Resetting the Scales to a Biblical Balance
About the Guest
The gospel needs to be proclaimed both in word and in deed. Duane Litfin, President Emeritus of Wheaton College, shares his concerns about Christians who are eager to get involved in social issues, yet don't feel the need to share the gospel. While doing good works in Christ's name is beneficial and appropriate, Litfin explains why it's still necessary to share the gospel verbally.
Duane LitfinDr. Duane Litfin served for seventeen years (1993-2010) as the seventh president of Wheaton College. He holds an undergraduate degree in biblical studies and a master's degree in theology. His two doctorates are from Purdue University (Ph.D., Rhetorical Theory and Communication) and Oxford University (D.Phil., New Testament). He came to Wheaton from Memphis, TN where he served the First Evangelical Church as Senior Pastor. Prior to that he spent a decade as an Associate Professor at Dallas Th...more
Duane Litfin shares his concerns about Christians who are eager to get involved in social issues, yet don’t feel the need to share the gospel.
Resetting the Scales to a Biblical Balance
Bob: For many years, Duane Litfin served as president of Wheaton College, outside of Chicago. He noticed a trend, among students, that was concerning to him. Fewer and fewer students, it seemed, wanted to say anything about their faith in Jesus. They simply wanted their actions to do their speaking for them.
Duane: My concern has been that the pendulum seems to be swinging, in this generation, toward the deeds at the expense of the verbal Gospel. When you find students, who are passionate about their love for the Lord, but they seem to be really relaxed about this issue of giving a verbal witness because they really have a sense that they are living Christ before these people so that that should suffice. It just seems to me that the pendulum has gone too far toward deed at the expense of the verbal witness.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, August 22nd. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. It may be true that our actions do speak louder than our words; but when it comes to bearing witness for Christ, we need to speak up. We’re going to talk about that today. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I was having a conversation, awhile back, with a man who lives in Myanmar, in Burma; and he’s a believer.
Bob: He trains pastors in Burma. We were talking about the persecution that goes on there. I was talking to him about how the Gospel spreads in a country that is primarily Buddhist and where Christians are a persecuted minority.
I said, “I would think that through acts of kindness and charity, you would invite openness for the Gospel.” He smiled at me; and he said, “That is not a strategy I use.” I said, “Why is that?” He said: “Because I have found that you find people, attracted to the charity, who are not, necessarily, attracted to the Gospel. When the charity dries up, so does their faith.” I thought, “That’s an interesting perspective from somebody who lives halfway around the world.” It does tie into what we’re going to be talking about today.
Dennis: It does. The Gospel needs to be proclaimed in both word and deed. Today, I think, in many sections of the Christian community, we are guilty of having gone silent and depending more on our deeds to proclaim the Gospel than actually using words to proclaim it.
We’ve got somebody, here in the studio—actually, not just somebody—a friend. Dr. Duane Litfin joins us on the broadcast. Duane—finally, good to get you on our home turf. Duane and I sit on the Dallas Seminary Board—up in corporate member—and we sat together on that board.
Bob: Now, you’ve explained it to me. You sit in the corner and kind of shoot spit wads at the other members—
Bob: —that’s what you said.
Dennis: We’re really kind. We’re not troublemakers. Anyway, Duane, welcome to FamilyLife Today.
Duane: Glad to be here, Dennis. Thanks for the invitation. It’s good to see you guys and see what you’re doing, up close and personal.
Dennis: You’ve written a book called Word versus Deed. It’s subtitled Resetting the Scales to a Biblical Balance. What you’re really calling people to do is make sure, when we present the Gospel, we’re not erring on one side or the other; but we’ve really got both our words and our deeds.
In case our listeners don’t the name of Dr. Litfin, he was the president of Wheaton College for 17 years—the seventh president of that school. He has his doctorate from Oxford University; also, one from Purdue. He and his wife Sharon have three children and nine grandchildren—and still live in the Wheaton area.
I just have to ask you, Duane, as you crafted this book, how much did your interactions with college students inform and really move you to put this together?
Duane: Well, a great deal, actually. It was, in fact, some of that interaction, over the last decade or so, that prompted me to write this and give me a sense of urgency about it because these young people—Wheaton kids, in many ways, are sort of the cream of the crop of evangelical churches and homes from across the country, coast to coast / north to south.
One of the things I discovered was just a growing sense of profound concern, on the part of these students, for justice issues / compassion issues—highly-motivated, highly- exercised about these issues—but also sort of a—almost a relaxed attitude toward the verbal witness. I can’t tell you how often you would hear there, and in other settings, the whole St. Francis of Assisi-thing: “Preach the Gospel every day—with words, if necessary,” as if you can preach the Gospel with your deeds.
