Words and Deeds, and a Few Comments on Balance
Currently I am studying for my ordination exams in the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA). It’s a three-year process that has three major steps in it: one at the start, one at the end, and one in-between. The steps at the beginning and the end of the process are similar; each requires a long, doctrinal paper and an oral examination over that same paper. The difference between the two is that the first step requires a 20-page paper and a three-hour oral examination, while the last step is double that—40 pages of writing and a six-hour oral exam.
What’s the middle step? Three years of faithful, gospel ministry in the context of a local EFCA church.
On May 21 of this year, I participated in the first step and passed. (If interested, you can read my paper here.)
While preparing for this step, I read Evangelical Convictions, which is an exposition of our denomination’s statement of faith. One place I found the book particularly helpful was in the discussion of the relationship between gospel deeds and gospel proclamation. When you hear “gospel deeds,” think of Christ-like acts of service in the church and the world. And when you hear “gospel proclamation,” think communicating the content of the gospel with words. To explain the relationship between the two, the authors of Evangelical Convictions use a musical analogy. They write:
Words often attributed to Francis of Assisi are frequently quoted in [regard to sharing the gospel]: “Preach the gospel all the time; if necessary use words.”
This is misstated, for our words are necessary, just as God’s words are necessary for us to understand his message. But it is true, nonetheless, that how we live provides the context for the content of the message we proclaim. It provides the music that accompanies the lyrics of the gospel—the music which helps to display the beauty of those lyrics to the world.
Thus, proclaiming the gospel in words and living the gospel through loving service to others ought to go hand in hand. Actions without words are insufficient, but words without action lack credibility. We declare God’s love to the world with more power when we also demonstrate that love in how we live. (Evangelical Convictions, 208)
This analogy—words and deeds likened to lyrics and music—is helpful. Gospel deeds by themselves are like instrumental music: good and beautiful, yet open to ambiguity and misinterpretation. And gospel words by themselves are like lyrics without a melody: good and true, yet all the more powerful when set to music.
A Few Comments on Balance
Perhaps you have heard serious debates about the tension between these two and which is more important: practice or proclamation? Should I shovel the snow in my neighbor’s driveway or should I invite them to a Bible Study? Should I volunteer at soup kitchens or hand out gospel tracts? Which is it, deeds or words?
Often in the debate, the word “primarily” is inserted to soften absoluteness—should Christians primarily be involved in gospel deeds or primarily in verbal gospel proclamation. This helps a little, but I agree with the authors of Evangelical Convictions; there is no ultimate tension between the two—words and deeds should go together like lyrics and music.
But just because they “go together,” I do not think our ultimate goal should be to “balance” them. I say this—that balance is not the goal—for three reasons.
First, how could we possibly know if we have just the right amount of each, the perfect balance of words and deeds? Sure, it’s possible to see gross imbalances, especially in others, but what “scale” shall we use to know when things are slightly off?
Second, balance—however it is measured—is something that must be measured over a period of time. For example, in a given moment, I might be engaged in a gospel practice, and in another moment verbal gospel proclamation. The only way to know that my life is “balancing” these two, practice and proclamation, is if you look at the period of time that includes both.
To use a different analogy, if I say, “I haven’t eaten anything in 10 hours!” you might think, “Whoa, that’s unhealthy and out of balance.” However, it might be very normal if when I said this it was 7am and I’d just had a good night’s sleep. We all have natural rhythms of eating and not eating, and in order to see if a person has a balanced diet you need to examine the right period of time. This is what I mean about words and deeds; you have to observe the right period of time. In different seasons, a person (or even a church or parachurch ministry), might rightly be focused more on one than the other.
Third, to complicate this even more, Christians exist in a body, a body made up of different members with different functions just like the human body (Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31). Therefore, by God’s great design, some of us will be more inclined to word proclamation and some more to deed proclamation. We can see this clearly displayed in 1 Peter. At one point, Peter writes that all Christians are to “proclaim the excellencies” of God (2:9). Yet later in the epistle, Peter notes that some Christians will do this through speaking and others through service. “Whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies” (4:11).
For these reasons, to make balance the highest goal is not only impossible to evaluate, but the wrong goal altogether. Thus, I’m not so worried about how I balance the two in my own life, as much as I am concerned about obedience for this is Paul’s emphasis in Ephesians.
Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:15-16)
Notice the phrase: “when each part is working properly.” The goal is not to make sure we are always in perfect balance, but perfect obedience so that together—the whole body—can sing gospel lyrics to the tune of gospel deeds. That’s the concert I want to be a part of.