Preaching the gospel is not enough.
At first glance, this may seem like a sacrilegious statement for a Bible-believing Christian. We know the gospel is “the power of God for salvation, for everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).
So would we suggest that the message of the gospel is somehow lacking? Pastor Tim Keller would certainly disagree: “The gospel is not just the A-B-C’s but the A to Z of Christianity. The gospel is not just the minimum required doctrine necessary to enter the kingdom, but the way we make all progress in the kingdom.” (Centrality of the Gospel)
And yet it is not enough to just preach the gospel—we must also live it out.
Through the life and ministry of Jesus, we see that Christians are called to proclaim the gospel and also to demonstrate the gospel. Proclamation (word ministry) and demonstration (deed ministry) are inextricably tied. Both ministries address the utter brokenness of humanity because both seek to guide a person from brokenness to flourishing.
BROKENNESS AND THE GOSPEL
In order to better understand God’s desire for human flourishing, we will unpack the gospel message using a helpful paradigm from Keller’s Ministries of Mercy (p.46-47). Then we will see why the ministries of both word and deed are vital to meeting the needs of the whole person.
God created humanity to be in perfect fellowship with Him and for God Himself to continuously meet all our needs. But sin has spiraled us into pain and frustration, causing brokenness and alienating us in four ways.
At the core is our theological alienation, separating us from God. This leads to psychological alienation from our true selves. Consequently, we are unable to live at peace with each other, leading to social alienation. Finally, we experience physical alienation from nature itself, being susceptible to death, disorder, and decay.
The alienation and brokenness experienced by every human being makes the Incarnation that much more amazing! Jesus became a human, subjecting himself to brokenness, death, and decay on our behalf.
The earthly ministry of Jesus began to turn back the effects of human brokenness, seeking to heal the whole person. When Jesus healed the sick, he restored physical brokenness, turning back the effects of sin by causing bodies to work as God designed them. When Jesus spoke against the oppression of the poor and taught about forgiveness, he was turning the tide against social brokenness by restoring people to right relationships with each other. When Jesus cast out demons, he was healing psychological brokenness. In the same way, he illuminated the idolatry in the hearts of his listeners, causing them to have a restored view of themselves. When the time came, he went to the cross, dying the death we deserved in our place, and he made a way to restore and heal our broken relationship with God, the theological brokenness at the core of every person.
Then, by the power of the Holy Spirit, God raised Jesus from the dead and defeated sin, death, and decay once and for all. Now, we live in the in-between—the already-but-not-yet. Sin and death have been defeated, but God has not yet brought total healing to the brokenness still present in the world. We long for the day when Jesus will turn back all the effects of sin and make all things new. Until then, Christians are empowered by the Spirit to seek healing for all dimensions of brokenness: physical, social, psychological, and theological.
WORD AND DEED
Jesus’s earthly ministry was characterized by both deed and word (Luke 24:19). He went from town to town proclaiming the gospel and healing the sick (Matthew 4:23). Likewise, the church is called to speak and to serve (1 Peter 4:11). Throughout Scripture, we see this pattern: word and deed.
So if both word and deed ministries are commanded of Christians, which is more important? According to Keller, that question is just as misguided as asking, “‘Is it more important to repent or to be baptized?’ We should not be comfortable asking which of God’s commandments is most permissible to disobey. So too, it is inappropriate to ask whether evangelism or social concern is more important. They constitute a whole that should not be divided.” (Ministries of Mercy, p.116)
So what is the danger of emphasizing one ministry over the other?
THE DANGER OF EMPHASIZING DEED-OVER-WORD
St. Francis of Assisi is perhaps most famous for words he never said: “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.”
There is a certain appeal to this statement: we should not merely talk about the gospel, we must live it out by loving our neighbors as ourselves. In a world saturated with empty talk, this can be a refreshing change of pace.
As noble as this may seem, speaking the gospel only “when necessary” inevitably leads to a deed-over-word approach to ministry. The Bible is explicit that merely living out the gospel is insufficient without verbally preaching the gospel—a person cannot be saved unless they hear someone preach the gospel to them (Romans 10:14).
Words matter to God. He spoke the world into existence with words. Jesus Himself is the Word made flesh, and he proclaimed the gospel of the Kingdom wherever he went. We are not truly “preaching the gospel” with our deeds unless we are also clearly communicating the distinctive gospel message of Christ with our words.
The danger of the deed-over-word approach is that it ministers to the body without addressing the soul.
There are churches and nonprofits all over the world doing amazing work addressing the physical, social, and psychological needs of people made in the image of God. What a tragedy for the healing to stop there! At the core of every person is theological brokenness. The Spirit of God has chosen to use words to bring truth and healing to that brokenness.
THE DANGER OF EMPHASIZING WORD-OVER-DEED
On the other hand, many Christians make the opposite mistake: to diminish the importance of deed ministry by exalting word ministry (preaching, teaching, and evangelism) as the pinnacle of Christian practice.
If this approach had a motto, it might be “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, do justice and mercy.”
The discussion of word and deed ministry is closely related to the discussion of faith and works: “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (James 2:15-17)”
Some would say this is a strawman argument and a superfluous discussion—"there aren’t actually churches who believe deed ministry is unnecessary." While nearly every church desires to help people in their communities who are in need, many of these churches demonstrate an obvious priority of word-over-deed. This may be evident in staffing and budget decisions, or in the focus of sermons and training.
You also see this view in action when a pastor avoids speaking out on a contentious social issue (even when the Bible addresses that issue) because they believe their duty is to “just preach the gospel”.
Perhaps the greatest danger of emphasizing word-over-deed ministry is that it can result in an unbiblical disconnect of the body from the soul. In its most insidious form, this can lead to grave injustice.
Russell Moore observes how this flawed understanding has played out in recent American history: “Christians in my tradition, tragically, did not initially oppose the abortion culture, for the same reason some of them did not initially oppose the slavery culture or the Jim Crow culture. They saw the “soul” as the “part” of humanity with which the gospel is concerned. The child could be biologically present in the womb, but somehow be a human without a soul. This flawed theology was also present in those who thought they could evangelize the “souls” of slaves while they simultaneously thought they could “own” their bodies to do their labor. Such a way always ends in death.” (Onward, p.122)
MINISTERS OF RECONCILIATION
As Christians, we are called to minister to the whole human being - to address the physical, social, psychological and theological brokenness present in every person. God has made us ministers of reconciliation, and he has empowered us by the Holy Spirit. God has given us the ministries of word and deed to work towards the healing of people, families, communities, and nations.
If God has called us to proclamation and demonstration, to share the gospel in both word and deed, why would ever limit ourselves to one or the other?