If Necessary, Use Words

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.

gospel 3Paul 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.”

[1083 words]

19 Replies to “If Necessary, Use Words”

  1. It’s interesting that we don’t know for sure who actually wrote that phrase, so we know nothing about the character of that person and how they lived – But the very words this person spoke have now become a well-known saying. Just shows how powerful words can be.

    Annette Nestor

  2. Yes quite right Annette.

    Whoever said it, had to say it in words! It is pretty hard to get around the use of words.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  3. Or perhaps it could also be rewritten as:
    “Preach the Gospel always, even when not using words.”
    This keeps the proper intention of the phrase while not allowing it to be used as an excuse for silence.
    Another expression that is also used the wrong way likens the Bible to a caged lion: “How would you defend a caged lion? Open up the cage an let it defend itself!”
    Sadly, this is often taken to mean we shouldn’t defend the Bible’s authority.
    Anyway, keep up the good work, Bill. This site is refreshingly sound in an internet filled with illogic, self-contradictions and downright stupidity, especially on the issues you deal with. It’s nice to see somewhat has kept their senses.
    Justin Nowland

  4. In the Beginning was the Word…

    NB: NOT “the Noble Silent Witness” or “the Picture” – which is why I am also not interested in any “Kid’s Illustrated Bible” or worse still “Kid’s Illustrated Bible Stories“.

    Also the so-called Great Commission says:
    “Matt 28:18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

    Make disciples, Teach, – words demanding proclamation.

    John Angelico

  5. Yes exactly right John. There is just no getting away from words and their usage in the Christian life and mission.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  6. John, regarding Illustrated Bibles, are you concerned about misrepresentations in the artwork e.g., little tugboat drawings of Noah’s Arks – which could present the Bible (to children and others) as being a book of fables?

    Annette Nestor

  7. Annette, yes, but the art problem is deeper than that. In fact the cartoonish ones are easier to overcome because they are so “childish”, although they can still present problems when defending God’s Word against the anti-Christian brigade.

    Acknowledging that text translation involves interpretation too, I see that illustration art is always interpretive, and always affects the way we read the text.

    More so with children, whose ability to discern the interpretive nature of art, and whose imaginations are therefore pushed in one direction by the interpretive views of the artist/illustrator. So we abandoned illustrated Bibles and gave our children the plain “unvarnished” Word to read.

    I don’t have a problem with the Thompson’s illustrations, diagrams etc because they are clearly there as aids to study, and not part of the main text.

    John Angelico

  8. John, that makes a lot of sense. Thanks for your insightful response.

    Regarding Bill’s article, here’s an interesting piece I found on the internet:

    It was Francis of Assisi who said, “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary use words.”

    Actually, that’s not true. Francis never said it. Just as Marie Antoinette never said, “Let them eat cake.” And Humphrey Bogart in the film Casablanca never said “Play it again Sam.” Nor did Sherlock Holmes say, “Elementary my dear Watson”. Not even close.

    St Francis was not adverse to preaching. Neither was Jesus. Or Peter. Or Paul.

    I suspect our reluctance to proclaim the gospel has more to do with doubt and fear than humility.

    In Christianity Rediscovered, Father Vincent Donovan tells of his ministry to the Masai tribes of eastern Africa. Despite the establishment of schools, hospitals and other ministries, the Masai had not become Christians.

    Donovan proposed to his bishop that he should distance himself from the services being provided to the Masai and “just go and talk to them about God and the Christian message.”

    When he explained to one of the Masai elders what he proposed to do and why, his response was, “If that is why you came here, why did you wait so long to tell us about this?”


    Annette Nestor

  9. Great story, Annette Nestor. Loved it.

    Bill – amen. That’s really all I have to add. I am not suggesting that I’m the world’s greatest evangelist (not by a long shot!), but the verbal proclamation of the gospel is vital, absolutely vital.

    Scott Buchanan

  10. Thanks Bill – I was never very comfortable with that saying since it so readily gets quoted as an excuse for not rocking the boat.
    Annette Nestor, You demonstrated how self-contradictory it really is – in 50 words or less!
    Tim Lovett

  11. Hi Bill,
    I think the phrase is positive and harmless if used introspectively (before communion?) but can be risky if applied in judgement against someone else.
    By definition it is not possible to preach without vocalising so its meaning must be metaphorical and your first interpretation (para 3) is the correct one.
    I would like to lift the significance level of preaching much, much higher whilst leaving our lifestyles at that where you have it. But not just any preaching, only that which carries the weight of God’s anointing. If that is so, it is both much more effective to the recipient and demanding to the orator than a contextually approved lifestyle.
    Now, the crucified life or taking up the cross daily might be a different matter but that’s not what the phrase is on about, it’s clearly about one’s perception of another’s preaching and behaviour, not about God’s intimate knowledge of us.
    Use of the phrase extrospectively is more often a shallow attempt of a hardened heart to defend its stance and to undermine a preached truth by casting doubt on the credibility of the speaker.
    Tony Morreau

  12. Dear Bill
    I believe the correct phrase was, “Pray at all times and if necessary use words” meaning our whole life should be a prayer.
    Mandy Varley

  13. Thanks Mandy

    As I said, there are different versions of this going around, but I have never heard the version you suggest. But if such a version does exist, needless to say I have no problem with a life of prayer – but I still would have a problem with the suggestion that the use of words is an optional extra, at least when it comes to preaching the gospel.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  14. Thanks Bill,
    I’ve been looking forward to your thoughts on this.
    The other thing that bothers me with this quote is the superiority it’s often given above Scripture. Aside from the obvious implication it gives that words aren’t really necessary, I’ve often heard it quoted as if it has the authority of Scripture and that all people should live by it.
    While quotes can be good, helpful, inspiring etc, they mustn’t replace the Bible as our source of doctrine and understanding. A few Bible verses as you’ve provided help to give proper perspective to such quotes.
    Jeff Robertson

  15. Jeff, I’d like to follow on from your thought and say that much of the teaching in contemporary churches comes out of the words of people write of their *interpretations* of the Bible, and not in fact the raw scriptures themselves. Often they are stories about things that *reinforce* the truths of the Bible. For me, this has always been a disturbing since in the both cases it colours what the scriptures may actually be saying – unfortunately many of these erroneous or half-baked interpretations have become mainline Pentecostal or Evangelical doctrines, repeated time and time again so that they’ve become accepted ‘truths’. Too often I’ve cringed at the errors blithely perpetuated from the pulpit.
    Garth Penglase

  16. Good points here in your article and the posts from readers. Shows how dumb someone here is, they thought it was talking about belting people over the head to get them to repent.

  17. Yes…words are very important. I used to donate monthly to the Christian Children’s Fund until they changed their name to The Child Fund. It’s slightly off topic, but it was also indicative to me that they were no longer promoting the teaching of the gospel of Christ and the charity lost its raison d’etre to me.

    Excellent comments too.

  18. Great article Bill!
    Like so many pithy “sayings” there is a bit of truth in saying that a Christian’s life is a visible evidence of their salvation. The problem, as you so clearly described, is that it is only a cute expression of a single aspect of our outreach.
    I am reminded of an expression from a few years ago “Some folk just have Bumper Sticker Religion”.
    Your articles are long enough to make the point you are addressing very clear but your need to write a library of valuable articles addressing many points is an example of the need for words!
    Lead on my friend!

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