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What’s More Important for Christian Witness — Talk or Walk?

By Brad Finkbeiner

Ethics & Apologetics Teacher Brad Finkbeiner

Brad Finkbeiner has taught within the ACCS since 1999, including courses in Logic, Debate, Ancient History, European History I and II, Great Ideas I and II, Ethics, and Apologetics. He majored in Bible and Theology at Washington Bible College in Lanham, MD, and earned an MA in the Liberal Arts at St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD. In addition to developing curriculum, Brad authored the textbook With All Your Mind: A Course on Logic and Argument for the Christian Classroom and will soon launch a website housing his writings, lectures, and podcast episodes. He is in his fifth year of teaching at Providence Classical School and lives in Spring with his wife and four children.

Some say that, when it comes to advancing the gospel in unbelieving culture, our walk (what we do) is more important than our talk (what we say). Is this true?

In logic and apologetics, I distinguish between proving the gospel (showing it is true or likely to be true) and persuading people of the gospel (moving people to accept it). It is possible to prove without persuading (many get lost by complex arguments) or to persuade without proving (many are moved by force of personality more than logic and evidence). This means there are two distinct questions:

Question #1 = What is the best way of showing others that the gospel is true or reasonable?

Question #2 = What is the best way of moving others to accept the gospel?

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Question #1: Proving the Gospel

What is the best way of showing others that the gospel is true or reasonable? In answer to this first question, talk is far more important than walk.

Logically speaking, the gospel is proved by evidence. (Read the sermons in the Book of Acts with an eye to this.) Since the gospel is about a historic event (Jesus’ death and resurrection) and a larger worldview (creation, fall, and redemption), the content of our claims and reasoning are more relevant than our lives and personal experiences.

Though historians denied his authorship, Francis of Assisi is purported to have said, “Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.” The implication is that one can preach the gospel by one’s actions, presumably by imitating the life of Christ in the way we love lost sinners. This is not true.

Our love for others is not the gospel. The gospel is a propositional message about the death, resurrection, and second coming of Jesus Christ (e.g., 1 Corinthians 15:1-5). Our love for others is only our response to the gospel. A Christian’s life can no more proclaim the gospel than it can proclaim the assassination of Abraham Lincoln or the winner of the 2012 Super Bowl. No one can believe the gospel unless it is first declared and explained to them with words (Romans 10:14-17).1

Question #2: Persuading Others

What is best way of moving others to accept the gospel? Here there is a case for saying that one’s walk is more important.

For some the saying is true, “I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care.” Psychologically speaking, our walk is more persuasive for such people. Paul teaches that our walk is an important part of our witness for Christ (Philippians 2:15).

With that point granted, I want to caution us about how much weight we put on Walk over and against Talk.

In what follows, I offer several reasons for thinking that a good walk is severely limited, and even dangerous, when detached from truthful talk.

Please keep this underlined point in mind as you read. I stress this because, by the time you finish reading this post, it may seem that I think Christian witness is all about Talk, not Walk. This is not my position. If subsequent arguments seem to suggest otherwise, I want to clarify up front that my goal is to temper an overemphasis in some quarters on the power of Walk over Talk, as well as a host of related confusions. So, with that caveat out of the way, here we go…

1st] If being a “good person” is a proof of one’s beliefs, what does this mean about really nice Mormons, Muslims, and Atheists?

Friendliness and philanthropy are not unique to Christians. Mormons are among the kindest people I know. If being nice proves the truth of one’s beliefs, then Mormonism is also true, as is Atheism and Islam and Buddhism.

This also shows that civic virtue without truth is potentially dangerous. People are quick to follow the blind as long as they feel loved by them. But if you’re lost in a forest, would you rather be with an unloving person who has a map or a loving person without one?

Mankind is lost in the forest of (what Wesley called) “sin and Nature’s night.” Lost sinners need our map more than our niceness. They need both, to be sure, but kindness by itself leaves them in the forest.

While on this point, it’s noteworthy that, in my experience, many Christian teens often assume—we need to figure out why—that Christians have cornered the market on moral and intellectual virtue, as if all unbelievers are sinister characters bent on leading them astray. These assumptions set them up for shock and skepticism when they meet caring, intelligent, down-to-earth atheists and Muslims later in life.

They think: “Wait a second: these people have a good walk too! Does that mean they know something we don’t know? Some of them are even nicer than the people in my church. Maybe they have more truth than we do.” Likewise, when these same kids learn about the next celebrity pastor to commit adultery, they might just as well reason in the opposite direction: “Maybe Christianity is just a sham after all!”

2nd] As the previous point shows, our upright walk is not self-interpreting; it must be explained by our Christian talk.

On the one hand, an attractive life-witness must be interpreted for the unbeliever if the unbeliever is to understand why Christians are different from Mormons and Muslims. An unbeliever may just as well think we are trying to earn salvation by being good.

On the other hand, as a Christian who continues to sin and to disappoint others, I get to explain (whether to unbelievers or to equally confused churched-teens) that the gospel does not depend on my righteousness. The gospel assumes that I don’t have any righteousness of my own to give to God (read Philippians 3). I look to Christ’s perfection alone precisely because I cannot provide the perfection that God requires of me.

The gospel is the good news that God accepts me because of Jesus’ perfect walk on my behalf. I benefit from His righteousness, given to me as a gift and received by faith alone. It is precisely because of my imperfect walk that I need the gospel.

Now notice that, in saying these things, I am using my “talk” (my explanation of sin and grace) to explain why my “walk” (my continued struggle with sin and reliance on Christ) is compatible with the truth of Christianity. Whether I am having a good day or a bad day, my talk (i.e., the message) is superior to my walk in these respects.