The truth is that the Church of Jesus Christ, certainly, in America, has had a very difficult time finding and, then, maintaining a biblical balance of word and deed—preaching the Gospel versus all of the social activism / social justice issues. Prior to the Civil War, there was quite a balance, actually. The Church was spreading west. Churches were being planted; but also, there was a social conscience, on the part of Christians—founding hospitals, and orphanages, and—
Duane: —the Abolitionist Movement, and so on. But as the 19th Century was unfolding, there was also this tremendous loss, within mainline churches, of theology—to where— what was left in liberal Christianity was a social ethic. Christianity was about caring for your fellow man.
Dennis: It was called the social gospel, but it wasn’t the Gospel at all; was it?
Duane: Exactly. It was a social gospel because that’s what it was about—the social responsibilities of the Christian—but much of the substance had been washed out. Well, the rise of the fundamentalist movement in the latter part of that century was a reaction to that. I think evangelicals managed to recover a lot of that biblical balance throughout the 20th Century; but as the 20th Century was waning and then the 21st Century was upon us, I just seem to sense the pendulum swinging the other way again.
There tended to be sort of a rising concern for the social justice issues—which I want to applaud—but also, a playing down of the verbal witness. The world, watching Christians operate, will often applaud Christians who are feeding the hungry and caring for the poor, releasing the oppressed. They are not going to applaud the Word of the cross.
When you preach the Word of the cross, we should not expect the world to applaud; but if the world is applauding our social activism and censoring / punishing us stepping up and making those outrageous truth claims for the person of Jesus Christ, what happens? Well, it’s just too easy to find ourselves lapsing into the social activism, which is very much a part of what the Bible calls us to, but at the expense of that verbal witness.
Dennis: And going silent.
Duane: Going silent and just thinking—fooling ourselves into thinking that, “Well, I preach the Gospel by the way I live.” I am all for living for Christ, and this book emphasizes the importance of our deeds. Nothing about this book is playing down the importance of living a particular life and serving others in the name of Christ—the deeds—but I think it’s a huge mistake to play down the verbal witness. It’s unique, and nothing can replace it.
Bob: Why do you think it’s so hard to have both of these active, simultaneously?
Duane: I would go back to this issue of the one gets applauded and the other gets criticized. The Apostle Paul says, “The Gospel is a fragrance to life but also an aroma of death,”—depending on who is hearing it. Communicating the Gospel is, inherently, a verbal behavior. We should not fool ourselves into thinking we’re somehow preaching the Gospel by our deeds—we’re not.
Bob: A parent, who has a son or a daughter—grew up in the church—and they come, at the end of college, and say: “Mom, Dad, I really want to get involved in a relief work. I’m called to go overseas and to help with hunger issues, or sex trafficking issues, or the myriad of justice issues that are out there,”—should a mom or a dad be concerned about their son or daughter’s involvement in something like that?
Duane: The Bible does call us to that. So, no, I would not discourage that at all. To say that we need that balance is to say the Church needs that balance. It’s not to say that every single individual must do 50 percent of one and 50 percent of the other—that’s nonsense. Some may be called to that relief agency; and that is, exactly, Christ’s call on their lives. I wouldn’t discourage that for a minute! Whatever opportunities He gives to share the Gospel, along the way, they should take it.
But I’m really talking about how the Church balances itself and views this.
Dennis: Yes, one thing I wanted you to comment on. You talk about putting both the proclamation of the Gospel and deeds—that back it up—in their proper role. You’re not really diminishing one over the other. You’re just saying, “Let’s not go over on one side and err to the silence of our verbal witness.”
Duane: That’s very true. Again, it’s not so much the balance I’m putting on it. This thing is resetting the scales to a biblical balance. I’m really trying to think, biblically, and citing, and taking us to where the Bible addresses these issues so that we allow ourselves to listen to Scripture on this subject. What the Scriptures do is call us to that rightful balance.
Again, there is a unique aspect to preaching the Gospel through the verbal witness. Nothing can replace it—our deeds—nothing else. It is a mistake to say, “Well, both our deeds and our verbal witness are proclaiming the Gospel.” It isn’t. You can’t proclaim the Gospel by your deeds. It’s inherently a verbal behavior. Having said that—our deeds are the ways that we enact the Gospel—we live it out. At our best, what we’re doing is—those deeds wind up, as Paul says to Titus, adorning the Gospel. We have the privilege of making that Good News—the verbal witness—more beautiful by the way we live, or we can call it into disrepute by the way we live. That is certainly true. Our deeds can do both of those.
Bob: So, somebody, who would take you to James, Chapter 2, and say, “Here’s James saying: ‘You show me your faith this way. I show you my faith with my deeds,’” what is the Bible saying there?
