“The world needs to see our actions more than they need to hear our words.”
Sentiments like this seem to be common in some Christian circles, and at one level, it’s easy to see why. In a culture that is increasingly divided ideologically, conversations (whether online or in person) about matters of faith can get pretty heated. Instead of yelling at the other side, couldn’t we carry out the church’s mission more effectively by simply letting our actions do the talking? Unbelievers may not agree with our message, but they won’t be able to ignore our deeds of love. This approach to the church’s mission sounds attractive, but is it biblical?
Scripture does in fact teach that our witness in the world is closely connected with our actions. Jesus told his disciples to “. . . let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). He also said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34–35). Other passages make a similar point, namely, that the actions of God’s people are an important part of their witness to the world.
Scripture also teaches that the way in which we speak matters. Our speech is to “always be gracious, seasoned with salt” (Colossians 4:6), and those who lead in the church “. . . must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone . . .” (1 Timothy 2:24–25). Any attempts to carry out the church’s mission apart from love are worthless (1 Corinthians 13). Clearly, then, God’s people cannot simply speak the truth while failing to live in a way that is consistent with that truth. At the same time, Scripture is also clear about the fact that our actions and deeds of love are not sufficient to carry out the church’s mission.
Commanded to Speak
When Jesus summarized the church’s mission, He indicated that words would be necessary. He commanded His disciples to “make disciples of all nations,” which involves “teaching them to observe all that I [Jesus] have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19–20). Discipleship isn’t limited to words, but it won’t happen without them either.
In Luke’s version of the “Great Commission,” Jesus says that repentance should be “proclaimed” to all nations (24:47), which would require His disciples to open their mouths. Jesus calls His disciples “witnesses” of His death and resurrection (v. 48), and a good witness will talk about what he or she has seen and heard. That’s why Christ sent His Spirit to empower His disciples—so that they would be His “witnesses . . . to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
This need for a verbal witness also makes practical sense. If a person must repent and believe in order to be saved, then he or she needs to know what to repent of and who to believe in. Acts of kindness are insufficient for this task. Even for those who know of Christ’s death and resurrection, the significance of these historical events is not intuitive. The fact that an innocent Jewish man died on a cross and rose from the dead is striking, to be sure, but it’s not immediately obvious to an unbeliever how this message is connected with their salvation or why they should submit their entire life to Christ’s lordship.
Unbelievers need certain things explained to them: what God requires of them, what Christ accomplished by His death and resurrection, and how they are to respond to God’s grace in the gospel. We can’t do this without words. Of course, the Spirit is the One who brings people from death to life and then continues to transform them through the Word that He inspired (2 Timothy 3:16). But God has chosen to use us, the church, to communicate that Word, and there is no substitute for this verbal proclamation. Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome makes this very point.
In order to get support for his mission to Spain (Romans 15:24, 28), the apostle Paul wanted to show the church in Rome why it was absolutely necessary for him to go and proclaim the gospel there. After declaring the truth that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13), Paul asks a series of rhetorical questions:
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? (Romans 10:14–15)
Paul’s logic here is fairly simple: people have to believe in the Lord in order to be saved –> but they can’t believe in the Lord if they haven’t heard of Him –> and they can’t hear about Him unless someone preaches the gospel to them –> and the gospel won’t be preached to them unless a preacher is sent for this purpose. Paul is saying, in effect, “People have to hear the gospel in order to be saved, so I need to go and tell it to them!”
Paul’s role as an apostle of Christ was unique, but his logic holds true for the church as a whole. Unbelievers need to hear the gospel from us in order to be saved. This doesn’t mean that our love and good deeds are optional, but it does mean that they’re not sufficient—in and of themselves—to carry out the church’s mission. Unbelievers lack saving faith, and as Paul reminds us, “. . . faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).
For example, see Galatians 6:10; Colossians 4:5–6; 1 Peter 2:15; 3:1.