It’s been quoted so often in Christendom that it has achieved the status of a proverb, almost as though it were part of Scripture: “Preach the gospel at all times, when necessary use words.” (I can almost hear the Amens!) The popular saying is usually attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, although he almost certainly did not say it.
At the risk of offending Christians who have accepted this as some profound truth, I have to say that I cannot agree with it at all. The way it is used is very unbiblical, and is just one more thing used to justify many Christians’ unwillingness to obey the Great Commission.
Like all such false teachings, the statement has a little kernel of truth to it. Obviously the testimony of our lives ought to be consistent with the gospel we have believed, and even ought to be remarkable to the point that it arrests people’s attention in a sinful world.
But let me point out what is wrong with the saying.
Firstly, taken absolutely LITERALLY I can agree with it, especially the first part about preaching the gospel at all times. “When necessary use words?” Again, I agree, the only thing is I believe it will virtually ALWAYS be necessary to use words.
BUT there is a great problem with what it IMPLIES. The idea is very clearly that words are not always necessary, and even should perhaps be a kind of “last resort”. Like there is something wrong if you have to tell someone the gospel. It should be self-evident. (In a moment I’ll explain why that is absurd and unscriptural.)
Even worse is how this idea is commonly APPLIED. This saying has become little more than a “Get out of witnessing free” card. No exaggeration, I cannot tell you how many young Christian people say to me “My kind of evangelism is just to live a good life, and show people my faith that way. I don’t feel I need to say anything.”
Here are TWO reasons I have to reject the St. Francis quote, and frankly consider it very dangerous:
1. Because the Bible teaches something very different.
“… how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? … How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, Who bring glad tidings of good things!” (Romans 10:14-15)
In order to be saved, the unbeliever must “HEAR” (not just observe); there must be a communicating of the truth about Jesus to them. Look at the words used: “preacher”, “preach”, “glad tidings”. We are told very clearly that people will not believe without having the gospel audibly declared to them. This is how the gospel travels throughout the world, and to all generations. It must be TOLD.
In theology we talk about “general revelation” and “special revelation”. The general revelation of God (i.e. Creation itself, Psalm 19:1) points to Him, but of itself it is not sufficient to save anyone, because it does not explain the Creator’s redemption plan and, specifically, about His Son our Savior in Whom we must believe. Special revelation is needed for this: the Word of God applied with the conviction of the Holy Spirit.
Similarly, your righteous life functions as a kind of “general” revelation. But your words are always needed to explain the salvation God has given you.
2. Because such an idea tends to support an entirely false view of the gospel by the hearer.
It’s based on the very faulty presumption that people will see your good example, your love, your works, and say “Ah, he/she must be a Christian. Look how it has changed their life. That’s what I need, I will become a Christian also.”
But without a verbal witness explaining how we were previously (like them) under the wrath of God because of our sin, and have been saved through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, the observer might just as easily infer “Ah, he/she must be a committed church-goer. Their morality is helping them. That’s what I need also; to be a more moral person.”
I put it to you that there are MILLIONS of people who’ve said just exactly such a thing, “having a form of godliness, but denying its power.” (2 Timothy 3:5) The church is full of false converts; the tares that Jesus predicted the enemy would sow by deception among the wheat. People who, to use John Bunyan’s imagery, have never made it through the wicket gate to come to the Cross, because they have settled instead with Mr.Legality in the village of Morality.
Far from leading a man to Christ, your unexplained example before an unbeliever may only serve to give them a false sense of security in living a good life. You have innoculated them, in a sense, against the true gospel message.
In summary, your Christian testimony MUST support the gospel that you preach, but it cannot replace the gospel being preached.