Reflections and Blog

Evangelism without Words?

Since preaching this past Sunday’s sermon on evangelism, I’ve been thinking about a certain famous saying:

“Preach the gospel; if necessary, use words.”

The saying is attributed to Francis of Assisi, an influential Italian monk who lived from 1181-1226. On the surface, the saying suggests that one need not use actual words to evangelize others, that simply living a holy life of love is just as effective or even more effective than proclaiming the good news of Jesus with words.

But there are two main problems with the above saying. First, Francis likely never said it, as it does not appear in any of his writings. Francis’ closest remark to the saying comes from his rule for friars, in which, alongside an exhortation not to preach (with words) a gospel different than the one officially recognized by the church, Francis exhorts, “Nevertheless, let all the brothers preach by their works.” In other words, Francis teaches that a holy life ought to assist in the verbal proclamation of the gospel, which, as we’ll see below, is a plainly scriptural idea.

The second main problem with the famous saying is that it is logically impossible. You cannot preach or proclaim a message without words! People are not mind readers, nor are good works a kind of sign language that magically communicates salvation by grace through faith in Christ (Eph 2:8-9). The good news of salvation must actually be spoken for someone to hear and believe, for, as Romans 10:13-15 says:

For “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things!”

Yet all this is not to downplay the importance of holiness in God’s messengers. The Puritan Richard Baxter once remarked that many gospel preachers unsay with their lives what they say with their mouths. This is the opposite of what Scripture commands. Christians, like Paul, are to provide no hindrance to the gospel (1 Cor 9:12) but instead to adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in every respect (Titus 2:10).

And not only is holy proclamation required, it is often supernaturally effective. Significant is the statement Peter makes to wives living with sinful and/or unbelieving husbands in 1 Peter 3:1-2.

In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands so that even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, as they observe your chaste and respectful behavior.

Peter says that these ancient Christian wives, who undoubtedly have already made their faith in Christ known and have appealed to their husbands to repent and believe, can win over their husbands “without a word” by consistent godly behavior.

That is a very encouraging teaching! That remark gives hope to all those living with family members who have rejected the gospel; your holy life is pressing what you’ve preached back onto their hearts! And God is pleased to many times use this combination of faithful declaration and perseverant holy living to save souls. But when and whether God saves that person is up to him; you will still be found a faithful ambassador if you both preach and live faithfully.

So instead of the famous and wrongheaded saying attributed to Francis, let us resolve to live by a different motto: “Preach the gospel; both words and works are necessary.”

Questions to Consider:
1. Considering what we discussed on Sunday, is it possible to live a “holy life of love” without preaching the gospel with words?
2. If you only do good works before others but never declare the gospel of Christ, how might others misinterpret your good works?
3. If you do not currently have a holy life to back up your gospel declaration, what do you need to do?