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You’ve probably heard the following well-known saying quoted a number of times, especially if you’ve been a Christian a while:
“Preach the gospel at all times and if necessary, use words”
Christians often attribute this statement to St Francis of Assisi, the Italian Catholic friar, church deacon and preacher. It usually refers to the idea that, when witnessing to others, we don’t have to actually speak out the message of the gospel verbally. Instead, we can simply go about living our life in the best way possible so as to allow our light to shine before others.
There was an old song by the Christian rock band Petra called Seen and Not Heard which addressed this issue:
The idea is that eventually, people will see our works and good deeds, or our peace in certain difficult situations, or our joy, or the way we love others, and will wonder what makes us so different. Then, that will be our opportunity to share. The assumption is we will win these people over with our lifestyle without us needing to actually preach the gospel itself.
And so many of us go about our lives in exactly that way and shy away from any awkward or challenging conversations, simply hoping our deeds will speak for themselves.
But is this actually the right approach? Do these words attributed to St Francis of Assisi actually hold true? Is it a correct theology or simply an excuse that many Christians have taken up to avoid having to explain anything?
What did St Francis of Assisi actually say?
Now some of you might be thinking: isn’t the quote: “preach the gospel at all times, and where necessary, use words”? Or even “when necessary, use words”? You’ve probably heard all kinds of variations on it.
Well, it doesn’t really matter whether it’s “if” or “where” or “when”, because St Francis didn’t say any of those statements in the first place, so it’s all moot.
The closest he comes to saying this is in his Rule of 1221 on how Franciscans should practise their preaching:
“No brother should preach contrary to the form and regulations of the holy Church nor unless he has been permitted by his minister … All the Friars … should preach by their deeds.”
Now this is obviously not as catchy or Tweetable as the more well-known version.
It’s like one of these misquoted sayings that were never actually said. However, these have filtered into popular culture and become more quotable than the original, like “Beam me up Scotty” from Star Trek, or “Luke, I am your father” from Star Wars.
If we read closely however, he’s not saying quite the same thing at all.
Instead, Francis is effectively saying “make sure your deeds match your words.”
So even he isn’t advocating the idea of only preaching the gospel with your words if, where or when necessary.
“Preach the gospel and if necessary use words” – is this biblical?
In an essay entitled Works and Words: Why You Can’t Preach the Gospel with Deeds, Duane Liftin, president emeritus of Wheaton College observes that Christians often draw a false dichotomy between preaching and simply letting our actions be sufficient for others to see.
“It’s simply impossible to preach the Gospel without words. The Gospel is inherently verbal, and preaching the Gospel is inherently verbal behavior.”
In the Bible, we’re instructed to use our words and not simply proclaim by our deeds. In fact, simply preaching the gospel by our acts alone is not biblical.
Romans 10:14 says:
“How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?”
Colossians 4:5-6 also says:
“Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. 6 Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”
And finally, 1 Peter 3:15 says
“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”
Sometimes people may have questions about your faith that they can spring upon you at a moment you’re least expecting. If you avoid explaining to others either because you don’t know your Bible enough or you can’t explain the gospel, then this will not be helpful to them at all.
You can read about the importance of memorising scripture here.
Duane Liftin stresses that we need to maintain the correct balance between preaching and loving others.
Is it true that no-one has ever been argued into the kingdom of God?
Christians sometimes say that you can’t argue someone into the kingdom. They can only be loved into it.
The idea of avoiding arguments is so that people won’t become angry or defensive. When they’re like that, they’re less likely to listen and become entrenched in their positions. There is certainly some merit in this approach.
In fact, Charles Strohmer, in his book Wise as a Serpent, Harmless as a Dove points out that communication bridges are built as a result of forming relationships with people.
Strohmer gives the analogy of submarines, destroyers and luxury cruise liners. He observes that people we’re witnessing to can be like submarines who will dive at the first sign of any perceived threat. However, instead of finding a way to communicate that will bring them back to the surface, we can drop the equivalent of depth charges on them. This will cause them to submerge even deeper. Strohmer suggests we take a more non-threatening approach where we’re more like a luxury cruise liner that is more friendly and approachable and will bring others to the surface.
