Buried in a note in my book about the economic teachings of the ecumenical movement is this insight from Richard A. Wynia: “The Lord does not ask for success in our work for Him; He asks for faithfulness.”
This captures the central claim of Tyler Wigg-Stevenson’s book, The World is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good (IVP, 2013), which I review over at Canon & Culture. As Wigg-Stevenson puts it, “Our job is not to win the victory, but to expose through our lives the victory that has been won on our behalf.”
The wrong way of understanding this insight would be to conclude that what we do on this earth really doesn’t matter. All we have to do is be “faithful,” especially in terms of our mental orientations, and that’s sufficient. But as Gilson would remind us, “Piety is no substitute for technique.” The reality that the world is not ours to save is no excuse for pursuing good irresolutely or amateurishly.
Instead, there’s a way in which this limiting of our expectations about our own human endeavors in this world is liberating. The freedom not to try to save the world allows us to really be engaged in trying to do good in our little corners of creation. As I write in the review, “What this leaves us with is a kind of pensive hopefulness, a grounded faith that takes concrete responsibilities in this world seriously and yet has no illusions about ushering in a utopia through our own efforts.”
This perspective thus calls us to get deeply engaged in the long, messy work of following Christ in the world. We are to get our hands dirty, as I write elsewhere, not expecting that this work will of itself ever be definitive. We may not live to see the fruits of our labors. We may sow while it may be years, even decades before others can reap.
In “For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles,” we get introduced into this kind of cultural engagement. As Stephen Grabill puts it, “Deep-rooted cultural change takes about a generation, which in biblical times is measured by seventy years. And I don’t think many of us have the patience for that today.”
One way of tempering what otherwise might come to expression as a kind of transformationalist triumphalism is to recall that in Abraham Kuyper’s famous quote it is Christ who claims sovereignty over “the whole domain of our human existence.” To the extent that the church and individual Christians exercise sovereignty and extend this kingdom, it is only in a secondary, derivative, and finite sense as followers, as disciples.
Thus, as I conclude in my review, “It is Christ who makes the ultimate claim of sovereignty, not us. It is Christ who saves the world, not us.” Wigg-Stevenson helps us remember this basic truth and in so doing helps set us free for faithful service.