Looking back at the forty plus years since I was first introduced to his publications, it turns out that Francis Schaeffer is someone whose thinking and writing (and perhaps even lifestyle) have had a formative impact on the scholarship, life, and ministry of so many, including myself. He was a person who thought clearly about the Christian faith, and he clearly thought that the individual Christian’s thinking, speaking, and behavior should be impacted at every level by the lordship of Jesus Christ. And if it is real, one’s faith cannot help but influence—even motivate—how one interacts with the surrounding world and culture.
The world and culture surrounding Schaeffer in the mid- to late-20th century unmistakably shaped the clarion call he issued in his 1981 A Christian Manifesto. In its pages are references to several social, cultural, and political circumstances swirling in the Western society of his day. Nevertheless, Schaeffer’s exhortation to Christians and Christian leaders remains applicable even four decades later. With some updated language and changes of illustrations in a few places, A Christian Manifesto would be a fine contemporary challenge to true Christian living even where we are today.
My intention here is to offer a few reflections on the final chapter of A Christian Manifesto: “By Teaching, By Life, By Action.” This chapter is the briefest segment of the book, and as one might expect, it pulls the strands of the book together into a snugly knotted plea. The chapter’s title comes from Schaeffer’s last line of the volume, just prior to his citations of Isaiah 59:12–16a and Revelation 3:2 and just after a summary of his manifesto regarding the Christian worldview: “It is the responsibility of those holding this view to show it to be unique (the truth of total reality) for individual salvation and for society—by teaching, by life, and by action” (137). This closing summary statement provides a natural outline for my few, intertwined reflections.
First, Schaeffer declares that those individuals holding to the Christian worldview have a responsibility to guard and demonstrate that worldview. Believers are to recover the universality of the Christian worldview over all of life and not merely bits and pieces of it. Unfortunately, by allowing in its teaching for an improper sacred/secular dichotomy, practical Christianity has unwittingly contributed to society’s shift away from the true, person-oriented worldview to the current, impersonal energy-material-chance worldview that is dominant in the public square. We have failed in our teaching about what is really true, and we must return to properly representing Christianity as a total life view—to ourselves and to the believers in our circles of influence. We never leave our Christianity at the door, whether in a boardroom, a classroom, or a bathroom.
This unfolds into my second point. As is the case for every worldview, the Christian worldview lays claim to be the truth about all of total reality. Religions are, by definition, worldviews about all of reality and not social clubs gathered around preferential views regarding cultural practices. We as Christians need to recognize that the worldview and life to which our Savior calls us is not merely about the salvation provided to individual believers by Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection—a salvation to be enjoyed in the future when Christ returns. For all of the truth of that, that is not all of the truth. For example, immediately following the apostle Paul’s treasured declaration about salvation by grace through faith, he comments on the results of this saving faith: “good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). We must forsake our dichotomous ways of living largely secular lives while we cherish our future salvation and, rather, we must live whole saved lives now on this side of eternity bringing every part of our lives under Christ’s lordship even while we await his return. In other words, the Christian’s story cannot be summarized as “I prayed a prayer and then continued living the life I used to live”—no! Jesus forever changes what our minds think, what our eyes see, what our mouths say, what our fingers type, and where our feet go. In true Christianity the Christian discovers a Spirit-propelled inclination to be pleasing God in every aspect of life for his glory.
And this brings me to my third reflection: after we have repaired how we teach the Christian faith as a total worldview, and after we have renewed ourselves to the lordship of Christ over every part of our own lives, then we can consider how we might act for the good of the society around us, calling it back toward the worldview that actually produced the freedoms it values most. Several of Schaeffer’s books and writings urge Christians to confront the culture around them. Schaeffer describes A Christian Manifesto as “the natural outgrowth of the books which have gone before,” books that “dealt with the Lordship of Christ over all of life” (9), and this brief volume is particularly concerned with Christ’s lordship over society and governmental matters. Nevertheless, A Christian Manifesto is not really a salvo against ungodly civil structures as much as it is a call for believers to do better in how they think, live, and act in a world that does not acknowledge Christ as Lord. As an exhortation to Christians and Christian leaders, Schaeffer’s A Christian Manifesto is an “exhortation” in both its confronting as well as its encouraging nuances. If believers are to have an impact on the world for Jesus Christ, we will need to harken to Schaeffer’s confrontational encouragement of us to let Christ rule over all of our own individual lives and over our teaching in local church communities and gatherings of Christians so that we can then be the salt and light that our Lord intends for us to be in the world and culture around us.
Very practically, this expresses itself in bright and salty church communities that provide a colorful contrast to the world’s darker shades of gray. Christians who want to change the world can do so by first changing a diaper in their church nursery; those who want to rescue the world from hunger might begin by bringing meals to a shut-in widow; those who want to renew the world with knowledge might first initiate a discussion of the Sunday sermon over lunch with friends; those who want to free the world of tyranny might start with a church small group serving together in a community clean-up endeavor. When we have ecclesial communities that brim with a rich culture of love and service and laughter—then we can more convincingly exhibit and advocate for Christian alternatives to godless authoritarian legal policies and the corresponding popular cultural practices.
Since Christians have the truth—the truth of salvation from the One who is the Truth of total reality—it is our duty to be heralding not merely the truth for individual salvation but also the truth for right living in society. Schaeffer is calling for believers to submit to the lordship of Christ over our own thinking (teaching), over our own individual lifestyles (life), and over our interactions with the world (actions). Believers must teach and live and act in such a way that we demonstrate for the world Christ’s lordship over all things. When the world around us sees our (admittedly imperfect) manifestations of the truth with loving unity (John 17) and with effectual service in loving God and neighbor (Mark 12:29–31), perhaps what unbelievers at first perceive as confrontations will be rightly recognized as invitations to submit alongside us to the lordship of Christ in all things.