By Word and Deed

Before Jesus ascended to heaven to be with his Father, he told the disciples to wait for the Holy Spirit to be poured out upon them, granting them power to be his witnesses. Acts 1:8 says, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The outworking of this promise in the days of the apostles is recorded for us in the Acts of the Apostles.

Some preachers misuse Acts 1:8 to promote a strategy of evangelism that emphasizes exhibiting our moral example more than preaching the gospel message. According to them, Jesus teaches that we are not “to witness” (as in through our speech), but that we should rather “be witnesses” (as in through our behavior), and thus they infer that the verse teaches that we should commend the gospel by our good and moral examples more than, if not rather than, our gospel preaching.

Although I affirm the role of good works in providing outsiders with an attractive representation of what God accomplishes in the elect through the gospel, we cannot “evangelize” through our godly lifestyles without a verbal message. In fact, there is no evangelism at all without a verbal message, and the effectiveness of our godly conduct in influencing outsiders presupposes a strong verbal presentation of the gospel in the first place. The anti-intellectual mindset that has gained a foothold among unbelievers has also permeated much of the church. Whereas many years ago, Christians used to be accused of being “too intellectual,” nowadays they take pride in being seen as irrational and self-contradictory, although these are not the characteristics of the biblical faith.

First, let us see that a verbal message from God alone is enough to establish moral obligation. In other words, even if it is not accompanied by a consistent behavioral representation, an intellectual communication of the will of God provides a sufficient and authoritative basis on which moral responsibility is now demanded from the hearer. That is, since God possesses ultimate authority, if the content of a message comes from God, then the hearer is obligated to obey it whether the messenger lives up to the message that he delivers or not. Knowledge of the divine commands immediately creates a moral obligation on the one who gains such knowledge. Even those who have never heard the gospel are held accountable for the innate knowledge that they possess about God and his moral laws (Romans 1-3). Since God now “commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30), anyone who hears the gospel message ought to “obey the gospel of God” (1 Peter 4:17). This is true whether or not the Christian who preaches demonstrate holiness and righteousness in his conduct. Therefore, the pivotal issue in the evangelism is not the lifestyle of the believer, but the content and clarity of his preaching.

Of course, this is not to endorse or encourage hypocrisy among believers, but to make clear that the speaker’s moral failure does not negate the hearer’s moral obligation, provided that the message preached comes from God. Thus we are not saying that the believer may live inconsistently with the faith that he professes. As James reminds us, “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead” (James 2:26). Rather, we are saying that, (1) The verbal message of the gospel logically precedes the moral example that accentuates its attractiveness and credibility even if in some cases the moral example chronologically precedes the verbal presentation; (2) The sinner has no excuse for rejecting the gospel even if the Christian fails to live up to what he preaches. As long as the message is true to biblical revelation, it is God’s word to the hearer, carrying an authority that does not need the consistent conduct of the Christian to substantiate.

It is true that a Christian sins when he disobeys God’s commands, and his poor behavior may create a stumbling block for the sinner. Indeed, the moral failure of some ministers and believers, and sometimes even just their lack of excellence, causes many people to become disillusioned and disgusted with the Christian faith. However, this is not because the moral failure of some professing Christians somehow disproves the Christian faith, since the Christian faith itself affirms that Christians will continue to sin after conversion, although they should indeed exhibit a radically transformed lifestyle. The real problem is that the sinner irrationally concludes that just because some who claim to be Christians fail to live up to the Christian faith, this somehow makes the Christian faith less credible. The conclusion just does not follow from the premises.

Therefore, rather than allowing all the blame to fall upon the Christians, even the hypocritical ones, we must expose the fact that unbelievers are stupid for reasoning the way they do. The sinner is never exempt from believing and obeying the gospel message, since in rejecting it he sins by defying God’s word – the hypocrisy of those who claim to be Christians (whether these are real Christians or not) is logically irrelevant. The preaching of the gospel alone provides a sufficient basis for faith, and makes the hearer responsible for accepting it. It is often effective as well – there are those who, having been regenerated by God, perceive that the gospel is true despite the evil behavior of some professing Christians, and who then come readily to repentance and faith in Christ.

On the other hand, we cannot say the same thing about a moral example alone, although many people falsely believe that one may win others to Christ without giving priority to a verbal message filled with relevant information. The common misconception that one may be a witness for Christ primarily through his moral lifestyle does not originate from a careful exegetical study of Scripture, but rather reflects the infiltration of non-Christian philosophies in the church.

