There’s a popular saying often repeated by Christians. It has found new life on Facebook and Twitter. Maybe you have even uttered these words, commonly at tributed to Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel. Use words if necessary.”
I think we can appreciate what many are getting at when they say something like this. As Christians, we should live in such a way that our lives point to the person and work of Jesus. However, good intentions cannot overcome two basic problems with this quote and its supposed origin. One, Francis never said it, and two, the quote is not biblical.
Mark Galli has pointed out that there is no record of Francis, a member of a preaching order, uttering anything close to this. In fact, everything we know about the man suggests he would not have agreed with his supposed quote. He was well known for his preaching and often preached up to five times a day.
The idea may not have resonated with Francis, but for many today, wordless ministry is a compelling approach. “Words are cheap,” we like to say, and “Actions speak louder than words.” Galli explains that the sentiment complements our culture rather well:
“Preach the gospel; use words if necessary” goes hand in hand with a postmodern assumption that words are finally empty of meaning. It subtly denigrates the high value that the prophets, Jesus, and Paul put on preaching. Of course, we want our actions to match our words as much as possible. But the gospel is a message, news about an event and a person upon which the history of the planet turns.
And this is the real problem — not from whom the quote originally came, but just how it can give us an incomplete understanding of the gospel and how God saves sinners. Christians are quick to encourage each other to “live out the gospel,” to “be the gospel” to our neighbors, and to even “gospel each other.” The missional impulse here is helpful, yet the gospel isn’t anything the Christian can live out, practice, or become.
The Apostle Paul summarized the gospel as the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, through whom sin is atoned for, sinners are reconciled to God, and the hope of the resurrection awaits all who believe.
The gospel is not habit, but history. The gospel is the declaration of something that actually happened. And since the gospel is the saving work of Jesus, it isn’t something we can do, but it is something we must announce. We do live out its implications, but if we are to make the gospel known, we will do so through words.
It appears that the emphasis on proclamation is waning even in many churches that identify themselves as evangelical. Yet proclamation is the central task of the church. No, it is not the only task God has given us, but it is central. While the process of making disciples involves more than verbal communication, and obviously the life of a disciple is proved counterfeit when it amounts to words alone, the most critical work God has given the church is to “proclaim the excellencies” of our Savior.
A godly life should serve as a witness for the message we proclaim. But without words, what can our actions point to but ourselves? A godly life cannot communicate the incarnation, Jesus’ substitution for sinners, or the hope of redemption by grace alone through faith alone. We can’t be good news, but we can herald it, sing it, speak it, and preach it to all who listen.
In fact, verbal communication of the gospel is the only means by which people are brought into a right relationship with God. The Apostle Paul made this point to the church in Rome when he said:
For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. But how can they call on Him they have not believed in? And how can they believe without hearing about Him? And how can they hear without a preacher? (Rom. 10:13-14, HCSB)
If we are to make disciples of all nations, we must use words. Preaching necessitates the use of language. So, let me encourage us to preach the gospel, and use words, since it’s necessary. But let me also say that agreeing to the centrality of proclamation is not enough. We need to move from agreement with the idea to effective execution of it. Let me encourage us to be a people who not only use gospel words but use them in four ways.
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Ed Stetzer is an author, speaker, researcher, pastor, church planter, and Christian missiologist. Stetzer is a contributor to the North American discussion on missional church and church planting.