Many Christians believe the maxim, attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi, that we should “preach the gospel at all times and when necessary, use words.” The idea comes in many different forms (e.g., “our lives are the only Bibles many people may ever read; Christians should display the gospel to the world; we should live out the gospel,” etc.), but in all these the basic assumption is that the gospel is something that we can “live out” or “display.” I think the intentions behind the assumption are generally well-meaning.
But I want to challenge the assumption here.
True, Scripture does tell us to “adorn the doctrine of God our savior” in our various social contexts (Titus 2:10), and God gives us the law to teach us the “perfect rule of righteousness” (WCF 19.2). So we should affirm wholeheartedly that our obedience to God’s law in thought, word, and action matters to God.
But are we actually told in Scripture to “live out” or “display” the gospel? Put another way: is obedience to God’s law basically the same thing as the promises found in the gospel?
The clear biblical answer to this has to be an unequivocal no. A quick survey of three biblical texts will help reorient our thinking:
In Genesis 3:15 we learn that God “will put enmity between the serpent and the woman, and between the serpent’s offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise the serpent’s head, and the serpent shall bruise his heel.” Often called the “first gospel,” this text shows us that the gospel is fundamentally about God’s promise to crush the head of the serpent through the offspring of the woman.
In Romans 1:16 we learn that the gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” This text shows us that the gospel is not something that we do, but that it’s God’s power for salvation.
In 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 we learn the content of the gospel: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” This text shows us that the promise given to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:15 has now been fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and that this news, preached to the Corinthian church by Paul (v. 1), is the gospel.
Nowhere in Scripture do we find God telling us to “live out” or “display” the gospel. We are told numerous times to bring glory to God in whatever we do (1 Corinthians 10:31; Colossians 3:17), and we are sometimes even told to do things because God has already done them for us (Colossians 3:12-13). But our lives and actions are never called “gospel,” and we’re never told to “display the gospel” in the way that many Christians assume.
So, besides lacking biblical warrant, what’s the real problem with assuming that the gospel is something that we can “live out” or “display”?
In my view, the real problem with this assumption is that it fails to distinguish between the law and the gospel. In other words, it blurs the lines between what God has done to redeem us in the person and work of Jesus Christ (gospel) and what we are to do in light of God’s redeeming work (law). This assumption, in the end, is based on a bad reading of Scripture since it confuses these two important biblical categories.
The law has three uses: 1) to help us discover “the sinful pollutions of our lives” and thus to cause us to turn away from ourselves and to God in Christ for redemption; 2) to “restrain our corruptions because it forbids sin;” and 3) to give us a “rule of life informing us of the will of God” (all from WCF 19.6). In other words, the law is something we do.
The gospel, on the other hand, as we’ve seen in the survey of texts above, is something that God has done. Confusing these two categories, law and gospel, confuses the work of man and the work of God. True, we are called to proclaim the gospel, and that proclamation makes the gospel visible to men (Galatians 3:1). But this is only a display of the gospel because we’re pointing away from ourselves and to God’s work in the person and work of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:5).
So let us cease from calling one another to “live out” or “display” the gospel. God in Christ has already lived out the gospel, once-for-all, displaying His glory ultimately in the shame of a Roman cross. This is an unrepeatable metaphysical reality, something which we neither can nor should seek to replicate. Yes, let us live in obedience to God, loving our neighbors and seeking to glorify God in everything we do. Hopefully unbelievers will see these works and glorify God because of them (Matthew 5:16). But let us not for one moment confuse these works of the law with the gospel of what God has already done for us in Christ.