Nope, the Gospel Requires Words

Jason Micheli —  January 28, 2016 — 6 Comments

16th-St-Baptist-Ch-WalesThere’s a saying (cliche) that’s floated around the United Methodist Church for as long as I can remember: ‘Preach the Gospel. If necessary use words.’ 

Despite how often people quote this, it’s facile. It ostensibly excuses a lack of boldness that is the very opposite of the New Testament’s own preaching of the Gospel.

It’s attributed to St. Francis of Assisi but frequency of citation has made it almost a Methodist slogan of sorts. And, like all cliches, there’s some wisdom once you dig to the bottom of it. In this case, our actions and way of life with others should be in concert with what we believe about the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ.

Sounds good and obvious, right?

However, it’s a cliche that depends upon bad, unhelpful theology. On a very basic level, ‘Preach the Gospel. If necessary use words’ relies on the assumption that the Gospel is primarily about things we do to achieve salvation, in which case communicating the Gospel can be done without words.

The Gospel’s not a message of things we must do. The Gospel’s a message about what we can not do for ourselves. The Gospel’s a message about what God has done for us, once and for all. And that’s not a message that’s self-interpreting or self-evident.

Perhaps on a more fundamental level, ‘Preach the Gospel. If necessary use words’ relies upon the misunderstanding that at the core of the Christian faith is the ministry of Jesus.

That is, the cliche implies that Christianity is fundamentally about the things that Jesus did (which we’re called to replicate in our actions) rather than the thing that God did in Jesus Christ (which we could never replicate but only announce with resort to words). It goes against the grain of much of mainline Christianity today, but here goes:

Christian faith is created not through the teachings of or stories about Jesus but by Jesus himself.

And, on this the New Testament is consistent, Jesus is made known and present, by the action of the Spirit, through the preaching of the word of the cross. ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’ was the message that converted the world.

Fleming Rutldge BandWhiteAs Fleming Rutledge puts it:

‘This proclamation of Jesus as Lord arose not out of Jesus ministry, which after all can be compared to the ministry of other holy men, but out of the unique apostolic kerygma (proclamation) of the crucified and risen One…

It is essential to remember that it was the preaching (kerygma) of the apostles and early Christians that created the church in the first place. Men and women did not forsake their former ways of life because they were offered spiritual direction or instructed in righteous living: they became converts because of the explosive news that they heard. The apostolic preaching makes up most of the New Testament. The new faith pivoted on the cross/resurrection event. The overwhelming impression given by the apostolic kerygma is that of a revolution in human affairs…

This is not the result of Jesus’ teaching in and of itself. The cross, incomparably vindicated by the resurrection, is the world-changing act of God that makes the New Testament proclamation unique in all the world.’

– The Crucifixion

So then, the Gospel requires words even more so than actions because it’s the word (the kerygma) of what God has done in Christ, through cross and resurrection, that makes Jesus present today. And Jesus alone is the author of faith.

What’s more, this kerygma is so shocking and counter-intuitive, what Paul refers to as ‘foolishness,’ that it will always require interpretation, for the word of cross in no way coheres with our natural religious impulses.

Indeed if the word of the cross is true, then any loving actions towards others attempted apart from or without words (derived from the kerygma) will never be the Gospel.

They will be instead religious actions; that is, they will be projections of humanity’s needs and wishes.

While the cross, Paul reiterates, is the very opposite of religion.

 

Jason Micheli

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6 responses to Nope, the Gospel Requires Words

  1. Thanks Jason, very challenging word especially for one who wants to be doing Kingdom work but shrinks back from proclaiming the news of the King!

  2. Jason —

    I can see you are enjoying Fleming Rutledge’s book as much as I am. Bravo for taking this cliche on in such a succinct and clear essay. I have been guilty of working with a truncated gospel that privileges the gospel narratives alone without reference to the rest of the New Testament. Rutledge (and now you) are challenging that for me. Thanks.

    • I love the book (love her actually) even though the latent Calvinism drives me bonkers. I know, personally, I privilege the gospel narratives simply because they’re easier to preach from.

  3. I don’t buy the author’s premise: “If necessary use words’ relies on the assumption that the Gospel is primarily about things we do to achieve salvation, in which case communicating the Gospel can be done without words.” It’s a straw man that the author proceeds to knock down.

    1. Of course there’s not a choice to be made between faithful actions and faithful words. I was taught that the Hebrews understood that speaking the word of the Lord — a la Genesis 1 — creates action. And, as James says, “faith without works is dead.”

    2. Of course we don’t “achieve salvation:” it’s a gift, right down to the bottom. The saying, whether from Francis or not, reminds us that the Good News is not about talking: it’s about a religio — a reconnection — between what we say we believe and how we live. Far more harm has been done to the Kingdom (IMHO) by people who talk without walking than by people who walk without talking.

    3. I was taught in Systematic Theology 101 that one of the tests of one’s theology is who it includes and who it excludes. Are people with various speech impairments — partial or total — excluded from the proclamation of the Gospel? Are children? Are the profoundly intellectually challenged? Are the birds and the bees and dogs and the moon and stars excluded from proclaiming the glory of God (i.e., Ps. 8, Ps. 19)?

    4. Although my theology is most heavily influenced by Luther’s theology of the cross, the idea that the kerygma is primarily about Good Friday and Easter is less and less appealing to me. I’ve decided that the laity — you know, those theological illiterates we clergy love to make fun of when we’re with each other — may be on to something with their preference for Christmas over Holy Week and Easter. Maybe the real heart of the Good News is Emmanuel — God with us. Good Friday and Easter are just extensions of that theme: As God is with us even in suffering and death, so we will be with God in glory. That’s what even crankly old John Wesley finally got right at his very end: “The best of all is — God is with us.” People who practice the presence of God with their every breath and action proclaim the Good News profoundly. And, as I read the Acts of the Apostles, that’s what drew unbelievers to the community of faith. Amazingly, the same might hold true even today.

  4. Clearly, I am not scholarly as so many of your followers are, but I love the perspective. I have always believed that the “Good News” and the “Gospel” were one and the same, we are liberated by Christ and reconciled with God in spite of our sinful nature. That freedom allows us to demonstrate our faith through our actions, but doesn’t excuse us from sharing the truth of our salvation in words with others.
    I can’t wait to hear you preach the Gospel from the pulpit!

    • While I don’t think the term ‘proclamation’ or ‘preaching’ should be interpreted too literally so that only the ordained qualify, as Brooke pushes against, I do think insisting that the gospel always requires ‘interpretation’ not simply actions (which should follow or be created by reception of the interpretation). I do think Val is correct to land upon the distinction between ‘the gospel’ and good news more generally or even the presence/glory of God. The heavens can declare the latter, as scripture notes, but the gospel in the NT refers especially to what God does in the cross, as much as we might want to privilege the incarnation. And the cross, irreligious in nature as it is, Fleming Rutledge argues can never be self-interpreting.

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