Fighting the cookie cutter: “Preach the gospel always; if necessary use words.”

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.


5 responses to “Fighting the cookie cutter: “Preach the gospel always; if necessary use words.”

  1. Once again, I agree with you broadly, Fletcher, but take issue with some secondary points.

    We DO need to talk explicitly about the Gospel when appropriate, however, Romans 10:14 was not written to us, and assuming so is a mistake that many Christians make about the Bible. There are very, very, very few people in the United States, in 2012 who haven’t heard about Jesus in some form or another and they’re probably made up their minds about Him one way or another. Hearing it again is not what anyone needs. What they need to is see Christians who radiate Light, rather than spew condemnation, the latter of which they may well, sadly, be better acquainted with. We need to show them that we love them, and, eventually, tell them WHY we love them the way we do, and that is when it’s appropriate to “use words.”

    Of course, if someone asks me outright what I believe and/or why, I will certainly tell them, but bringing that into a conversation uninvited puts many people off.

    Also, you seemed to go off on a bit of a tangent against the Social Gospel toward the end there, and I’m going to have to disagree on that point as well. Where Christians direct their charitable work is between them and God. We absolutely need to help our Christian brothers and sisters in need, but not at the expense of reaching those who still dwell in the Darkness, both spiritually and physically, as the stakes are far greater.

    If this comment comes across as overly-negative it isn’t meant to be, just trying to help you think about what you’ve written from an outside perspective.


    I always heard the pertinent quote attributed to Mother Theresa, personally.

  2. Interesting info on mother Theresa. I never heard of her as being the one associated with the quote.

    I think you need to clarify on why you think Romans 10:14 is not being written to us. If you are referring to us as in our American society. Then I have to pretty strongly disagree with you here because there is no biblical reasoning for that view.

    I also think it is incredibly dangerous to make the assumption that “There are very, very, very few people in the United States, in 2012 who haven’t heard about Jesus in some form”. My problem is with the “some form” part. I still run into plenty of people today who have no idea who Jesus really is. We need explain to them who the real Jesus is. Does that take time and tact? Certainly, but it does need to be done. Never assume anything.

    Your comment seems to still be inferring that it should still be more one than the other. It seems as though you are implying that there cannot be a harmonious balance between these two methods. You also seem to be assuming that I am not advocating a balance between the two.

    I think you and I are largely saying the same thing, but you have misunderstood my statements. Both methods are necessary. Our actions show that we care, and when people see we care they will actually listen to what we have to say.

    I think we can clear this up by cutting past all the fat, and get down to the specifics. We need to live out our faith, and we need to preach the gospel. Both are requirements. I’m not saying we condemn others. I get the feeling you seem to assume that is what I mean every time I talk about preaching the gospel. I feel you make more assumptions with me on this topic rather than seeking clarification.

    As for the social gospel. I will be honest in saying I do not hold to it. The social gospel has it’s good qualities, but in the end it misses some. That is why it is called the “social” gospel and not just the gospel. I’m not saying we ignore the needs of the lost. What I was saying is we make the unfortunate mistake of leaving the needs of those in the body in the dust.

    The social gospel has pointed out some flaws within the church that need to change, but the social gospel has some flaws too I think.

    And no worries about being concerned you are being to negative. I am happy you are willing to express your opinion on here. As I said before, I do think you jump to conclusions towards me without seeking clarification on this topic. I am honestly a little surprised how you came to some of the conclusions you did when parts of my post made it pretty clear that was not what I was saying.

    • Yeah, I think the fact that that quote has been attributed to more than one person makes its historical veracity even more suspect.

      The Biblical reasoning for the view that the Bible was not written DIRECTLY (a word I should have included in the first place for the sake of clarity) to us is rather plainly stated in the Bible, as a great many books of the Bible tell us who they were written to, and all the rest, to my knowledge, have had their intended audience determined by scholars. Of course, we have these Scriptures now because God had His reasons for wanting us to have them, and many of the truths are indeed timeless, but assuming we’re addressed directly is the erroneous result of 70 years of fundamentalism.

      The fact that people have been presented with pictures of Christ that are, in one way or another, inaccurate, does not change the fact that they’ve heard about Christ. We need to stop presenting the Good News like it’s still News and instead helping people realize that it’s Good.

