In his new book, Word versus Deed, Duane Litfin contemplates how Christians are to be Christians at a time when the church seems bent toward what I might call representation without proclamation (and vice versa, though to a lesser extent, methinks). “Today some are emphasizing deeds at the expense of words, while others hold fast to ‘talking’ and forsake the doing,” Litfin writes. “This is an imbalance that must be righted.”
The book covers a range of topics, but for the moment I want to focus on an interrelated “imbalance” that Litfin briefly notes in his chapter on “gospel-worthy conduct” (i.e. the “doing” piece). Litfin encourages us to think of such conduct as being “lived out in five distinguishable circles of application”: personal life, family, God’s people, society at large, and the natural world.
These are all good “circles” for us to think about, yet we must also take care to order them properly. For example, as Litfin duly notes, the church has, as of late, begun to shift its focus directly to the social realm, ignoring the “personal life” or “private dimension” altogether—a faulty either-or approach that will not bode well if the church has any hopes of transforming the social sphere toward the heart of God.
According to Litfin, this switch has happened for the following reasons (quoted directly from the book):
- Our time and place in history is stamped with the radical individualism of the Enlightenment. In reacting against this imbalance some may be inclined to move directly, and perhaps too quickly, to the social and corporate implications of the gospel, bypassing the individual realm entirely.
- In certain Christian circles the personal dimensions of Christian living—issues of sexual morality, personal honesty, worldliness, etc.—seem to be as far as the demands of the gospel ever reach. These issues are stressed constantly but little is heard of the social implications of the gospel. Such a perceived imbalance undoubtedly prompts others to leapfrog these “overworked” private matters on their way to broader social concerns.
- Any emphasis on issues of personal holiness in the Christian life appears for some to be an embarrassment. They tend to write off such concerns as the unwarranted obsession of pietists.
These realities have largely shaped the focus of Remnant Culture (thus my focus on “Radical Individualism”). From Shane Claiborne to David Platt (in varying degrees, to be sure) we are consistently sold on the idea that misaligned, Enlightenment-style individualism is the only kind there is, and the only way the American church will get past it is by bloodying itself on a self-constructed altar to abstract social goods. Under this perspective, anything that might result in individual advancement or recognition, regardless of what is driving it, must be too individual-oriented, and thus we are told to compensate by injecting our actions with impulsive socially conscious do-gooderism. We may still be trying to push Christians toward obedience to God (Platt certainly is), but we will continuously miss the mark if we “leapfrog” past the messy, complicated subject of (1) what this all means at a personal, individual level, and (2) how that translates into the social dimension holistically (i.e. encompassing all of the circles Litfin mentions).
The fundamental problem with the American church is not that we are too focused on our private lives and need to go on more mission trips or curb our incomes at a certain level. It’s that we are not recognizing that our private lives need to be broken by God’s grace and our social responsibilities need to be rightly ordered in turn. We want a quick-fix answer for everything—as nearly every observer of the West will recognize—but such an orientation does not stop at the electronic store check-out line; it drags itself into every element of our vocation-building and world-changing, prodding us to skip pass complicated questions of individual purity and purpose and jump straight to easy-and-convenient “social” arguments, whether we’re talking about sexuality, mega-church management, or global poverty.
We need to take a step back and make sure our hearts and our deeds are on the right path, and that means doing a lot of difficult work at the individual level. We need to cry out, as David did, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” We need to pause and pray, asking the Holy Spirit—monthly, weekly, daily, and hourly—“What would you have me do?”
As Litfin concludes:
The private issues of the heart come first with God. Not only is religious practice empty without the right interior orientation (Luke 18:9-14); so also is our social action: “If I give all I possess to the poor…but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor. 13:3 NIV). Our social obligations rank high with the Lord, but if we are to fulfill them aright they must be the outworking of our preeminent obligation, which is to love, worship, and serve God with all our hearts (Matt. 10:37; Luke 14:26). Moving too quickly to our social obligations can blind us to this reality, leading to external behavior as hollow and sterile as that of the Pharisees…
…We hear Jesus’ commands throughout his teaching and that of his apostles. Time and again these commands focus on both the condition of our hearts and the details of our private lives: how we pray, what we do with our money, the purity of our sexual lives, our integrity, our personal godliness, and so on. Our private lives are where the business of gospel-worthy conduct begins.
Until we wrestle with what God wants for the individual, we won’t have the knowledge or wisdom to know or implement what he wants for the world.
To purchase Word versus Deed: Resetting the Scales to a Biblical Balance, click here.