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The Unifying Savior: How Jesus helps us connect word and deed in his Church’s mission

What does the Bible mean when it talks about “justice,” and is that really a “Gospel issue”? Isn’t the Church supposed to focus on spiritual matters and not get distracted by other concerns? Is it possible we’re losing sight of the Gospel in an effort to pursue mercy ministry in our communities? Isn’t the eternal destiny of our neighbors more important than their earthly comfort? Questions like these arise on the local level as we in our church have had opportunity recently to discuss what loving our neighbor and pursuing shalom here in Huntsville looks like. They are also active across our church’s denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), as well as our Christian culture these days as we seek our proper role in difficult cultural conversations and challenges from poverty to civil rights and many other issues.

I’m thankful for these questions as they evidence a zeal for the Gospel of Jesus Christ and its priority in our church. It is important for us to acknowledge that in church history and in recent days many churches and even denominations have had their missions drift into merely societal improvement organizations devoid of the hope and power of Jesus (Click here for more on The Social Gospel). We need to recognize that we are not above the temptation to value good deeds above good news and so neglect the proclamation of Jesus Christ. So, again I’m grateful for brothers and sisters who are willing to ask such questions from a spirit of helping and guarding the church.

I recently spent a couple of weeks in India, though, and realized that these debates aren’t raging in global Christianity the same ways we have them here. In fact, many of my brothers and sisters there were confused at the problem since word and deed were so naturally connected in their Christian experience. The idea of neglecting one in favor of the other seemed odd in that context where both spiritual and material needs were so evident and so tangibly united in the sharing of Jesus and in the conversion of almost every Christian whose story I heard.

This unity seems to reflect the Acts 2 picture of the New Testament Church, as well. When the Spirit of God brought revival to the Early Church in the book of Acts, her members were devoted to the apostles’ teaching, connected in new relationships with former enemies, and generous in caring for the poor – again, all at the same time, with these priorities supporting each other, not working at odds.

We in America often find ourselves and others debating eternal vs. temporal, word vs. deed, gospel vs. justice, and more. As I’ve wrestled with and read about these issues, I’m convinced we need to avoid buying into those false dichotomies and creating enemies of ideas that are meant to be friends. The fact that others have divorced these ideas doesn’t mean we have to do the same! As I’ve returned from India and pondered these matters more recently, I’ve found an answer to this conundrum in a place I should have known to look all along: in Jesus.

Jesus, Mighty in Word and Deed

We all agree on Jesus. That we are to be about glorifying his name and making him known to the nations is beyond debate and should stay that way. Jesus himself says if he is lifted up, he will draw all men to himself (John 12:32). Jesus was particularly speaking of his cross here, and so “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (I Corinthians 2:2) has always been the hope of the Church and the world. Thus, we must ask, What does it mean for us to glorify Jesus? How do we share Jesus with others? What exalts him that people may be drawn to him?

In Luke 24, the risen Jesus appears to two of his devoted followers who don’t recognize him for quite some time. Jesus has come to them, though, so that they will know who he truly is and why he really came. It’s during this story that he is famously identified as a “prophet mighty in word and deed” (Luke 24:19). And Jesus demonstrates both realities to these two disciples so that they will know him and be prepared to make him known to others. First, he opens their Bibles, as it were, and explains to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. With powerful words that cause their hearts to burn within them, Jesus helps them have a clearer picture of their Messiah and his death and resurrection. Perhaps surprisingly, though, they still don’t recognize him. He joins their journey, stops to sit down with them, and then breaks bread with them when their eyes are opened to see who he is and be drawn to worship and witness to the risen King. His tangible deeds match his powerful words, and they are drawn to see Jesus.

In his very person, Jesus is a prophet mighty in word and deed. He doesn’t pick one over the other. He is holy in every thought, word, and action. He is, in fact, exactly the image of his Father, as we were created to be. The prophet Isaiah promised that the Messiah would bring God’s salvation to the ends of the earth (49:6) and also bring justice to the nations (42:1), that he would proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (61:2) and also bind up the brokenhearted (61:1).

