The notion that we can preach the gospel by our lives and don’t need to preach it by words is an anti-christian notion. Words are indispensable. – Dr. John Robbins (Thinking Biblically – The Glory of God)
When it is said that “actions speak louder than words”, a couple of things are usually meant:
1. The idea that a person’s behavior will demonstrate their true intentions in opposition to what they profess (e.g. Jesus said, why do you call Me Lord, Lord, and do not do what I say? – Luke 6:46)
2. The idea that it is more preferable for a person to let one’s actions advertise their beliefs as opposed to actually professing those beliefs. (i.e. Don’t tell me what you believe, I will know what you believe based upon your actions)
It is the latter meaning that this blog concerns itself with.
I recently read an article written by columnist Dan Bickley entitled “Kurt Warner to Tim Tebow: Let your actions be your words” (http://www.azcentral.com/sports/cardinals/articles/2011/11/26/20111126nfl-kurt-warner-tim-tebow-advice.html) and while I was not shocked to see how biased the media has become in communicating simple facts about other persons (especially conservative-minded persons), I felt compelled to dispel one of the articles’ underlying themes, namely, that actions are better or more suitable than words.
Tangentially speaking, the question-begging epithet is perhaps one of the most commonly used logical fallacies when it comes to the media. Unfortunately, instead of folks calling these columnist out on their adherence to irrational arguments, I find that many readers instead repeat the same logical fallacies and unwittingly assist the furthering of ignorance. Unsatisfied with using a term such as “unconventional”, the author, for instance uses phrases like – “gimmick offense” and “struggles to complete a simple forward pass” in a biased attempt to convey a less than stellar description of Tim Tebow’s skill level as a QB. Right now, you are probably asking yourself: why is this guy stating the obvious? Aren’t most or at least many contemporary media articles full of logical fallacies – this is hardly a ground-breaking observation? However, I think that it’s important to uncover irrational arguments if only ever for the sake of reducing the reply-able text to a manageable size. After all, we shouldn’t feel compelled to respond to irrational arguments.
In the aforementioned article, Kurt Warner, a former NFL QB who was also known for celebrating his successes by openly thanking God, suggests that Tim Tebow should adhere to the following advice:
Put down the boldness in regards to the words, and keep living the way you’re living…the greatest impact you can have on people is never what you say, but how you live. When you speak and represent the person of Jesus Christ in all actions of your life, people are drawn to that. You set the standard with your actions. The words can come after.
Basically, what Kurt Warner is saying is that Tim Tebow should tone it down and let his actions speak for him instead of his words. So what is Kurt Warner’s motivation for giving Tim Tebow such advice? Kurt says:
I don’t want anybody to become calloused toward Tim because they don’t understand him, or are not fully aware of who he is.
Unfortunately, Kurt’s advice is all wrong and I have five reasons why I think so. As a preface to my reasons, I should first acknowledge that neither actions nor words are guaranteed to present a completely true assessment of who a person really is in his or her heart. The prerogative of searching the heart’s intent and motives belong solely to God (Jeremiah 17:10, Hebrews 4:12-13, Romans 8:27). With that said, the two questions that you should keep in mind when reading my reasons for dissent are:
1. Which method is capable of accurately relaying the intended message to its recipient (this is the question that the referenced article concerns itself with)?
2. Which method is the most reliable for discerning who a person is inside (or in their heart)?
Reason # 1: Actions alone are incapable of being univocal; only propositions (words) are!
