3 Problems with "Preach the gospel at all times; Use words if necessary".
If you've been around almost any group of Christianity for any length of time it's likely that you've encountered some variation of this quote:
"Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary"
This quote is popular among many and is often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. While I won't be addressing it in this post, it's ironic that there's actually no historical or literary evidence that St. Francis ever said such words.
However, as with any matter in life, we must examine statements such as these through the filter of "what does the Bible say about this?" It doesn't matter what I want to be true. It doesn't matter what I think or feel is true. What matters is what the Bible says is objectively true both in word and pattern.
First, let me start by stating that I do believe there is an aspect to this quote that is biblically true. The gospel message and the Kingdom ethic, or the Kingdom norm, should be embodied and demonstrated in tangible ways that lead people to love Jesus and see the glory of God. There is plenty of biblical evidence for living this way, especially in the New Testament (Acts 2:42-47). However, as much as we'd like to leave the conversation there, words have meaning.
Therefore, here are a few biblical problems with this quote that presents a potential danger for our faith and our understanding of how to live as Christians here in the world.
PROBLEM #1: A FALSE DICHOTOMY
Regardless of wherever the quote came from, it's important to examine what kind of biblical doctrine that quote is trying to teach us. It's particularly dangerous primarily because it immediately creates an unnecessary and false dichotomy between gospel demonstration and gospel proclamation.
The quote assumes and asserts that living like Jesus supersedes proclaiming the gospel of Jesus. It is as if to say "Don't worry about talking about Jesus, just live like Him and everything will take care of itself". This is a really popular position in our culture today because most Christians are super sensitive to the potential reality of offending anyone with their Biblical worldview. Therefore, in an attempt to not offend anyone, we adopt a weak missiology that neither Jesus nor the apostles practiced themselves. We must remember that right thinking (theology) leads to right living (missiology).
Nowhere in Scripture will you find that gospel demonstration and gospel proclamation are at odds with each other. In fact, both are commanded and intended to be in harmony and integrated as part of personal evangelism, disciple-making, and missional living. Literally, you can't read more than one chapter in Acts without seeing the harmony of gospel demonstration and gospel proclamation. I could list 50+ examples in the New Testament but here are just a few examples of demonstration and proclamation going hand in hand in Acts:
1. In Acts 2:14-41, Peter stands up "lifted up his voice" (v.14) and preaches the famous Pentecost sermon. What results after that sermon is 3,000 people are convicted by the preached word and the Holy Spirit and they respond by repenting, believing, and being baptized (v.37-41).
2. In Acts 3:11-26, Peter and John heal a lame man and, as a result, a crowd gathers and again Peter stands up and speaks at Solomon's Portico (in the temple courts) and preaches the gospel, which includes Peter calling them to repent.
3. In Acts 4 Peter and John are arrested for preaching publicly. Immediately after being released they pray this prayer: "And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness (v.29)". From that point, the text says they were filled with the Spirit and they continued to speak the word of God with boldness (v.31).
4. In Acts 6:1-4, the church has grown to thousands of people. The apostles are so busy that they need deacons to help care for people and do ministry. However, they stay rooted in their two most important tasks: prayer and preaching/teaching the Word. Notice their primary concern: preaching/teaching the Word publicly.
5. The first martyr in church history was Stephen. Why was he killed? Because he preached one of the most hard-hitting sermons in history (Acts 7). And we know from Acts 6:4 that Stephen "preached the gospel" with his life, was a man of faith and full of the Holy Spirit. His demonstration equally matched his proclamation; and they killed him for it.
Other Acts references: 4:13, 4:20, 5:21, 5:24-25, 8:4-8, 8:25-40, 9:20-22, 10:34-48, 11:25-26, and basically the rest of the book.
Other New Testament references: 1 Thessalonians 10:2-10, 1 Peter 2:9-12, 3:14-17, Philippians 1:15-18, Ephesians 1:13-14, 4:25-32, 1 Timothy 4:6-16
PROBLEM #2: AN EXCUSE TO NEGLECT PERSONAL EVANGELISM
Another significant problem with subscribing to this quote is that it quickly lends itself to making excuses for not practicing personal evangelism. The majority of Christians, who I know personally, who love this quote are people that are scared of sharing their faith with others and almost never even talk about their faith in general. Is this really what Jesus had in mind for his disciples when He rose from the grave and gave them His great commission? (Matthew 28:18-20) Live good lives but only talk about it when and if it comes up?! I struggle to see how any person can exegetically come to that conclusion after reading the book of Acts (not to mention any other New Testament letter). The early church community frequented public spaces and went from home to home on a daily basis (Acts 2:46) sharing the gospel, proclaiming the Kingdom, and teaching about the resurrected Christ as those who were eyewitnesses. Speaking about Jesus and the Kingdom was literally all the disciples did everyday. Granted, they were loving people, serving people, selling possessions, etc. but they those acts of love and compassion were never divorced from faithful gospel proclamation.
