Perhaps, you’ve heard a preacher say, “Preach the Gospel; use words if necessary.” The quotation is attributed to Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, or, as he is more famously known, Saint Francis of Assisi (1181-1226). With the best intentions, pastors, missionaries, Sunday School teachers, and even some evangelists employ the line to support the (very biblical idea) that Christians should not merely announce the Gospel of Jesus Christ but live the ethics of the kingdom of Jesus Christ. This is true enough. In the more extreme examples, some issue the quotation to support a view that good deeds, e.g., social justice, is morally superior to preaching.1 Such an attitude, such action is not Biblical and, thus, untrue. Yet many continue to use the quotation. It does Tweet effectively.
The only problem is that St. Francis of Assisi never wrote anything even vaguely related to the oft-used reference.
The closest one can come to attribute such a statement to Francis would be to quote from his Rule 17 to the friars in his charge, which reads:
“Let none of the brothers preach contrary to the form and institution of the Holy Roman Church, and unless this has been conceded to him by his minister . . . Nevertheless, let all the brothers preach by their works.”2
In other words, Francis called for his preachers to “practice what you preach.” In no way did this venerable figure in medieval Christianity mean that preaching is less effective and useful than social action. Indeed, the famous monastic’s writings demonstrate a zeal for the kerygma, the preached Word of God.3,4
It is both sad and self-defeating to the Church that this misunderstanding continues. For the maxim supports a false conception of the Gospel that assigns spiritual value to good deeds over preaching. Some scholars have argued that our age of information availability has had a “corrosive” effect on a “typographical” and “oracular” culture.5 So, evangelism without words might be the illegitimate child of cultural folly. One thing is for sure: any concept of evangelism without words—the announcement of the Gospel of Jesus our Lord—is resolutely and irrefutably alien to the Bible and is, therefore, tragically mistaken.
The Scriptures Speak
But we do not want to be misunderstood. James, the brother of our Lord, declared under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that faith without works is dead.6 But kingdom ethics — that is, attitudes and actions towards others by believers, e.g., in the Lord’s teaching from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7; Luke 6:17-49)— first requires that we become citizens of the kingdom of God.7 In the economy of God’s dealing with humanity, the entrance to the kingdom of God is accessed exclusively through faith in Jesus of Nazareth as Lord and Savior by receiving the Good News of the Kingdom (the Covenantal terms of the Plan of God). Thus, an evangelist might proclaim:
“Repent and believe in the resurrected and living Jesus Christ. Transfer your trust from self (or anything or anyone else on whom you depend for eternal life) to the Lord Jesus Christ. And follow Him.”8
We proclaim with words, not merely deeds because this is the prescribed plan of God. Indeed, Jesus Christ came preaching: “‘I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also because that is why I was sent.’ And he kept on preaching . . .” (Luke 4:43-44a).
After the natal and childhood passages, the Lord Jesus is introduced to the reader as a preacher. Our Lord announced that the purpose in His coming to earth was to preach: “But he said to them, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43 ESV).
Noah preached. “He . . . preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness . . . “Isaiah preached. “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”9
And this is not just clergy, as it were, but everyday men and women who became exiles because of persecution (unwitting, even unwilling missionaries): “Therefore they that were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the word.”10 Furthermore, the Apostle Paul declared that the normative way for a person to be saved is for another person to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There is no hint of merely living an upstanding moral life equates to an explanation of the Gospel (though we let out light shine, we do good works, and others will see them and praise God for them). St. Paul is reflecting the truth of the rest of the Scriptures in Romans:
“Because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”11
The great Apostle gave an unassailable defense of evangelism by proclamation when he continued,
“. . . if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”12
Likewise, the Apostle Peter taught the divine method for proclaiming the Gospel:
“But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15 ESV).
The ordinary, God-ordained way for a person to know Jesus Christ is through preaching or declaring the Gospel. As the Heidelberg Catechism puts it so succinctly:
“Since then we are made partakers of Christ, and all His benefits, by faith only, whence doth this faith proceed?”
Answer: “From the Holy Ghost, who works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the Gospel . . .”13
Preaching the Gospel, sharing the Gospel, declaring the Gospel, speaking the Gospel, writing the Gospel for reading, or recording the Gospel for hearing—or any new means that might appear in the future to help us communicate the truth of the Gospel message of the Word of God—remains the ordinary way that people are reached, the human soul transformed, and the Kingdom of God is advanced. Whether clergy or lay, whether male or female, whether from a pulpit or a lectern, Poet’s Corner, or a mother’s knee, we come to hear the Gospel in word. Like miracles in the Bible, our deeds authenticate and demonstrate the reality of Christ in us. We must never diminish the importance of deeds. But we must never think that people will be saved by merely seeing us do good deeds.
Let me explain with a story.
“I Want to be like John”
Once upon a time, there was a splendid lad by the name of John. John was not only a good student, a gifted athlete, a senior patrol leader of the local Boy Scout troop—certain to be an Eagle—and an involved community servant, he was a good friend to everyone who knew him. Indeed, it could be said without hyperbole that to meet, John was to recognize the presence of goodness instantly. As even some of his teachers would say to each other, “There is just something remarkable about this young man. Isn’t he a joy to teach?” Now, John was also a Christian. Anyone who knew about John would undoubtedly agree that he was a committed Christian. He attended church weekly, assisted in Sunday schools for the younger boys, was active in his youth group, and was even mentioned by several as the kind of young man who would be an outstanding pastor. John was a junior in high school, but already he was being courted by some of the nation’s finest universities not only for his athletic prowess but also for his academic strength. His resume also caught the attention of the service academies. He was a shoo-in for West Point — that is, if this young man chose not to pursue one of the several Ivy League schools, also interested in calling him an alumnus.
A young minister was soon called as the youth leader in John’s church. The youth leader believed that while the youth group was active in community service projects, they were simply not fulfilling the Great Commission. The young pastor began to train the members of the youth group in evangelism. He wanted his students to be able to give an answer for the hope that was within them. You could hardly call his initiative a “program.” The young minister simply wanted to help his youth group members to give a compelling and clear presentation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ when called upon to do so. Now, it was at this very point that John demurred. He felt that speaking the Gospel was not as important as living the Gospel. No one could deny that the young man was living the Gospel. He was just not interested in the possibility of offending someone, even if someone asked him about his faith. So, he decided not to participate. In no way did this refusal to learn how to share Jesus Christ harm his stellar reputation.
But one night, everything changed for John—and the entire community. With other friends from high school, John was at a Friday night gathering after the football game at his local church. Parents and others would gather to prepare hot dogs and hamburgers, popcorn, cold drinks, games, and other amusements to draw the church’s youth to the relative safety of the church, rather than having them “out on the town somewhere.” John frequented these youth fellowships on Friday night. He was there on that fateful evening.
Everyone was having a splendid time when — all of a sudden — a young lady, a friend (naturally) of John’s — came through the door. Her presence in the doorway startled the gathering. “Shut the music down!” Someone yelled. People froze in their places. You could hear a pin drop. The girl had been in some kind of a severe accident. The poor lass had cuts and bruises visible on her face, arms, and legs. She was in her stocking feet. The girl, also a junior at the local high school and a member of the youth group, had dressed for the evening in a smart-looking white blouse and navy skirt. The blouse and skirt were, by then, tattered and bloodstained. She was crying. The youth leader himself broke the silence. While all others were still, the young pastor ran to the girl’s side.
“Oh, Amanda! What has happened?”
Amanda looked almost catatonic. But she looked up to her minister. She spoke softly into the stoned silence of what was say delightful party just one moment prior. And this is what she said:
“Jim, we have been in an accident—a bad wreck.”
The minister reached out for the young lady and embraced her compassionately. As everyone looked on, still listening with captivated expressions of horror, the minister asked, “Amanda, you said, ‘We.’ Who else was in the accident?”
Amanda’s shock turned to sudden uncontrollable weeping.
“It was from Sandy.” People couldn’t understand her. The minister couldn’t make out her words for the heaving tears.
“Who was it, Amanda?”
“Sandy. He was with me after the game. He wanted to take me out for a hamburger. I said, ‘Sure,’ you know? I mean, I wanted to be friendly to him, tell him that he was a part of our group. We ate and had a good time talking. We got into his truck, and we were turning to leave the restaurant and come here. A car ran the red light. He hit us broadside! I knew Sandy could never make it!”
Sandy Cochran was the proverbial “new kid in town.” The gangly adolescent, a country boy suddenly dropped into an affluent suburban community, had been a new member of the youth group. Sandy wasn’t a Christian. He told everyone that he was “just investigating.” People liked the boy at a distance. Amanda had shown him both humanity and compassion by joining him that night.
“Where is Sandy?” The young minister asked, now looking intently into Amanda’s eyes, was desperate for the answer.
Amanda gathered herself. Her eyes closed; she spoke. And I am sure that no one there—no one—would ever forget what that poor girl said next. It is certain that John, the good boy, would always remember her words for the rest of his life. Amanda drew a breath to brace herself. “Well, as Sandy lay dying—and I just knew he was; I mean you could just tell; there was no way . . .” She was remembering. And the pause gave her strength to finish her testimony. “I could see the flickering lights of the town, reflecting in his eyes. I was right there next to him. I just kept thinking, ‘His mom and dad are not here. Pastor Jim is not here. No one is here but me. I have to get close.’ We were waiting for the police and an ambulance. But I knew, I just knew that Sandy was not going to make it.”
By this time, the youth minister was joined by John. John was also the student leader of the group, and he felt also obliged to try and comfort Amanda. And it was at that point, when John approached her, that Amanda looked at him and smiled through the dried blood in the mangled hair. She finally spoke, and no one would ever forget her words:
“I knew that Sandy was dying. He could hardly speak because he seemed to be choking on his blood. I did everything I could, but, you know, it was too late.” Amanda looked at John.
“And John, I want you to know something: Sandy’s last words were—I will always remember; he said: ‘I am dying. And before I meet God, I want to say…’
Amanda stopped. ‘Yes, Sandy, go on . . .” And he spoke those words:
“Amanda, I know I have not been the best kid. I have made mistakes. And, well. I know I need something. I . . . I just want to be . . . like John.”
John had shown Sandy all about John. He had told Sandy nothing about Jesus. And Sandy died with his hope securely fastened—on John.
The point of this story is that a young man who didn’t know Christ was seeking for answers. He went to the right place to get the solutions. But the youth leader had accurately diagnosed a spiritual problem in the youth group. Students — Christian students — were seeking to evangelize by living upstanding lives, by community work projects, by social justice seminars, and by being good students, good kids. Leading an experience like the protagonist of the story, John, is a noble a worthwhile goal, indeed. But without speaking the name of the Lord Jesus, others are not drawn to him. They are drawn — or sometimes they are repelled — by the seemingly perfect life of people like John. In reality, the boy in the accident named Sandy, unless another told him of the righteousness and sacrifice of Christ and unless Sandy had trusted in the resurrected Savior, the boy would have uttered his last words, “I want to be like John;” and he would have died and gone to hell.
Good deeds, social justice, and exemplary living — even striving to keep the Ten Commandments, which certainly should be one goal of Christian living — cannot replace the saving power of Jesus Christ.
“And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12 KJV).
John’s life, your life, my life cannot save anyone. Teach them Christ, and whatsoever He commanded. That is our Great Commission.
“Preach the Gospel and, if necessary, use words?” No. St. Francis never said that. And the Bible does not teach that. Better to say, just “Preach the Gospel.” And Christ will do infinitely more than we could hope or imagine.
Don’t just show people your life. Show them, Jesus.
This is the Word of the Lord. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.