We have all heard the exhortation “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.””, or some variation thereof. More often than not it is attributed to St Francis of Assisi, though it is extremely doubtful that he would have uttered such a pithy expression, as not only is there no evidence that he had done so, but it seems unlikely in light of his reputation as a forceful and ferocious preacher who preached often, up to five times a day.
In any case, the trouble with this quote is that it’s simply not true and has no functional possibility in a practical setting. Because first of all, what is the gospel? The term gospel is found almost a hundred times in the scriptures. In the Greek New Testament, gospel is the translation of the Greek noun euangelion- “good news,” and the verb euangelizo meaning “to bring or announce good news. In 1 Corinthian 15:1-8, Paul offers a deft summary of the gospel message- that is, the death, burial, resurrection, and appearances of the resurrected Christ. “Now I want to make clear for you, brothers and sisters, the gospel that I preached to you, that you received and on which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I passed on to you as of first importance what I also received—that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve…”
This early Christian confession gives us the heart of the gospel and shows the that the resurrection is an integral part of the gospel. Note that Paul described this as “of first importance”—a phrase that stresses priority, not time. The stress is on the centrality of these truths to the gospel message. That is what the gospel is then- it is the message of the good news of salvation, the word of truth offered to mankind by grace through faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross. It is a message not only of eternal life, but one that encompasses the total plan of God to redeem people from the ravages of sin, death, Satan, and the curse that now covers the earth. RC Sproul puts it this way “The Gospel is called the ‘good news’ because it addresses the most serious problem that you and I have as human beings, and that problem is simply this: God is holy and He is just, and I’m not. And at the end of my life, I’m going to stand before a just and holy God, and I’ll be judged. And I’ll be judged either on the basis of my own righteousness – or lack of it – or the righteousness of another. The good news of the Gospel is that Jesus lived a life of perfect righteousness, of perfect obedience to God, not for His own well being but for His people. He has done for me what I couldn’t possibly do for myself. But not only has He lived that life of perfect obedience, He offered Himself as a perfect sacrifice to satisfy the justice and the righteousness of God.”
And that’s the problem with all this- such a wonderful truth will never be proclaimed and declared just because you are doing nice things for people. You can open doors, pull out chairs, let people go first in traffic, be a good friend, drop off hot meals for widows, work in a homeless shelter, constantly edify others, etc., ad infinitum. But if they don’t know that you do those things because the beauty of Christ is more desirable than serving yourself in those instances, nothing separates you from a self-conscious Mormon or Jehovah Witness, or a well meaning Hindu or Buddhist, or even just a “nice” atheist. Because everyone is capable of doing good deeds and being a decent human being. So how will the differentiation occur between you the Christian and a Muslim who is capable of being just as kind and considerate? Surely we would not suppose that a Muslim is preaching the gospel by his acts of kindness. For a man lost and fallen and oblivious to the need for Christ to die for his sins and forgive him, how is it even possible to read into your actions and his need for a Savior? Major disconnect.
Can we look at tribes of pagans and conclude that the sum of their good deeds towards each other is ultimately a testament to the Gospel of God? Of course not. That’s ridiculous. And so why do you think you are sharing the Gospel and proclaiming Christ on the cross when you buy a hungry man a meal, or toss 2 dollars into his hat? What are the chances they’ll see this act of kindness and demand to know Jehovah and his son Jesus? My friend Patrick Stafford unpacks it as such “A person will only respond to good works if they already understand the gospel. You can only preach the gospel to someone who hasn’t heard it THROUGH words. They will not see someone feeding the poor and automatically think “JESUS!” You need to explain the gospel to them first – plain and simple.”
He’s absolutely right. The truth of the gospel is very specific and precise. It must be explained, not used as a means of conjectured revelation when replaced by actions that do not easily or readily follow. In Romans 10:14-15, Paul says in the context of the salvation message “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” In this he uses a series of rhetorical questions to demonstrate the chain of events necessary for a person to be saved, and of utmost importance is hearing the gospel message preached. That’s why Paul was so insistent about spreading the gospel and doing all his missionary work; because he felt such a great sense of weight and urgency because he believed that the only way to be saved was to hear and believe in the gospel.
On the flip side though, no one is advocating that we can just preach the gospel without having to act right. A quick, cursory knowledge of Titus and James is enough to know that we must do more than just say the right things, but must genuinely be conformed to the image of Christ in word and in deed. In many instances, it is the witness of our actions that can make or break the perceived genuineness and sincerity of the gospel we proclaim. Just as faith without works is dead, so likewise is works without faith dead. As it were, acts of social justice do not proclaim the good news of the gospel. Doing nice things and living a nice life at all times does not constitute peaching the gospel at all times. Loving yourself and loving others and loving loving your neighbour does not constitute you preaching the gospel. Claiming Micah 6:8 as your life verse -“And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” does not constitute the gospel. Talking to people about Jesus and his vicarious death for their sins, does. Telling them about the forgiveness of sins and the joy of redemption offered by Christ on the cross, does. No one’s ever going to persecute you — let alone crucify you — for raking leaves, serving in soup kitchens, holding food drives, letting people go first in traffic, not cursing around them, helping someone fix a flat tire, etc. But they will persecute you — maybe even kill you — when you preach the Gospel, because you testify that their deeds are evil and that they need forgiveness.
There’s a better and more precise way to understand this. Instead of the false adage “preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary use words , we might say “Preach the gospel—use actions when necessary; use words always.” or perhaps “Preach the Word always, and don’t let your your life contradict the message you preach.” Anything but the former.