Some of our Christian clichés are fairly innocuous. Many, though are quite contentious. This is one of the worst:
Preach the gospel always, if necessary use words.
This is a quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, who, born in 1181/1182 (sources vary) was the founder of the Franciscan order of monks. However, while it appears that he never actually said this, it does correspond with much of this Roman Catholic Saint’s theology. So here’s the big question… is it true?
Maybe. Kind of.
Consider two basic perspectives on our cliché. Some would call it gospel truth. After all, all we need is love. Remember, the second greatest commandment is to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:39), and Paul said the whole law was summed up in this one phrase (Galatians 5:14). Thus, what really matters is how we live—our acts of kindness, our compassion for those in needs. And our deeds will be the thing that make people turn to Christ.
Others would look at St. Francis’ words and call them bunk.Sure, Paul says the whole law is summed up in loving our neighbors, but he also says, “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? (Rom. 10:14, emphasis mine). Without someone telling them the message of Jesus, people aren’t going to be saved.
Though these two rough sketches undoubtedly don’t give credit to all the various nuances of both sides of the argument, I trust you get the point: People tend to set up words against deeds. The reality, though, is more complicated. It’s actually kind of both. We must proclaim Christ with our mouths and our lives tell people whether or not we’re telling the truth about what we believe.
Living and proclaiming Christ
This is really the point of the Bible’s repeated commands to love one another. This is central to all of the Christian’s life because it is a critical indicator of the legitimacy of one’s profession of faith. After all, as John wrote, “if anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar… whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4:20-21). James, likewise, wrote extensively about this in his letter to the churches in exile.
He tells his readers, that we are to “be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”
For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. (James 1:22-25)
But that’s just the start. He continues:
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. (James 2:14-18)
So James makes the following conclusion inescapable: If you say you have faith, your life will bear it out. Otherwise, your profession of faith is utterly bankrupt. But our works, James says, are an evidence of, or witness to, our faith (v. 18).
And these actions, our works, give us an opportunity to verbally speak the truth, Peter tells us.
Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 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, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. (1 Peter 3:13-16)
Peter wants his readers—and us today—to press on in doing good, even as they face suffering and opposition. We are to live a life honoring to Christ, so that we will have an opportunity to make a defense—to share the gospel with our words, and our good behavior in Christ will shame those who are against us. And he is not alone. Paul told Timothy (and still tells us today) to preach, in season and out of season. To always be fulfilling his ministry as a minister of the gospel—not just as his calling as an elder, but in all of his life (2 Timothy 4:1-5).
Not only when asked, or when it’s convenient. We are to live Christ through our deeds, and we are to proclaim Christ with our mouths. That is the call of every believer, in every circumstance. When the Lord gives us an opportunity, we are to tell people about Jesus.
Do not be ashamed—and do not be afraid
But too often, when people say, “preach the gospel always, if necessary use words,” it’s actually an excuse to not proclaim the gospel. Perhaps it’s insecurity, being uncertain of what to say. Maybe it’s fear of a negative response. But some, I fear, do so because they actually don’t want to talk about Jesus at all. They are ashamed of him. But those who know Christ should never be ashamed of him.
But do not be mistaken—doing good deeds, living an impeccable life, but never speaking of Jesus means we’re just going to be seen as really nice people. And being a really nice person never saved anyone from the wrath of God. Our deeds show the love of Christ working itself out in our lives, but our words proclaim him so others may know him, too. Words and deeds always go together, just as loving the Lord with all of our being will always work itself out in how we love others. They are inseparable. So do not be ashamed, and do not be afraid. Preach the gospel always—and always use words.