Dear Church Family,
In contemporary Reformed circles, there is some debate surrounding the language of “living the gospel,” or “being the gospel.” These are phrases that some use to describe how a Christian’s life ought to bear witness to the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ.
On one side of the debate, there are those who say that these phrases are not found anywhere in the Scriptures, and that the gospel is “good news.” It is the good news that God, by His mercy and grace, forgives sinners. The good news of the gospel is not a life lived, but a message that is proclaimed. With much of this, I would agree.
On the other side of the debate, there are those who say that these phrases, and practices to which they point, are important reminders that a Christian ought to seek to live their lives as a testimony of God’s grace. The way one lives – seeking to live a life that becomes a follower of Christ – provides evidence for the reality of the good news. With much of this, also, I would agree.
Assessing the Debate
I believe that biblically speaking, both sides have merit. On the one hand, we need to be very careful in the language that we use to speak about our theology and practice. When we adopt extra-biblical words and phrases, they can become uprooted from the Scriptures and take on a life of their own. Thus, phrases like “living the gospel,” or “being the gospel” can lead to some erroneous ways of thinking if we’re not careful.
For instance, I’ve heard the following quote used from time to time (often, erroneously I think, attributed to St. Francis of Assisi), “Go into all the world and preach the gospel, using words if necessary.” That may sound helpful and nice, but it leads to more confusion and the blurring of categories. When I first heard this line, I thought that it was actually pretty cool and witty; however, cool and witty do not true theology make. The implication of this quote is that one “preaches the gospel” by the way one lives his life; words are secondary and only to be used, if necessary.
On the other hand, the Bible does exhort Christians to live differently, to live lives that are seeking to be commensurate with their professions of faith. Therefore, though we need to be careful with the words and phrases that we use to speak about how we do this, we do need to think about how our behavior and practices (our lives) give credence to our creed (the gospel).
Thinking and Speaking Biblically
Well, I’m not going to try to referee the debate by trying to find some middle ground. Instead, it’s helpful to look to the Scriptures themselves. The Bible provides us with words and categories that we may employ to better help us understand the relationship between the gospel (the good news that we believe and speak with words) and our lives (our behaviors and practices).
There are actually various ways in which the Bible speaks about the importance of our actions as Christians. In our present preaching series in Galatians, there’s a very important one. I’ll return to that in a moment (it’s actually the reason that I’m thinking about these things this week), but let me just mention some others first.
The Apostle Paul encourages Titus to “speak the things which are fitting for sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). Then, he tells Titus the specific ways in which he ought to instruct various groups of people in the church concerning those things that are fitting for sound doctrine. In the church, older men, older women, young men, Titus (pastors), and bondslaves are all exhorted to live in ways that are fitting for sound doctrine (Titus 2:2-10). Here are the reasons: to encourage other believers (v 4), to not dishonor the word of God (v 5), to be an example (v 7), to put opponents of the faith to shame, having nothing bad to say about us (v 8), and to adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in every respect (v 10).
The Apostle Peter exhorts us to keep our behavior excellent among the Gentiles so that even as they attempt to slander Christians as evildoers, those unbelievers would – because of the Christian’s good deeds – see them and glorify God (1 Peter 2:12). Peter even goes on to say that Christian wives ought to be submissive to their husbands who may be disobedient to the word, so that their husbands may be won without a word, but by the behavior of their wives (1 Peter 3:1). This may sound like “preaching the gospel without words,” but in the context, the husbands have already heard the word (they’re actually disobedient to it), but their wives chaste and respectful behavior will be a testimony and source of conviction to them.
Thinking and Speaking Confessionally
There are certainly other Scriptures to which we could turn, but our Confession of Faith actually summarizes these things nicely:
These good works, done in obedience to God's commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the Gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto; that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end eternal life. (WCF 16:2)
One final category and the reason for which I mention all of this. In the passage of Scripture for the sermon this coming Sunday (Galatians 2:11-14), the Apostle Paul confronts and admonishes the Apostle Peter because Peter succumbed to the pressure of those around him and withdrew from fellowship with Gentile Christians. Paul says that Peter was “not straightforward about the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14). Literally, Peter was not “walking straight.”
Peter’s actions said something about the gospel. Indeed, our actions say something about the gospel. Our actions don’t preach the gospel; for that, words are necessary. However, though Peter actually did preach and believe the gospel, his behavior in the church in Antioch did not correspond with the truth of the gospel.
There are many lessons to be learned from Paul’s confrontation with Peter, but this is one of them: what we do, how we behave, and how we treat others will either be in keeping with the truth of the gospel or not in keeping with the truth of the gospel. We don’t “live the gospel” or “be the gospel,” but we can “walk straight” according to the truth of gospel.
Even with all of his privileges, it took the Apostle Peter time to learn this lesson. If the Apostle Peter could fail in this regard, no doubt we will fail, as well. Our growth in this area comes in fits and starts. May God grant us the wisdom to learn these lessons to walk straight according to the gospel. Praise God that the truth of the gospel is not dependent upon the way we walk; the way we walk is dependent upon the truth of the gospel.
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch