Demonstrating the Gospel Is Not Enough2
This week I’m preparing to teach my high school Bible class about the church. It’s one thing to do a deep, theological study on the intricacies of what the church is, and what the church is supposed to do. It’s another thing to have a classroom full of girls (yes, all my students are girls!) and teach them the significance of the true community of believers. I wrestled with whether to just stick to what the text (we are using The Drama of Scripture) says, or to branch out and discuss how we need to be accepting of everyone regardless of who they are or what they’ve been through. They are a bunch of teenage girls, after all.
I began to think that maybe I was missing the point, too. After all, one can’t help but realize after studying that the church isn’t just about being a “community” or being “accepting” of the outcast. It is both those things, of course. But more importantly, the question to ask is what is the purpose of the church? Wayne Grudem answered this question quite effectively. “(The) evangelistic work of declaring the gospel is the primary ministry that the church has toward the world.”
I’m sure most of us have heard the quote credited to St. Francis of Assisi. “Preach the Gospel, and if necessary, use words.” Now, before you nod your head and agree with him, actually think about what he (or whoever actually coined it) is implying. The implication is that the most important aspect of the gospel is the demonstration of it, not the actual preaching of it. This is (arguably) wrong. After all, just demonstrating the gospel with no real means of communicating the actual truth of the gospel can’t be enough for the unbeliever who walks into our churches. They are used to seeing people perform good works. What they don't know is that our good works are but filthy rags. If Grudem is right, and the primary means by which the church must minister to the world is by declaration, then demonstration isn’t enough. Simply being accepting of the outcast, while necessary, isn’t enough. Being a community who rallies around the sick, the new mother, the new widow, or the struggling teen, while important, isn’t enough. If they don’t know why the church even does what it does, then what’s the point? We must not confuse demonstration with declaration.
We think that if we give money to the homeless, volunteer at a soup kitchen, protest at an abortion clinic, start a charity organization, or speak out at rallies about social injustices like racism and sex trafficking that this is the same thing as preaching the gospel. While all these things are important, and Christians should be doing them, non-Christians can do these same things, and often do. What is the difference? The call of the kingdom must include the elements that Jesus first declared when he walked out of the wilderness and began to preach. “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”
Romans 10:14 says, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?”
Jesus didn’t stay in his carpenter shop, being a beloved son of Nazareth, and doing charity work while quietly knowing he was the Messiah. No, far from it! His words were what drew people to him, or away from him. His words were what cast out demons, healed the sick, and pardoned the sinner. His words were what drew the ire of the religious authorities, caused the Pharisees to pick up stones, and caused Pilate to find no fault in him. His words had and still have power. His actions backed up, but didn't replace, what he said and still says today.
Our compassion for the outcast and our call to visit the orphans and widows in their distress is vitally important; it is, after all, true religion. But while healing the sick and causing the blind to see were both powerful metaphors and validation of Jesus' mission, they were not themselves the mission. His mission was to preach the coming kingdom. And as his church, his mission is our mission. Our mission is to declare the good news that Jesus has defeated death by death and invites us to live, and it is a mission that should be validated, but not replaced, by our demonstration. The glorious thing about it is that not only do we preach an unstoppable gospel, we are empowered to preach by the Spirit that the God-man sent specifically for that purpose. So next time we reach out of our comfort zone to reach out to the lost and dying around us, let’s remember…use words.
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