It is impossible to deduce (arrive at) Christian propositions from actions because actions are equivocal. The goal of evangelism is not to convince the unsaved listener that our actions are virtuous (it may be helpful for the listener to conclude this but it is certainly not necessary). Unbelievers are not saved (or persuaded to be saved) by believing in our “good” actions, rather; they are saved by assenting to the biblical propositions that we speak and which come from the Word of God. Since actions do not speak—if they did then you should run from them as quickly as possible—it is impossible for actions to audibly convey any propositions about themselves (let alone the bible); in the end, the observer of your actions has the final say as to how your actions are ultimately interpreted. My tax accountant may deem me foolish for sacrificially giving of my assets to projects that further God’s will, while fellow Christians may simultaneously deem such actions as being worthy of merit. Actions are viewed through the lens of one’s worldview, so, the effect of an action on it’s viewer is subject to one’s own presuppositions. Words, on the other hand, especially those contained in Christian propositions, are capable of being unambiguous when used appropriately. If rationality is the goal, then one should start by aspiring to communicate univocally—the opposite of being ambiguous. People should know exactly which Jesus you are referring to especially in this age of Ecumenism, since it is only the Biblical Jesus that unconditionally saves people from their sins. The Roman Catholic Jesus, for instance, was not powerful enough to redeem mankind solely by his death on the cross and must rely on men (and their works) and other non-biblical doctrines (i.e. brown scapulars, rosaries, mass cards, merit sharing and purgatory, to name a few) to chip in and help him finish the job. One interested in biblical salvation would obviously not want to mistakenly confuse these two Jesus-es, so; the speaker should use words in an unambiguous manner when relaying such propositions.
Actions can mislead but a clear and concise profession of Jesus Christ’s lordship, preeminence, and His utterly free offer of salvation are unmistakable especially when modeled after the same words that occur in the Scriptures. Living a resiliently good life alone does not lead people to the God of the bible. Adherents of other worldviews (i.e. Islam, Catholicism, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Atheism) are equally capable of living lives filled with “actions” that are deemed “good” (as if there were some universally acceptable definition of the word “good”). A relevant example of this phenomenon is seen by examining the life of Mother Teresa. Mother Teresa’s heroics are certainly known by many people all over the world. Many persons (even including some protestants/evangelicals) portray Mother Teresa as a great “example of Christian love and charity and as someone who dedicated her life to the noble cause of advancing the gospel to the poor and needy of the world while caring for their physical needs” (http://www.challies.com/articles/the-myth-of-mother-teresa). Notwithstanding, Mother Teresa was not even a Christian (at least by biblical standards); her devout adherence to Roman Catholicism is all the proof that is needed to substantiate this claim. If Kurt Warner’s theory was correct, shouldn’t we expect Mother Teresa’s actions (which were ostensibly Christian) to lead the audience to the conclusion that she was a Christian? To be sure, Mother Teresa would no doubt be considered a heretic (and instantly anathematized) if she ever uttered the following phrase:
No works of righteousness whatsoever (i.e. belonging to a particular church, reciting a rosary, partaking of the mass, praying to saints/Mary, purgatory, observing Holy/feast days) are necessary for salvation.
And yet this is essentially what the bible teaches in many, many of its verses including: Titus 3:5, Galatians 2:16, Romans 9:32, Romans 11:6 (to list a few)!
For example, consider the following:
Titus 3:5 – NOT by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost.
Galatians 2:21 – I do not frustrate the grace of God: because if righteousness could come through the law [i.e. works], then Christ died for nothing.
Romans 4:5 – But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.
In summary, Actions are not propositions and are thus unsuitable for conveying an unequivocal message to one’s audience.
Reason #2: Contrary to popular opinion, the bible doesn’t say that the world will know that we are Christians by our “actions”
…By this, all men shall know that ye are my disciples… – John 13:35
In the “Reader’s comments” section of the referenced article, a reader posted the following comment:
I am not a Biblical (sp) scholar, but there are a couple of phrases that stick with me. When asked how the people would know the followers of Christ, he said, “they will know you by your actions”. At least I think that was the quote. I don’t believe Christ would want to be marketed by Madison Av. Tim … lead your life to the best of your beliefs and people will know.
To which a subsequent reader responded with the following rebuttal:
I am a Biblical scholar of sorts and there are far more verses about “shouting your beliefs from the mountaintops” and “if I was silent, the rocks themselves would scream it out.”Lots and lots of Biblical support for what Tebow is doing.
