One of the most classic quotes in modern day Christianity when referring to evangelism is one that is most often attributed to St. Francis Assisi: “Preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words”.
You see this quote everywhere, and for good measure too. I think that’s because its message resonates with many Christians about the importance of living a life of such Christ-likeness that it makes the world stop, think, and inquire about the Jesus you serve. (Hopefully, not in a weird way, but in an attractive way). The sentiment behind Assisi’s quote certainly makes a point evangelistically, especially since the single greatest reason people turn away from Christianity is because of its members’ hypocrisy—those who claim Christ with their mouths and beliefs but proclaim anything but Christ in their actions and lifestyles.
So yes, exemplifying the nature of Christ to the world—by demonstrating to others what Jesus has demonstrated to us—is certainly an important, necessary, and critical part of what it means to be “salt” and “light” as a Christian.
However, when it comes to evangelism, it is important to note that good Christian living isn’t enough. In fact, according to Jesus, it’s not even the foundational basis of evangelism, either.
Also, let’s just be honest for a second: Even if good Christian living was sufficient for evangelism, there are many non-Christians out there who exude just as much—or maybe sometimes more—Christ-like character than some Christians do. So what do you do then?
There has to be something more—more significant and more distinctive—that fundamentally separates Christians from the rest of world and its, oftentimes, equally moral people. Therefore, the bottom denominator, centerpiece, and foundation of true evangelism is not just exemplifying a good Christ-like example.
This ‘denominator, centerpiece, and foundation’ of sorts is the gospel, which is a message not a morality. Jesus never described evangelism as a type of lifestyle that may need to give an account for itself every once in a while. Rather, Jesus fundamentally described evangelism as the sharing of its central, core message: the good news, the gospel. This means that all true evangelism has at its center the sharing of this message.
Therefore, St. Francis Assisi’s quote isn’t incorrect so much as it is incomplete. Or, another way to say it is that Assisi wrongly flipped true evangelism inside out by making Christian morality the core and the Christian message the periphery, instead of the other way around.
In effect, St. Francis Assisi portrays evangelism as expressive morality-showing hinted with the message, while Scripture (like the book of Acts) depicts evangelism as an expressive message-sharing of Jesus legitimized by a consistent morality like Jesus.
Quick side note: how could you share a message about a Savior you don’t care to emulate? Such inconsistency, in and of itself, would make this Savior look undesirable to follow anyways. But if the message of this Savior is shared from a life that follows Him dearly, then the alleged goodness of this message will only then become legitimatized and convincing amongst its hearers.
There’s also a key, distinctive point that needs to be made: the primary Christian mission is its message, not its morals. And significantly enough, the message of Christianity is not about the good things you have done or will do for God, but about the good things Christ has done and will ever do for you.
Let’s briefly look at the implications embedded in both evangelistic approaches that either emphasize morality or the message over the other. Here’s what I mean:
If the Christian mission is about its peoples’ morals for Jesus—and not its message about Jesus—then evangelism would focus solely upon human potential. This approach would inevitably cause people to direct their hope away from a worthy God and, instead, look to themselves for saving. This approach leads to a dead end morally, too: it makes its preachers and hearers either self-righteous and self-sufficient or self-despairing and self-pitying, depending how well they think they have measured up to pleasing God.
However, if the Christian mission is about its message of Jesus’ works for us—and not our morality for Jesus—then evangelism would solely focus upon God. This approach would inevitably cause people to direct their hope away from themselves and to a God they can fully trust in. This approach, on the other hand, paves the way to a better and truer morality anyways: it causes its preachers and hearers to be humble, thankful, and confident because this message of salvation is not based on their faithful performance for God, but on God’s faithful performance to them.
But here is the main crux of where St. Francis of Assisi’s statement is wrong:
Saying that you can preach the gospel—but only sometimes use words—is to falsely imply that the gospel is not really words after all, but rather, actions.
But this is wrong because the gospel is fundamentally and totally words! The gospel is not a moral example that can be expressed mainly by actions and sometimes with words; it is good news that can only be communicated by words. And that’s because news is words.
Saying that you can preach the gospel—but only sometimes use words—is kind of like turning on the news channel but watching it with no volume.† Sure, you can see the news reporters giving their reports; and based on their gestures and expressions, it might be apparent that what they are saying is significant. But because there is no volume, you have absolutely no idea what is going on! It might look good on the surface, but it ultimately does nothing for you. That’s because the news channel is only beneficial when you can hear the news of what they are saying with the words they are using. And so it is with preaching the gospel as well. Living a good Christ-like life around your non-Christian friends will set a good example for them, but it will have the same effect as a muted news channel unless you vocalize the gospel message that compels your morality. Until then, you will do nothing for them in the scope of eternity. Indeed, one’s Christ-likeness does not have saving power, but the Christ-message does.
Here’s another example, too: saying “Preach the gospel at all times and sometimes use words” is like the equivalent of saying “Give me your phone number and sometimes, give me the digits.”‡ No one would ever say that! They would always give the digits because a phone number is digits. Similarly, just like you can’t give a phone number without listing the digits, you can’t share the gospel without giving words because it is words and must be communicated with words in the same way a phone number must be communicated with digits.
To conclude, while we can appreciate the sentiment behind Francis Assisi’s quote, it’s important to note that the gospel is not primarily a lifestyle or moral behavior. Christianity’s gospel is not about all the great things you have done or will do for God; it is about all the great things God has done and will ever do for you—by sending His Son to come and live the life we could not live and to die in our place, taking the penalty of sin and giving us His reward of salvation. And you can’t communicate that good news by acting like Jesus; you must tell the story of Jesus.
So to tweak the modern quote: how about let’s say, “preach the gospel always—and let the nature of your actions never deny the gravity of your words”.
†, ‡ Both analogies come from sermons I have heard from pastor, JD Greear.
“Preach the gospel at all times, sometimes use words” is a quote that pervades Christian culture. While it communicates an admirable sentiment of ‘letting your light shine for before men,’ it is quote that is fundamentally flawed. Because the gospel is news about what Jesus has done–and not an example to be followed–this news can only truly be communicated with words.
Many people say, “practice what you preach”; but to be fair, we also need to say, “preach what you practice.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0F4bU42nr4o). It’s show and tell. Do both.