Thursday, February 03, 2005

"Preach the gospel and if necessary use words??"

This quote, (apparently falsely) attributed to St. Francis of Assisi - who was a preacher - is a common threat to evangelism today. It plays to our fear of speaking about Jesus, and to our sense of weakness and insufficiency to the task. It is however fundamentally flawed at so many levels... let me deal with six things! Whether Francis said it, or whether it contains useful teaching isn't my point. My concern is the way it is applied.

I believe in showing mercy and loving people and helping the poor, widow, orphan, immigrant. I do. Giving someone a meal isn't evangelism and giving them a Bible isn't filling their stomach. They are different things. Both are important. Both are necessary.

Firstly, why do you need to tell me not to use words?
It is endemic of assumed evangelicalism that we forget that each of us how know about Jesus did once hear about him. People insist on preaching that we need no preaching, this is very like the postmodern wordsmiths who proclaim the meaningless of words - and yet expect their own words to be clearly understood! People complain about indoctrination, but indoctrinating just means teaching - and everyone gets taught, and everyone has doctrines.

Secondly, the Bible makes it clear that Words are always necessary.
The very existence of the Bible indicates God's express intent to communicate with words. But more than that that it is by the speaking of the good news about Jesus that people will come to believe. In a society that still carries a little Christian-Culture we might forget our need to hear - but the fact remains that what we know is only known because we have been told. It is by God's spoken word that we know anything definitive about people. The first thing God did was speak, and his people are told to speak too. Paul's final word to Timothy (2 Tim 4v2) wasn't do the washing up, it was 'preach the word'.

Thirdly, using Words is not an alternative to living the life
Those who prohibit use of words do so in favour of living distinctively. This is a false distinction. It is not an option as to either preach or live, both are required! A related issue is, what does a life look like that is changed by Jesus. My suspicion is that its more than just moral respectability - we are probably more compromised with our western culture than we dare to admit. Without words people will not guess that we are Christian- since they will not know what Christian is. With only words our faith will not carry half the impact - Christians should be at the forefront of making the most of life, living it the way it should be, in the arts, creativity, justice and joy... for the glory of the gospel of Christ. How that works in practice is something we need to wrestle with! If we follow the 'great comission' in Matthew 28 the result will be both preachers and teachers but also those who live in accordance with Jesus' teaching. Live and speak.

Fourthly, Jesus told us to preach, disciple and teach.
All of these things require speaking and using words. The word revealed message of Jesus has to be verball explained. The apostles in Acts prove, persuade and convince people about Jesus, and whilst it takes God to open eyes we are still to argue the case. We should use words with care and seriousness that reflects what we're speaking about. Preaching is not an excuse for excessive confrontation or any rudeness in our explaining about Jesus. We should be clear and respectful, though we will inevitably cause some offence. See for example, 2 Timothy 4v2 (again), or Matthew 28v19-20.

Fifthly, yes, the message is offensive and foolish.
Often we appeal to St. Francis' words because we look at the messages of the world and think they are superior to ours... ultimately God gives us wisdom to confound the world's wisdom, and wisdom which Jesus himself says will not be understood by lots of people. People are blind to Jesus message, blinded by sin and by satan. But when the gospel is spoken God re-creates and heals this blindness. 1 Corinthians 1v18ff shows the folly of the gospel that generations have rejected because it didn't suit their itching ears (2 Timothy 4v4).

Sixthly, even if preaching is illegal we must do it.
The first apostles were banned from speaking about Jesus, they could not comply with this kind of request. Preaching the gospel might mean we end up in prison - that is just part of the deal. That's Acts 4v19-20 for example.

Let us use words to tell of Jesus, and let us live lives of gospel-shaped love - for the church and for those currently outside of the church.


