Can We Preach the Gospel Without Words?

Justin Taylor, the project editor of the outstanding ESV Study Bible, is also the force behind Between Two Worlds, a blog I’ve found to be consistently helpful in all kinds of ways. Recently, he posted the following quick thought that particularly got my attention:

“Gospel” means “good news.” If so, then *the saying “Preach the gospel at all times; use words if necessary” makes about as much sense as telling a reporter he should broadcast the news but that words are optional.

(*St. Francis of Assisi apparently didn’t say this; not sure who said it first.)

Leaving aside the question of the quote’s origin, it does pop up often enough in Christian circles, evangelical and otherwise. And in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll tell you that I’ve said it before, and I’m reasonably sure that others at The Crossing have mentioned it as well. As a result, JT’s thought got me to wondering if I had regrettably bought into a wonderfully provocative phrase that, in the final analysis, misses the mark in a rather significant way.

That reflection has lead me to the following points:

1. I would always affirm that an individual ultimately needs to hear the verbal presentation of the gospel in some form in order to believe and accept it. As Paul states in Romans 10:13-15: “‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” Much of the reaction against the saying attributed to Francis wants justifiably to emphasize this point. The temptation for Christians to shrink back against proclaiming the gospel when the appropriate opportunities present themselves is always present, a fact that should drive us to seek God’s grace to foster our courage.

2. Still, various passages of Scripture do seem to emphasize a rather robust view of the power our actions have in relation to spreading the gospel. Three relevant passages include:

Matthew 5:16: [Jesus speaking] “In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” D. A. Carson, in his commentary on Matthew says this: “Witness includes not just words but deeds; as Stier remarks, ‘The good word with out the good walk is of no avail.’ Thus the kingdom norms (vv.3-12) so work out in the lives of the kingdom’s heirs as to produce the kingdom witness (vv.13-16).

1 Peter 3:1: “Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.” Wayne Gudem’s commentary on this passage includes the following comments: “Unbelieving husbands can be won without a word—that is, no by continually preaching or talking about the gospel, but rather simply by the behavior of their wives, their Christian pattern of life…. This emphasis on conduct rather than words is also applicable to other situations in which Christians find themselves in regular daily contact with unbelievers…. Though Peter does not exactly say the Christians should never talk about the gospel message to their unbelieving husbands or friends, he does indicate that the means God will use to ‘win’ such persons will generally no be the Christian’s words but his or her behavior.”

Titus 2:9-10: “Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive” [ESV: “adorn the doctrine of God our Savior”]. The ESV Study Bible’s note on this passage states, “Such living highlights the attractiveness of the gospel (“adorns,” v. 10). In keeping with the overall thrust of the letter, this kind of living ‘proves’ the gospel.”

3. Taking the above two points into consideration, I would suggest that our actions, insofar as they are the fruit of applying the gospel’s truth to the various facets of our lives, serve to testify to and commend that truth. In other words, while they may not communicate the full gospel explicitly, they will in various ways provide (by God’s grace) evidence that the gospel is true, powerful, and desirable. This, it would seem to me, is integral to the task of communicating the gospel. So while preaching the gospel will at some point always involve more than living in a manner consistent with it, it should never involve less.

So, in the final analysis, is the saying helpful or not? I’m not willing to throw it out at this point, though I admit that it can be easily misunderstood. For that reason, I would say the good that it produces by being provocative should normally be balanced by situating it in the larger biblical context (particularly that of point #1 above). Maybe a less striking, but more nuanced phrase might be, “Preach the gospel at all times. When appropriate, use words.” That may not make a list of famous quotations, but it might be good enough for everyday use.

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