“I can promote the gospel better by my good works.”
Maybe you think that you’re not the kind of person to speak the gospel to others because your particular role in gospel proclamation is to do good works.
Good works, of course, are something that all Christians are called to do. Doing good works is a responsibility, a privilege, a joy, a struggle, and a way of life (e.g. Ephesians 2:10, Titus 2:14, Hebrews 10:24). Good works are the fruit of the gospel, they accompany the gospel, and they adorn the gospel. This is true for every individual Christian person and every Christian group. The Bible never phrases the command “love your neighbour” as if it’s an optional role for a select group of specially gifted Christians. We all have different means and opportunities to do good works, but we’re all supposed to do good works.
Maybe you’ve discovered that you’re much better at doing good works than you are at speaking the gospel. And maybe you’ve also noticed how doing good works can be a great advertisement for God’s power to transform lives and communities. You’ve seen that when individual Christians or Christian groups devote themselves to performing good works, the world often sits up and takes notice. The world begins to see that it’s good to be one of God’s people, because God’s people are good people.
So why not, you may ask, let other people do the talking? Don’t your works contribute something important to the proclamation of the gospel all by themselves? People can learn by your good works that God’s people are good people; and then somebody else can come along later and fill in the key detail: it’s all because of Jesus. And then they’ll want to be one of God’s people too.
But that is the precise problem. Good works without gospel-speech do indeed send a message to the world, all by themselves. They tell the world that God’s people are good people. Unfortunately, however, that particular message is the precise opposite of the gospel.
In the previous post, we looked at the first half of Romans 10. We saw that there’s a huge difference between salvation by works of law and salvation by the gospel of Jesus Christ. We’re not saved by ‘doing’ the works of the law. Instead, we’re saved by believing and speaking: believing in a specific person, Jesus, and confessing that he is the Lord, and calling on his name (Rom 10:9, 13). This is why gospel-speech is at the core of what it means to be a Christian.
But of course, this isn’t just true for you and me. It’s true for everyone. Paul is emphatic about this:
For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” (Romans 10:11)
For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:13)
And that means: everyone needs to hear, explicitly, the name of the Lord:
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed?
And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?
And how are they to hear without someone preaching?
And how are they to preach unless they are sent?
As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (Romans 10:14-15)
So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17)
I’m convinced that Paul is talking here about his own gentile mission.1 Paul is a ‘preacher’ (see Rom 10:8) and a ‘sent one’ (this is what the word ‘apostle’ means, see Rom 1:1, 5; 11:13)—that’s why he talks about the need for ‘preachers’ who are ‘sent’.
Paul’s gospel shapes Paul’s mission. Since people are saved by responding to a message, they need to hear this message. Paul had been sent to preach this very message. That was his mission. Other people in Paul’s day believed that their mission was to promote God’s law (see Romans 2:17-24; 10:2-5). Since works are at the core of God’s law, doing good works was at the heart of promoting the law. Paul did, of course, believe that doing good works was incredibly important, for a wide variety of reasons (see e.g. Romans 12-13). But doing good works wasn’t his mission. Paul’s mission was to promote the gospel, not the law. That meant that speech, not works, was the essential, non-negotiable factor at the heart of gospel proclamation.
It’s true that Paul’s speaking role was special. Not everybody is Paul. Not everybody is an apostle. Not everybody is sent to preach, either. Different people speak the gospel in different ways (more of that later). On the other hand, the basic logic of Romans 10 is something we all need to hear, again and again. People aren’t saved by doing good works. People aren’t saved by seeing good works, either. People are saved by hearing and speaking a message: “Jesus is Lord”. If people were saved by doing good works, then your good works would be an excellent way to directly illustrate and promote what salvation is all about. But because people are saved by hearing and speaking a message, then the only way to proclaim what salvation is all about is by speaking the message.
Do you, like me, believe that good works are not an optional extra for our Christian lives? Do you, like me, believe that every individual Christian should do acts of loving service? Then do them. You don’t have to justify your loving actions by using the words ‘gospel proclamation’ or ‘mission’. Just love people, deeply and sacrificially.
But do you also, like me, feel the need for speech? Do you believe that you have been saved, not by doing good works, but by hearing and speaking a message: “Jesus is Lord”? Do you believe that others are also saved by hearing and speaking that message? Then keep going the way you started. Keep saying “Jesus is Lord”, to yourself and to others.
Do good. But don’t stop speaking the gospel.
This is the fifth post in a series about gospel speech. In the next post, we’ll think about another objection: “I’m not the mouth in Christ’s body.”
1 If you need to be convinced further about the fact that Romans 10:14-18 is all about the gentile mission, check out the arguments in:
- N. T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes (NIB; ed. Leander E. Keck; 12 vols.; vol. 10; Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), p. 667.
- Francis Watson, Paul, Judaism and the Gentiles: Beyond the New Perspective (Rev. and expanded ed.; Grand Rapids / Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2007), p. 331.
- See also John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans (trans. John Owen; Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, c. 1847), pp. 396, 404.