To which the original reader responded by saying:
So, you are saying that your God is a marketable commodity? We could swap quotes all day and night for weeks. My God likes actions, not words. You are entitled to your opinion, and so is Tim. I believe there is a time for everything, and the sports field is not the place for a religious service. Just my opinion.
To which a third participant responded with:
Why twist his words [screen name of original participant]? you started by saying you don’t know the Bible well, and he said he did. Then you started in with marketing? What was the commandment given by Jesus prior to ascending into Heaven? you are arguing a point you admit to not knowing much about.
Well, you can see where this conversation is headed. The first commentator’s misapprehension of John 13:35 is actually not uncommon; of all the times I’ve heard this verse referenced, his interpretation is the one I find most ascribed to this verse. Upon examining the actual words of Christ we find the following:
A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another. – John 13:34-35
If you’re like me, you are probably disappointed (if not shocked) to find that the words: “actions” or “works” are nowhere to be found in John 13:34-35. Also, while “loving one another” can certainly be achieved by performing certain qualifying actions (we would need a further discussion to mete-out what these are) it is also true that “loving one another” is achievable by uttering words that are sincere (but not capable of being demonstrated by accompanying actions). For example, when Jesus said to the undeserving thief on the cross: “Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise”, what actions can we point to that would serve as a confirmation of this proposition? Also, when Jesus told the man who was sick of the palsy in Matthew 9:6: “Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee”, what actions are there to demonstrate that this man’s sins were really forgiven? Furthermore, praying for someone (which is commonly an invisible transaction) is called out (by implication) as one of the more potent acts of love in James 5:16. In Matthew 5:44, loving one’s enemies is denoted by praying for them; so it is clear to see that actions are not necessary to commend “love one to another”, words can and certainly do suffice.
Reason #3: Human actions are not independent of words (i.e. ideas) but are the result of words (i.e. ideas), therefore, actions cannot speak louder than the words that spur those actions.
Let such a person consider this, that what we are in WORD by letters when we are absent, such we will also be in DEED when we are present – 2 Corinthians 10:11
The mere fact that actions must be translated back into words in order for actions to be meaningful, ensures us that actions are not more preeminent than words. Furthermore, sentences are only ever composed of words. It is therefore impossible to receive even the slightest piece of information from any action without first turning the action back into one or more meaningful propositions. Obviously, it is unnecessary to think that this translation from actions to words must occur audibly as our minds are very capable of deriving propositions from sequences of still images (actions) that occur; in fact, we do this all day long. We see a young man walking into a church building with a bible in his hand on a Sunday morning and our minds compose (by inference) the proposition that he is a Christian. However, the problem with this inference is that it is an unnecessary one. Thus lies one of the main difficulties involved with interpreting actions, namely, reasoning from induction. In case you were unaware of it, inductive reasoning is always fallacious. There is never sufficient warrant to suggest that one or more propositions must be a consequence of a particular action. This is because it is usually impossible for you to complete the induction. You haven’t observed all individuals that have ever performed that action in order to extract a generalization, therefore, the inference is unnecessary and logically invalid. Since it’s the observer’s responsibility to convert all actions into an explanation, unless the observer is omniscient or privy to prior and related propositions regarding a particular action, the exercise of trying to reach the correct conclusion that was intended by the perpetrator of the action is subject to a whole slew of conjecture. Moreover, if the explanation composed by the observer of the action is not identical in substance to the thoughts that spurred the action, these inferred propositions would no longer be an accurate representation of the thoughts that spurred those actions. The explanation of a misunderstood action is merely a misleading version of the words and ideas that produced the action. In other words, actions are the realization and implementation of our mind’s ideas. These internal propositions are the cause of all actions that occur and are therefore superior to them in significance.
Reason #4: God requires us to dispense with actions (i.e outward appearances) when reaching a judgement concerning another person and instead examine what is spoken by the person; therefore, we must deduce that actions (or appearances) are inferior to words when it comes to ascertaining anything about another individual.
