'Preach the Gospel; If necessary, Use Words'
Perhaps you've heard a preacher say something like, "Preach the Gospel; use words if necessary." The quote is attributed to 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 say the quote supports a view that good deeds, e.g., social justice, is morally superior to preaching. Such an attitude, such action is not Biblical and, thus, untrue. Yet many continue to use the quote.
What Did Saint Francis Really Say?
It does Tweet nicely. 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 attributing such a statement to Francis would be to quote from his Rule 17 to his friars, which says,
“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.”
In other words, Francis called for his preachers to “practice what you preach.” In no way did he 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.
It is both sad and self-defeating to the Church that this misunderstanding continues. Because the saying supports a false idea of the Gospel that assigns spiritual value to good deeds overpreaching.
Some scholars have argued that our age of information availability has had a “corrosive” effect on a “typographical” and “oracular” culture. So, evangelism without words might be the illegitimate child of cultural folly.
One thing is for certain: 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.
Evangelism in Scripture
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 (James 2:17). 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.
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; specifically, 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.”
Jesus Preached with Words
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).
Old Testament Prophets Preached with Words
Noah preached. “He . . . preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness . . .” (2 Peter 2:5). Isaiah preached. “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” (Isaiah 61:1)
The New Testament Church Preached with Words
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” (Acts 8:4).
The Apostles Valued Words in Evangelism and Salvation
Furthermore, the Apostle Paul declared that the normative way for a person to be saved is for another person to declare the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There is no hint of merely living an upstanding moral life in order to attract others to Christ. St. Paul is clearly 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” (Romans10:9–10).
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” (Romans10:9–10).
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?
From the Holy Ghost, who works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the Gospel . . .”
Share the Gospel of Jesus – in Deeds and Words
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.
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).
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.
For further reading
Coleman, Robert E. The Master Plan of Evangelism. Baker Books, 2006.
Das, R. Compassion and the Mission of God: Revealing the Invisible Kingdom. Langham Global Library, 2016.
Green, Michael. Evangelism in the Early Church. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.
Kennedy, D. James. Evangelism Explosion: Equipping Churches for Friendship, Evangelism, Discipleship, and Healthy Growth. Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1996.
Ladd, George Eldon. A Theology of the New Testament. Edited by Donald Alfred. Hagner. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.
Montesano, Mark. “Kairos and Kerygma: The Rhetoric of Christian Proclamation.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 25, no. 1–4 (January 1, 1995): 164–178.
Newbigin, Lesslie. Lesslie Newbigin: Missionary Theologian: A Reader. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2006.
Packer, James Innell. Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. InterVarsity Press, 2008.
Poythress, Vern S. In the Beginning Was the Word: Language: Language--A God-Centered Approach. Crossway, 2009.
Sider, Ronald J. Evangelism and Social Action: Uniting the Church to Heal a Lost and Broken World. OCMS, 1993.
Webber, Robert E., and Robert Webber. Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World. Baker Academic, 1999.
Yoder, John Howard. The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel. University of Notre Dame Pess, 1985.
Michael A. Milton,PhD (University of Wales; MPA, UNC Chapel Hill; MDiv, Knox Seminary), Dr. Milton is a retired seminary chancellor and currently serves as the James Ragsdale Chair of Missions at Erskine Theological Seminary. He is the President of Faith for Living and the D. James Kennedy Institute a long-time Presbyterian minister, and Chaplain (Colonel) USA-R. Dr. Milton is the author of more than thirty books and a musician with five albums released. Mike and his wife, Mae, reside in North Carolina.