The work of Jesus reflects the same unity of word and deed as the person of Jesus. He heals paralytics and forgives sins. He teaches sinners and touches lepers. He preaches good news and spends time with outcasts. Then in his primary work on the cross – at the core of why he came – he accomplishes eternal salvation for his people and actually reconciles all things, on earth or in heaven, to his Father (Colossians 1:20). The cross of Christ is the hope of every man, woman, and child as well as all creation groaning for redemption (Romans 8:19-23).

The more we look at the person and work of Jesus, the more we see these concepts working together rather than against each other. When that united reality is consistently true in our own lives and churches, it naturally exalts the Prophet mighty in word and deed. People see, hear, and experience who Jesus is and what he is like, and that glorifies him and draws people to the Savior. In America, many of us hear and learn much about Jesus before having a personal experience of his powerful work in our hearts and lives. In India, the reverse is typically true: Many Hindu converts to Christianity have a profound experience of the grace and power of Jesus that leads them to get to know more about the God of the Bible they long to worship. Regardless of the order of word and deed, people see his glory and are drawn to follow him.

Word and Deed in the Gospel of Luke

I’ve spent much of the past three years studying and preaching through the Gospel of Luke. Luke is writing explicitly all about Jesus – so his readers can truly know him. As he does so, you can’t escape the presence of word and deed, temporal and eternal, individual and social – thankfully, we don’t want to escape any of them!

Just to hit a few highlights, Jesus begins his public ministry applying the Isaiah 61 passage to himself and indicating his kingdom will come through both proclaiming good news and freeing the oppressed. After Jesus has begun doing both of these things in town after town, John the Baptist sends disciples to clarify Jesus’ Messiahship (Luke 7:18-23). Jesus quotes from this same text and many other prophetic pictures of the promised King as he sends them to tell John what they have “seen and heard” – both of which point to the Messiah and his kingdom.

As Jesus travels around to different villages, the pattern of teaching and healing is unmistakable. It’s the way he consistently brings his kingdom into their midst. The healing of the paralytic (Luke 5:17-26) unites both in one story, where Jesus demonstrates his authority to forgive sins tangibly by telling the man to take up his mat and walk – with the result that the former paralytic and the crowds glorify God for the “extraordinary things” they have seen.

The middle section of Luke is full of Jesus’ teaching on his kingdom as he journeys toward Jerusalem and the cross. You can’t miss how passionate Jesus is that his followers grasp the eternal implications of aligning themselves with him; he constantly pushes them to think beyond this life. At the same time, it’s remarkable how who is at our dinner table or on our party invitation list, how we relate to the materially poor or the marginalized, how we approach systemic injustice in my community or in the world, and many other issues are inextricably linked to our relationship with him and ultimately our eternal destiny. They aren’t competing priorities for Jesus; rather, they reflect a kingdom with radically different priorities and values that show up today and will remain forever. Paul would hit this same note with Peter years later when Peter’s choice of lunchtable companions was a “gospel issue” that needed to be addressed.

A prime example of this eternal-temporal connection comes in Luke 14:1-24. Jesus, with his mind clearly on challenging people to consider whether or not they have a seat at his eternal banquet, just as clearly gives direction to his followers as to their humility, hospitality, and honor system that upends the current social norms of his day. Doesn’t it only make sense that a King so life-changing that trusting him will secure one’s eternity doesn’t wait to transform how we approach life in his world now? Jesus claims all of it – our hearts and our hands – as he heads to the cross to secure the redemption of a people called to model a new community in this world.