Judge not according to the appearance, but judge with righteous judgment – John 7:24
Consider the following excerpt:
Either make the tree good, and his fruit good; or else make the tree corrupt, and his fruit corrupt: for the tree is known by his fruit. O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things. Therefore by their fruits ye shall know them. (Matthew 12:33-35, Matthew 7:20)
In Matthew 7:20, where it is stated that “by their fruits ye shall know them” some have ventured to say that fruit is a metaphor for a person’s works or actions. So then, by these Christian actions that we perform, it is said that onlookers should be able to reach the conclusion that we are in fact Christians. Of course, if this were true, then any reader should be thoroughly perplexed that two verses later (in verse 22) we read about people who sound like Christians and yet they are being condemned to Hell despite the plethora of “good” works and actions that they have performed and presented as proof of their Christianity. In Matthew 7:22 they say:
Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?
The fact that God does not recognize these persons as authentic Christians despite their “wonderful” works, is all the proof that we need to conclude that by fruits, Christ is not referring to works, actions or deeds. Christ explains what is meant by fruit in verses 36 and 37 of Matthew 12. There we read:
But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned. (Matthew 12:36-37)
So, contrary to what was mentioned earlier, we see from the passage above, that “fruits” is a metaphor for the utterances of a person and we are told that it is based upon these utterances that we are to make our judgments not based on the appearances. Again, judging righteously is not to look at the outward appearances (or actions) but to the words that come from the abundance of the heart. Actions (or outward appearances) are bad indicators of true intentions; however, the mouth’s words seem to echo and betray exactly what is going on within a person’s heart (at least more reliably than his/her corresponding actions). Given enough opportunity, the mouth’s words will provide clues to who a person really is on the inside. Perhaps this is why we are constantly urged in Scripture to let our words be few (e.g. Proverbs 10:19, Proverbs 17:27-28).
It is important to note that Scripture also informs us that words can be insincere as well (e.g. Matthew 15:8). So while the Scriptures do not promise us that we will never be deceived, He does however give us the best method for reaching a judgment or discernment when one is not omniscient; namely, judging persons by their words. So, as it turns out (when it comes to accuracy – which we presume is the expectation), WORDS “speak louder” than actions.
Reason #5: The greatest “action” that a Christian can perform is to tell the world’s inhabitants about Jesus Christ by using WORDS!
- And He said to them, Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. (Mark 16:15)
- Proclaim the good news of His salvation from day to day. Declare His glory among the nations, His wonders among all peoples. (Psalms 96:2-3)
- I have proclaimed the good news of righteousness in the great assembly; Indeed, I do not restrain my lips, O LORD, You Yourself know. I have not hidden Your righteousness within my heart; I have declared Your faithfulness and Your salvation; I have not concealed Your lovingkindness and Your truth from the great assembly. (Psalms 40:9-10)
In the 10th chapter of the book of Romans, Paul asks the following question:
How, then, can [people] call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? (Romans 10:14)
Then in Romans 10:17 Paul answers the question by asserting the following:
Therefore, faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.
So we see that Paul’s answer, coupled with the three verses above provide ample reason for us to conclude that words speak louder that actions.
A Side Note:
Of course, the “world” is going to hate what Tim Tebow is doing; after all, if it didn’t then that would make Jesus a liar when he warned His followers with the following statement in John 17:14 and 2 Timothy 3:12:
I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world…Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.
Incidentally, and contrary to Mr. Kurt Warner’s advice, it is exceedingly more beneficial for Tim Tebow to continue to praise the biblical God in public, thereby bringing about awareness of the biblical God as well as the scorn, revilement and persecution (verbally anyway) of a listening audience that increasingly hates the biblical God. Why? In Matthew 5:11-12 we read: Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.
