Word and flesh, at once
Neither takes precedence over the other
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Editor’s note: As Joel Belz recovers from a broken hip, we’re republishing this column, which originally appeared on Dec. 20, 1997.
Heading toward Christmas, there’s no better time to remind ourselves there are two crucial parts to this thing we call a Biblical worldview: the talking part and the doing part.
God did, and still does, both parts wonderfully well. If we want to have His perspective on things—which is what I understand a Biblical worldview to be all about—we’ll note carefully how He arranges His activities among us, and then seek by His Spirit to imitate what He does.
We Christians tend to fall off one side of the log or the other. Some Christians put all their emphasis on saying the right thing. Others put all their emphasis on doing the right thing. But God has never concentrated on just one. Always, He has done both. From us, He expects both.
Sometimes God may seem to be giving dominance to His speaking, sometimes to His doing. But a careful observer sees that He is always really doing both. Yes, it is true that the Old Testament is full of the law and the prophets, with all their emphasis on telling. Yet all the while, the mighty God is also very active doing great and marvelous things. Indeed, the very first thing we learn about God is how He combined His word and His acts by speaking the universe into being!
Missionary-educator John M.L. Young always stressed to his students that both sides of the equation are necessary. Talk by itself is cheap; it takes deeds to validate the talk. But deeds by themselves are ambiguous; it takes words to explain their meaning. God, throughout history, has been gracious to provide His people with both—deeds powerful enough to show He’s not just someone who promises, but words clear enough to keep us from misunderstanding what His deeds are all about.
It’s fascinating to see how often the split between saying and doing coincides with the split between conservatives and liberals. Conservatives tend to put an emphasis on saying things right, while liberals tend to want to get busy and do things right.
Conservatives get upset when liberals forget the founding documents and hurry to touchy-feely, bleeding-heart activism. Liberals accuse conservatives of forever fine-tuning their instruments, never getting around to playing real music, and falling victim to dead orthodoxy.
Both are caricatures, but there’s enough truth in them to explore. Whichever category we fall into, we might well look at the half we’ve too much ignored.
Yet it’s fair also to say the spirit of our age has tended to diminish the propositional end of the teeter-totter and dumped almost all its weight on the relational, “let’s stop talking and do something” end. The result: We have become frantic doers without preparing thoughtfully, and then quite naturally not being ready when onlookers want a rationale for the work they see us doing.
I heard just this past weekend about a factory worker who longed to see one of his fellow laborers become a believer in Christ. His witness was to befriend this fellow, to treat him kindly, not just to see him as an object but very much as a person. Theirs became the epitome of a relational witness.
Some time later, the unbeliever became a believer—but it happened through someone else. Coming back to the factory, he spoke of his new faith to the man who had been a Christian for many years. “That’s wonderful,” said the first fellow. “I’m a believer too.”
“You are?” the new Christian said, incredulously. “Did you know that I’ve put off becoming a Christian for months just because of you? To me, you were the very embodiment of someone who could be a good person without Christ. I thought maybe I too could become that good without becoming a Christian.”
So much for works, without words, as a witness.
If nothing else, it’s arrogant for us to suppose our works, by themselves, will persuade people of gospel truth. Even Jesus didn’t do that. With all the power of the Godhead to do spectacular things, He never resorted only to mere relationships and deeds. Always, He explained exactly what He was about.
At Christmas, I’m thankful the Word didn’t stay abstract but became flesh and dwelt powerfully among us. I’m even more thankful He didn’t stop at that, leaving us to guess exactly what all that power was about.
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