Frankly, I’m a little baffled that this remains a question in the church.
And yet, it does.
We still hear old stereotypes batted about, sometimes from surprising quarters: quarters in which one would think folks should know better. From the right, people dismiss the need for action as secondary to the importance of sharing the content of the faith. From the left, people suspect that any focus on doctrine or beliefs is a way to avoid the real work of doing justice and embodying neighbor love.
And yet deeds and creeds, faith and action, belief and practice simply must form an integral whole, if the Gospel of Jesus Christ is good and true. The great 20th century British theologian, Lesslie Newbigin put it this way:
Deeds of mercy and justice that are divorced from words are betrayal, and Gospel words void of deeds are false.1
Those are strong words: betrayal—falsity.
They’re words we need to hear. Who do we betray if we engage in “deeds of mercy and justice” without speaking the words of faith? There is a double betrayal here. Deeds without creeds betray both the ones to whom we are offering our service, and the One in whose name that service should be offered. When I offer bread to my starving neighbor, without also speaking the good news of the Gospel to her, I treat her as less than human.
Where God has created her as an embodied soul, made in the divine image and meant to reflect the beauty of that image to a world in need, I treat her as a body.
I reduce her from an image bearer and a sister to a mouth to feed. I ignore her full humanity. I ignore Jesus, who became incarnate for the sake of my neighbor, who loves her in her fullness. He loves her stomach—yes—but He loves her whole self and wants for her both a full stomach and the abundant life that she might have in Him.
What is false if we speak “gospel words” but fail to perform gospel deeds? If I preach to my neighbor, telling her of the love of Jesus but ignoring her needs for justice and mercy, “saying, ‘Peace, peace’, when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 8:11), then my neighbor won’t be wrong if she calls my words out for the lies that I have made them. Again, I treat my neighbor as less than fully human.
Where God made her with integrity, a wondrous whole of body and soul, I treat her as only a soul.
I treat her as less than the one God loves in her fullness, dismissing the importance of her full life before God. Words that tell the truth about the love of Jesus have to be filled up with Jesus content. Jesus is the Word made flesh. Words that despise or ignore flesh fail to measure up to him.
Jesus, in his earthly ministry, refused to split people into parts. He gave loving attention to people as whole people: body, strength, mind, heart, and soul. To share the love of Jesus aright, we have to share it with whole people, and whole people need words and actions wrapped together. It’s the way God made us, and it’s how God is redeeming us. God isn’t saving just parts of us. God is saving us as wholes.
To dismiss deeds in favor of creeds in an enticing lure. It promises to attend to real life, to stuff that really matters, to bodies. But that dismissal turns out to be one more way of dehumanizing our neighbors, reducing them from image-bearers to projects. That dismissal is one more bifurcation, one more failure to remember that God created and loves the whole world and the whole of people and that God calls us to share the goodness of the Gospel with all that we are—heart, hands, mind, and soul.
The great declaration of faith known as the Apostles Creed is an excellent statement of unity for global Christians. Learn more about this important creed in this short book, This We Believe! by Timothy Tennent.
1) “Crosscurrents in Ecumenical and Evangelical Understanding of Mission,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 6, no. 4 (1982): 148