Wednesday, April 25, 2012

"Preach the Gospel, If Necessary Use Words" Really?

That quote is often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi though he probably never said it. While it commends us to live out the Gospel through our life, it falls short of what it means to preach the Gospel and it actually makes no sense at all. I recently heard D. A. Carson comment that it would be like telling a news reporter to "Give the news and if necessary use words." After all Gospel means good news. News is something you tell people.

Ed Stetzer has said it would be like telling people to feed the poor and if necessary use food. At a minimum, verbally sharing the Gospel is essential to effective, biblically-faithful evangelism. If we call what do sharing the Gospel (or evangelism), then it must include a verbal proclamation.

Good works like feeding the poor, engaging in social justice, and "living out the Gospel with our lives" are corollaries to sharing the Gospel, but they are not equal to it. These realities flow from the Gospel and should mark the lives of Christians who are seeking to be faithful to the Gospel. But we must not confuse the two.

In their book Total Church, authors Tim Chester and Steve Timmis pick up on this by saying:

There is a tendency in some quarters today to promote a kind of evangelism without proclamation. Acts of service are done or people are invited to experience Christian worship. But without words of explanation these are like signposts pointing nowhere, or worse still, signposts pointing to our good works. The Gospel is good news- a message to be proclaimed, a truth to be taught, a word to be spoken, and a story to be told (p. 54).

UPDATE: For more information on the St. Francis quote and his life, check out this article from Mark Galli, who wrote a biography on the life of St. Francis. He writes:
I've heard the quote once too often. It's time to set the record straight—about the quote, and about the gospel.
Francis of Assisi is said to have said, "Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words."
This saying is carted out whenever someone wants to suggest that Christians talk about the gospel too much, and live the gospel too little. Fair enough—that can be a problem. Much of the rhetorical power of the quotation comes from the assumption that Francis not only said it but lived it.
The problem is that he did not say it. Nor did he live it. And those two contra-facts tell us something about the spirit of our age.


  1. Whether or not Assisi actually said the quote (I'm not sure how you can conclude that he probably didn't) or not, it seems to br reflective of his ministry. It's also a mistake to conclude that it makes no sense at all. It actually makes good sense especially in the climate that the evangelical church finds itself today. People have heard a lot of preaching & evangelism, but the church has fallen short in those words bearing out fruit. It may get a large number of people to say a prayer, but growing those converts into disciples that live out the gospel and produce those "good works" is severely lacking. Churches and church goers may serve at a soup kitchen once a month, but they are making l little to no impact in irradiating poverty - something we as God's people are called to do - even in their own country. We call ourselves "pro-life" but are by and large also pro-war. The church will speak out - rightfully so - against abortion, but are Christ followers willing to act by adopting children.
    These are a couple of many examples that have diluted our gospel to the point where the "world" is tired of words. Good works are not a corollary to the Gospel, but an integral part. The Gospel is wholistic - words and deeds. If feeding and clothing the poor is not an integral part of the Gospel then it is not "good news" to the poor. When John the Baptist asked Jesus from prison whether he was the messiah or not Jesus told those who were delivering the message back to John to tell him what they had seen AND heard. Wholistic. Perhaps the best modern day example of this is Mother Teresa. It clearly was not only her words that preached the Gospel, but her actions that spoke loudest - the Church would do well to follow her example.
    Back to Assisi, whether he actually said the words "preach the Gospel and when necessary use words" or whether those words are simply a reflection of his life of ministry, perhaps he found himself in a climate similar to the one we have today. The church would be wise to heed Assisi's words and to lead with something other than preaching, or at the very least present a wholistic gospel. A Gospel of words alone is not "good news".

  2. Matt,

    For more clarity on St. Francis, this quote, and his style of ministry check out this article by Mark Galli:

    I think you misunderstand my point in this post. I wholeheartedly agree that the Gospel should be accompanied by good deeds, but good deeds are not equal to the Gospel. The Gospel actually means "good news" and the New Testament clearly shows that this good news is a proclamation about Jesus Christ (see Romans 10 below). It is impossible to preach the Gospel without words.

    Again, that is not to say that good deeds are not necessary or at least extremely helpful so that the Gospel makes sense. But it does mean that if I only feed the poor, but do not verbally articulate the good news to them, I have not "preached the Gospel." They cannot know Jesus by my good deeds alone. They cannot trust in the Gospel without hearing what the Gospel is.

