“Preach the Gospel, If Necessary Use Words” – Revisited (Again)


I wrote a blog about 2 years ago on this quote and my antipathy for its declaration. Most of this stemmed from seeing this quote hanging on a wall at my former University – Biola (uniquely known for its burgeoning movement for social involvement). After hearing continual praise for this phrase, coupled with the muddy and unhelpful discussions I heard on a regular basis about “The Kingdom of God” and “Kingdom Ministries” (I should bold the capital letters, just so we can all get the import of the proponents zeal for these terms) I finally thought I should throw my hat into the mess.

After two years of reflection, my convictions have not changed regarding the confusion this phrase produces. I do look back on my initial post and laugh at a few of the ways I wrote my thoughts down:

“Anyone Christian who works in a secular vocation will agree with these words.”

I am sure that those who read this and disagreed with what I was saying were surely fired up even more. Nothing like beginning to read something with “Anyone… will agree with these words.”

Now, to the issue at hand.

Recently in my readings I came across this statement:

Paganism is optimistic with regard to unaided human nature’ whereas Christianity is the religion of the broken heart…

In saying that Christianity is the religion of the broken heart, we do not mean that Christianity ends with the broken heart; we do not mean that the characteristic Christian attitude is a continual beating on the breast or a continual crying of “Woe is me.” Nothing could be further from the fact. Christianity means that sin is faced once for all, and then is cast, by the grace of God, forever into the depths of the sea…

But although Christianity does not end with the broken heart, it does begin with the broken heart; [Christianity] begins with the consciousness of sin. Without the consciousness of sin, the whole of the gospel will seem to be an idle tale. But how can the consciousness of sin be revived? Something no doubt can be accomplished by the proclamation of the law of God, for the law reveals transgressions. The whole of the law, moreover, should be proclaimed…

if the consciousness of sin is to be produced, the law of God must be proclaimed in the lives of Christian people as well as in word. It is quite useless for the preacher to breathe out fire and brimstone from the pulpit, if at the same time the occupants of the pews go on taking sin very lightly and being content with the more’ standards of the world. The rank and file of the Church must do their part in so proclaiming the law of God by their lives that the secrets of men’s hearts shall be revealed.

All these things, however, are in themselves quite insufficient to produce the consciousness of sin. The more one observes the condition of the Church, the more one feels obliged to confess that the conviction of sin is a great mystery’ which can be produced only by the Spirit of God. Proclamation of the law, in word and in deed, can prepare for the experience, but the experience itself comes from God. When a man has that experience, when a man comes under the conviction of sin, his whole attitude toward life is transformed; he wonders at his former blindness, and the message of the gospel, which formerly seemed to be an idle tale, becomes now instinct with light. But it is God alone who can produce the change. Only, let us not try to do without the Spirit of God…

(Christianity & Liberalism, J. Gresham Machen; emphasis added)

What is fascinating to note here is that Machen identifies our deeds with Law, whereas proponents of the quote that I have antipathy to identify deeds with Gospel. I had not ever heard of this understanding of our deeds, that they are a proclamation of God’s Law. This would seem to make sense that I had never heard such a distinction since much of evangelicalism seems to misunderstand the distinction between Law and Gospel.

What else is fascinating is when Machen states “proclamation of the law, in word and deed…“. This may be held in contrast to modern proponents of the phrase “Preach the Gospel, if necessary use words.” They might state on these lines – “Proclamation of the gospel, in words and deeds.” I would declare that there is but one man who can “declare” the Gospel by his deeds, and that man alone was Jesus Christ. Only his deeds were “Gospel”. His deeds were actually fulfilling the righteous requirement of the law that God demanded. His suffering for sin upon the cross was the Gospel in deeds.

Yet even this must be understood properly. Christ’s life, death and resurrection was the accomplishment of what the Gospel declares. The Gospel must be understood as a message, not deeds, nor deeds and message. No man was saved by observing Christ suffer upon the cross. They were not able to say, “Alas! This man here is suffering for my sins!” No, everyone at the cross believed Christ either to be suffering justly for proclaiming to be God or suffering unjustly because he was refused a fair trial and found guiltless.

Christ’s death needed explanation. No deed could suffice for this explanation. Jesus, upon his resurrection, met his disciples on the Emmaus road and explained to them the meaning of his death. It was only after they heard the explanation of his death that their eyes were opened.

“Christ died” is a deed.

“Christ died for your sins” is an explanation of the deed.

No man by mere observation could intuit that Christ death was actually vicarious (that is, in their behalf). They could see it as an example, but no more. The meaning of Christ’s death had to be revealed. That is to say, the act (read: deed) of Christ’s death had to be declared, otherwise no man would understand the significance of his death. They would see it merely as a humble example, not as the event in which their sin was put to death and God’s wrath against them was expended.

This is the crucial distinction that must be upheld when people use the erroneous phrase “Preach the gospel at all times, if necessary use words.”

The whole issue at hand is a Law/Gospel distinction. Modern people, in all their zeal, have done an injustice to the Scriptures and run roughshod over what the Scriptures try to keep separate. How did Machen arrive at understanding that our deeds are Law and not Gospel? By seeing that Gospel is an explanation not an observation.

If merely observing people’s deeds were enough to save people, then I would never open my mouth, because people don’t mock me when I try and feed the homeless. The world looks quite becomingly upon that kind of behavior. Where I get into all kinds of trouble is when I tell people, “Christ died to pay the penalty for sins.” People cannot intuit that the way of Salvation is through Christ alone simply by observing my deeds. I must tell them (i.e., the necessity of using words in connection with the Gospel).

My actions are not the Gospel to people. They might be ‘good news’ in one sense, that is, the alleviation of temporal difficulties. But in a whole other sense they can be quite bad news, that is, that my righteous actions reveal how unrighteous they are. But my righteous deeds will never avail to them the Gospel. My deeds might reveal the transformation that occurs in the life of one who has believed the Gospel, but never an actual declaration of the Gospel itself.

Why this is so significant is that in our churches people are accepting that their deeds can be equated with the Gospel. This is a treacherous thing to assert. The Gospel is in complete antithesis to your deeds. The Gospel is the declaration of God’s Deeds, not yours. The Gospel reveals that God must save you because your deeds are evil, even when you do good. The Gospel is about what Christ has done, (past tense) and not about what you are doing (present tense). The display of the Gospel comes by declaring the past even of Christ’s deeds coupled with its intending meaning. There is no other way to communicate the Gospel but through words. This is why the Apostle Paul said,

“To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.” – Ephesians 6:18-20

The second thing is that people parade ministries around as if they are sharing the Gospel with people when in fact they are not sharing the Gospel with them. I recognize the good intentions that lie behind these actions and the loving desire to help and assist others, but this is not “Gospel Ministry”. It may encourage the hearts of its recipients but cannot declare the forgiveness of sins that comes through Christ. The danger is that the church (as it tends to throughout all of history) is to the omission of the words of the Gospel. When the church begins to blur the distinction between our deeds and the Gospel, they begin to walk down this slippery slope which has so often ended in dismay for the proclamation of the Gospel.

So the encouragement is not that you cannot help people or serve them, but that you must understand what the Gospel is and how the Gospel is communicated. We must learn to pray with Paul, “that words may be given to us in opening our mouths boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel.”

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