This is definitely a wise approach. However, is there any value at all to debate and persuasion?
Christian apologist Greg Koukl, the founder of the Christian apologetics organisation Stand to Reason discusses this in detail in his book Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions.
He points out that there were many times in the New Testament when various apostles did debate with others. For example, in Acts 17:2-4, it says:
“And according to Paul’s custom, he went to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead. . . . And some of them were persuaded.”
Koukl writes that “arguing is a virtue because it helps us determine what is true and discard what is false.”
Now that doesn’t mean that we should allow foolish disputes to distract us. We also need to know when someone is arguing for the sake of arguing and not really concerned with what is true or not. Koukl goes into this in much more detail in his book. However, he observes that if we dismiss the opportunity for legitimate discussion, we compromise our ability to know the truth.
He agrees that we need to learn how to argue in a principled way.
“We need to cultivate the ability to disagree with civility and not take opposition personally. We must also have the grace to allow our own views to be challenged with evidence, reasoning, and Scripture. Those who refuse to dispute have a poor chance of growing in their understanding of truth.”
Paul instructed Timothy to, “Retain the standard of sound words,” and “Guard . . . the treasure which has been entrusted to you” (2 Timothy 1:13 – 14). He also encouraged Titus to choose elders who could “hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.” (Titus 1:9-11).
So it would appear there is a place for argument and reasoned debate.
Can you love someone into the Kingdom of God?
The problem with the statement “preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words” is that it assumes that people will will actually ask you about that “special something” you have, or what makes you different.
Greg Koukl writes:
When people say you can’t argue anyone into the kingdom, they usually have an alternative approach in mind. They might be thinking that a genuine expression of love, kindness, and acceptance, coupled with a simple presentation of the gospel, is a more biblical approach.
But oftentimes, people won’t ask. Or if they notice something different, then they won’t necessarily attribute it to you being a Christian. They certainly won’t, from your deeds alone, receive the gospel message.
There are many non-Christians out there too who are excellent philanthropists or shining examples or models of society. Some are even sometimes better at showing kindness or helping others out than many Christians. If you asked them what makes them different, they’re not going to say that it’s because they have the hope of Christ in them.
These works on their own won’t point people to Christ.
“You cannot love someone into the kingdom. It can’t be done. In fact, the simple gospel itself is not even adequate to do that job. How do I know? Because many people who were treated with sacrificial love and kindness by Christians never surrendered to the Saviour. Many who have heard a clear explanation of God’s gift in Christ never put their trust in him.”
In John 6:44, Jesus says
“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day.
Koukl points out that the key determining factor is the work of God the Father and his Holy Spirit working in the heart of a person. Without this, simply showing love to someone will not change their heart and make them more receptive to the gospel. However, neither will an argument, no matter how persuasive or well reasoned it is.
But when the Holy Spirit is at work, that’s when different approaches can be effective, including both love or reasoned arguments.
“Here’s the key principle: Without God’s work, nothing else works; but with God’s work, many things work. Under the influence of the Holy Spirit, love persuades. By the power of God, the gospel transforms. And with Jesus at work, arguments convince. God is happy to use each of these methods.”
“Why do you think God is just as pleased to use a good argument as a warm expression of love? Because both love and reason are consistent with God’s own character. The same God who is the essence of love also gave the invitation, “Come now, and let us reason together.” Therefore, both approaches honor him.”
While we do want to let our light shine before others, God has given us the ability to express ourselves with spoken and written words. He has also given us a voice. We are to use these to further his kingdom.
There are many ways we can do this, such as having personal, one-on-one conversations with others or by blogging about Christian topics like this one.
Do you agree with the statement “preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words?”
Do you witness to non-Christians more by your deeds or your words? Are you ever avoiding having certain conversations with others? Do you think you have the correct balance?
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Robert is the founder of Drawing on the Word. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Theology and a Master’s degree in Systematic Theology. He also has a degree in Law and was called to the Bar. Robert previously taught religious studies and was a theology lecturer. He is an artist, musician and writer, and has created a graphic novel version of Luke’s gospel. You can follow him below.