There is a quote that I have heard repeated by well meaning people over the course of the past few years that has always unsettled my heart. Yet, it is said with passion, enthusiasm and the authority of the mystic St. Francis of Assisi…
“Preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.”
Now, it certainly has a spiritual ring to it, doesn’t it. It stresses the importance of preaching the Gospel…and doing that at all times, even. So, “what is so unsettling with the statement?”, you might be asking. Well, it is how the statement ends. Let me try to paint the picture for you by making some similar statements in other disciplines:
- “Care for the hungry at all times; when necessary, use food.”
- “Treat the sick at all times; when necessary, use medicine.”
Can you imagine those statements being the agenda for a rescue mission or a relief agency? They would at least be ridiculed, and more likely their support would drop. If you are going to help people with their needs, compassion and bedside manner are important, but ultimately they need food, they need medicine.
Now, I understand what people who say “Preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary, use words” are trying to emphasize. They want us to be careful to live lives that are consistent and a reflection of the glorious Gospel. So, I champion that agenda. In fact, you can make a very good case from Titus 2 that we should live our lives in such a way that we are “adorning the sound doctrine” we hold dear and therefore we are to “do good” or practice “good works” before men. So, I am all for that.
So, here is the problem. We cannot pantomime the gospel by simply living exemplary lives before people. Certainly we are called to live our lives in such a way that they reflect the Gospel, but the very nature of the Gospel requires (makes it necessary) that we use words. The Gospel isn’t a lifestyle of good works. It is, however, a message of Good News, and that Good News can only be shared by opening our mouths and using words.
Opening the door for a lady at J.C. Penney’s may be an expression of kindness, and greatly appreciated, but it doesn’t let her know that God sits as the Sovereign Creator over His universe. Cooking a meal for a neighbor who is suffering from cancer and now undergoing chemotherapy is a huge help and expression of love, but it doesn’t proclaim that Christ died on the cross as a willing substitute on their behalf. Being a peacemaker in the workplace and appreciated by co-workers is admirable and a bridge for the Gospel, but it doesn’t proclaim that repentance and forgiveness of sin come as a result of God regenerating the heart.
Imagine an instructor of Life-Guards telling his students, “Make sure you rescue those who are drowning; and when necessary get them out of the water so that they can breathe.” Both go hand in hand. You cannot have one without the other.
The reality is that we have the answer to man’s problem in the Gospel and simply living our lives in front of people isn’t sufficient. We have the spiritual food they need, the medicine that will heal their spiritual sickness. God has called us to proclaim it, to share it, to speak it.
So, maybe we should change the quote to read:
“Preach the Gospel at all times; and be sure to use words.”
Paul gives us some food for thought on this too…
 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!”  But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?”  So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
(Romans 10:14-17 ESV)
Calling requires Believing which requires Hearing which requires Preaching which requires Sending…