"Six days you shall labor and do all your work," God said (Exodus 20: 9). Not infrequently, followers of Jesus have supposed that either their duty as witnesses of Jesus Christ impinges not at all upon their work during the six days or that their work is their witness. A major preoccupation of this blog is to explore the meaning and relationship between both the Sabbath-keeping of the Christian Lord's Day and the others six days and, just for this reason, the relationship between gospel witness and the work and works of Christian believers.
"Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary." However often attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi, the gentle Poverello never uttered them and neither should we. The gospel is a message proclaimed. Witness to Jesus Christ is never complete apart from verbal proclamation of the gospel, indeed conversion-seeking proclamation. Otherwise, we find ourselves unable to add our own voices to that of the apostle who was not ashamed of the gospel knowing that this proclaimed message and nothing else, (especially not our works) is "the power of God unto salvation." Its proclamation requires the employment of words (Romans 1:16).
Abandonment or even significant neglect of the verbal, conversion-seeking proclamation of the gospel eventually sounds a spiritual death-knell over communities of faith. Perhaps the best explanation for the precipitous decline of mainline protestant churches in North America is their slow but steady loss of a good conscience for proselytizing. When, whether overtly or through silence, we communicate nonchalance regarding conversion, a good number of those who receive our message adopt our nonchalance about it.
At the heart of the necessity for verbal conversion-seeking witness is the meaning of witness itself. To witness is precisely and adamantly NOT to point toward oneself but to point away from ourselves to the Lord and Savior we know and others desperately need. Personal testimony has its place within proper Christian discourse, and such testimony may serve Christian witness, but the distinction remains--personal testimony points toward the believer or the believing community, and witness points away to the actual one the gospel proclaims.
To withhold the name of Jesus in favor of a supposedly more virtuous, culturally-organic or relationally-authentic witness makes about as much sense as withholding the name of a medicine that brought cure to you from a disease that now holds your neighbor in a death-grip. Tell them, "I suffered just as you, and look at me now" (personal testimony!) but then tell them the name of the medicine and everything you can about how to lay hold of it (witness!). The "look at me" or "look at us" dimension may serve witness, but cannot replace it.
Nevertheless this "serving of the witness" matters. God uses the lives of his children, their changed lives, their whole lives, to point people to himself:
"You all are the light of the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 5:14-16).
The danger of misunderstanding the meaning and purpose of humanity's works is very great; so great that such misunderstanding threatens to negate the heart of the gospel message itself, that salvation comes by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Standing in utter contradiction to this good news is precisely the notion that salvation comes by works.
How often as a pastor a bereaved family member has insistently, without prompting, cornered me in order to recount a litany of good works performed by the departed loved one while they lived. The ostensible goal is to prove the good spiritual state of the deceased person who, though apparently bursting with good works, displayed little or no concern for the gospel of Jesus Christ, the church he promised to build or the Bible that bears him witness.
Works apart from gospel avail nothing. But gospel-prompted works may "shine." The scope of God's redeeming purpose revealed and underway in and through Jesus Christ includes not less than the rescuing of guilty sinners liable to hell fire through the forgiveness of sins, but it does include more. It encompasses the whole lives of the redeemed, the putting of their works back in their place--back where work no longer imagines or needs to imagine or desires to imagine that it prepares sinners for salvation, secures that salvation, or maintains that salvation. Rather works that praise God involve a distinctive enjoyment of salvation and display of this distinctive enjoyment. Works now settle for their power to, it their own special way, enjoy and display that salvation. Work now insists on its own happy, modest but blessed circumscription within these bounds. Because within these bounds, God makes it "shine" and prompt glory to himself.