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3rd] A good Christian walk that is uncoupled from sound Christian talk can cause tremendous harm.

One of the most destructive forces in today’s churches are loving Christians who don’t know what they are talking about. Think of all the theological “infants” (Hebrews 5:12) who have “zeal without knowledge” (Proverbs 19:2).

Whereas James says that few Christians should wish to teach (James 3:1), many today seem to think that virtually everyone is fit to do so. The result is that our churches are filled with well-meaning people who “darken counsel without knowledge” (Job 38). They’re like self-appointed surgeons who’ve never gone to medical school. They can cause more damage by talking.

They’d do well speak less and listen more to those who are gifted and trained to guide the Church (see Ephesians 4:11-16). As long as we think that Walk gives authority to Talk, we will continue to fall prey to the false teaching of “really nice” Christians who (in Paul’s words) “do not understand what they are saying or the matters about which they make confident assertions” (1 Timothy 1:7).

4th] A good walk is often unpersuasive even in its own right.

It is often impotent in the face of serious intellectual doubts. Genuine skeptics are likely to remain unmoved by the most impressive life-witnesses until their intellectual obstacles are removed.

To see why, suppose you meet “the nicest person ever.” You ask him what makes him different from others. He replies, “I am an alien ambassador from the planet Xenon, tasked with establishing friendly relations between our species and you earthlings.” You’d probably conclude that this is the nicest nutjob you’ve ever met!

This is similar to the way that sincere skeptics feel about loving Christians. If they believe that Jesus was a fraud, that miracles cannot happen, that science has explained all of Reality without God, or that the problem of evil cannot be solved, our kindness will do little to change their minds.

5th] Ironically, if you simply want to get unbelievers into the pews, a good walk may be the single greatest obstacle.

Far from securing an unbeliever’s respect or admiration, walking the walk can just as well incur their hatred (2 Timothy 3:12). Jesus was the embodiment of Love, and He was nailed to a cross. He promised His disciples that the world would hate them because the world first hated Him (John 15:18-19).

Ironically, early Christians were called “haters of men” (like some today) because of their uncompromising convictions and refusal to embrace the values and behaviors of their pagan culture. Some of the greatest saints were martyred precisely because of their exemplary obedience. In light of this, it’s odd that so many see a good walk as a sure recipe for winning others.

An objection:

At this point I want to answer a question/objection: Can’t the hypocrisy of a professing Christian undermine the validity of gospel?

The answer, in short, is “No”.

There is a huge difference between the sincerity of my personal profession (James 2:14-26) and the truth of the Church’s confession (1 Timothy 3:15). The scriptures teach that “actions speak louder than words” only as it pertains to the former, not to the latter.

Hypocrisy does not invalidate the truth of the gospel, only the faith of the hypocrite. This is because the gospel is not a message about you or me, but about Jesus Christ. We are messengers about what God did two-thousand years ago in Jerusalem. Logically speaking, the character of the messenger implies nothing about the truth or falsehood of his message.

Paul rejoiced that the gospel was preached even by hypocrites (Philippians 1:15-16). Hypocrites who preach Christ are still giving people the map out of the forest.2

A person’s hypocrisy may undermine their right to be considered a “Christian,” but it hardly invalidates Christianity. To the contrary, Jesus and His Apostles taught, as part of the Christian message, that evangelism results in “weeds” (false Christians) growing up among the “wheat” (true Christians).

A genuine Christian’s life will bear the fruit of the gospel, and this fruit is how men can distinguish between true and false disciples; but this pertains entirely to the authenticity of a Christian’s profession of faith, not to the truth of the propositions they profess to believe.

Consider Jesus’ words, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Notice that He does not say “…will know the gospel is true.” He’s talking about the evidence of genuine discipleship.

While we should be disturbed by hypocrisy, we should never be disillusioned by it. People who reject Christianity on account of bad Christians are committing a logical blunder. Sadly, however, unbelievers (and many Christians, especially teens) do not make this distinction. This is one reason why the Bible teaches that our walk is an important part of our witness for Christ (see again Philippians 2:15).

With that said, let’s ask a different question: Can’t the hypocrisy of a professing Christian undermine the persuasiveness of the gospel in the eyes of unbelievers?

To this, the answer is “Absolutely! It can and it regularly does.”

As one friend recently said, “I’ve seen too many people’s walk with Christ decimated by the utter faithlessness of pastors.” He added, “At that point, no logical or historical argument is of much help until the wounds are healed.”

Sadly, I think he’s right. But part of the solution is to talk with our kids about the truths sketched above ahead of time so that they can work through their emotions intelligently and biblically when the next scandal hits the Internet.

In any case, the bottom line is this: In our Christian witness, we are called to be faithful in our walk and our talk.

The two are deeply interconnected. Our talk is part of our walk and our walk is an expression of our talk. We are called to be sound in both, and to trust that God will use both to bring about His appointed ends. It’s not for us to choose one over the other, but to see the need for both, and to bring both into perpetual conformity to the word of God. My hope is that this post will help us do that all the more.

1 This also helps explain one of the dangers of the modern emphasis on personal testimonies, experiences, or the therapeutic benefits of the Christian life. Christianity is first and foremost the message about Christ crucified and risen. Changed lives are a byproduct of that message. Many have reversed this order, making changed lives and testimonies the main thing. This has misled the culture into thinking that the truth or trustworthiness of the gospel depends on the experiences of Christians. This is man-centered subjectivism.

2 If an eyewitness tells the truth about what he saw, his statement is true, even if he happens to be a wicked man. Even a reputation for lying can only destroy one’s credibility; it cannot make his claims false.

Header image by Sébastien Goldberg on Unsplash