It is a popular phrase. We hear it often when the discussion of sharing the gospel comes up. You have those who think the traditional presentation of the gospel is a dead method for our world today. Talking about eternity, sin, and hell scares people off more than it helps them. This phrase gets thrown around too often. “Preach the gospel always; when necessary use words.” Where did this quote come from? Is it accurate? Is it biblical?
The man credited with this statement is Francis of Assisi. He was a monk who lived in the 12th century, and was actually a really neat guy. This quote is said to have been said by him. There is a problem though. He never said these words, or even lived them out.
He said other things that could have been combined to get an implication of this quote, but he never said these exact words. He did talk about preaching through deeds, but there was never any real mention of only using words when necessary. There was no indication of the finality that this quote represents. In fact, this quote never even cropped up until 200 years after his death. As time passed people reworked these saying to come up with this thought provoking quote, and spoke of how Francis lived out this amazing life where he never spoke of the gospel, but instead allowed his action to do the talking.
It’s not true. His biographers talked about how you could not get Francis to shut up about the gospel. He would have people on the edge of their seats when he would speak on the crucifixion. He spoke about the gospel often… and he backed it up with his actions.
There has been a push back on this phrase by some. There are uber traditionalists out there who become threatened by this new view of sharing the gospel, and so they attack this quote and proceed to give a new concept. They say that we should preach the gospel always; when necessary use actions. This idea is hollow though.
Before going on to Scripture I want to address a problem since this is the first post in this category of “fighting the cookie cutter”. Christianity is plagued with the problem of cookie cutter statements. No matter what side of an issue you are on, chances are your side has a problem with this. We put more faith in an ancient quote and our own opinions than we do Scripture.
Scripture speaks down on both of these quotes. The deeds side has a hard time making their case when confronted with Scripture. A common verse thrown out is Romans 10:14, “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?” Paul specifically uses the word “hear”. This implies there must be words to hear. Paul wrote about this to explain his passion for going out to the world to preach the gospel.
Peter believed in preaching the gospel. He says in Acts 2:38, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” This is after he pointed out to the crowd their sin and rejection of Christ by crucifying him. Peter had no problem pointing out the sin in the crowd. Many people have turned away from this need to speak the gospel because many believers have taken it too far. They have added offense to the gospel where it is not needed. If you are one of those people then let me say I am sorry for the experience you saw of others damaging the gospel that way. However, that gives us no excuse to turn to the other extreme.
Because while the gospel requires explaining the problem and the consequences, it does this so that the good news can be seen for what it is. When we present the gospel we should make sure the solution is magnified in all of its glory rather than the problem. Jesus sacrifice and resurrection should always be escalated over the consequence of sin. God’s goodness should always been presented as greater than man’s total depravity. It is not that we ignore man’s total depravity, but we use it to make way for the glorious nature of the good news.
That is what God did in the garden. When Adam and Eve messed up and sinned He talked about the consequences of that sin. He did not shy away from telling them how much trouble they were in. God does not hold back the punches in sharing the trouble humanity is in, but thankfully He did not end there. He went on to say He had a plan. “Don’t worry. I’m going to fix this.” When we share the gospel with words we must always remember that God was saying, “Not only do I have the power to fix this, but I am going to do it.”
We should never discount the need for our actions to present the gospel. Scripture says the world will know we are His disciples by our love for one another. The Christian life is real living. Our actions must always back up our words. People need to see the joy we have in Christ if they are to believe the joy we have in Christ. It should be noted though that our actions of generosity in Scripture always seemed to first be geared towards others in the church that are in need. I do not want to focus on this part, but this is something we should find worth noting. I say this because I have seen many get so concerned about meeting the physical needs of the lost when they have a single mother in the church who is struggling to pay bills and feed her children, but don’t seem to do anything about it.
What should we say then? I have a different statement that I have strived to live by, “Speak and live the gospel always”. We must live out the gospel in a way that impacts others, but eventually we must follow that up with words. If you give water to a man who is in need of medication or he will die and is also thirsty, but do not give him any medication then what help are you really giving him? The gospel is more than just feeding the hungry. It is more than giving some money to the poor. It is bigger than any physical or emotional need. It is good news. It is news that needs to be spoken. It isn’t just some water from a well. It is true living water.