There's a popular saying often repeated by Christians. It has found new life on Facebook and Twitter. Maybe you have even uttered these words, commonly at tributed to Francis of Assisi: "Preach the gospel. Use words if necessary."
I think we can appreciate what many are getting at when they say something like this. As Christians, we should live in such a way that our lives point to the person and work of Jesus. However, good intentions cannot overcome two basic problems with this quote and its supposed origin. One, Francis never said it, and two, the quote is not biblical.
Mark Galli has pointed out that there is no record of Francis, a member of a preaching order, uttering anything close to this. In fact, everything we know about the man suggests he would not have agreed with his supposed quote. He was well known for his preaching and often preached up to five times a day.
The idea may not have resonated with Francis, but for many today, wordless ministry is a compelling approach. "Words are cheap," we like to say, and "Actions speak louder than words." Galli explains that the sentiment complements our culture rather well:
"Preach the gospel; use words if necessary" goes hand in hand with a postmodern assumption that words are finally empty of meaning. It subtly denigrates the high value that the prophets, Jesus, and Paul put on preaching. Of course, we want our actions to match our words as much as possible. But the gospel is a message, news about an event and a person upon which the history of the planet turns.
And this is the real problem -- not from whom the quote originally came, but just how it can give us an incomplete understanding of the gospel and how God saves sinners. Christians are quick to encourage each other to "live out the gospel," to "be the gospel" to our neighbors, and to even "gospel each other." The missional impulse here is helpful, yet the gospel isn't anything the Christian can live out, practice, or become.
The Apostle Paul summarized the gospel as the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, through whom sin is atoned for, sinners are reconciled to God, and the hope of the resurrection awaits all who believe.
The gospel is not habit, but history. The gospel is the declaration of something that actually happened. And since the gospel is the saving work of Jesus, it isn't something we can do, but it is something we must announce. We do live out its implications, but if we are to make the gospel known, we will do so through words.
It appears that the emphasis on proclamation is waning even in many churches that identify themselves as evangelical. Yet proclamation is the central task of the church. No, it is not the only task God has given us, but it is central. While the process of making disciples involves more than verbal communication, and obviously the life of a disciple is proved counterfeit when it amounts to words alone, the most critical work God has given the church is to "proclaim the excellencies" of our Savior.
A godly life should serve as a witness for the message we proclaim. But without words, what can our actions point to but ourselves? A godly life cannot communicate the incarnation, Jesus' substitution for sinners, or the hope of redemption by grace alone through faith alone. We can't be good news, but we can herald it, sing it, speak it, and preach it to all who listen.
In fact, verbal communication of the gospel is the only means by which people are brought into a right relationship with God. The Apostle Paul made this point to the church in Rome when he said:
For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. But how can they call on Him they have not believed in? And how can they believe without hearing about Him? And how can they hear without a preacher? (Rom. 10:13-14, HCSB)
If we are to make disciples of all nations, we must use words. Preaching necessitates the use of language. So, let me encourage us to preach the gospel, and use words, since it's necessary. But let me also say that agreeing to the centrality of proclamation is not enough. We need to move from agreement with the idea to effective execution of it. Let me encourage us to be a people who not only use gospel words but use them in four ways.
1. Let your gospel words be comprehensible.
In our bid to be accurate about theological issues, we must also make certain we are comprehensible. We want to declare the biblical gospel in a culturally accessible manner. This requires us to define theological words as well as embrace the language of the people to whom we speak wherever appropriate. I find it ironic that some who love the Puritans sometimes betray the Puritan practice of speaking "plainly." Gospel words should be offered, as much as possible, in the common language of the listeners. How shall they hear if we speak in another language?
2. Let your gospel words be earnest.
We communicate that the gospel is a serious matter because it is a serious matter. I'm not suggesting that everyone should have the same temperament, but I am saying that life-saving "good news" should be offered with sobriety, sincerity, and zeal. No one listens to proclamation about serious issues presented in frivolous ways. When preaching Christ, we need clarity and sincerity.
3. Let your gospel words be heard outside the local church.
Making disciples means giving the gospel to those outside the church. Since we believe that the only Godgiven means of transferring people from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light involves the preaching of the gospel with words, we should be compelled to speak such words to any who will listen. As the ones sent by God (that's us), we should be ready to "tell the story" to the unconverted people in our neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces.
4. Let your gospel words be heard inside the local church.
The gospel should be spoken in the church because even the redeemed can drift back toward the opposite temptations of legalism and lawlessness. One of the most important things a Christian does is to redirect other Christians back to Jesus though the good news of the gospel. And, we need to speak it in the church so that the unbelievers visiting among us can hear how precious it remains to our lives, that it is not merely a way station on our spiritual journey. The gospel is spoken in the company of faith for both our sanctification and our worship.
The gospel requires, demands even, words. So, let's preach the gospel, and let's use words, since they're necessary. May they be clear and bold words that call those inside and outside the church to follow Jesus.
This article appears in the June 2012 issue of Tabletalk.
Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., is President of LifeWay Research and LifeWay's Missiologist in Residence. Ed is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine and Catalyst Monthly, serves on the advisory council of Sermon Central and Christianity Today's Building Church Leaders, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USA Today and CNN. Ed is Visiting Professor of Research and Missiology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and Visiting Research Professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. Ed blogs daily at EdStetzer.com.