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Acta Non Verba

Charles Haddon Spurgeon October 9, 2023

This article comes from the January 1873 edition of The Sword and The Trowel magazine.


Christians are not to just be hearers of the word but doers. From Spurgeon’s perspective, to love the Word of God is to do and live the Word of God. “Acta Non Verba,” by C.H. Spurgeon, laments the Christian’s lack of motivation for Christlike service. As Spurgeon says, those who “teach the ignorant, feed the hungry, and reclaim the lost,” are practicing faithful Christlike service. The church’s need does not lay at the feet of men with eloquent speech but of those who are affected by the gospel and “live it.” “ACTA NON VERBA,”—Deeds not Words.

Acta Non Verba

A CHURCH, in the United States, lately advertised for a minister, and stated that, having been for some years over done with eloquence, they desired a pastor who would preach to them the gospel of Jesus Christ: there are churches on this side of the Atlantic, sickened with essays and “intellectual treats,” whose aspirations are much of the same kind. Fine language amuses the ear, as the tinkling of their little bells pleases the continental coach-horses, but it cannot satisfy the soul any more than the aforesaid tintinabulations can supply the place of corn and hay. The art of arranging words, and balancing sentences, is a mental jugglery, as astonishing when perfectly practiced, as the feats of the Chinese or Japanese artistes who just lately have charmed vast audiences at the Crystal Palace; but cui bono? what is the good of it, and who is the better for it? Who was ever convinced of sin by an oratorical flourish? What heart was led to Jesus, and to joy and peace in believing, by a fine passage resplendent with all the graces of diction? What chaff is to the wheat, and dross to gold, that is the excellence of human speech to the simplicity of the word of God. For awhile fascinated by the siren voice of vain philosophy and affected culture, many of the churches have drawn perilously near to the rocks of heresy and doubt, but divine grace is visiting them, and they will shake off the spell. Everywhere there is a cry for the gospel, for men who will preach it in the love of it, for ministers who will live it, and inoculate others with its life: the church is growing sick of essayists, and asks for men of God. She is weary of word-spinners, and pretenders to deep thought, and she cries for men full of the Holy Spirit, who are lovers of the word and not speakers only. Soul-winners will soon be in demand, and your genteel essayists will have to carry their dry goods to another market. Sane men do not need fiddlers, while the life-boat is being manned to save yonder perishing ones from the devouring deep.

The intensely practical character of Christianity might be inferred from the life of its founder. In Jesus we see no display, no aiming at effect, nothing spoken or done to decorate or ornament the simplicity of his daily life. True, he was a prophet, mighty in words as well as in deeds; but his words were downright and direct, winged with a purpose, and never uttered for speaking’s sake. Nobody ever looks at Jesus as an orator to be compared with Cicero. “Never man spake like this man.” He was not of the schools. No graver’s tool had passed over his eloquence. In his presence Demosthenes is seen to be a statue, carved with great skill, and the very counterfeit of life; but Jesus is life itself,—not art’s sublimest fac simile of nature, but the living truth. Jesus, whether speaking or acting, was still practical. His words were but the wings of his deeds. He went about, not discoursing upon benevolence, but “doing good;” he itinerated not to stir up a missionary spirit, but “to preach glad-tidings to the poor.” Where others theorized he wrought, where they planned he achieved, where they despaired he triumphed. Compared with him, our existence is a mere windbag; his life was solid essential action, and ours a hazy dream, an unsubstantial would-be which yet is not. Most blessed Son of the Highest, thou who workest evermore, teach us also how to begin to live, ere we have stumbled into our graves while prating about purposes and resolves!

The first champions of the cross were also men in whom the truth displayed itself in deeds rather than in words. Paul’s roll of labors and of sufferings would contrast strangely with the diary of a reader of pretty little sermonettes; or, for the matter of that, with the biography of the most zealous among us. The apostles were intensely active, rather than intellectually refined; they made no pretense to be philosophers, but thought it sufficient to be servants of Jesus Christ. Their hearers remembered them, not because they had melodiously warbled sweet nothings into their ears; but because they spoke in the demonstration of the Spirit and in the power of God. They were no mystics, but workmen; not elocutionists, but laborers. We track them by the cities which they evangelized, the churches which they founded, the tribes which they converted to Christ. By some means or other, they came to grapple with the world hand to hand, whereas the good men of these times do anything but that: they tell us what was done of old, what should be done now, and what will be done in the millenium, but they themselves mingle not in the fray. Where are the heroic combats of the first ages of the faith? Where hear we the din of real fighting? We see shaking of fists, feints, and challengings in abundance, but of downright blows there is a lamentable scarcity; the modern battle of church and world is too frequently a mere stage imitation, a sham fight of the most wretched order. See the combatants of those days—a whole-souled fight was theirs. The world, like a veteran gladiator, defied the young combatant with fierce terms of hate, and gazed upon him with tiger-like ferocity, determined to wash his hands in the intruder’s blood; while the church quailed not in the presence of her savage opponent, but avowed her determination to make no terms with sin, and accept no truce with idolatry. They meant fighting, and they fought! A divine of the modern school is of opinion that the lines have faded considerably between what is known as the church and the world, arising from a mutual movement towards each other; we cannot look upon this fact with the complacency which he manifests, but we are compelled to observe and lament it. Many professors play at being Christians; they are not real in their church-membership, not in very deed separate from sinners, or devoted to the service of God; hence the world has no care to oppose them, and leaves them utterly ignorant of the very meaning of the word “persecution.” Of course, if we never rebuke the world’s sin, nor bear witness against its follies, it will have no cause of offense, and will leave us unassailed. The apostles’ blows were laid on with a will, and left their impress where they fell. Fussy officials they were not; pompous dignitaries they could not be; but real workmen of the Lord they evidently were; hence their power under God to move their age, and all succeeding ages.

