atoning for sin and seeking to reconcile people to himself “ story and thereby invite, exhort and persuade people to believe and pursue obedient followership. That story needs words.

Though it is true that we choose to believe in and commit to following Jesus, we know unequivocally that deeds/works play no role in the earning of our salvation (Eph. 2:8-9). We also know that deeds/works are the natural result (Eph. 2:10). So the deeds part of our responsibility is real, but it is not the same as communicating the gospel.

Meeting someone’s need or giving someone a gift is a good thing to do. But it does not clarify or offer the opportunity for the receiver to respond to the call of Jesus to believe and repent of their resistance to the working of the Holy Spirit in their lives and to receive the grace gift of salvation.

Litfin warns that, “conflating the respective roles of word and deed can have serious consequences.” He suggests that it could take us to believing that our doing is enough and that we don’t need to speak. More disconcertingly, Litfin proposes that it could deceive us into thinking that the power of the gospel “lies within us.” That would mean there really can be no true evangelism without embodied action.

Finally Litfin says that confusion of word and deed can land us out of sync with the clear plan revealed by God in the Bible. While we may not agree entirely with Litfin’s observations, it seems to me his words need to be taken seriously. Verbal witness is scripturally clarified as God’s chosen game plan: “It pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21, ESV).

So, let’s witness at all times by our lives and deeds, and let’s remember that words will always be necessary.

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