Theologians of the Reformation often get upset when non-Catholic preachers promote the dictum attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Always preach the Gospel, if necessary use words”.
In all honesty, I do not know why they get upset. Yes, sometimes clear words of forgiveness are necessary – but words can also be cheap. We are told if you really want to see what someone believes, don’t look at what they say, but what they do. I think this is right. A man might say he forgives me with his mouth, but go on to show me that his forgiveness is quite doubtful. Another may not say anything, but by his expressions and actions I feel sure that from his perspective, my sins really are buried at the bottom of the sea – when I, the destroyer of the little ones, am the one who deserved to be cast there.
It seems to me that if a child were to hear a person’s words of forgiveness – and that person went on afterwards to intentionally distance themselves from the child because of the deed that was done – what the child would believe about their relationship would be based more on what was done than what was said. Of course, our words should not be so cheap, but often they are. In our lives, we may know what we should say and what we should do – and these things should go hand and hand – but many times they do not. We “forgive” while still holding our hands around another’s throat. And here, it seems to me, we rob the Gospel of its power. It does not have the chance to be the stumbling block, because we have already gotten in the way.
Here is my theological point: even though a statement like “live the Gospel” is not found in the Scriptures, we all know that the word “Trinity” is not either. The point, of course, is whether or not the concept is found in the Scriptures. I believe it is.
There is undoubtedly danger here. It is true that persons often get confused about the Law and love, thinking them opposites, when in reality, we are told that the Law is all about love; it is in fact fulfilled in love. Still, perhaps much of the confusion has to do with us: for often I think that we give the impression that the Law is simply about demands, threats, and punishments, whereas it is the Gospel that is all about forgiveness and mercy. Actually, Matthew 23 tells us that the Law itself is also all about these things namely, justice [social!?] and mercy and faithfulness. These are, in fact, the “the weightier provisions of the law”.
If we say that we can’t live the Gospel, but only the Law, do we not deny that Jesus Christ is both the Law and the Gospel incarnate (something else I believe I have heard both Lutheran and Reformed preachers affirm)? Can we do this? I am not for denying the importance of propositional statements in our lives, but are not both the Law and the Gospel first and foremost to be found incarnate in the man Jesus Christ? Are they not primarily to be found, and understood, in a Person (though not at the expense of propositions)?
I know I am messing with treasured categories and that “Confusion of Law and Gospel” alarms are probably going off in some quarters. I am not looking to have the final word here. I am interested to hear where I might be going wrong in my reasoning.
Pastor Wil Weedon said to me: “I think that the language of living IN the Gospel is not problematic at all: living in its promises, etc. The problem comes with language of LIVING the Gospel – as though our living were somehow the good news itself, rather than witnesses to the truth of the good news. When God announced the Gospel to us he did not spurn words: Behold, I bring you good news of great joy which shall be for all people.”
You can see more of what he wrote below, as he gave me permission to post it in the comment section. I now have to agree to say “use words when necessary” does seem to put to emphasis on the wrong thing – even as I think such a statement can really get us thinking about how our life may possibly obstruct the Gospel witness. Many thanks to Pastor Weedon.
Further, I have to note that when I said, “If we say that we can’t live the Gospel, but only the Law”, I must note that this seems to me, upon reflection, to be a bit of a straw-man sentence. I am not sure how many preachers in the broad Reformation tradition that I have met who have said that we can “live the Law”. They would say, we don’t and can’t “live the Law”, which is kind of the point! All self-justifying mouths must be stopped.