Duane Liftin is president emeritus of Wheaton College where he served for seventeen years. In his new book, Dr. Liftin aims to strike the fine balance between words and deeds in the evangelical church. “Word versus Deed” (Crossway, 2012) is a timely book, written for a time of great controversy in today’s church because of over-emphasis of deeds ministries in certain streams of evangelicalism, at the expense of proclaiming the gospel with words.
his is a most important book of great significance, for Liftin strives to address the misunderstandings of this linchpin theological controversy of our age. He does so by examining first the communication theory behind the issues of not using words to seemingly convey the gospel, and then carefully analyzing some key biblical passages used in defense of deeds ministries.
I was pleasantly surprised by how enlightening his section on the historical development of “word versus deed” (pgs 28–21). In a very concise manner, Liftin explains for even lay Christians how the last two centuries of American Church history has affected our balance of word ministry and deeds ministry. This is most helpful for those of us who need a firmer grasp of our place in church history.
Mercy ministries like Food Kitchens and Sandwich Runs did not come out of a vacuum. We must trace our church’s mission historically in order to see how far we have fallen in theological liberalism; we check back to see how the misguided over-emphasis of funadamentalists affect our grasp of the biblical fundamentals. What we do in our churches today can certainly be tempted by the ministry faux-pas of our forbears. Liftin graciously reminds us of our place at the table of words versus deeds, a place of grace responsibility.
Dividing the Word
I was also greatly helped by Ch.12 “Rightly Dividing the Word”. Liftin addresses the excessive priority that some give to the gospels over the epistles, and calls us to see the rightful balance that the gospels and epistles have in complementing each other. Further, Liftin confronts the Old Testament versus New Testament over-emphasis and demands that believers heed the biblical call of heightened obligation to brothers and sisters in Christ. If ever there is a “deeds ministry” that is biblically necessary, it is the acts of care and service to our fellow disciples.
Space does not allow for me to review every single one of Liftin’s helpful criticisms of various misuses of Scripture for the sake of deeds ministry (Ch.13) . Here’s a few highlights though.
- For Jeremiah 29:4–7, Liftin argues that “the motive for God’s instruction to seek ‘the welfare of the city’ had little to do with improving things for Babylonians. The point of God’s word through Jeremiah was to instruct the exiles in how to make the best of their disciplinary experience”; thus the “focus of this passage is not the flourishing of Babylon but the well-being of God’s people” (170–171).
- For Luke 4:16–21, Liftin asserts that the point of the passage is that the “poor” to whom the gospel is such good news in this passage “were not merely any who are materially lacking; they were members of the people of God who, because of their poverty, were especially open and responsive to God” (177). The passage speaks not of physical liberation, but of spiritual freedom. The promise of sight given to the blind is a profoundly spiritual promise in the passage’s context.
- For Matthew 25:31–36, Liftin contends that the proper understanding of Jesus’s speaking about the least of these my brothers is not inclusive of just anyone who may be suffering. On the contrary, Jesus himself is “embodied in his followers (Col. 2:19), his brothers, his disciples, his little ones who believe, even ‘the least of them’ ” (192).
Our churches should be grateful for such a book by Duane Liftin that encourages us to strike a biblical balance between lovingly serving the needs of our Christian brethren, mercifully assisting those unbelieving sufferers as the Lord so calls us, and the gracious gospel proclaiming with words. Surely we ought to use the Nehemiah Principle in our practical ministry triage: while we cannot do everything, we certainly can do something. What are the needs around us? What are the most important needs? And what are the most urgent needs? Henceforth, the pinnacle concluding question: What is God calling you to do?
Liftin is careful to remind us of this simple axiom: A need is not a call. “The needs of the world, whether for our words or our deeds, will far outstrip our ability to meet them. It is therefore impossible for us to meet every need; only God can bear such a burden” (204). We must continually strive to discern and serve God’s call on us for ministry–that we would not be falsely guilted into handing cash to a pan-handler or donating our moneys and time at every commercial of a starving child. There is a right way to serving those needs: by way of a personal calling from God to do so.
“Learning to respond to the call rather than need is not a technique for escaping costly service; it’s a plan for avoiding false guilt.”