  1. I do agree with what you wrote, and you put it very eloquently, but a couple of things. The quote doesn't suggest that we EITHER use words OR actions. It's simply saying don't ONLY preach the gospel through your words. It's surely discouraging the hypocritical nature of people who talk and talk about the gospel, yet don't live it out in their own lives. How is anybody going to respect a preacher who ONLY preaches through words?
    Also, yes the Bible does tell us to preach and use words, but it also says that people will know we are Christians by our love.
    I'm not trying to argue with you at all (honest!) just a couple of thoughts. Nice blog by the way xxx

  2. Hi Claire,

    My issue isn't so much with the quote itself, as with the way it is so often used to blunt the verbal edge we need to make Christ known. This is how I seem to most encounter the quote at least. If I can be so bold, I think St. Francis is hauled out to justify our disobedience to the very thing we were given the Holy Spirit to be empowered to do, the scape goat to justify our fear and sin.

    To try and claim faith without it showing in life leaves just empty words... but the life without words is also empty. Both would be sin.

    My suspicion is that the level of love between believers that will testify to the gospel is significantly higher than we tend to practice... And in the context of John 13v34-35, our love for one another is based on Jesus love for us - in going to the cross... which is about his dying in our place, bearing God's wrath for our sin so we wouldn't perish but have eternal life (see John 3v16,36)... Words will not be absent in this kind of love, since the cross always needs explaining.

    Hebrews 10v32-34 probably gives us some further hints, love for each other that means identifying ourselves with persecuted believers at the cost of all our possessions will make a clear testimony - the kind of stand required where it could cost us everything, and yet we might echo the martyrs and say that we never made a sacrifice...

  3. Everyone's happy - except St. Francis I suspect. I seem to remember someone saying (Think it was Mr Pollock at Forum04) that this quote, in it's original context, means everything it should. It was originally aimed at hypocritical preachers whose lives didn't reflect their preaching.

  4. Totally out of date comment time.....5 months later I find this thread, but wondered if it would totally clear St Francis name if I pointed out that during the crusades, his followers risked persecution by refusing to fight, but instead they all went to the Muslims, offered a hand of peace and asked if they would listen to Francis talk about Jesus. Surprised at this friendly gesture, the random Prince or whoever they had gone to accepted, and St Francis told them the good news. I've no idea the outcome, if any believed etc, but its a great ancient example of how Christians should behave. Cheers

  5. "Preach the gospel at all time, if necessary use words."
    No where does it say NOT to use words. Those who are lost need to SEE us living the WORD. To quote a millions mothers "Actions speak louder than words." Our lives, our actions will have people LISTENING when speak the gospel.

  6. I quite agree that it doesn't say don't use words... the problem is the way its applied which is almost always to permit silence.

    Actions are always the context for our words. And they do speak loudly. They either bring revulsion or adornment to our doctrine.

  7. "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." Actions should preceed words in order for the words of the gospel to have an affect.

  8. I agree with the last comment. This is a great quote needed epsecially new believers. There are far too many failing Christians who want to preach to another with no real work of the Holy Spirit in action in their own personal lives. If Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit is not in action in every aspect of our own personal lives, then Christ is dead (with or without words). Words are cheep. An entire life is expensive.

  9. Great quote. I agree that it's often used to deny the importance of words and to justify our fear of speaking out. In Acts 4:29 the disciples ask God for boldness to SPEAK in the face of adversity, so verbally preaching is definitely essential. A point I'd like to make here though, is that this quote isn't actually by St. Francis of Assisi. It's certainly Franciscan in spirit but it's adapted from a different quote. "In Chapter XVII of his Rule of 1221, Francis told the friars not to preach unless they had received the proper permission to do so. Then he added, “Let all the brothers, however, preach by their deeds.” (This information was obtained through "Ask a Franciscan, St. Anthony Messenger.)

