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.
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: