Word and Deed: The Church’s Mission
Jesus announced the purpose of His incarnational mission at a gathering in His hometown synagogue in Nazareth. After His baptism and temptation in the wilderness, on a Sabbath day, He read these words from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18–19).He then declared the significance of what He had read by adding, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (v. 21).
As the Messiah — the Anointed One — Jesus came to minister in word and deed. The four gospels depict Him doing exactly that, healing the sick (Matt. 8:16; 12:22; Luke 4:40), feeding the hungry (Matt. 15:32–39; John 6:4–13), and delivering the demon-possessed (Matt. 9:32–34; 12:22) as well as preaching and teaching the gospel of the kingdom (Matt. 5–7; Mark 1:14; Luke 20:21; John 6:59; 18:20).
Very often, Jesus’ word ministry and deed ministry are displayed simultaneously. As Matthew 9:35 summarizes, “And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction.” Preaching and doing. Jesus carried out His mission by both word and deed.
It is also the way that He taught His followers to minister. When Jesus commissioned the original apostles to enter into and extend His ministry, He said to them: “And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay” (Matt. 10: 7–8). Their ministry, like His, was to declare and demonstrate the presence of God’s kingdom.
Wherever the kingdom of God comes in power, lives are transformed through belief of the gospel, wrongs are made right, and divine blessing spreads. This is what happened to Zacchaeus. When Jesus brought salvation to his house, he was changed from an unscrupulous tax collector into a generous believer. He repaid those he had defrauded four times the amount he had stolen from them, and he blessed the poor by giving them half of his wealth (Luke 19:1–10). When the Word of God takes root in people, it is inevitable that they will do the works of God.
This is by God’s design — His glory is displayed when the good news of His salvation is proclaimed and the good works of His people are carried out. Though they must never be confused with each other, ministries of both word and deed are essential to the ongoing work of God’s kingdom. God’s reign is explained through the preaching of the gospel. It is made visible when acts of mercy and love are done in the name of the King.
Supreme love to God and sincere love for people result in a passion to bring Him glory and to do good things for them.
Maintaining a proper integration of word and deed in Christian ministry can be difficult, as history testifies. Failure to distinguish Word from deed gave rise to the social gospel movement that asserts that doing good deeds (such as pursuing justice) should not merely accompany evangelism but actually is evangelism. This error discounts personal conversion for social improvement in the name of salvation.
Another mistake made at this point derives not from confusing word and deed but from completely separating them. This is what allows for the kind of pietism that refuses to acknowledge any social implications of the gospel and regards obedience to the Great Commission exclusively in terms of personal evangelism. Proponents of this view tend to downplay Christ’s call to “observe all” that He has commanded us (Matt. 28:20) — including His commands to “do good” to all people, even those who hate us (Luke 6:27–36).
Neither of these approaches fulfills our Lord’s command to love, the former falling short of its depth and the latter restricting its breadth. The staggering implications of “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37, 39) are summarized in what we call the Golden Rule: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (7:12). Supreme love to God and sincere love for people result in a passion to bring Him glory and to do good things for them.
In fact, we could put it like this: Love for God and people leads to seeking His glory by doing good things for them. Is not this what Jesus had in mind when He taught His followers to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (5:16)? We call attention to God’s greatness when, as His children, we do good things for the sake of His name. “Those about us must not only hear our good words, but see our good works,” as Matthew Henry aptly notes, “that they may be convinced that religion is more than a bare name, and that we do not only make a profession of it, but abide under the power of it.”
To love others as you love yourself requires providing for them what you desire for yourself. As Christians, we understand that our greatest need is reconciliation with God and forgiveness of our sins. These blessings are found only in Jesus Christ, and it is through the proclamation of Christ that salvation comes to all who believe. Therefore, failure to persuade others to believe the gospel is not only disobedience to our Lord’s command, it is also indescribably unloving. Penn Jillette, the comedian who is also an outspoken atheist, underscores this point when he indicts Christians who are hesitant to evangelize by asking this piercing question: “How much do you have to hate someone to not proselytize?”
Just as loving words are to be found on the lips of God’s people, so too are loving deeds to be found in their hands.
Because the fundamental human problem is sin and the root cause of all suffering is separation from God, sincere love will cause us to be especially concerned that our neighbors hear and believe the gospel. True love, however, will never be satisfied to withhold compassionate deeds in the face of practical needs. Just as loving words are to be found on the lips of God’s people, so too are loving deeds to be found in their hands. By this, the kingdom of God is both proclaimed and displayed.
The book of Acts demonstrates that the early church took to heart the Lord’s call to minister in both word and deed. They proclaimed the gospel formally (Acts 2:14–44; 5:17–42; 7:1–53; 13:16–41; 17:22–31), informally (8:4), and habitually (5:42). They also actively engaged in meeting practical needs through healing (Acts 3:1–9; 5:16; 8:7; 9:34; 28:8–9), sharing (2:44; 4:34–37), and caring for those in need (6:1–6). In fact, the reason that a formal diaconal ministry was formed in the church at Jerusalem was to ensure the effective, ongoing ministry of word and deed (6:1–6).
It is impossible to be faithful to the Word of God without engaging in deeds of compassion because faith without works is dead and “religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction” (James 2:20; 1:27). Paul, who told the Galatians that he was “eager” to remember the poor, admonishes churches to “do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 2:10; 6:10).
God became flesh to proclaim the good news of the kingdom in both word and deed. The church, as the body of Christ, enters into His mission by continuing this two-fold kingdom work. As a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession,” we are to “proclaim the excellencies” of our Lord who has saved us by His life, death, and resurrection (1 Peter 2:9). As “sojourners and exiles,” we are to live such “honorable” lives that unbelievers, who “speak against [us] as evildoers, . . . may see [our] good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation”
(1 Peter 2:11–12).
Thus, we are to proclaim Christ with the same spirit Christ did. He not only preached the kingdom’s establishment but also demonstrated its character by performing the ultimate good work of laying down His life for His enemies. As the company of the Crucified, we must follow the example of our Lord by the strength that He gives us. Equipped with kingdom words and kingdom deeds, we have been entrusted with the responsibility to make disciples of the nations. All that is required is to love as we have been loved, to teach as we have been taught, and to serve as we have been served. If our King has sacrificed His life, how can we be His loyal subjects and insist on preserving our own?
This article originally appeared in the December 2010 issue of TableTalk Magazine.