Word and Deed
Word and Deed
and Heart and Mind and Soul and Strength
The early church provides an incredible demonstration of God’s transformative power. In Acts 2, we read that on Pentecost, the day where the Holy Spirit came to dwell on the apostles, a mere fisherman gave a moving sermon, and thousands were baptized. God was moving and active in the church.
But when we look forward to 2011, we see a different picture. The percentage of those identified as non-religious in any way in America is rising. According to the 2006 Faith Matters Survey conducted by Harvard University, we see that while in 1960, the number of Americans who self-identified as having no religion was around 5 percent, in 2000 that number had risen to about 25 percent.1 Moreover, the rise in affiliation as being non-religious has not led to an overall rise in secularism. Americans still consider themselves to be spiritual, but not necessarily religious.2 More importantly, the zeal of God’s church has stalled to a point where many see God or religion as irrelevant to daily life.
What happened? The God we serve is still the same, transformative God we’ve always served and the Gospel is the same Gospel. Then why is the church perceived as declining? Is our power of witness in a pluralistic society becoming less effective? In reality, the answer appears to lie in how we view the concept of “Word and Deed.” “Word” refers to the spoken nature of Christian witness in the world, whereas “deed” ministry refers to the practical endeavor of living out the Gospel through good deeds and social action to feed the hungry, help the homeless, and support the downtrodden.
Living out one’s Christian faith in deed is best exemplified by the quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel; when necessary, use words.” Living out one’s faith in deed means that we live out the Gospel through charity and good works, and that we live out our lives as a sermon to the world. We recall the words in Micah 6:8 where God calls us to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” We remember the words of Christ in Matthew 25:41 where we are called to care for the weak, hungry, naked, and sick, for “just as you did for the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Moreover, we remember in James 2:26 that “just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead.” The Christian’s witness in the world seems incomplete without this emphasis on serving the poor and needy through practical, charitable avenues of expression. Tim Keller writes that “God is angry when we have one face for him and another for the needy… Jesus can say in effect, ‘I am the homeless person on your steps—how you treat her tells me what you are really like.”3
On the other side of the spectrum, displaying the Gospel in word focuses on the message we are called to verbally proclaim. According to J.D. Greear, using the axiom “‘Preach the Gospel; when necessary, use words,’ is like saying, ‘Tell me your phone number; if necessary, use digits.’ Our Gospel is a gospel of words. It is an announcement of what Jesus has done, not a model about how we are to live.”4 We receive the call to declare the Gospel in Word from no less a source than Christ himself. In Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus tells us to “Go and make disciples of all nations,” and in Romans 10:14-15, Paul says, “But how, are they to call on him whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim to them?” The verbal aspect to living out the Gospel seems clear.
It is this balance between Word and Deed that seems to largely dominate the Christian life. The call to live one’s faith in Word and Deed is a biblically warranted. More than that, the Bible seems clear that both are a necessary component to the Christian life. Focusing too much on the Word aspect without thinking of Deed often neglects physical needs and realities. This runs the risk of viewing people solely in terms of Christian and non-Christian and fails to truly endeavor towards relationships. On the other hand, focusing too much on Deed neglects to tell people of the one who compels such deeds. It focuses on meeting temporal needs without pointing to the one who can fulfill their ultimate needs. Certain groups may fare better focusing on one more than the other, but both are called for and the Christian life cannot consist in one or the other.
But even an approach that balances word and deed perfectly is flawed if it neglects the love with which we are supposed to go into the world. Word and Deed as a philosophy is biblically warranted, but unless it also represents a response to the Gospel it gets caught up in itself. The key to the church reclaiming its zeal lies, therefore, in reengaging Word and Deed not as a philosophy or approach, but as a response to the grace of God. This response to God’s grace goes back to the basics of the Commandments. More specifically, we reference the Greatest Commandment in Luke 10:27: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
Our call is not merely to help the homeless (although we do help the poor), and our duty is not merely to verbally display the Gospel (although we ought to be aware of and seize opportunities to verbally communicate the Gospel with others). Our call is first and foremost not instructional, but spiritual. Our call is to love God above all else, and to love others as a result of God’s overwhelming love for us. Word and Deed is not meant to be only a philosophy that focuses on instructions and details. Its preoccupation is ultimately with how we do ministry and how we conduct ourselves in the world.
In contrast, Word and Deed as a response of the heart loves God and loves people. This response focuses on our driving force and our goals before we follow our instructions, and addresses why we even go into the world as witnesses. The Word and Deed philosophy falls short of the Christian’s call, which is holistic. The Word and Deed philosophy and the Word and Deed response may accomplish the same things in action, but a response to Word and Deed captures the love and spirit that Word and Deed as a philosophy sometimes neglects.
But what does a holistic Word and Deed response look like? What does it look like to have a response to the love of God dictate our witness in the world? To see this, we turn back to Acts 2. The dynamism of the early church can, I believe, be attributed to a response-oriented view of witness.
The church of Acts 2 did it all. They lived the Gospel in Word. In Acts 2:14- 36, Peter gives one of the most compelling sermons on record. He presents the Gospel clearly and succinctly, saying, “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus, whom you crucified … Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to Him.” The chapter tells us that those listening were “cut to the heart” (v. 37) and that 3,000 were converted and baptized that very day. The early church also lived out their faith in Deed. They “would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (v. 45), and “awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles” (v. 43). The early church understood the importance of both word and deed.
But most important to reclaiming the heart of Word and Deed, we see that the spirit among the early church was one of true, abiding love. We are told in Acts 2:42 that the early church “Devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers,” and in verse 46, “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home, and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.” The spirit of love increased the numbers of the church daily and was focused on loving other believers and the world around them. The early church lived a Word and Deed lifestyle as an outward growth from an inward spirit of love.
Word and Deed must reclaim its spirit if the church is to regain its zeal. The holistic view of our witness in the world thus begins with a call to our roots. It begins when we stop focusing on the specific instructions alone and instead remember why we are called and who is calling us. To reclaim the spirit, we must let a response to the Gospel guide us in word, deed, heart, mind, soul, and strength.
1 Robert Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), 123.
2 Robert C. Fuller, Spiritual, but Not Religious (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).
3 Timothy Keller, Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 1997), 40.
4 J.D. Greear, “Love in Action is the Greatest Apologetic,” JDGreear, December 7, 2009, http://www.jdgreear.com/my_weblog/2009/12/ love-in-action-is-the-greatest-apologetic.html
Michael Hammett is a Trinity junior from Wake Forest, North Carolina. He is majoring in History and minoring
in Religion, and enjoys studying the Protestant Reformation and early modern Europe. He is currently a Peer Minister with Duke Lutherans and is a Chapel Scholar. He is also the President of the History Union and enjoys coffee, theology, and teaching with Duke’s Talent Identification Program.
Image by Photoeuphoria from Stock Free Images.Tags: Acts, church, deed, Duke University, God, Harvard University, JD Greear, Jesus, love, philosophy, religion, secular, St. Francsis of Assisi, Tim Keller, word