Book Review

"Word versus Deed: Resetting the Scales to a Biblical Balance" by Duane Litfin

Eric Chappell
Duane Litfin
Friday, October 31st 2014
Nov/Dec 2014

In most areas of our lives, balance is key. My transition from the single life of microwavable pizzas and Doritos to the healthy home-cooking of my wife taught me the importance of a balanced diet. My belt size is proof. A biblical balance is precisely what Duane Litfin (president emeritus of Wheaton College) aims for in Word versus Deed. And he strikes really close to the mark.

If the title wasn't a giveaway, Litfin's book is about trying to balance the Christian's responsibility to speak gospel words and practice good deeds. As Litfin claims, ever since St. Francis of Assisi is supposed to have said, "Preach the gospel at all times; use words if necessary," the pendulum has swung between a "lifeboat theology," bent on saving souls from a dying world through the preaching of the gospel, and a so-called "social gospel," which downplays the supernatural in Christianity and emphasizes the demonstration of mercy and justice to one's neighbor. Neither is biblical, Litfin argues. The alternative is the biblical balance of heralding gospel words and helping in good deeds.

Litfin is primarily writing to two kinds of Christians. First, if you believe the gospel can be preached without words, Litfin's book is for you. A challenging and helpful teacher, Litfin hopes to persuade you toward a more biblical way of thinking. Second, if you believe the gospel cannot be preached without words, then Litfin hopes to support that conviction and insightfully show you some of its scriptural implications (14).

The book is divided into three parts. In part 1, Litfin shows the importance of our words. His explicit goal in this section is "to put to rest once and for all the false notion that we can preach the gospel by our deeds" (35). Using the categories of verbal and nonverbal communication, Litfin demonstrates how communication of the gospel is only verbal. While nonverbal communication may be helpful in demonstrating our moods, feelings, attitudes, and relationships, it is insufficient for communicating cognitive, abstract, or historical information.

The gospel is history. Only words can communicate that Jesus of Nazareth lived, suffered, and died under Pontius Pilate and was raised on the third day in Jerusalem. Our evangelism, then, must be done with our words, not our deeds. Evangelism is verbal because the gospel is historic news. The gospel is effective in transforming hearts and lives not because of our deeds, no matter how good, but because of its inherent, Spirit-infused power that should make us humble and confident heralds of God's word.

Evangelism, or gospel heralding, is the single most unique service that Christians offer the world. But as Litfin explains in part 2, evangelism is not the Christian's only calling. The church is also called to model the shalom that God intended for his creation. Our gospel words must be accompanied by good deeds. As John Calvin wrote, "The faithful do not only make claims with their lips, but prove their service of God in concrete acts" (75).

Helpfully, Litfin demonstrates what gospel-worthy conduct looks like in five circles of application: personal life, family, God's people, society at large, and the natural world (83). In six concise chapters, Litfin guides readers through each of these areas, showing biblically how God's word and the gospel impacts and instructs the nitty-gritty details of life in this world. In particular, I found the chapter on adorning the gospel and stewarding the creation to be most intriguing. Here Litfin suggests what gospel-worthy conduct outside the walls of the church might look like as we love and serve our neighbor. Further, Litfin deals with the issue (often unaddressed in Reformed circles) of creation care. While admitting that the problems are complex and thorny, Litfin maintains that God values the created order and made us its custodians. Unfolding texts like Hebrews 12, 1 Corinthians 15, and 2 Peter 3, he biblically navigates between the extremes of environmentalism and "it's-all-going-to-burn-anyway" perspectives.

In part 3, Litfin demonstrates the importance of handling Scripture well. Specifically, he addresses several interpretive and hermeneutical problems that arise when passages are taken out of their immediate, canonical, and covenantal contexts. For example, is the Lord preferential toward the poor? Merely counting the references doesn't do the Bible justice. Proverbs informs us that sometimes people are poor because they are slothful (10:4; 14:23), or self-indulgent (23:21), or unteachable (13:18). Mishandling God's word does disservice not only to God's special revelation but also to us. If we blur and distort God's word, we won't be able to clearly hear what God's will for us is as we seek to serve the poor, the widow, and the orphan.

I appreciated the book. While it is introductory, Litfin's clarity and brevity serve the reader well. He provides thoughtful avenues for further reflection. He also maintains an effective balance between the abstract and the concrete’a practice he commends as we seek to herald the good news of Jesus with our words and help our neighbors and world as the body of Christ with our deeds.

Friday, October 31st 2014

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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