The marks by which, according to the Scriptures, genuine believers are to be known, are very matter-of-fact tokens. “By their fruits shall ye know them,” is a pretty plain intimation that no amount of profession or religious talk can evidence godliness, if holy actions be absent. At the last great day, the blessed of the Father are not represented as having advocated the relief of the poor, but as having actually fed the hungry. No mention is made of writers upon the inspection of gaols, or the suppression of mendacity; but a hearty word of praise is given to those who visited the prisoner and gave drink to the thirsty. The main point seems to have been the real and actual doing of good; whatever went with it is cast into the scale without mention, as being comparatively insignificant. True faith proves itself not by its boastings, but by its effect upon the life of its possessor.

Here is the bone of contention which the earnest man will have with himself. We know what we ought to be, but are we all that? Our neighbors perish for lack of the gospel, but do we carry it to them? The poor swarm around us, in what measure do we feed them? They would be well enough off if good intentions and excellent suggestions could clothe and feed them, but as it is, they derive small benefit from us. To know how to do good, and to leave it undone, is no small sin. Accountability grows with the amount of information. Mountains of lead ought to press down consciences which now lie at ease in the bosoms of men of great powers, who have eloquently proclaimed duties which they do not touch with one of their fingers; nor much less should be the discomfort of those who have again and again resolved upon duties which they have never yet performed. They own their obligations to the poor, but no orphan is fed by their help: they lament the ignorance of the people, but no ministry is aided by their gifts; they long to see zealous evangelists sent forth, but no student is succored by their bounty. Alas! for the piety which ends in feelings and words! It is vain as the foam of the sea!

Everywhere the evil is the same. Saying over-rides doing. One of the most evident weaknesses of most religious societies is a lack of practical common sense. They are great in red tape, rich in committees, and positively gorgeous with presidents and vice-presidents, and secretaries, and honorary secretaries, and minute secretaries, etc., etc.; but what comes of it all? We behold a fine display of wooden cannon and pasteboard soldiery, but conquests there are none. There will be a sub-committee on Tuesday, and surely something will come of it; or, if not, the quarterly board-meeting will doubtless work wonders:—no, there will be cackling and cackling, but of eggs none—or addled. In many of our denominational conferences resolutions are picked over word by word, as if every syllable might conceal a heresy; amendments are moved, seconded, re-amended, fought for valorously, or withdrawn; hours are spent, and lung force without stint, and what comes of the parturition of the mountain? Has the pitiful mouseling strength enough to crawl across the floor of the assembly? If any holy project needs putting out of the world in a legal fashion, so that no charge of willful murder shalt be laid against any one of its destroyers, consign it to a committee: it will have every care and loving attention, and the soothing syrup will be of the most excellent quality. If, perchance, the thing of beauty remain among us, it will be a joy for ever; never viciously fanatical, or vehemently enthusiastic, but, clothed in a regulation strait-waistcoat, its life will be spent within those sacred bounds which officialism is inspired to prescribe. If it be asked to which or what society we refer, our reply must be, “Let every dog follow its own master:” to some more, and to some less, our strictures apply. In general, a society is a creature of the imagination, a group of shades impalpable, a collection of names without persons; if its business be well worked, the credit is due to one or two worthy men, who are, in fact, the society; if it be badly managed, it is because it is nobody’s business, being generally understood to be everybody’s. The fault does not lie in the principle of association—which is excellent—but in the everlasting overlaying of the hand by the jaw: the mistaking words for actions, speeches for service. A dozen or two General Grants, eloquently silent, would form a fine board of management; men who can give, and work, and pray, are worth a hundred times as much as those who can compose resolutions, cavil over expressions, move the previous question, discuss and re-discuss, till all is blue-moulded or green with verdigris. Not that we would kill off the talkers, we are not intent upon signing our own death-warrant; but a little gentle choking of those who will neither be quiet nor practically helpful, we humbly venture to prescribe. The fact is, we don’t get at the work before us. The drowning heathen lies at the bottom of the pond, and our drags do not touch the body, much less fetch it to shore. The ignorant masses around us glide from our fingers like slippery eels, we have not learned the nack of holding them. We seem to be bobbing after our great objects like boys trying to bite at apples which swim in a tub of water. We are planning, suggesting, arranging; but when are we going to begin? For scores of years we have been tuning up: when will the music commence? So much time is spent in chopping the chaff, and bruising the oats, that poor Bucephalus is getting lean as Rosinante.

Gentle reader, has no self-accusing thought crossed your mind while trying to keep yourself awake over these lines? No; you are really active, and by no means loquacious. It is well! All honor to you! But where do you live, and of what mother were you born, and what is your age next birthday? The writer inquires eagerly, and will be glad if you should turn out to be one of a numerous family. Our own confession tells no such flattering story. We have, by God’s grace, done something, but how little! It is as nothing! Compared with high resolves, and day-dreams, and proposals, what are our achievements? Tears are the fittest comments upon our life’s review. We long to begin to live. We have loitered long, like too many more, and work undone accuses and condemns us. Shall we write about it, or from the pulpit pour out a verbal plaint which will die away with its own echo? No; but if God will help us we will try to glorify him, and publish his salvation. To lift up Christ is real work; to cry “Behold the Lamb!” is practical ministry. To teach the ignorant, to feed the hungry, to reclaim the lost, this is Christlike service. What is all else, if we serve not the Lord Christ?

For the year 1873 we suggest the motto, “ACTA NON VERBA,”—Deeds not Words.