The most concerning part of this quote are the words "if necessary".
If necessary? Think about what those two words mean. The logical assumption here must be that Christians can and should live like Jesus without ever talking about Jesus or the gospel. It also includes the faulty assumption that talking about Jesus or the gospel should be our last resort. Really?! Is that the impression you get from the book of Acts? They only talked about Jesus as a last resort in leading people to Him? Not a chance. Jesus was the first thing on their minds, hearts, and lips.
Ironically, it's this way of thinking that has led America to be one of the top ten mission fields in the world. Statistics show that modern Evangelical Christianity in America is in steep decline and I believe part of the reason for this is the horrifying statistic that concludes that 95% of believers will never share their faith with one person throughout the course of their entire life! That, my friends, is truly pure disobedience to the command of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is why quotes like the one above must be addressed, evaluated, and, if necessary, rebuked. Francis Chan gives a great 90 second illustration of this in this video.
Additionally, if we're only responsible to live good and upright lives, which is a biblically incomplete concept, and we don't need to concern ourselves with any sort of gospel proclamation, then what do we do with Paul's words to the church in Rome that says:
Even Jesus Himself spent time praying for those who "will believe" in Him through our words. Look up John 17:20-21 and let it soak in that Jesus was praying that you and I would be faithful in sharing the gospel through our words with people God has already sovereignly placed in our relational network.
Dear Christian, we must stop making excuses. We must stop letting the fear of personal evangelism cripple us from sharing the only message of hope that has the power to save (Romans 1:16). We must reject the backwards thinking of I'll just live a good life and hopefully, if it comes up, then I'll talk about Jesus. It's not biblical and Christians who practice this are obviously not making a dent in the overwhelming lostness here in America.
PROBLEM #3: A LACK OF LOGICAL CONSISTENCY
Another significant problem with this quote is its logical inconsistency about how people come to a knowledge and understanding of the gospel.
Again, my argument is not an "either-or" argument but a "both-and" argument" with the proper harmony between the two. No where in Scripture do we see a lost person simply watch a disciple, or Jesus, and simply become converted. There is always a conversation about how to enter into the Kingdom of God. On top of that, Paul says in Romans 10:9-10 says "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." Even in our conversion process proclamation is important!
In addition, cognitive knowledge should never be divorced from the "hands on" learning. Jesus was the perfect and best example of this. Jesus Himself was constantly testing the waters with people, asking them questions, challenging their preconceived notions, and inviting them to follow Him to observe and learn along the way.
In no other facet of life and culture do we assume that if someone just watches our behavior that they will then automatically come to an understanding of what we're doing. We don't go to school and just watch the teachers color, draw, or write. They teach. They speak instructions, explain concepts, and guide us as we learn all while modeling the proper way to complete the assignment. The natural way we learn almost everything includes cognitive knowledge and putting that knowledge into practice somehow. Even the most abstract and ethereal disciplines, like philosophy, has real life application to how a person orders their life and deals with humanity in tangible ways.
At the end of the day, you and I have been created to live in community with people. Inside that relational environment we've been created to be ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:17-21) who have been entrusted with the message and the ministry of reconciliation; God making His appeal through us! If the people closest to you don't hear the gospel from you, who will share it with them? Even some atheists agree with me on this point. Don't believe me? Here's a great video from a famous atheist on the importance of sharing what you believe with others, regardless of what they believe or what the ramifications may be.
DO WHAT JESUS COMMANDED
The most important part of this conversation is to understand what the Biblical rationale is and then put that into practice. Jesus has commanded His disciples to do what He said (John 14:15). In addition, Jesus said in Matthew 7:24-27 that people who hear Jesus' words and put them into practice are wise. People who hear Jesus' words and don't put them into practice is unwise.
Jesus said: “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation." (Mark 16:15; see also Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 1:8, John 20:21)
Will you obey Jesus? Will you put that into practice?
Lastly, let's be a Church that embodies faithful gospel demonstration And faithful gospel proclamation. This was the model of Jesus, the disciples, and the early church. May the Lord give us the courage, strength, and wisdom to do likewise for the glory of God alone.