Preach the Gospel Always: a book review

Evangelicals  privilege ‘preaching the good news’ in their missional endeavors; however  there has been a shift toward action (ie. caring for people’s physical needs, standing for justice, etc.).  Sometimes this is at the expense of sharing the gospel verbally. In Recovering the Full Mission of God: A Biblical Perspective on Being, Doing and Telling, Dean Flemming begins by reflecting on the quote attributed to Francis of Assisi, “Preach the gospel at all times and if necessary use words.” This quote challenges us to live compelling lives which enter into the struggles of those around us. Yet many follow Francis’s advice (or pseudo-Francis?) without ever sharing ‘the reason for the hope that is within them.’ So Flemming asks, “How should the verbal and non-verbal dimensions of our mission  as God’s people connect?” (14).  Rather than contrasting ‘word and deed,’  he connects living and telling the good news as crucial aspects of our mission. ‘Telling’ means gospel proclamation, ‘living’  denotes both issues of our identity as God’s people (being), and demonstrative actions which seek to meet the needs of hurting world (doing).

In what follows, Flemming looks at what the Bible has to tell us about living and telling the gospel. The first couple of chapters explore the Old Testament witness (with a nod toward Chris Wright’s Mission of God for a fuller treatment). Chapter one describes how Israel’s mission with rooted in their identity as God’s people. They were a nation chosen by God, blessed to be a blessing and priests to the nation; however their mission was ‘fundamentally about attracting the nations, rather than going to them. (42).’  They were to live lives which ‘set them apart’ from the idolatrous practices of their neighbors and demonstrate to the world what God was like. Yet chapter two illustrates that even in the Old Testament there is the call to proclaim in books like Jonah (hardly our exemplar), Isaiah and some of the psalms.

Chapters three through five describe the mission of Jesus in the gospels. In Christ, we see the perfect blend of word and deed. Jesus proclaims the news of the kingdom wherever he goes, but also demonstrates the truth of the gospel through his life and actions through his life, and through his cross. Nevertheless each of the gospel writers emphasize different aspects of Christ’s mission. Mark emphasizes Jesus’ deeds, Matthew describes the path of discipleship and the life of obedience, whereas Luke stresses the ‘good news to the poor’ in both in proclamation and his call to justice.  John puts the greatest emphasis on being. Together these gospels give us a full picture of Christ’s mission, though each author brings a distinct perspective

Chapter six examines God’s mission through the book of Acts. Acts has long been a primary source for understanding God’s mission. For the purposes of this book, Flemming illustrates how we see both proclamation, the gospel being shared in new settings, and the break down of social barriers (e.g. the inclusion of Gentiles as God’s people, economic sharing, etc).

Chapter’s seven and eight explore the Pauline epistles. Paul’s mission was  about proclaiming the good news to the Gentiles. He was a preacher, but he was not just a preacher. He sought ‘to win obedience from the Gentiles, by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders’ (Romans 15:18-19) (159). The missional communities that Paul founded are both like and unlike Paul in the way they lived out God’s mission. While Paul lays emphasis on telling the good news, he also exhorts them to live compelling lives and share in the suffering of others. Flemming sees the synthesis of word and deed, most clearly illustrated by the church at Philippi (201-7).

Chapters nine and ten explore 1 Peter and Revelation, respectively. Both of these books describe God’s mission in a world in an unfriendly world. 1 Peter, more than any other New Testament book, emphasizes the non-verbal dimension of mission (209). It describes a church pushed to the margins of society and draws heavily on the idea of being ‘set apart’ and being a ‘priest’ to the nations. Yet the community that Peter addresses is one which responded to the proclamation of the gospel and Peter expects that they will also share with words the hope they have in Christ. Revelation illustrates how to resist the powers–human and satanic which resist God’s rule. The alternative way of seeing the world which Revelation describes provides a vivid picture of our mission and its telos. 

In chapter eleven, Flemming ties all the above together and concludes the book with some reflections on being, doing and telling. Word and deed belong together and Flemming argues that one should not take priority over the other, though personal gifting and circumstance may dictate that one is privileged. Both are necessary components of our sharing in God’s mission.

I really appreciated Flemming’s missional guide to the Bible. While there are gaps (1 Peter is the sole example from the General Epistles and the Old Testament chapters are brief), Flemming’s question of the Bible, ‘How do the verbal and non-verbal dimensions of our mission connect,’ bringss fruitful insights into how we should bear witness to God before our world.  While Flemming’s model allows for some flexibility between how much of our personal witness is verbal or demonstrative, he dismisses approach to mission that our only verbal or only non-verbal. The former is words without power which divorces evangelism from the life of obedience. The latter fails to share ‘why we do what we do’ and offer hope to the watching world.

Flemming does a great job of putting word and deed together for Mission and I was challenged to both ‘do more’ and ‘say more.’ I think it a tremendous resource for helping us approach mission in a way that is healthy and holistic. By drawing on the biblical witness, Flemming is able to show that not every approach to mission will have the same make-up or emphasis (on being, doing or telling), but all the components are necessary for effective witness. Students and ministers will benefit from Flemming’s insights.  I give the book 5 stars! ★★★★★

Thank you to IVP Academic for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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