I recently wrote this article for our monthly newsletter at Felton Bible Church. Let me caveat what’s here by noting my respect and appreciation for President George H.W. Bush:
I wonder, did you have the chance to watch President George H.W. Bush’s state funeral ceremony on December 5th? It was, for a host of reasons, a fascinating and moving event; and that regardless of one’s views about President Bush as a leader and political figure. Despite the fascination, I found myself troubled by one line in particular that made a repeat appearance during the service itself and/or during the news coverage. Repeatedly, newscasters or eulogizers reflected on President Bush as a man who lived according to this principle: “Preach Christ at all times and, if necessary, use words.”
Now, let’s acknowledge from the outset that there is a measure of truth inherent to that statement. Certainly our Christian action – specifically the love we exude for God and people – ought to speak loudly, even apart from words. No doubt such truth undergirds James’ thought when he writes, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?…For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:14, 26, ESV). But, despite a measure of truth, the phrase, “Preach Christ at all times and, if necessary, use words,” is deadly. It is fundamentally flawed and marks a dangerous pit in which Satan would love to entrap Jesus’ people and Jesus’ church.
For starters, notice how this pithy slogan privileges action over words in a way the Bible does not. How does one “preach” Christ apart from words? The very idea of “preaching” necessitates speaking (Note: Think here of proclaiming God’s words in everyday communication, and not only of our Sunday morning worship). There is no preaching that does not involve language; that does not involve words which engage our rational minds and sink into our feeling hearts. God communicates not only with action, but also with words. Communicating the Gospel (“Preach Christ”) is never an “either-or” juxtaposition of action and words, but always a “both-and” proposition.
The phrase, “Preach Christ at all times and, if necessary, use words,” is precisely the sort of statement that an idolatrous, syncretistic, “tolerant,” society like ours loves to hear. It takes the “bite” out of the Christian message. A world which cannot stand the name of Jesus is nonetheless quite happy to enjoy the “good works” of Jesus’ followers. After all, what difference does it make if the school gets painted by a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Wiccan, a Mormon, an atheist, or a Christian? A phrase like, “Preach Christ at all times and, if necessary, use words,” becomes a subtle way of subsuming “Christian” religious expression into a non-offensive, “ecumenical” statement of spiritual “faith” – one palatable to all. A church that lives according to this will slowly sink into the morass of Gospel irrelevance; a bog of so-called “social justice” disconnected from the actual person and work of Jesus Christ.
Brothers and sisters, Jesus died not only for what he did, but also (and maybe particularly) for what he said! Consider those who, in John 10, attempt to stone Jesus to death. They say to Jesus, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God” (John 10:33, ESV). It was Jesus’ words that led to the cross, not merely his actions. If Jesus needed words to preach the Gospel, why would we expect anything different? No wonder Paul says this, in Romans 10, after his famous statement about salvation itself (see Romans 10:9-10, ESV): “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?…Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-15a, 17, ESV).
We are the sent ones; sent from God into the world with a message of reconciliation between God and man. That message emanates both from our actions and from our words. May we never drive a wedge between the two!