There is a popular quote which is attributed to Francis of Assisi that reads ‘Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.’ These words have inspired many Christians to live lives that glorify God, remembering at all times that our actions are a powerful testimony to the One we claim to serve. The book of James tells us that ‘faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.’ (James 2:17) The next verse reads ‘Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.’ Truly our actions speak volumes about the state of our hearts and serve to validate our faith.
However, I wonder at the Biblical justification for placing the primacy on actions rather than words. Where does the Bible tell us that our primary means of spreading the gospel message is through our lives rather than through speech? Where is the Biblical justification for this verse?
As I read through the book of Acts I see example after example of the apostles preaching the gospel. They do so not by their actions, but by their words. They speak words that are offensive to their audience, preaching about sin, wrath and judgment. They are continually punished for the words they speak, often being beaten and imprisoned. In the end most of them are martyred for faithfully preaching the good news.
Reading through the gospels presents a similar picture of Jesus. Though his miraculous actions caused crowds to be drawn to Him, it was His words that brought people to repentance. Christ performed miracles to testify to His divinity. He did not do them to draw crowds or to make the Pharisees angry. He performed miracles to prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that He was God. Anyone who saw Him transform water into wine or raise Lazarus from the dead was without excuse, for that person would have known in his heart that He had seen God in human form. But when Christ preached, He did so with powerful and insightful words that cut people to the very core of their being.
The verses from James that were quoted earlier speak of the value of doing good works. Do these verses tell us that works are to be used to preach the gospel? No! They tell us that works are to be used to prove what we believe. I may say that I have become a Christian and that God is changing my character, but it is my life, my actions, that will prove it. My actions are incapable of preaching the gospel. They can provide proof of what I claim to believe, but in and of themselves cannot speak of sin, repentance or forgiveness.
To emphasize actions in preaching the gospel is to de-emphasize words. God has ordained that the good news of Jesus Christ should go out to the world through ‘the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.’ (1 Corinthians 21) Paul speaks here of not only the message, but the means. God chooses to use a foolish means to preach a foolish message. The foolish means is preaching — carefully and logically expositing God’s Word to the world. Every Christian is responsible for doing this; we are all called to share the Good News with those around us. Though people may be drawn to us by our actions or by our lives, we must ensure that we are able to give an account of our faith.