      I’m saying that a harmonious balance is indeed what we need, but for the reasons stated in the previous paragraph, to strike such a balance necessarily requires that we shut up and let our actions do most of the talking until invited (or strongly compelled by the Spirit) to do otherwise. This of course only applies to societies in which knowledge of the Gospel is ubiquitous. Dealing with unreached people in missions is a completely different animal as far as the balance is concerned.

      The Social Gospel IS the Gospel at its most pure. James 1:27 provides for this a sturdier foundation than most widely-accepted doctrines enjoy. Many Christians have forgotten this fact. I hesitate to bring politics into this discussion, but the only explanation I can properly muster, at least as far as American Christianity is concerned, is the fact that Christians sold out to the Republican party half a century ago, and began to venerate wealth and power over sacrifice and humility, and embraced a Christianity that seeks to be master rather than servant.

      But I digress. In a perfect world, the needy both in the Church and outside the Church would have all their needs met, but in an imperfect world someone has be prioritized, and while it’s difficult, I don’t see any other choice but to reach out to those outside.

      I do not intend to jump to conclusions with these comments, merely to express my initial impressions. I appreciate the clarification, and look forward to future posts 🙂

  3. Yeah that probably would throw it’s legitimacy into more confusion. I always find it odd how often that happens.

    “but assuming we’re addressed directly is the erroneous result of 70 years of fundamentalism.” I think I see what you are saying here, but my hesitation would be that just because people went onto one extreme does not mean we should suddenly go to the other.

    How do we decide what statements are to be taken at face value then. Why do you or I get to decide whether or not Romans 10:14 should be applied directly to us? What application would you get out of that then when keeping in mind that All scripture is profitable? I understand what you are syaing, but my point is we cannot just suddenly decide whats what without backing up the statement. it seems a bit rash to simply announce that passage isn;t meant for us today in its original context.

    “The fact that people have been presented with pictures of Christ that are, in one way or another, inaccurate, does not change the fact that they’ve heard about Christ. We need to stop presenting the Good News like it’s still News and instead helping people realize that it’s Good.” I honestly think we are saying the same thing here just using different terminology. In fact I know we are saying the same thing here. I’m not really sure where our disconnect is coming through. I will be a little nitpicky on part of your statement though. “”The fact that people have been presented with pictures of Christ that are, in one way or another, inaccurate, does not change the fact that they’ve heard about Christ.” That concerns me a bit bud. If they heard about a false Christ then they most certainly have not heard about Christ. There are plenty of “Christs” presented to people that might as well be the devil himself. To assume have heard of Christ then is dangerous.

    While we agree on much I think we may be on opposite sides over the social gospel. Your use of James does not fit. Mind you this is not to say that is not a crucial verse. But James does not say that the gospel is to help orphans and widows. You need to look at the whole context of the book of James. James was talking to believers who were not letting their actions show their belief in Christ. They had lost the balance. James is saying, “If you really are a follower of Christ, then you will do these things.”

    The problem with the social gospel as it is today, Christ never gets proclaimed anymore. The majority of those who hold to the prosperity gospel today do not see the importance on dealing wiht the spiritual issues along with the physical needs.

    I really do agree with the majority of your comment, but I think you need to reevaluate that verse in James.

    Thanks for giving some clarification on your first comment.

    • Something cannot be “meant for us today in its original context.” That phrase is, in itself, a contradiction. You answered you own question: it was intended for its original context, and audience is a critical part of context. As I said, that doesn’t mean we don’t have it for a reason, but it’s a mistake to suggest that we are the Romans and nothing about their culture, which was vastly different from ours, is in any way germane to our understanding of the Scripture. I’m not saying you embrace that extreme view, mind you, I’m simply articulating what the fundamentalist view is, and its implications.

      You’re absolutely right about false Christs, however, and I think I need to walk my point back some as a result. It’s true that when the Darkness gets really serious it masquerades as the Light. I’d say more now, but I need to think and pray some more.

      Again, another good point regarding James, but it doesn’t change the fact that he emphasized a practical Christianity. This is a perfect illustration of what I mean by audience context and how Scripture is relevant to us today. Those believers had given up the care of the needy for… something, I don’t recall if James ever tells us, but it was, quite probably, something carnal masquerading as the work of God, like politics or “theological debate” of the sort that keeps Calvinists and their roommates up until the wee hours of the morning.

      That is a VAST generalization of the Social Gospel that I’ve heard from many people who oppose it. It goes back to what I said before: we proclaim Christ through our actions, and verbally articulate Christ when invited or moved by the Spirit.

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