Building a public witness through deed and action
In his newest book, Risky Gospel, Owen Strachan includes a chapter about “building a public witness.” In it, he demonstrates from the life of Jesus how Christians should live their faith in the culture surrounding them. He proposes “three major elements” of the Christian public witness, which he states as imperatives. The first two, respectively, are “Love your neighbor by courageously speaking truth” and “Be salt and light in order to preserve and enlighten our communities.” What follows is an excerpt from the third category, “Get involved through deeds and actions” (used by permission from Nelson Books).
Christians must be courageous. Our courage must take the form of actual speech. We can’t simply nod our heads to true statements in church. We’ve got to actually get into the world, enter the public square however we can, and speak love through courage.
But there has to be a second component as well: we’ve got to have practical skin in the game. We’ve got to speak up. That’s non-negotiable (Matt 5:10–12, 16). We’re supposed to be hated by unrighteous people for being clear about biblical truth; that’s a sign, ironically, that things are going right, not wrong (according to, well, Jesus Christ).
Something is missing, though, if we talk a great game but don’t take practical steps to love our neighbor and be gospel salt and light. In the same way every emperor needs clothes to go with his authority, we need deeds to go with our proclamation.
We’re not only called to speak. The Bible certainly does expect us to speak up such that we may well be “persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (Matt 5:10). But it also calls us to sacrificially involve ourselves in addressing the fallenness of this world. In fact, you could say that the Lord intends for these two priorities to work together, and to show the world that the church devoted to Jesus Christ is both courageous and sacrificial (much like her namesake).
Think about texts like James 1:27, which boils “religion” down to this: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” If we would claim to walk purely before God, we must be practicing “actional” faith. We can’t simply say, in other words, “I’m pure because I’m saved and I have really super quiet times each morning.” This is essential, because we must be “unstained” in worldly terms. But it’s not the whole story.
The Lord wants our faith to have an edge, to have skin in the game, to be active in the world, to be aimed in some way at those who cannot care for themselves. Too many of us reduce our faith to church attendance and our own daily pursuit of God. These things are very important. But God intends for us to be reaching into the darkness. He wants us to love our neighbors not only by speaking, but by acting on their behalf.
He wants us not to simply identify the darkness, but to plunge into it. There is absolutely zero tension in the Bible between being a “private” and a “public” Christian. In a similar way, there is no biblical tension between loving others in word (witness, proclamation) and loving them in deed. The Lord wants both, and if we only focus on proclamation (or the reverse), we miss the mark.
James does not mean that we are saved by our works, our good deeds; that would contradict the rest of Scripture (see Rom 10:9–10 and Eph 2:8–9, for example). He does mean, though, that if we are claiming to know Christ as Savior but have no love for our “brother or sister” who is suffering, we are in a woeful position. We may not even be Christians.
What do these strong words show us? They indicate that our faith needs to take shape. Ours is not a “prosperity-driven” faith. We didn’t come to Christ because we thought we would get every worldly good our hearts could ever want. The Bible doesn’t promise us that Jesus will make every hardship disappear if we follow him. In fact, trusting him as savior could actually mean that our lives get harder. This is the element of risk we take in walking the narrow way.
It may be tough to get started. There’s limited time in the week. Practical service in a James 1:27 sense, caring for the needy, is by nature costly. I mean that it often asks us to give generously and without promise of repayment. But it is also enriching. It puts backbone in your confession. It makes your faith feel real, because in fact your faith really is taking practical shape. It feels good to give.
In a fallen world, massive cultural victories will be hard-won. Few and far between. Many of the ministries in which we invest will require a great deal of effort and will not produce guaranteed results. We would love for that to happen, and we should pray ambitious prayers to an awesome God, boldly asking him to end the scourge of death and suffering and evil in our country. We should genuinely expect that he will bless our work.
But we won’t labor with false hopes in our ministries. We’ll persevere. We’ll get involved. We’ll sacrifice.
Owen Strachan is assistant professor of Christian theology and church history at Boyce College and executive director of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Risky Gospel is available at all major Christian bookstores.