“We must be people and communities of word and deed like our Savior and King…”

Words: Sharing Jesus’ Hope

So, what does all this mean for us and our churches? It means we must be people and communities of word and deed like our Savior and King. With our words we must proclaim the good news of the Savior/King. “We preach Christ crucified” must be a hallmark of our churches and a priority in our lives. And yes, preaching involves speaking. For many Christians today, deeds are actually easier than words because they are socially acceptable whereas the message of the cross – as winsomely as we may deliver it – may still be politically incorrect in many contexts. The call to opening our mouths, then, is as critical as it is counter-cultural. These words may come from a pulpit to a gathered congregation or over coffee to a hurting friend, but sharing Jesus’ hope is fundamental to the identity of people God has called to declare his praises.

This is, after all, why God gave us his Word, the Bible. As a part of his revealing himself to us and wanting us to know him and live in relationship with him, he has told us about himself in his Word. If people are to know Jesus, the Word become flesh, and live in relationship with him, Paul is clear in Romans 10 that someone must tell them about him. Ever since God sent prophets and angels to herald the coming of a Savior/King, there has been an announcement of good news of great joy that all people need to hear, and we are to state it clearly and consistently, to rich and poor, in season and out of season, privately and publicly.

Deeds: Sharing Jesus’ Heart

At the same time, with our deeds we must demonstrate the transformative reality of the Savior/King. The kingdom of Jesus is an eternal kingdom of salvation by grace through faith, and it is also a kingdom that creates a new community of those united in Christ with new values and new ways of relating that reflect the glory of the King. I grant that there are some unique aspects to many of Jesus’ miraculous deeds as revealing his unique identity and testifying to his divine messiahship as the King of the Kingdom of God. That doesn’t mean, however, that this role of demonstrating the nature of the kingdom does not apply to our deeds. Because the King is mighty in word and deed, our deeds of love and mercy, healing and justice, point to the kingdom and the King!

Jesus himself tells us this must be the case – that our love is what will show us to be his disciples (John 13:35), that people are to see our good deeds and glorify our Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16). In C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, when Narnia begins thawing and spring comes again, the beavers and others sense and know that Aslan is on the move. When others who have never met Aslan smell the flowers and hear the brooks flowing, see statues enlivened and slaves set free, they long to meet the King who rules a kingdom like this. Because King Jesus is mighty in word and deed, we don’t have to pick which one is more important; he uses both to help people know and trust him – and that’s, after all, what matters most.

Getting Practical: Elders and Deacons

Is all this merely a theoretical conversation? I don’t think so. Of course, the errors of neglecting word or deed have serious consequences in the church. But I’d rather look at this conversation from a positive perspective: We want to be on God’s mission individually and corporately. We want to see the name of Jesus made great in the hearts and lives of everyone we meet. We want to pursue revival in our city and around the world with the joy, passion, and freedom God calls us to have and the Gospel gives us.

When God designed his Church to be the broken vessel that would march his kingdom forward against the gates of Hell, He designed her to reflect the King in word and deed. In fact, while all of us must hold word and deed together whenever possible, I believe he gave elders and those with teaching/shepherding gifts the joy of focusing on word ministry and gave deacons and those with serving/mercy gifts the joy of focusing on deed ministry. As a result, we need each other desperately in the Church, lest we neglect or underemphasize either of these kingdom priorities and fail to give the full picture of our glorious King.

In his book Outgrowing the Ingrown Church, Jack Miller bemoans the “tragedy” of the “local church with an abundance of resources and spiritual gifts held back by unbelieving apathy and blinded by the strange notion that the work of missionary outreach is the domain of a few highly trained leaders.” What will renewed evangelistic and missionary fervor look like? An “outward face” led by deacons (and others) involved in nursing homes, prisons, and hospitals as well as elders (and others) opening their hearts, homes, and Sunday School classes to unbelievers in radical hospitality. Many members, varied gifts, all missionaries.

As Acts 6 demonstrates, it is crucial that the Church not neglect the priority of the Word and prayer, and it is likewise crucial that the Church not neglect the widows or the poor. May God forgive us for often stating or acting as if the office of elder is greater than the office of deacon instead of merely different from and complementary to, as the Scriptures intend. May we not pit our elders and deacons against each other but rather seek to connect their gifts and areas of focus wherever possible in our communities.