  10. Talk is cheap. The quote is awesome. Don't overanalize. Just be reminded to live lives that show we belong to Jesus.

  11. Yes, the disciples did preach with words, but they also lived out their faith everyday. I know many Christians at school who speak the gospel, then an hour later I hear they got in a fight. They speak with words of love, but don't live it out. I started living by this quote last fall, when I truly started growing in my faith. I've always been very shy, even about being noticed at school, so this was very hard for me. God's taught me to pray during the moment of silence and over my lunch. He's taught me to smile at everyone I see. He's taught me to love everyone, even those who are so cruel to me. By doing this, I've shown those around me at school what I believe and who I live for. Everyone knows, and God has blessed that. He took me from wanting nothing to do with the school paper, to holding the position of Editor-in-Chief. I've met a lot of people very different from me because of this, and shown them all love. One of these people is our Graphic Artist, who didn't even want to be at school. He's an atheist and has been on marijuna and who knows what else, so he wouldn't have responded to me preaching to him. Now he's a good friend and we speak every other day. He knows I'm a Christian and that he can talk to me about anything. Another is one of my classmates, who is agnostic. There was a day at school I noticed she was very withdrawen from everyone else, which I found strange because she is the most outgoing person I know. I reached out to her and made a friend. If I had preached to her, she never would have talked to me again. She had a fight with her best friend, and just needed to be loved. She's now coming to youth group with me, which she herself finds hard to believe. Another close friend at school is of a different religion, (not sure of the name, but it's middle eastern) so preaching wouldn't reach out to her either. But we've known each other for 10 months now, and a door was opened 2 weeks ago for us to discuss what we believe, and another door opened last night. All three of these people are wary of what I believe, so preaching would have only driven them away. But because I showed them the love of Christ, they now trust me to speak to them without preaching, which opens doors for me to share my faith. I've learned to live by the quote "Go and preach the gospel to the world, and if absolutely necessary, use words," and I've seen amazing things happen because of it. My friends have never had God as a friend before, so I've set out to show them what it might be like. Please take into consideration what I've said, and reconsider your position. Praying for you! God Bless!

    Rock 4 Jesus!

    Your Sister in Christ,

    Ariella :)

  12. Hello, just wanted to say that i think what you wrote was interesting. I currently attend a Franciscan Highschool and I hear this phrase quoted a lot. The way that my teachers have explained it to me is that we are called to preach to Gospel and preach it in every aspect of our life. What St. Francis ment is that we should show people through our actions how Chirst/God wants us to live. We can talk about it as much as we want, but until we put it into action, it means nothing. Kind of like the old saying You can talk the talk but can you walk the walk......or atleast thats how I see it.

  13. Too many Christians seem to think that the narratives of the Gospels and Acts just happened in neat little paragraphs like they were written.

    We yell, "REPENT!" before there is evidence that our message has touched the heart. We cry, "we have the TRUTH!" before anyone sees anything remotely resembling Christian charity, humility and love flowing out of us. We rail against the abortion doctor and the "homo" and the "liberal" and every other nasty beastie and never once swallow any of our fundie pride and bend our backs to SERVE them.

    In short, yer darned tootin'... preach the Gospel at all times and WHEN necessary, use words. Exactly. Don't come slinging the Bible like a shiny Zorro blade and then trying to convert the people you sliced to pieces. Let's try living according to what we believe in such radical and wildly anachronistic ways that people are simply stunned. Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Your faithful.

  14. Blue Fish is correct, because unlike other posts here, he is obviously using the Bible to determine what is correct and what is not.

    The Bible is the final authority, not any man's flawed opinion.
    "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:"
    (2 Tim. 3:16)

    Pithy quotes made by men have been the downfall for many Christians concerning doctrine. A lot of Christians base their evangelism methods on neat unbiblical evangelism courses, which center around little quotes and rhymes and tid bits of worldy advice on how to make someone spiritually reborn. At the heart of it, is simply how to win souls to Christ in the most comfortable way possible for Christians, as oppossed to "What does the Bible say?" or "How did the apostles do it?"

    For example, "You have to gain their trust through a meaningful relationship before sharing the gospel." That is not true. It is comfortable, but not true BIBLICALLY. You simply can't substantiate the claim from scripture. The Bible talks about preaching IN and OUT of season, and no where do you see Paul taking time to have meaningful relationships before preaching to people, nor any other disciple.