Winfried Corduan relates the following in his book, No Doubt About It:

Our college and career group had adopted the habit of getting together after Sunday night service in a restaurant…One week the conversation turned to evangelism. Some of us shared how we had attempted to present others with the gospel and the usual mix of success or lack thereof. Linda had been quiet up to now, apparently more absorbed in her strawberry ice cream cake than in the conversation. In a moment of silence she broke in, “I don’t witness with words; I try to share my testimony through my life…”[1]

Many professing Christians think in a similar way, it is possible or even preferable to be a witness for Christ by their lives instead of by verbal proclamation. As Corduan writes:

I have always been puzzled by folks like Linda who say these things (and she is not alone). For one thing, I do not know how many people lead such obviously Christian lives that everyone else can unequivocally see Jesus in them. That does not mean that our lives ought not to be clear witnesses for Christ (they should)…but I am amazed at the refusal of some people to give even minimal verbal witness to Christ…[2]

A non-verbal witness is also an unbiblical witness, because the very meaning of the word “witness” in Acts 1:8 refers to one who verbally testifies of his personal knowledge about objective reality, as in a court of law. The first disciples were direct witnesses of Christ’s life, teachings, transfiguration, death, and resurrection. Peter writes that they were “eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16).[3] Similarly, John says:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:1-3)

What he has seen and heard, John says that he proclaims to us – that is, in the form of a verbal testimony, and not in his lifestyle, although his lifestyle was consistent with his message.

Therefore, to be a witness for Christ primarily means to provide verbal testimony about him by the complete gospel message. For example, Paul writes:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)

Keeping in mind that our function as witnesses is mainly to offer verbal testimony, there is also a place, as in a court of law, for providing corresponding evidence for our testimony, and this may include our moral example. However, our moral example at best functions as supporting evidence for the gospel message – it cannot convey the message itself.

A non-verbal evangelistic strategy is not only unbiblical, but it is impossible. There is no such thing as non-verbal evangelism. The gospel message is such that it must be spoken or proclaimed, and not merely “lived out.” Action does not speak louder than words. In fact, action never speaks at all; rather, the one who performs the action must explain it, or the one who perceives the action must interpret it. Some people seem to think that action inherently exhibits meaning and purpose, but this is because they fail to notice that they have already presupposed certain premises by which they are interpreting the situation.

For example, suppose that you observe that a man takes an old woman’s arm, and together they walk across the street. By itself, the observation offers no information about the man, the woman, the intention of the man, the nature of the action (whether he is helping or kidnapping the woman), the morality of the action (whether it is good or bad), whether the man is a Christian, or whether the man is performing the action as a Christian. None of these items can be validly inferred from observing the action.

Nevertheless, you may make certain assumptions about these items anyway. For example, upon observing the action, you may immediately assume that the man is helping the woman cross the street out of compassion. However, the idea that he is helping and that he is doing it out of compassion cannot be inferred from the observation – you have assumed these things without strict and proper warrant. You have imported into the act of observation assumptions and categories of thought that the observation itself does not yield.

The point is that no action or observation of the action is meaningful until it is interpreted, and the direction that the interpretation takes is controlled by the assumptions imported into the situation by the interpreter. If these assumptions are wrong, then the interpretation will be wrong, and the proper assumptions can never come from the observation itself. How does the observer know that the man is not trying to kidnap the woman? It does not help to say that the man is gentle with the woman, since this only exposes two assumptions that the observation itself cannot yield, namely: (1) The observer has assumed a definition and standard of gentleness not gained by the observation itself, and (2) The observer has assumed that kidnappers are not gentle when abducting their victims. These assumptions do not come from the action or the observation of the action; rather they are imported by the observer to “assist” in giving meaning to what he sees.

God has created all men in his own image, and the unbeliever is no exception. Having been created in the image of God, the unbeliever possesses innate knowledge about God and his moral laws. Thus he is potentially able to recognize moral actions and godly habits when he perceives them; however, being sinful and depraved, he has suppressed this knowledge, so that he opposes what he innately knows to be true. In addition, his innate knowledge is insufficient for salvation. Therefore, it is necessary for the Christian to verbally articulate, whether in speech or in writing, the message of salvation, making explicit the biblical information about God, Christ, man, sin, and salvation. If the Holy Spirit sovereignly illuminates the sinner’s mind, then he will come to see the Christian’s moral example through the correct mental framework, and thus acknowledge it as an attestation to the gospel’s truth and power.

In other words, an action in itself carries no meaning, but it must be interpreted based on

what resides in the observer’s mind. If the person who observes the action possesses false assumptions relevant to the situation, he will form an erroneous interpretation. The Bible teaches that God has given everyone true innate knowledge about himself and his moral commands. For this reason, the sinner is potentially able to correctly interpret Christian miracles and conduct – and indeed all of creation – as giving support to the gospel; however, through his wickedness and depraved mind, he has suppressed this knowledge. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary for the Christian to verbally proclaim the gospel.

