“The gospel is heard not seen”
As a preacher, I am not opposed to using overstatement to emphasize a point. It is, in my opinion, a valid rhetorical device, but the above quote is not an example of this. When I included these words in a message this past weekend, I was speaking quite specifically. The gospel is heard and not seen. The good news is a message that can only be delivered in words. As Paul reminds us, the gospel needs to be spoken and heard so that it can be believed. (Romans 10)
My insistence on this is due to some confusion prevalent in current evangelical speech. Often, I hear or see written, an encouragement to ‘live out’ the gospel in front of a dying world. The intent in this is to encourage believers to perform good works towards the lost. While this encouragement is good and needed, it blurs the meaning of the gospel and that’s not a good thing. The subject of the gospel is the person and work of Jesus Christ. The gospel is the good news that God saves sinners. It’s a historical truth with an immediate opportunity. This announcement cannot be conveyed by actions—words are needed, and these words need to come from our lips.
Am I participating in the age-old dispute between words versus actions? I certainly hope not. Doing good works is an imperative for every follower of Jesus. The man who served the least and lonely expects no less from those who call him master. If we love Christ then we had better be diligent in good works because he takes our efforts personally, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40, ESV). Insisting that the gospel is a spoken thing does not imply that our actions are unimportant—we need more charitable effort not less.
Is this simply semantics? Does it really matter that we get the categories right and define our words exactly? I think so. The danger is that many can come to think that they are fulfilling their gospel duty by acts of service alone. Acting benevolently is noble and necessary but unless we direct people to Jesus we risk making people more comfortable in their sin. Our task is only complete when we have invited our neighbors to call on Jesus for forgiveness.
But do good works have any relation to the gospel? Yes, indeed.
The gospel ought to be accompanied with generous deeds. As heralds of the king, our behavior must be consistent with our message. Those who speak of Jesus’ love are more likely to be believed if they demonstrate that love. Good works serve to validate the message; they bridge the credibility gap and win a hearing. We could put it this way, “Good works adorn the gospel, but words are needed to explain it.”
So this is not an either/or scenario that sets one against the other. Both works and words ought to come freely from the faithful. The reason I want us to get our language right isn’t an effort to diminish either responsibility. It’s because I fear that category confusion has already done this. I worry that when we call our works the gospel, the witness falls silent. Too many Christians love their neighbors and are loved in return without the name of Jesus being spoken between them.
Let your good works gain you a hearing, and then please speak the gospel.