    So, what Blue Fish is saying, is that this quote, regardless of the circumstances that caused Francis to coin the phrase, is used to back up unbiblical evangelism, because most interpret it to mean that you can "preach" the gospel through deed and not by word. That is simply not true.

    How do we know it is not true? Well, Christian, what is the final authority --- the Bible. So, let's try this... Let's look at the Bible.

    "For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not HEARD? and how shall they HEAR without a preacher?" Romans 10: 13-14

    The bottom line is that no where do you see anyone in the Bible repenting and putting their trust in Christ, having believed the gospel, without first having it SPOKEN to them first. Period.

    So, stop quoting people and QUOTE GOD'S WORD! Period.

    "Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of Truth."
    2 Tim. 2:15

    If you really want to evangelize BIBLICALLY, meaning the way the Bible says, go to

    I would supply more scripture, but am out of time.

  15. I am currently studying the life of Jesus, and I have learned that, of the 31 recorded encounters between Jesus and individuals, eight were purely spiritual conversations, and the other 23 involved the meeting of physical needs. Of those, only four also involved spiritual conversation. The vast majority of times, 19, Jesus met physical needs only and did not preach the gospel.

    Yes, Jesus did give us the Great Commission, but He also both taught and modeled a Spirit-led life in which the decision to speak, act, or do both was made differently in each situation.

  16. I'm very interested in what both bluefish and the anonymous writer who posted the entry on "Wed Feb 14, 07:10:00 PM 2007". Anon. said that "Blue Fish is correct, because unlike other posts here, he is obviously using the Bible to determine what is correct and what is not". So....I'm just very curious as to why Bluefish that never once did you quote the Bible. It's one thing to make a claim, but to not cite your sources...for some people it drives us crazy. I like what you have to say Bluefish, you've got an honest argument, however if you really believe that the quote de-emphasizes the use of words in an evangelistic manner, then why not show exactly where the Bible talks about that situation. I'm not a huge fan of people who argue for the sake of arguing, and that's what I get from your post, Bluefish, without any back-up from scripture. MAke the point! But really go in depth...not just mention the book or whatever, but the actual verses and show them to us. I really value someone's opinion if it is backed up...especially concerning the Word of God. If you are so keen on using words...why not use scripture?

  17. Amuzing thread. I wonder if anyone has actually done the little research required to learn that St. Francis never said this quote that is attributed to him. See:

    Even more amuzing is that the author of this article doesn't understand the literary use of hyperbole, an over-statement used for the sake of emphasis. Jesus Himself employed this use of speech ("hate your father and mother" Lk. 14:26, also see Mt. 5:29-31). Whoever said, "Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary" gave a great quote. It has a very needed message if you understand it. If people are mis-using the quote then challenge that, not the quote itself. There are more important things to be concerned about. Over 3 billion don't know Christ while you are sitting here blogging. Instead of criticizing words, why not actually obey Christ? Go speak and demonstrate the gospel like the statement wisely implies.

  18. >>the Bible makes it clear that Words are always necessary.

    It seems to me that one of Jesus's most powerful sermons was when he washed the feet of the disciples at the "last supper."


  19. So what IS the Gospel, then? What is this Good News that can be preached by action firstly, but by words only secondly or supplementally?

    That a most Holy Sovereign God created all things for His Glory? That mankind was created in His image so that we have no excuse but to fellowship with God and value Him supremely? Tha instead, mankind valued itself more and sought to gain knowledge to be just like God? That for this monumental act of treason alone, each and every human being rightly deserves to roast in hell for all of eternity? That hell is not the problem? That SIN is the problem and hell is the just solution to it? But by God's Sovereign Grace, He came down to us as the son of man to preach the Kingdom of God, BEFORE dying for the penalty of sins and rising up again to declare that he indeed is the Son of God?

    And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.