Duane: James is calling for both—that we trust Christ—we exercise faith by claiming the truth of the Gospel—and we enact it by the way we live. If, in fact, we are not living the Gospel, that inevitably raises questions about whether we have really understood and trusted the very truth of the Gospel.
Bob: What about another passage that comes to mind? Here is Matthew 25—and you deal with this in the book—that the separation of the sheep and the goats. Help us understand what Jesus is saying to us there.
Duane: Matthew 25 is probably the most egregious example of how the Bible gets misused in this discussion: “As much as you did it to one of these little ones, you did it to Me.” And the—it’s often used to mobilize Christians, who love Christ, and to say, “When you give that cup of cold water to that villager in Africa, you’re giving it unto Me,”—that Jesus so identifies with the poor, that He’s embodied in the poor of the world. Therefore, when we serve them, we serve Him. The Bible simply teaches no such thing.
That passage, Matthew 25, has to do with His little ones. It’s really talking about His followers. He is not talking there about any poor person who becomes one of His little ones simply by being impoverished, or thrown into jail, or hungry. We have an obligation to the poor and needy, who are not believers. Paul says, “…do good to all men, but especially”—malista—“especially—the household of faith.” When we serve the needs of Christians, we are serving the Head of the Church. That’s the context for Matthew 25.
Dennis: I want to go back to a concept that you kind of rushed by—but I’ve got to believe there is more than one listener, who is living in a situation—perhaps, married to an unbeliever; perhaps, they have a prodigal child—maybe, an extended member of their family—their father / their mother, who is not a Christian. You used the phrase, “adorn the Gospel,”—that it’s really from Matthew, Chapter 5, of letting our lights shine in a way that people, ultimately, do glorify God.
What advice would you have to a woman or a man, for that matter, who is in a marriage where she or he is unequally yoked—they need to adorn the Gospel—but don’t they also need to proclaim it, as well; or do they need to back out of that a bit and let someone else proclaim the Gospel to their spouse?
Duane: Having spent so much of my adult life in a pastoral-type role, in one form or another, my first response would be, to that person, to listen to them, “Talk to me about your situation.” Ask them the ins and outs of what it is they are dealing with before I would try to give them very much counsel.
There are situations, where the New Testament says, “Win them without a word.” Sometimes: “You’ve said enough. You’ve said more than enough. Any more simply exacerbates things. Just live for Christ before them and do it with….” In other cases, what they desperately need to hear is a verbal witness. Which of these are we talking about? What is this person’s situation? I would want to help them sort that out, but the potential answer could be anywhere across a continuum of responses.
Dennis: And you know, as a former pastor, that there are a lot of situations where the Gospel has been proclaimed repeatedly—leaving books beside the bed stand; CDs in the car, plugged-in, so when he drives to work / or she drives to work, they hear it. There has been an overuse of the proclamation. There is that need to go back to the passage you cited, First Peter 3, where you lay aside the words and you do ask the Holy Spirit to use your life to win them without a word.
Duane: That’s very true. And you—you know, we’re talking, here, about a family situation; but you can, actually, think about the broader context, as well. As you put this into practice and are asking the question, “What is most needed in any given situation?”—word or deed or some combination of the two—you can only answer that question in the light of specific conditions and situations.
There are times when you would simply say: “I’ve said enough. I’ve said more than I probably should have. If I say anymore, it’s just going to exacerbate the problem. This person’s problem is not that they don’t understand the Gospel. I just need to love them and live for Christ before them.” But again, you could go to the other end of the spectrum and say, “What this person needs, more than anything else, is to understand the Gospel.” So, there is this heart to share with them the Good News—and anything in between. You can only judge it, really, in the light of someone’s specific life situation.
Bob: I know you’d have to be specific for the question I’m about to ask you, but I’m—because I’m going to ask you something in general. If you were to look at people today—Christians today—if we are out of balance, which way are we leaning?
Duane: My concern has been that the pendulum seems to be swinging, in this generation, toward the deeds, at the expense of the verbal Gospel. When you find students, who are passionate about their love for the Lord—you get them into a worship service, the Lord’s Supper—there is just electricity—where they love the Lord. They have a real heart for justice issues and compassion issues; but they seem to be really relaxed about this issue of giving a verbal witness and not at all sure that it’s what’s needed because they really have a sense that they are living Christ, before these people, so that that should suffice. It just seems, to me, that the pendulum has gone too far toward deed, at the expense of the verbal witness.
Bob: If you are talking to a young person, who is listening today, who would say: “Okay; yes, I recognize that. I kind of think that is what is most important. We’ve had enough words in our culture, and our culture is not listening to them anyway, and we better just live it out,” what would you say to them?
