When deeds are the only ‘words’ preached, do you have a gospel witness?

An article review:

Works and Words: Why You Can’t Preach the Gospel with Deeds

And why it’s important to say so.

Duane Litfin| posted 5/30/2012 10:43AM

The article is located at: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/may/litfin-gospel-deeds.html

by Don Johnson

We’d like to call your attention to an article by Duane Litfin, president emeritus of Moody Bible Institute. The article appears in the Christianity Today site noted above. It is adapted from Litfin’s larger work, Word versus Deed: Resetting the Scales to a Biblical  (Crossway).

Often the assumption is made that fundamentalists are at odds with evangelicals on every front, determined to separate from brethren at a moments notice. This characterization misses the point of fundamentalism and trivializes the serious points over which fundamentalists do take issue with their brothers. The article under review here is one that should illustrate why separation is misunderstood by people on both sides of the question and so often misapplied by earnest but mistaken fundamentalists.

The subject addressed by Dr. Litfin in his article “Works and Words: Why You Can’t Preach the Gospel with Deeds” is one that resonates with Bible-believing fundamentalists and should be embraced by all Christians everywhere. The issue the article addresses is sometimes called “incarnational ministry” in the current religious scene. According to some, our gospel is powerless without social action authenticating our message.

Dr. Litfin strongly disagrees with this approach:

The belief that we can “preach the gospel” with our actions alone represents muddled thinking. However important our actions may be (and they are very important indeed), and whatever else they may be doing (they serve a range of crucial functions), they are not “preaching the gospel.” The gospel is inherently verbal, and preaching it is inherently verbal behavior. If the gospel is to be communicated at all, it must be put into words.

There is such a thing as nonverbal communication (those messages communicated by a host of gestures, expressions, looks, stances, even the way the individual is dressed). Dr. Litfin goes to some length to describe all this. Then he comes to a crucial point: nonverbal communication is simply “inadequate for conveying cognitive content.” He illustrates by challenging the reader to communicate the fact that Aristotle tutored Alexander the Great in a specific place at a specific time. How do you communicate these facts nonverbally? It is simply impossible. What look would communicate this information? What gesture? What deed? How could you convey the meaning of one simple factual sentence about Aristotle and Alexander without words?

The apostle Paul, in his famous summary of the gospel (1 Cor 15.1-8), communicates the gospel in a series of propositional, cognitive statements. The gospel is communicated by relating the content of crucial facts about the life and work of Jesus Christ. Paul denotes these facts as “first of all” meaning “of first importance” or “essential”. As Dr. Litfin points out, you cannot communicate even this bare-bones summary of the gospel non-verbally.

The cognitive content of the message renders this impossible. That’s why the notion of “preaching the gospel” with our deeds is foreign to the Bible. The biblical gospel is inherently verbal, and by definition, communicating it requires putting it into words.

Perhaps what we have reviewed so far simply seems obvious. Why is it important to belabor what seems so plain, that to communicate the gospel we must first and foremost preach the gospel verbally, whatever deeds might accompany our preaching?

Dr. Litfin offers several reasons why this is a vital issue in our day:

First, it can lead to an eclipse of our verbal witness.” Our generation is “allergic to almost any truth claim” so when we offer the claims of the gospel it often reacts negatively. On the other hand, it looks with approval on Christians who feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Fear of man leads to deeds eclipsing words, so much so that often no words are uttered and the gospel is never preached.

Second, it can deceive us into thinking the power of the gospel lies within us.” Rather than this poor, lisping, stammering tongue preaching the foolishness of the gospel to manifest the power of God, the gospel needs the help of my great generosity and magnanimity to gain credibility. We assume that because we plunge into disaster relief, the world will stand in awe of our Christ. The gospel is too weak to stand on its own, it must be accompanied by our deeds.

Third, it can put us out of step with God’s own modus operandi in the world.” Paul says that “it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.” (1 Cor 1.21b) Preaching, verbal witness, declaring the truth of the gospel to a lost and dying world is God’s method. He chose men to do it — men who aren’t that attractive or powerful in their persons, but are full of the Spirit of God.

We agree with Dr. Litfin in his concluding paragraph:

Let us celebrate the reality that the power of the gospel resides not in us but in the Spirit’s application of the message we proclaim, the message that declares a crucified Lord and Savior. Let us rejoice in the awareness that, as water is relevant to thirst, as food is relevant to hunger, as medicine is relevant to sickness, so this verbal message—the truth that in Christ “God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor. 5:19)—is relevant to the deepest and most profound need of every human heart. May we never lose heart in giving word to it.

And finally, a few thoughts on what it means to agree with evangelicals: evangelicals are our brothers. We agree on much. The article under review is one that we pretty well agree with entirely. As noted above, it is excerpted from a longer work. I suspect that the longer book will contain some points at which fundamentalists and evangelicals would diverge. Dr. Litfin will likely come to conclusions that fundamentalists would not (or could not). Yet we find value in what he says because there is this true, cognitive, verbal gospel upon which we agree: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, saves sinners from their sins.

Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria and serves on the FBFI board as chair of the Communications Committee which is responsible for this blog.