    Now, they will accept it much more readily if I combine a verbal proclamation with love and care. And I strongly agree that it is selfish to think we have done all we can by simply telling people about Jesus - we must combine the sharing of the Gospel with acts of love.

    But again these two things (sharing & loving) are not the same thing. My concern is to make sure we do not swing to the other side (after many years of evangelicals not being great with social justice and care), so that we only do social justice and fail to proclaim the essential truths of the Gospel.

    By all means let us be people that graciously share the Gospel while meeting the needs of those to whom we speak.

    Romans 10:13-15 (ESV)
    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? 15 And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

  3. It sounds like you've made a good observation about the word "gospel" and the phrasing of the structure of the quote. You're right in that it doesn't make sense when you take it plainly and literally. How could one preach and not use words?

    Unfortunately, this quote is not to be taken literally. If someone told you, "My life is heaven!", would you take it literally? I would certainly hope not. The point of that phrase contains implications to the one listening that the subject (person speaking) means to tell everyone that their life is going very well. Or the context of the circumstances could mean that the speaker was being sarcastic, in which case their life could be going not so well. In either case, it's important to remember the intent of the message being sent.

    This quote "preach the gospel, if necessary use words." Is not intended to mean "don't talk about Christ and never say anything about the gospel whatsoever, just act like Him and everything will be fine." This quote is only focusing on a single aspect of the Christian life. This quote is referring to our conduct as Christians, and how it should reflect the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Simply put, if you are saved by Jesus Christ, then behave as such.

    When a Sunday School teacher or a pastor gets up on a Sunday and discusses 'Patience' everyone in the congregation understands that 'Patience' doesn't fully encapsulate the Christian life, but we all know it is important and it is the 'topic of the day', if you will.
    In this case, this quote doesn't fully encapsulate every aspect of the Christian life, nor is it intended to do so, but rather, it is meant to be directed at our behavior as Christians and how our actions should match the Gospel we preach.

    Please remember another thing too. Mark 9:40 NIV "for whoever is not against us is for us."

  4. I believe the main issue of this topic is a simple fact that we are not perfect. We are sinful. However in order for your words or your preachings to take a better hold on someone you have to prove by what you are preaching by how you act. If you stand up in front of your church and say....DONT HAVE SEX BEFORE MARRIAGE....and then you yourself are not married and are known to have multiple sex partners, is what you just said going to bear any fruit? Absolutely not. Therefore actions speak louder than words. Now granted, we are not perfect and we may preach something that we may not be necessarily strong on like patience for example, but if people see the actions of you TRYING to live out in that action...they will benefit the church MORE than saying have patience and going around the church telling people that you need this and that NOW!!!!!!!

    Peace and love.

  5. Jeremy, I see exactly what you are trying to say. It is not that we shouldn't neglect good works, but not make them the focus of our life. Yes as Christians our lives need to absolutely be reflective of Jesus. Helping whenever we can in any way we can. It all comes back to what missions actually means. Matt you mentioned Mother Teresa. She did some great deeds and helped a bunch of people. We have to look at What Isaiah says though: "All our righteousness is filthy rags." If the extent of her "missions" was good deeds, and no Gospel proclamation, she, nor anyone else really gained anything in respect to eternity. There is nothing more important than the outcome of our eternal lives. Hell is real, and people will go there. If we choose to not share the Gospel with someone out of fear of offending them or turning them off to Christianity, what is really the bigger disservice? I am a firm believer in James when he talks about our faith being dead if we have not works, but I am more of a believer in what the early church did. Paul helped a lot of people, but more so he preached the Good news. Living our lives quietly, hoping for someone to ask about our lives is in my opinion a cop-out for what we are called to do. Sure, they may ask eventually, but they may not. If we do not bring the Gospel to them through words AND deeds, we have failed as Christ's ambassadors. The name of Jesus is what brings people to salvation. No one is advocating the responsibility to do good works, rather making sure the emphasis on proclaiming Jesus' name is not minimized, as I feel it is in this increasingly sensitive and politically correct culture. We will offend people, we will cause division. That is the story of Jesus. Let's love with words and deeds.