Therefore, it follows that if Tim Tebow were to instead be silent and simply allow his actions to do the talking for him (as if such a notion were credible), he would significantly reduce the amount of scorn, insults, and revilement and thus the amount of reward that is awaiting him in heaven.
Cleaning up after myself (by anticipating and answering common objections):
Objection 1: The bible says: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven – Matthew 5:16″
Doesn’t this mean that we are to let our works (or actions) “speak” for us instead of using our words?
What is meant by the metaphor “light” and what qualifies as a “good work”? In the 5th chapter of Matthews we find two metaphors (light and salt) that are both used synonymously to refer to one’s knowledge of the word of God; this is evidenced by verses such as:
Isaiah 8:20 (To the Law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this Word, it is because no light is in them),
2 Peter 1:19 (We have also a more sure word of prophecy, to which you do well to take heed, as to a light that shines in a dark place) and
Psalm 119:105 (Your word is a lamp to my feet, And a light unto my path) among many others.
Also, whatever is meant by good works, we are certain that it must at least convey knowledge about the biblical God since as a result of seeing these good works, the observing person ends up glorifying the biblical God. After all, how would the observing individual know to glorify the biblical God and not, for example, the Muslim god, if the good works were not accompanied with an explanation or a signature? This is precisely why in Mark 9:41 Christ specifically commends the “good works” that are qualified as being done “in His name.” This qualification is necessary so that the recipient of the good work is able to trace the good work back to a non-arbitrary person. An example of such a good work (that is done “in His name”) would be engaging others through apologetics. Apologetics is not only one of the most important acts of love, it is also one of the most important Christian mandates, and it can only be done using words, not actions.
Objection 2: In 2 Corinthians 3:2, the bible says: “Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men.” Doesn’t this mean that as “living” epistles we should act out our faith so that spectators can observe or “read” us and hopefully be galvanized into belief?
Whatever is meant by being an “epistle” that is “known and read [by] all men”, I can assure you that it has more to do with uncompromisingly proclaiming Christ through bold words and less to do with outward “acts” of kindness; and here’s why:
When we examine the lives of the apostles, while I’m sure that they engaged in “acts of kindness” such as helping the poor, fellowship with other Christians, and performing other acts that exude outward integrity, what was the most prominent and memorable good work that they all commonly performed and that was “known and read of all men ?” Was it not their bold words about Jesus Christ and His gospel that the apostles were primarily known for proclaiming throughout the world? To be sure, they refused to shut up about Christ. For instance, Paul, through his words, admonished the Galatians and Corinthians not to mistakenly follow “another Jesus or another gospel” in Galatians 1:6-7 and 2 Corinthians 11:4. Among other issues these communities were faced with, apparently, the “actions” of one Christian mislead some others into following the same sin (Galatians 2:11-14). Furthermore, we shouldn’t forget about Peter’s admonition that words (especially Christ’s words) are more certain than any “action” that we may have personally witnessed (2 Peter 1:16-19). Also, James through letters (that contained words), urged Jewish believers to understand that (ironically enough) it is through the “engrafted word” that our souls are saved (James 1:21). Similarly, Jude, not through his actions, but through his words (in Jude 1:3) exhorted believers to “earnestly contend for the faith” and since our weapons aren’t carnal (2 Corinthians 10:4), our contention must be accomplished by using words. Finally, John reminds us in his writings that: when someone confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, we know (non-omnisciently) that God abides in that person. These “living epistles” (in their own right) give us perfect examples of what is expected of a “living epistle” so we need not think that such a phrase suggests that our life’s actions are of more significance than our words.
We can preach the gospel, they tell us, by our lives, and do not need to preach it by our words. But they are wrong. Men are not saved by the exhibition of our glorious Christian virtues; they are not saved by the contagion of our experiences. We cannot be the instruments of God in saving them if we preach to them thus only ourselves. Nay, we must preach to them the Lord Jesus Christ; for it is only through the gospel which sets Him forth that they can be saved. – J. Gresham Machen, Education, Christianity & the State, pp. 20-21