Preach the Gospel, Sometimes use Words?

In these next few articles I would like to address some of the common sayings I heard growing up that seemed to sound good but proved to be unbiblical and detrimental to my Christian walk. If I could pinpoint the problematic thing within all of these sayings, it would be the lack of clarity and explanation. In an effort to sound pithy, we sacrifice clarity and truth. This can have a huge impact on how we view Christ and obedience to His word. With all that being said, the first saying I would like to address in this series is, “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.”

The origins of this statement are often attributed to St Francis of Assisi. Apparently, he never said this derivation of the phrase. St Francis’ original statement was recorded as, “No brother should preach contrary to the form and regulations of the holy Church nor unless he has been permitted by his minister….All the Friars…should preach by their deeds. (Rule of 1221 Chapter XII)” Frankly, I do not think this statement is much better than the derivation we have arrived to today and it’s certainly not as catchy. According to other biographies of Francis, this was not an accurate depiction of his preaching. Either way, the statement that many evangelicals blindly accept requires more examination.

The concept that God saves simply through someone’s lifestyle directly contradicts what God has already said.

First, we will examine what this statement does get right. The statement correctly implies that God saves through the gospel. Where it veers off course is how God saves through the gospel. Francis’ attributed statement heavily implies that the primary and normative mechanism through which God saves is NOT through His word. However, the concept that God saves simply through someone’s lifestyle directly contradicts what God has already said. 1 Peter 1:23 says you were saved through the living and abiding Word of God. Now of course the Holy Spirit must supernaturally regenerate the heart and awaken the soul to understand the Word of God preached. Because the prophet Isaiah tells us that God’s word will not return to him void and it will accomplish every one of God’s desires (Isaiah 55:11), we can put all our capital into the Word. Romans 10:14-15 makes it very clear, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”  James also indicates this when he says put away all wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls (James 1:21). It is clear that the word of God is the main mechanism by which He saves. Therefore, the Word of God should be our primary focus when we evangelize to the world.

Our words and actions as Christians should not be in contradiction with one another. Our words and actions should reflect the work of Christ on the heart. This phrase, however, pits words and actions against one another.

Second, this statement implies that Christians are generally hypocrites and their words never match their actions. Therefore, if Christians did speak the truth in love, it would not be received because the believer has not reached perfection. Now, this may very well be true at times. However, for the Christian this should never be the habitual directions of one’s life. The Christian repents, and does not habitually stay in hypocrisy or any other sin for that matter. Jesus says from the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks (Matthew 12:34). There is a clear connection between our hearts and our actions. Our words and actions as Christians should not be in contradiction with one another. Our words and actions should reflect the work of Christ on the heart. This phrase, however, pits words and actions against one another. The phrase implies that our words and actions are perpetually contradicting each other, creating yet another false dichotomy. Our words should work together harmoniously with our actions. Of course Christians are commanded to live above reproach, holy lives. I am not negating these commands. I am saying that we need to obey Scripture and apply that standard when deciding on the method of evangelism. The statement utilizes a godless and worldly standard on the believer to shut them up and make them more palatable to unbelieving people. Less people will get offended by a lifestyle they simply disagree with. It’s when we open our mouths that we truly become effective. Did Jesus simply walk around, healing people, feeding people, and never say anything. Quite the contrary! Ultimately, if we were to “only sometimes use words” we would be being disobedient to God’s command to go and make disciples. Words are necessary for gospel proclamation.

Last, I’d like to address the implications of this phrase. This phrase leaves the believer in two hopeless positions. One is you’ll be paralyzed because you won’t share the gospel since you know your life isn’t perfectly lived out reflecting the love of Christ every second. The other hopeless and dangerous implication is that you will become prideful because you think you can convince or win someone to Christ based on your actions when it is God who does the regenerating work of the heart. Now I am not saying that you should go share the gospel and then go live like a pagan. In the words of Paul, “should we go on sinning so that grace might increase? By no means!” God can use your life as a means of grace to save someone, but it is not the primary means. The Word of God must be preached. Therefore, let us preach the gospel and always use words. Let us also pray that God would continue to sanctify us and make us more holy by making us into the image of His Son so that others would see Christ in our speech AND life and bring glory to God alone.

Rachel is a wife and mother of four young children. She has a love for listening to expository preaching, theology, and doctrine. She desires to make Christ known through her marriage, parenting, and in every word and deed.