In this week’s edition of this series looking at our bits of “everyday theology,” we come to a particular idea that, honestly, causes a fair bit of contention among many Christians:
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?
Many today in what some call the “Emerging/Emergent/Emergence” stream of Evangelicalism would say this is gospel truth. That you don’t need to share your faith verbally, but all you need to do good deeds, because, as we are commanded, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39). The whole law, says the apostle Paul, is summed up in this word (Gal. 5:14).
Others might say that the statement is complete nonsense. After all, Paul 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).
So which is it?
The reality is, it’s kind of both. We must all proclaim Christ with our mouths and with our lives.
Living and Proclaiming Christ
We are repeatedly given the command to love one another (with a particular emphasis on fellow believers and a general application to non-believers). This command is central to all Christian doctrine because it is a critical indicator of the legitimacy of one’s profession of faith. James, the half-brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem Church, 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, emphasis mine).
He continues in Chapter 2:14-18:
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.
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.
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 Pet. 3:13-16, emphasis mine)
Peter admonishes his readers to press on in doing good, even as they face suffering and opposition. They are to continue to live a life honoring Christ, so that they will have an opportunity to make a defense—to share the gospel with their words, and their good behavior in Christ will shame their persecutors.
They are to live Christ, so that they may proclaim Christ. That is the call of every believer, in every circumstance.
But too often, when people say, “Preach the gospel always, if necessary use words,” it’s actually intended as an excuse to not proclaim the gospel—to not give a reason for the hope that is in us (1 Pet. 3:15). They appear, in a very real sense, to be ashamed of Him.
Those who claims the name of Christ must never be ashamed of Him.
If anyone professes Christ, and does many great works, but refuses to proclaim Him, that person is only doing goodwill. And goodwill does not save people from the wrath of God.
Our deeds show the love of Christ working itself out in our lives, but our words proclaim Him. The two, like the greatest commandments, to love the Lord with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself, are inseparable. It is our joy both to love Him and others with our deeds, and to love Him and others with our words.