Getting Practical: The Spirituality of the Church

Many have written in the context of this conversation about the spirituality of the Church, and I’m not attempting to address that topic fully here. I do believe we often use unhelpful categories and some of the false dichotomies I mentioned earlier in this discussion to our great harm. Acts 2 depicts the spiritual (Spirit-filled) Early Church not as some gnostic bunch of disconnected disciples but rather as focused on both word and deed with no apparent tension. Her members were devoted to the apostles’ teaching, connected in new relationships with former enemies, and generous in caring for the poor – and again, these were complementary, not competing, commitments. So, I’m a full supporter of the “spirituality of the Church” – as long as we recognize how spiritual it is to love our neighbors in very tangible ways, as long as we recognize how spiritual the role of a deacon is, as long as we recognize how spiritual it is to offer a cup of water in Jesus’ name.

God has given us a great task as his people, and we dare not let internal squabbling distract us from full-fledged, Spirit-driven pursuit of this calling. Harvie Conn says it well in his book Evangelism: Doing Justice and Preaching Grace: “The marks of the church need to be placed decisively within the framework of the church’s mission. This is where they were first set. For in Acts 2:42 the teaching, fellowship, breaking of the bread, and prayers of the newly formed Spirit-filled and Spirit-enlarged disciple fellowship is described within the missionary context of the Pentecost story from which it cannot be extracted.”

So, as we pursue the mission God has given to his Church, we must always keep the word-and-deed nature of the kingdom united. Don’t let Jesus or the people in whom He dwells be isolated from current social issues. At the same time, don’t let a particular social issue get separated from the broader gospel. The ways we pursue racial reconciliation, consider why someone lives in government housing or where such housing is located, and engage in the immigration conversation or other national political matters are gospel issues. They are not in themselves the whole gospel, but they are certainly not optional add-ons that we can choose to ignore as less than spiritual matters. 

My heart for the Church is that seeing Jesus as mighty in word and deed will embolden us to move beyond intramural debates and into kingdom ministry with great zeal. Our communities and our world desperately need revival, but we often hesitate to declare and demonstrate the glorious Savior we desperately need for fear of stepping outside our lane. There certainly are inappropriate places for us to invest, but there are many more essential places for us to be involved that we haven’t brought the kingdom of Jesus to bear on yet. As we continue to work out together what this looks like in each of our contexts, I hope thinking of our Savior in this way frees us to have passion for and joy in making his name great in every way possible!

Who Is on the Lord’s Side?

One of the old hymns we love to sing pictures beautifully the union of word and deed in our service to the King. It highlights the motivation of the gracious redemption we have received and speaks of addressing both spiritual and material poverty in the name of King Jesus.

Who Is on the Lord’s Side?

“Who is on the Lord’s side?
Who will serve the King?
Who will be His helpers,
other lives to bring?
Who will leave the world’s side?
Who will face the foe?
Who is on the Lord’s side?
Who for Him will go?
By Thy call of mercy,
by Thy grace divine,
We are on the Lord’s side,
Savior, we are Thine!

“Jesus, Thou hast bought us,
not with gold or gem,
But with Thine own life blood,
for Thy diadem;
With Thy blessing filling each
who comes to Thee,
Thou hast made us willing,
Thou hast made us free.
By Thy grand redemption,
by Thy grace divine,
We are on the Lord’s side,
Savior, we are Thine!

“Who will stand for justice
in a time of need?
Who will hear the poor man
and his children plead?
Who will heal the rich man
of his poverty?
Who will tell the homeless
of eternity?
By Your love and mercy,
and Your grace divine
We are on the Lord’s side,
Savior, we are Thine!”

Justice is needed now and eternally. Rich and poor need the healing of King Jesus. In every area of life, Jesus has poured grace divine upon us that it may overflow to many others. May many hear us sing, experience our love for them, watch how we live, and so be eager to know our Lord and King who is mighty in word and deed.