There is a quote that has always annoyed me: “Preach the gospel at all times and if necessary use words.” It is falsely attributed to Francis of Assisi who was a well known preacher (of the verbal, talking kind). I wrote about it in Youthwork magazine in 2007. There is also a very good correction of the history of Francis of Assisi by Mark Galli for Christianity Today. You can read it here. However, there is another good reason for not using this quote any more: it doesn’t make sense.
The reason? The verb “to preach” means to proclaim, expound or promulgate a (religious) message by speaking in public. So to preach the gospel at any time it is necessary to use words.
But surely my actions speak louder than my words. Surely if I show kindness to someone through an act of service I am communicating the essence of the gospel, a message of self-sacrifice and of love. The problem, again, is that actions don’t actually “speak.” An act of kindness can demonstrate a message, but the message can only be known by something said or written in words. An action also has no volume – it can no more speak loudly or softly than a word can be said by a knee joint.
The gospel is, by definition, the good news about Jesus Christ who came, died to pay the price for our sin, and rose again giving us hope and new life. I first understood this message when my mother explained it to me (I was ten years old). She could have spent her life being kind to me (she has indeed spent her life being kind to me), but I would still be lost, dead in my sin, and destined for eternity without God if she had never told me the gospel. It is true that it is only God’s sovereign grace that saved me, but I was saved only upon hearing the good news and believing in it. God could have saved me without words, but he didn’t. The act of Christ’s death requires an explanation; it requires a preacher, like Francis of Assisi, to speak. Otherwise, as Paul asked, “how can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Rom 10:14).