The Gospel Coalition

Duane Litfin, writing in Christianity Today:
Some today will claim that there is no true evangelism without "embodied action." In fact, according to one critic, "Unless [Christ's] disciples are following the Great Commandment, it is fruitless to engage in the Great Commission." According to this view, the gospel is without its own potency. Its "fruitfulness" depends upon us. But this is not the testimony of the New Testament.

According to Paul---whose itinerant ministry met few of the "embodied action" criteria---the power of the gospel does not reside in us; it resides in the Spirit's application of the message itself. . . .

Few would deny that the holistic mission of the church is the best possible platform for our verbal witness, and that our jaded generation will be more inclined to give us a hearing if we are living it out. (Indeed, the longest section of my new book, Word versus Deed, is devoted to the crucial role of our deeds.)

But this does not permit us to hold the gospel hostage to our shortcomings.

When has the church been all it should be?

When, short of glory, will the church ever be all that God wills for it?

The church has been messy from the beginning, falling far short of living out the Great Commandment. Yet despite our failures, the gospel itself remains marvelously potent, the very "power of God unto salvation" to those who believe.

The gospel's inherent power does not fluctuate with the strengths or weaknesses of its messengers.

This truth is humbling, but also immensely liberating. In the end, my inability to answer objections, my lack of training or experience, even failures in my own faithfulness in living it out do not nullify the gospel's power. Its potency is due to the working of God's Spirit.

Even when we are at our best, the gospel is powerful in spite of us, not because of us. Thanks be to God.

You can read the whole thing here. This is adapted from his book, Word Versus Deed: Resetting the Scales to a Biblical Balance (Crossway, 2012).


Steve Cornell

May 31, 2012 at 09:51 AM

I read Litfin's piece in CT and appreciated the emphasis but kept feeling a pull toward wider NT reflection. I realize that Litfin had a main point to make (and a good one). I also know that the vine of too many qualifications can destroy the point. Perhaps, however, the tension is tighter than he proposes. I Peter is a book that builds a case for life witness and for readiness to give verbal accounting for one's hope (3:15). Wives who were married to unbelieving husbands were told to "submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives," (3:1). Earlier believers were told to "Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us." (2:12).

These teachings echo our Lord's words in Matthew 5:16. Jesus also said, "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35) -- something he restated differently in his prayer in John 17:20-23. The apostle Paul made a similar connection in Philippians 2:14-16 "Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, 'children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.' Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life." I could go on with many more references. I am just not sure about pushing these too far apart.

Yet I don't see this as something separate from gospel potency but evidence of it. When Churches are living the gospel narrative, they offer tangible plausibility to the authenticity of the gospel. Yes, the gospel is the power of God but it is not meant to exist as a truth separated from life. God chose to put His treasure (the gospel) in vessels of clay so that the greatness of the power would be from God and not from us (II Corinthians 4:7). The very essence of the gospel narrative is grounded in this reality (see: Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:3-6). As we live in shared dependence on the power of God in Christ, we can experience the radical transformation of true gospel-centered community -- a community that testifies to God's love in tangible transformation.

“If the Biblical story is told truly, it will subvert the alternative stories. But to tell it truly, you have to be living it” (N. T. Wright, emphasis mine).

Just a few thoughts,

Steve Cornell

LC Crownhill

May 31, 2012 at 09:08 AM

So glad someone's challenged the misguided "Preach the gospel, sometimes use words" principle.

Rich Barcellos

May 31, 2012 at 04:21 PM

Steve, what do you mean by "the gospel narrative"? Do you mean the narration of the accounts of Christ's life, death, and resurrection as depicted in the Gospels? This is an honest question.

Also, living the Christian life saves no one, though it does give us evangelistic leverage. I think you would agree with that.

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jeff weddle

May 30, 2012 at 10:21 PM

What about a verse like 1 COrinthians 15:34, "Awake to righteousness, and sin not; for some have not the knowledge of God: I speak this to your shame." Seems to say that our behavior has much to do with others coming to knowledge of God. I agree that the Gospel has power apart from people, but the Bible also seems to say we can hinder this power tremendously.

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June 11, 2012 at 11:33 AM

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June 1, 2012 at 06:47 PM

While God chooses the unlikely (the foolish things of the world to confound the wise), He does desire that we be holy vessels to match His holy message. Undoubtedly, developing holy character is a process, but what made Jesus so powerful in authority was that the enemy could lay no claim to Him, or find no commonality (John 14:30).