A very famous quote written by St Francis of Assisi (though he himself did not pen the exact words) goes like this: “Preach the gospel at all times…and use words when necessary.” Most Christians are indeed familiar with this quote and stand upon it with conviction. But I fear that we hold our conviction to it for the wrong reasons. We hold our conviction to it because it is easy…and we like easy. But its not just easy, it’s holy right? I mean, for the Christian, we don’t hold to something that is easy if it is downright sinful. But when something is easy and is also holy, then we grab a hold of it and make it our own. We hear that it was a saint who said these words. We hear that it is still about preaching the gospel, which we as Christians are supposed to do. And then we hear those relief words at the end, “use words when necessary.” And we think, “Cool. This is written by a holy saint. He must know his Bible. I can do this preaching the gospel without words stuff.” And we go on our way believing that preaching the gospel doesn’t necessarily have to ever involve us opening up our mouths and declaring the truth of God’s Word. Have any of us been guilty of this kind of thinking? I have.
But there is a problem here. Though the words of St Francis sound noble to the thought that our actions should be loud enough that the gospel is heard through them, I think we fall into faulted thinking when we believe that we are preaching the gospel all the time simply by our Christian actions. The truth is that the gospel is to be proclaimed. Jesus gave us the charge, known as the great commission, to go into all the world and make disciples, baptizing them, and teaching them to obey everything that He commanded us. Well, how do we make disciples? Do we do it by simply demonstrating a “random act of kindness?” No, we do it by sharing with people the reason for the hope that we have in Jesus. How do we get people to the point of being baptized into the faith? Do they get baptized when we simply feed them a meal? No, they get baptized when they hear us proclaiming God’s Word that their sins have separated them from God and have put them under His wrath, but that Christ Jesus loved them enough to bear the penalty of their sins when He hung on the cross, and that by trusting in His death and resurrection, and that by repenting from their selfish and sinful ways and turning to God, that they can be at peace with God and receive eternal life. This is how a person comes to faith to the point of entering into baptism. How do we teach them to obey everything that Jesus commanded us? Do we do it by simply living it out ourselves but never speaking it to those around us? No, we do it by opening up God’s Word to them and sharing with them what God requires of them to keep in fellowship with Him and thus remain in His blessing.
So, I am not at all saying that random acts of kindness are bad. I am not saying that serving food to a hungry person is bad. I am not saying that living out our own religious convictions is bad. Those are all wonderful and should be happening in our lives as followers of Christ. But what I am saying is wrong is when all we do to “preach” the gospel are things that never require us to open up our mouth and proclaim His Word. And I think that many of us have found false comfort in the words of St Francis. We think that by our actions alone we are preaching the gospel and therefore don’t feel that we have to exercise boldness in actually speaking the Word of God which is indeed the gospel. And let’s face it. We do this because it is just much easier.
I know it is much easier for me to visit a poor family here in Haiti and bring them a bag of rice, a bag of beans, and some oil so that they can have food to eat. Is this being done for God’s glory? Yes, of course it is. Is what I am doing being done with Christian love? Yes. But am I really preaching the gospel to this family? What if this family is living in complete sin and is offending God in so many ways? Is my food delivery bringing a life saving message to them that God’s wrath is upon them, but the amazing news is that through Jesus, it does not have to be? Do they hear that word by me delivering food? No, they don’t. Let’s be honest about this. I can spend my days and nights delivering food to the hungry, giving away clothes and other necessities, building homes, and many other things. But if I am not opening up my mouth to proclaim the message of the gospel, then these people simply will not hear it through the things that I am doing. And I can therefore be spending a whole lot of time doing a lot of good service for others, but never doing the best service which is telling them the good news.
Again, feeding the poor is a good thing that brings God glory. Clothing the naked is good. Building shelters for those without homes is not a bad thing. But if that is all that is being done, then we are deceiving ourselves if we think that we are preaching the gospel through these things. Now, the better thing is to preach the gospel (with words) AND feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc. For it is then that our actions will confirm the gospel to them all the more…but they need to hear it first…with words.
So, I make it a point when I am visiting with families in their homes trying to help them, that I am intentional about bringing God’s Word to them, for this is of utter importance. And if I am not intentional, then I risk spending a lot of my time doing a lot of nice actions but failing to bring God’s Word, which is indeed what provides the power needed to truly change a life. That’s why Paul gave timothy the simple charge, “preach the gospel.” Sure, the church has been given many other functions that help take care of the needs of the people, but the first charge given is to preach the gospel, and we must not lose sight of that…ever.
My favorite verse is Romans 1:16 “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…” I must be under the greatest conviction that what a person needs most in their life is the gospel. That is where they will experience the power of God to save their very soul. That is indeed the greatest need a person has. So, if you are involved in ministries that offer help and support to people, or if you are those who like to practice random acts of kindness, then indeed do those for the glory of God, but let’s also first realize that they need to hear the gospel (through God’s chosen instrument otherwise known as…your mouth) first so that your actions that follow are a great confirmation of the words that have already been spoken. It may be true to say that “actions speak louder than words”, but we fail if we think that actions should speak in replace of words. The bible never says this.
As a matter of fact, the bible tells us (as does the name of our website) “How then can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news'”.
So, let’s not hide behind the easy words of St Francis. For we know that it is much easier to do something in a Christian manner than it is for us to rise with boldness and declare the truth of the gospel. But that is what Scripture indeed calls us first and foremost to do. So then, let’s allow our new conviction to be the words that Paul charged to Timothy, “Preach the Gospel.” It’s not complicated.