  20. Man, lots of comments.

    Blue Eyed Soul - a source about the quote was cited in the comments earlier by me.

    I fully get the hyperbole of the earlier quote, whomever it was that actually said it. My point remains the way that it is used, applied and understood by many today.

    As it happens I work as an evangelist.

    Apologies to those who observed the lack of Biblical citations in the post, I've added a few now and there are other posts exploring the issue on the blog itself in a bit more detail.

    rj - I agree that Jesus' actions conveyed a powerful message, but nonetheless John had to tell us about it. Without it's explanation what use would the event have been, both originally and for us?

  21. While I understand and agree that words must be used at times and I believe actions are all that is needed at times, what I take "Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary" to mean is just let the Bible speak for itself, don't always embellish with your own thoughts. So often I hear people try to preach the gospel (or the Bible) and it is only 10% Bible and 90% their take on what the scripture means. I take that quote as a showing that God knows best what to say and He can say it better than we can. If at all possible, just stick to what He said, not just what you feel like saying. Do what Jesus did in the wilderness (Matt 4)- instead of responding to Satan with a bunch of reasons to counter Satan's lies He just quoted Scripture in response. He didn't even say "The word of God says .... so ... is why I shouldn't do what you are asking." He didn't put in the whys or explanations, He just quoted straight Scripture. That's just what I get out of this quote.

  22. Hey Bluefish,

    Thanks for taking the time to, not only write an article that some might consider provocative, but to also take the time to respond to readers comments in a thoughtful way.

    My biggest concern with your article is how Christians will respond to it. Namely, will some preach the gospel in an inappropriate way, at an inappropriate time without the love and caring because they feel legalistically that they have.

    I can tell you from my own personal experience that seems to happen. I was not saved until I was in my late 20s. Before that time, I experienced on a number of occasions people witnessing to me. Most of those experiences were negative.

    It seemed that they could care less about me, what I thought or who I was. Their agenda seemed only to get me to go to their church. There, I believed, I would eventually be obligated to give money.

    When done with love and caring, however, witnessing can be very powerful. I recall one of my friends from college trying to witness to me. He talked about how Bono from U2 was a Christian and how his songs had Christian messages in them. By that time I was so shut down, I didn't want to listen to a word he said. All the prior witnessing I had experienced left me hurt and to a point where I didn't want to hear a word that he had to say. And you know what - he did the one thing caring thing he could do at the time - he respected my feelings.

    Now, 20+ years later, I am inspired listening to U2 and watching what Bono in doing in Africa - trying to get people and nations to respond and help out with the AIDS pandemic among other things.

    So for me its not just using words, its how those words are used. Sometimes I think it really is better not to use words. Other times, I think words really are necessary.

    I think you have a good point - there are times when I fail to speak the words I should in accordance with the Holy Spirit and God's will. It is at those times that I sin. However, I think there is not enough of an acknowledgement that sometimes its better not to speak and sometimes the way words are spoken can do more harm than good.


  23. Kim, we do need to unpack and teach the scriptures - God gives the church teachers not just Bible readers.

    Bob, yeh I agree. There are clearly times to not speak. I'd hope that the breadth of content on the blog expresses that there should be kindness, patience, gentleness and at times just silence.

  24. It has been so great reading this blog! All of your responses are well thought out and the references to scripture are wonderful. I must just say that as someone who didn't know Christ until about 2 years ago(I am 24), I have to agree with what Ariella and Broken Splinters both said about not always 'attacking people' with the Gospel, but that doesn't mean not to share it. It is all about how best to respond to someone... if you push it, and they don't want to hear it... they will be turned off, and you will not be able to get through to them.

    From my own personal experience, it was not until God had prepared my heart that I was ready to hear the Gospel. Every attempt prior had failed, and actually made me less willing to hear it in the future. I'm not saying stop trying, just realize that you can't FORCE someone to choose salvation, it is something they have to do themselves.