  6. I am getting into this discussion because so many people are right here, but still miss the point. Of course people use a quote like this to tone down the passion of a gospel that pours itself out for the poor and down trodden. Of course the luke-warm will claim the use of Francis' quote to put a wet blanket on another's passion for Jesus which they don't have, don't want and don't want to be confronted with.

    However, Francis' quote speaks of the life of the spirit being so strong in him that he literally released that life into the environment wherever he went. WE know Francis spoke of the Gospel and taught with wisdom.
    However, Francis knew he was drawing on a life within him that went beyond those things.

    I have no idea whether or not he said it, but when we see a quote misused (as the comments above aptly describe) that does not mean there is not a wealth of meaning in what was said. It is far too easy to simply say "Oh, Francis never said it."
    The fact of the matter is that Francis lived in a time when people spoke of religious things all the time. Whatever the quote of Francis was, he would have been the one told to shut up by those who were offended by his witness. So if this quote is genuine we know Francis himself would never have counseled anyone to keep mum about the Gospel. However, when Francis was silenced, stifled, or shouted down he also would have known that the life of Jesus within him was indomitable and would continue to witness. There is much more to this quote than the debate about whether we should confront a genteel social convention that wants to avoid talking about politics and religion. In that light, this quote fits quite easily with what we know of his life and witness.


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  8. I'm very sorry, sir, but you are unfortunately misconstruing a large part of the essence of Christianity.

    We are told to love each other even as Christ has loved us. We are taught by the church fathers that this a natural condition of being human, and that all the layers of knowledge and complexities and varieties of perspective are simply...well, in the way of the point. And NOTHING is more essential than the ultimate point. Indeed, Jesus eventually becomes "Je Suis" in the French language..."I Am."

    We are told to just be.

    Preaching the Gospel, as I know it, is a physical thing first. Worry about the words later. The words fit into the context of our actions--they fill in the gaps between the fruit we bear. And our works are in the realm of Love. When you Love someone, what does it take for them to BELIEVE you on the deepest, most honest level conceivable? Words? I think not. That is something that exists FAR beyond the realm of verbal communication. Indeed, verbal communication only accounts for ten percent of our actual message. Body language accounts for about 50%. So why would you equate words with actions in terms of value? Don't you want to be pure? To be pure is to exist is to love is to DO, and SAY when necessary. And that's it.

    In case this helps for clarity, I am an Antiochian Orthodox Christian, and I have been blessed to witness the works and hear the modifying words of Bishops, Priests, and fellow Christians all my life. This good news comes strait from all of them, through me.

  9. I haven't read everything here but every reply I've read seems to be making a strong points will good illustrations. I'm thinking still (though over a year late getting here) that this quote is being over-thought despite who truly quoted this. 'Actions' speak louder than words and should reflect the heart, not just in public, but especially in secret. God said he will expose/reward openly good things done in secret - and that can come across in many ways. The heart of the quote in my opinion is to be careful to live as Christians as well to speak as one.

  10. The whole point of the quote from St. Francis is that living the gospel (i.e. teaching through example) is sometimes more effective than the words you speak. BE the example and you can reach more people than with your words

  11. you have to comprehend Franciscan spirituality in order to know that the 'quote' refers to not being hypocritical in saying one thing and doing another when you are presenting Christ to others . . .

    the fundamentalist evangelical world does not comprehend Franciscan spirituality, so a question like 'Really?' fits perfectly into that mold, but there are many Christian people who are not involved in fundamentalism who live the faith, not 'perfectly', but hopefully and whose prayer is 'Jesus, I trust in you'.

    The 'hubris' and 'arrogance' model of fundamentalism is flawed and poisons Christian witness . . . I'm thinking 'Westboro Baptist Church' as an example . . . so far from modeling Christ that they have adopted a satanic way of interacting with others not of their kind involving hatred and contempt to the extreme.

    If people want to 'preach Christ', first they must 'live Christ'. Then, their lives ARE a living witness to Him, and their words are listened to because they have the gravitas of someone who has loved Lord Christ AND obeyed Him in His great commandment, the Royal Law of Christ.

    Good luck with your 'really?' . . . but until you have some traction in living the faith, I don't think your 'words' have much clout, especially if they are filled with hubris and contempt for others.

    You could do a lot worse than St. Francis for advice. Sounds like you may have stumbled on some fundamentalism that breeds what is unChristian in it's dismissive attitude towards actively living the faith as a preparation for witnessing to others.