Duane Litfin, Word versus Deed: Resetting the Scales to a Biblical Balance. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012. 224 pp. $15.99.
Back in my college days, I knew a very fine Christian student who strove heartily and well to live out his Christian faith in the real world. He worked hard at cultivating within himself the virtues of faith, hope, and love, and learned to be charitable, patient, and forgiving toward all people. His behavior and attitude drew people to him and empowered his Christian witness. But his actions alone did not make him an effective evangelist.
One day at a party, my friend was approached by a stranger who greeted him with a wide smile and a firm handshake. He told my friend he’d noticed how different he was from other people: that he treated others with fairness and conducted himself with integrity. He then concluded his praise of my friend with these words: “For the last few weeks, I’ve tried to figure out why you are so different, and I’ve finally discovered the answer. You are a vegetarian!”
From this experience, my friend learned—and from my friend, I learned—that for the purposes of spreading the gospel, good deeds are not enough. If we never tell people the source of our joy and benevolence, if we never explain to them that our capacity to love and forgive comes directly from the fact that we ourselves have been loved and forgiven by Christ, they will not be able to figure out this connection for themselves.
This vital truth is something I have long tried to impress on my own students. Though I encourage them to practice lifestyle evangelism, I remind them that if they don’t make explicit the connection between their good deeds and the supernatural change Christ has effected in them, their unbelieving friends will likely misinterpret the source of their kindness.
Imagine my joy, then, when I picked up Duane Litfin’s Word versus Deed and discovered a biblically balanced, powerfully argued defense of the centrality and non-negotiability of presenting the gospel through words. By carefully working through the differences between verbal and non-verbal communication and between abstract ideas and concrete actions, Litfin—president emeritus of Wheaton College outside Chicago—drives home his simple but crucial thesis: the evangelism called for in the New Testament isn’t a form of social activism but “the act of giving verbal witness to the good news of Jesus Christ” (55).
Litfin makes it clear that the call to evangelize through words doesn’t exhaust the responsibility of Christians. Believers should strive to bring about justice and mercy in the world, and should perform self-sacrificial deeds in keeping with Christ’s command to love our neighbor as ourself; however, this work must never be allowed to take the place of evangelism.
Indeed, though many today privilege deeds over words as the more heroic and costly path, Litfin reminds us that, throughout the history of the church, persecution has fallen most heavily on those who bore verbal witness to the gospel. The modern world doesn’t shun Christians because they are charitable and fight against poverty and hunger; it shuns them because they declare a message that identifies all men as sinners and provides only one way of salvation.
One must admit at this point that, although Litfin’s book is well-written and organized, it suffers from repetitiveness. Yet I cannot entirely fault Litfin for this weakness. Sadly, so many believers (and churches) have abandoned verbal witness for humanitarian action that Litfin must fight hard to get us back on the right path—a fight that calls on him to drive home his point from numerous angles and to quote a great deal of Scripture. Litfin knows that modern believers must be directed back toward the Bible and reacquainted with what it really says (not merely what they think it says) about the verbal nature of evangelism.
In Parts II and III of Word versus Deed, Litfin fleshes out his thesis by setting it in the wider context of the church’s mission in the world. Litfin bravely reminds us that the primary call of the Bible is not social but personal. First and foremost, the Scriptures call us to get our hearts right with God through proper worship and the pursuit of holiness. Once our private lives have been set straight, we can move outward—but not immediately—to the social.
After placing our personal lives in a right orientation toward God, our first outward obligation is toward our family. After that comes our duties toward fellow believers, and then (and only then) toward the greater unbelieving world, and, fifth in order, toward the natural creation. Litfin doesn’t spin this order of obligation out of his head, but grounds it in the Bible—not just in prooftexts but in the combined and consistent witness of Old and New Testaments alike.
Though he knows he’s arguing for something unfashionable, Litfin nevertheless maintains his commitment to Scripture and its clear teachings. And one of those teachings, as politically incorrect as it may seem, is that we are bound to assist fellow believers (Israel in the Old Testament and the church in the New) before we help those outside the bride of Christ.
This even holds true for Matthew 25:31-46, where Christ explains to both the sheep and the goats that when they did (or didn’t do) something for “the least of these, my brothers,” they did (or didn’t do) it for him. By piling up passage after passage, Litfin makes an airtight case that when Christ uses the word brother in the parable, he’s talking about believers, not the world in general. Yes, Christians should be out in the world fighting AIDS, seeking economic justice, and alleviating hunger, but we must not, in our zeal to reform the world, neglect our primary calling to assist believers who are sick or naked or imprisoned.
As I stated earlier, Litfin is always quick to remind readers that our call to help the poor and needy is a biblical one. Indeed, for fear of being misunderstood or labeled as uncaring by politicized or litigiously minded readers, Litfin tends to overqualify himself on this point. Still, Litfin doesn’t back away from his prophetic reminder that the Christian’s social responsiblity, as vital and Christ-centered as it is, must not be allowed to take the place of either verbal evangelism or serving our families and fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.
Louis Markos, professor of English and scholar in residence at Houston Baptist University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities. His books include From Achilles to Christ (IVP), Apologetics for the 21st Century (Crossway), and Literature: A Student’s Guide (Crossway). His On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis is due out from Moody in October 2012.