  25. Yip, 2010 already. If anyone is listening I'd ike to share a few thoughts:

    1. The Bible is the only true Word of God. As such we should be led by it.
    2. We are saved by faith only - refer Romans 10:9.
    3. We only get faith by hearing the Word of God preached - refer Romans 10:17.

    What more needs to be said? Preaching the Word does not negate the need to live the Word by actions. The one does not go without the other. From the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.

    If you are concerned that you may alienate anyone by preaching the Word, or speaking/sharing it, then don't be. Because the Bible says that one will sow, another will water but God will bring the increase - refer 1 Cor 3:5-9.

    Moreover, Paul states that he did not hesitate to preach the full counsel of God and on this basis he is "innocent of the blood of all men" - refer Acts 20.

    Jesus gave the instruction to preach the Gospel after He had been victorious over death - it being the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. Jesus said that those who do what he says are His disciples and that these will know the Truth and the Truth will set them free - refer John 8. Thus, if you fullfill the great commission you are doing what Christ said you must do. On this basis you will be set free yourself. Moreover by preaching the Word others will hear it and believe, and with their belief they will have eternal life. That is loving God and loving your neighbour - the fullfillment of the Law and the Prophets.

  26. True not a literal quote.
    Probably a paraphrase of this two quotes:

    “It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.”

    “…As for me, I desire this privilege from the Lord, that never may I have any privilege from man, except to do reverence to all, and to convert the world by obedience to the Holy Rule rather by example than by word.”

  27. Thanks - either way the way he gets used to say "don't preach" is deeply unhelpful, yet unlived preaching is terrible too.

  28. 1John 3:18
    Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.

  29. "Actions speak louder than words."
    "A picture is worth a 1000 words."

    Light travels faster than sound.
    People see what you do before they hear what you say.


    If you are going to 'talk the talk' you best be sure to also 'walk the walk'.

  30. Sammy

    I guess sometimes we argue just for kicks. Surely life demands more from us than just arguing for argument's sake. After our commentator has said all he wanted to say, I'm left with the impression that he has just proved the accuracy of that quote rather than refuted it. That quote is as true and powerful as any words of Jesus. Some people misapply it but that doesn't nullify its truth. The same sort of unnecessary argument has been raised concerning the words of James 2:14. The Bible is clear: tell, speak, pronounce, articulate the Gospel - and your lifestyle is a great part of the preaching. Francis, or whoever gave us that quote, was right. We preach and undergird it with how we live. For we often live what we believe.

  31. See Martin Luther's A Treatise on Christian Liberty --- "A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all." [1] Shand

  32. I'm sure there are still many who believe Sunday church services are for God. It is a place where preachers convince the already convinced, convert the converted, and bask in the admiration of those who fill him with pride and provide the music for his self-adulatory righteousness. I have heard so many empty words on Sunday mornings that most sermons seem hollow. As we are told in the Gospel of John, He is the Word - language manifest. This sentiment, wherever it came from, in no way relegates the spoken or written word to the trash heap; it simply points out that, ultimately, the glory and joy of a life built on Christ's love is ineffable. Try to put into words the wind. We can describe its effects on leaves and sand and hair, and even relate the scientific causes of the phenomenon, but only by standing in the breeze can we truly know the wind. And after we have, we are left with only one word, if any is necessary at all - wind.

  33. I think that your reaction is very over the top and somewhat dramatic. It in no way says to not use words when preaching. Nor does it say anything about any other point of preaching. It is a simple statement to remind us that we must practice what we preach. Don't just speak about it, be about it.

  34. I'd just like to pass on another way to help spread the gospel and it's simply this:-

    Include a link to an online gospel tract (e.g. as part of your email signature.

    An email signature is a piece of customizable HTML or text that most email applications will allow you to add to all your outgoing emails. For example, it commonly contains name and contact details - but it could also (of course) contain a link to a gospel tract.

    For example, it might say something like, "p.s. you might like this gospel cartoon ..." or "p.s. have you seen this?".