What could the people infer from observing that Peter pulled a crippled man to his feet, and that the man was healed (Acts 3:1-10)? Absolutely nothing – that is, unless and until the observers knew that Peter did what he did as a Christian, in the name of Jesus, and that he credited this miracle to the mercy of God and the power of Jesus Christ. However, the miracle in itself conveyed no such information (v. 11-12), and Peter had to preach the gospel to the observers (v. 13-26). Since all the information was conveyed by preaching, the preaching alone would have provided sufficient information for salvation, although it pleased God to use the healing miracle in this instance as a means by which to get the people to hear and accept the message. The same applies to a Christian’s moral example – by itself, it cannot convey any information or convert anyone; but the Christian must proclaim a verbal message sooner or later. Whereas a moral example alone cannot convert a sinner, the preaching of the gospel alone can do so; therefore, the believer should always give primary emphasis to giving a verbal message.

Against this, some people may mention a biblical passage like 1 Peter 3:1-2 as the basis for an objection: “Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives” (1 Peter 3:1-2). This passage says that unbelieving husbands may be “won over without words,” but this describes the wives’ reverent conduct, which receives the emphasis only after it has been established that the husbands “do not believe the word.” If we know that these husbands “do not believe the word,” then it means that “the word” has already been preached to them!

Since the word has already been preached to them, this means that the husbands are fully aware that the “purity and reverence” of their wives are exhibited as Christians. Unless the word of God is preached to them, it would be impossible for the husbands to associate the good behavior of their wives to the Christian faith. Peter is indeed saying that godly behavior may sometimes be instrumental in conversion, but he presupposes the necessity of a verbal message. The reverent conduct of the wives is only the means by which God may use to cause some of the elect husbands to reconsider and then accept “the word” that they must believe to be saved.

The Westminster Confession of Faith states, “The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word” (XIV.1). On this section of the Confession, one theologian writes, “This work of God in our minds, causing us to believe, is ordinarily, one might say always, accomplished by means of the Word….Since saving faith comes only through the Word of God, one can easily understand why we place such great emphasis on the Word and on its being preached.”[4] To say that faith is “ordinarily” generated through the word means just that, “We do not deny that God can regenerate an imbecile, an insane person, or a dying infant. In these cases the person is mentally incapable of the activity of faith so that he must be saved apart from an understanding of the Word.[5] But this is not so where the usual mental operations are not impeded. A sane man must believe the Gospel.”[6]

To recapitulate, even when unaccompanied by our moral example, gospel preaching alone is authoritative and often effective in evangelism; in contrast, without gospel preaching, our moral example alone is never authoritative, effective, or meaningful. The gospel message by itself without our moral example has inherent in it the power to save and is sufficient as the object of belief for the hearer. For our moral example to be meaningful and instrumental in leading people to Christ, we must give primary emphasis to preaching the gospel.

Although the above is true, the biblical pattern is that we present ourselves as people whom God has sovereignly regenerated and converted, and thus given the disposition toward holiness and righteousness. Yet, for this reality to count in representing Christ to the lost, we must either first present the gospel message, or present it once we gain the people’s attention by a biblically endorsed manner. Whatever the order of presentation, the verbal and intellectual aspects of evangelism are preeminent. As Paul writes, “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Romans 10:14).

Paul writes that learning the contents of the gospel is “of first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:3). At the same time, Jesus commands, “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). But how will people know that we perform our good deeds as Christians, and that they should praise our Father in heaven unless we tell them? Whereas a lack of our moral example never renders belief impossible for the unbelievers, a failure to present the gospel indeed makes belief impossible for them, since then they would have nothing to believe at all.

Another implication is that to be faithful and effective witnesses for Jesus Christ, we must first gain a comprehensive and accurate understanding of the Christian faith. We must become proficient in theological and biblical matters, and be able to convey our knowledge to the unbelievers in an intelligible and orderly manner. We must also be able to provide justification for what we believe, for as Peter says, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15). But we must also commit ourselves to a kind of life characterized by holiness and righteousness, so that “those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander” (v. 16).

[1] Winfried Corduan, No Doubt About It; Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997; p. 25.

[2] Ibid., p. 43.

[3] New International Encyclopedia of Bible Words; Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1991; “Testify/Witness/Testimony.” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament; Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; “martyre?.”

[4] Gordon H. Clark, What Do Presbyterians Believe?; Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1965; p. 144.

[5] This does not mean that all insane persons and infants are regenerated, but all elect insane persons and infants.

[6] Clark, p. 144.