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Word and flesh, both at once

And neither of them ever takes precedence over the other

Issue: "Pensacola," Dec. 20, 1997

There's no better time than Christmas week to remind ourselves that there are two crucial parts to this thing we call a biblical worldview. There is the talking part and there is 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 on this matter, as we do on so many others, 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 of those two. Always, he has done both. From us, he expects both.

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The content of the Old and New Testaments may confuse us a bit on this. For it is true that the Old Testament seems to be heavy on propositions and light on relationships. It is in the New Testament, after all, that "the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us." That's where God becomes man, and we really finally get to know God, in that we get personally acquainted with Jesus. So people too easily conclude that God's order of things is to move from the propositional to the relational. I think that is an oversimplification.

Instead, God is always very energetically doing both things. Sometimes he may seem to be giving dominance to his speaking, sometimes to his doing. But a careful observer will see 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 the meaning of deeds. 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 on to their 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 the generalizations to explore the realities that are at work. Whichever category we fall into, we might well look at the half we've too much ignored.

Yet having acknowledged the need for such a balance, it's fair also to say that 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 is that we have become frantic doers-first without preparing thoughtfully for what we end up doing, and then quite naturally not being at all ready when onlookers want a rationale for the work they see us engaged in.

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 very good person-without Christ. I thought that maybe I too could become that good without having to become a Christian."


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