Duane: What needs to be recovered is a confidence in the power of the Gospel.
Duane: The Gospel is what—and the Apostle Paul said: “It is the Good News of Christ. It is the Gospel that is the power of God unto salvation,”—not you, me, us—the Church—our deeds—that’s not where the power comes from. Jesus said, “If any man”—“if you just lift Me up, I will draw men to Myself.” He was talking about the cross; but what we are doing, when we proclaim Christ—when we announce the Good News of Christ—is we are lifting Him up before the eyes of men.
You know this--in Galatians—I think, it’s Galatians 2—the Apostle Paul says to the Galatians this wonderful line. He says, “I portrayed Jesus Christ and Him crucified before your eyes.” That’s the way he described his preaching to them—of lifting up Jesus, the Christ, on the cross, before their eyes. That’s what we do in evangelism. If we do that, the Spirit of God draws men and women to Him. Even when we’re not all that we should be, the Gospel still has power.
Dennis: And it’s what people need.
Duane: Desperately need.
Dennis: It’s almost like the enemy wants to come and whisper to us: “That’s not what they need. Their soul doesn’t really need that; does it?” Yet, you look at the sins of this generation and our own lives—what hope is there for us if Jesus Christ didn’t go to the cross, die for our sins, raise again on the third day, and be seated next to God, the Father, offering us eternal life? What hope is there for forgiveness? That’s what the Gospel represents.
Duane: Dennis, we’ve been there before. Again, if you look back through Church history, where this confidence in the Gospel has been lost—again, that social gospel of the 19th Century was all about saying, “What people really need is: they need food, they need shelter, they need clean water, they need release from…”—and people, in dire situations, need all of those things—but what human beings need, more than anything else, is to come into a right relationship to God. That is what the Gospel, really, is all about.
And when you have people saying: “Well, that’s not really what they need. What they really need is clean water,” or, “They need food,”—while they may need clean water, and good food, and all of those—they’re whole persons, and they have bodies. God loves and cares for the whole person, and we need to love and care for the whole person; but Jesus is the one who set the priority on what they need more than anything else—they need a right relationship with God through Christ. That is what the Gospel, first and foremost, addresses.
Dennis: FamilyLife has a number of outreaches. Imbedded in all of those outreaches is the only message we really have that we have to proclaim: It is the truth of Jesus Christ and His finished work on the cross and the hope that that offers to people who are sitting in a marriage conference, who are listening to this broadcast, who are going through, with a group of men, finding out how to be God’s man.
If they aren’t rightly-related to God, and we just help them have a happy marriage or become a man who knows how to be a better man, then, all we are doing is making the road to hell comfortable—where they’re sliding down to judgment, without knowing the King of Kings and Lord of lords. If I can’t proclaim the Gospel—FamilyLife is not going to use its outreaches to make people happy because that’s not what I believe the Bible is all about.
Duane: The Apostle Paul says, “Live your life in such a way that it is worthy of the Gospel.” Gospel-worthy behavior should be everywhere in our lives—certainly, in our home, in our marriages, in our relationships with our children. What does it mean to be a Gospel-worthy parent, a Gospel-worthy husband or wife, or for that matter, a Gospel- worthy child in our relationship to a parent? Well, it all comes back to the Gospel—to your point—absolutely right.
Bob: Now, I think everyone of us could benefit, though, from some recalibration here—go through a book, like what you’ve written, called Word versus Deed, and just ask ourselves: “Am I living the kind of life that does cause people to see the reality of and the power of my relationship with Jesus in my life? But then, have they heard me say that? Have I taken the risk to have a conversation about faith with folks?”
Dr. Litfin’s book is called Word versus Deed. It’s a book we’ve got in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. Go online, at FamilyLifeToday.com, to request a copy of the book from us—FamilyLifeToday.com—that’s the website. You can also call for more information at 1-800-FL-TODAY. Ask about the book, Word versus Deed, when you call 1-800-358-6329. That’s 1-800- “F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then, the word, “TODAY”.
Now, don’t forget our friends at Logos Bible Software have made available a special offer for FamilyLife Today listeners, this week, on their libraries of Bible study software and the theological books that come along with them. That offer expires Saturday. So, if you want to take advantage of the special 20 percent savings for FamilyLife Today listeners, make sure you go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com, and click the link for Logos Bible Software. Again, make sure you do it quickly because the offer expires this weekend.
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And we hope you can join us back again tomorrow. Duane Litfin is going to be here again. We’re going to continue talking about our words and our deeds and how we live out our faith—but how we speak about it, as well. I hope you can join us back tomorrow.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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