One day I am going to write an article on all the rather dumb sayings, quotes, and posters, as are often found in places like FaceBook. But here I want to concentrate on just one such saying which is often seen, not just on FB, but all over the place, especially in Christian circles. I refer to the popular phrase: “Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words.”
There are slightly different versions of this going around, and it is usually attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. But there are several problems with this. First of all, it seems that he never actually said this. Indeed, given that he did in fact use words to preach the gospel, it seems even less likely that he is the source of this quote.
But whoever actually first said it, there are pros and cons to be found here. The evident intention is to suggest that our lives should also reflect the gospel, and what we do is as important as what we say. Now if that is what is being meant by this phrase, then I have no real problems with it.
Of course we are to so live our lives that the gospel is clearly reflected in it. This is about consistency: our walk must always match our talk. If we as Christians talk one way but live quite another way, then we are obviously damaging our witness and doing real disservice to the gospel.
Paul for example makes this clear in his correspondence to the Corinthian believers. As he says in 2 Cor. 3:1-3: “Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.”
Or as Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).
So obviously our gospel message must be lived out, en-fleshed, made incarnate. Our proclamation must always be backed up by a lifestyle that fully reflects the gospel of Christ. Anything less is hypocrisy, and will damage our witness to a needy world.
But sadly I suspect that many will use this quotation to dodge actually saying anything about the gospel. They think that if they just live a nice quiet, peaceful life, and don’t do anything wrong, they will be a great witness and their job will be done.
That of course is not at all true. In fact it is a falsehood which comes straight out of the enemy’s camp. One simply cannot read the New Testament without seeing the premium put on proclamation with words. Indeed, words are so important to God that he chose to reveal himself to us in 66 books containing well over 800,000 words.
If words are actually so unnecessary, God is guilty of real overkill here. But words of course are vitally important. God has chosen to communicate through words. The written word, the Bible, and the living word, Christ, are both forms of communication which God has chosen to use.
And the gospel is all about proclamation. Propositional truth must be proclaimed in words – there really is no other way. Everywhere the early disciples went, they used words to talk about Jesus – who he was, what he did, why he was necessary, etc.
Sure, their radically different lifestyle provided great backup to their words, but without those words, there would be no conversions, and there would be no church. Evangelism must always take place, and it must always involve words and proclamation.
One of the clearest NT texts on this is of course Romans 10:9-17. Let me cite vv. 13-15: “‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’”
As John Stott comments on this passage, “The essence of Paul’s argument is seen if we put his six verbs in the opposite order: Christ sends heralds; heralds preach; people hear; hearers believe; believers call; and those who call are saved. And the relentless logic of Paul’s case for evangelism is felt most forcibly when the stages are stated negatively and each is seen to be essential to the next. Thus, unless some people are commissioned for the task, there will be no gospel preachers…”
So evangelism, by the use of words, is indispensable in the Christian life. There is no Christian mission without verbal proclamation. Of course Christian mission also involves works of charity, mercy ministries, social involvement, and so on. But it never takes place without a clear verbal witness as well (unless in a closed country where open proclamation is illegal).
Now it is not my intention here to get into the bigger debate about whether people can be saved apart from hearing the gospel message. I have discussed that elsewhere, eg:
But I do stress the overwhelming importance of actually talking to people and expressing Christian truth claims in actual words. Sure, we must always demonstrate by our life the truthfulness of the gospel, but a living example without verbal communication is not what Christ commissioned us to do.
As Paul very forthrightly proclaimed in 1 Cor. 9:16, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” That is true of every single follower of Jesus Christ. The gospel (evangel) means the good news. We have good news to tell others. Thus we are all to be evangelists: those who proclaim the good news.
So let’s rewrite that popular phrase a bit: “Preach the Gospel always, and since it is necessary, use words.”