"Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words."
Sounds pious and good, doesn't it? Yes, for most of us (me including, I'll admit) this sounds upon first hearing like wise and useful advice; a brief but weighty insight.
And it couldn't be more wrong.
What do I mean?
Only this: it gives the impression that it is possible, even preferable, for the Gospel to be preached without a word being spoken.
I beg to differ, for you cannot preach the Gospel without words.
Allow me to elaborate…
The idea presented in this quote has come to be almost creedal to many in the American churches of our day. Spelled out, it looks something like:
"The way we live everyday life should be so moving, right and good that people see how awesome it is to be a Christian and want to be one too."
"Live the Gospel." That or some variation is what tends to be the idea getting pushed nowadays. Haven't you noticed the same?
Now, to be sure, the Holy Spirit's work of sanctification in our lives should be such that we live rightly before God and our neighbor, and in the best-case-scenario it should cause people to question us about our faith with keen interest (but then words come into play, I just want to point that out). I do not deny that good works – and whatever harvest we might reap in another's heart because of them – are marvelous, necessary things.
But they are not the Gospel. Nothing we do is. The Gospel is what someone else has done; that is, Jesus. And how are we to preach what Jesus has done without using words?
You are a sinner. So am I. In fact, "sinner" doesn't quite sum it up by itself. Let's try again.
We are poor, miserable sinners. We are wretches: liars, murderers, whores, thieves, blasphemers of God, and enemies of men. We have sinned in thought, word, and deed; we have sinned by what we have done, and we have sinned by what we have left undone. We have not loved God with our whole hearts. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We justly deserve God's wrath and punishment, both now and to the eons. We are hopeless.
Now then, that's some pretty bad news. After all that bad news, where do we look for good news? Is there any gospel (which means, incidentally, "good news") to be had? Who can save us from this body of death? The answer to that question would be good news/gospel indeed, and worth sharing at that.
How about this: live a good life. So good that people look at you and say, "There's a good person. Boy, I sure would like to be as good a person as him/her. I think I'll try to be a better person!"
How's that for gospel? That'll wipe that sin-smudge off your clothes, won't it? That'll bring eternal security and a restored relationship with God, won't it?
Of course it won't.
Rather, the real Gospel is of God's only Son, crucified as a criminal, dead, then risen again, for the forgiveness of your sins and mine. He took our sins on Himself and bore them to the grave. He broke the bonds of His tomb and rose again, appearing to Peter, and the rest of the twelve, along with a great multitude of others, and finally to Paul as proof that this had taken place. He restores our lost and broken relationship with God by taking us to Himself forever.
How do you tell someone this without words, as St. Francis supposedly thought was possible?
Are you gonna help little old ladies across the street in morse code? Are you going to wave the crippled man's luggage around in semaphore as you aid him to the terminal?
Look, a Mormon can be a good person. I know Mormons. They are good people. But do their actions preach Christ crucified? NO! So how can my actions, which in most cases are identical to theirs in the sense of "doing the right thing", etc., preach Christ crucified?
There are a lot of Jehovah's Witnesses in my town that are "better people" than me. Are they preaching Christ crucified with their actions? NO! So again I ask, if the super-special-awesome-really-good-folks aren't preaching the true Gospel with their actions, how can it be done?
It can't. The Gospel of Christ and Him crucified is communicated by the Word, and the Word alone. That's how the Bible says it happens and, quite honestly, I can't see how else it could be accomplished. My doing the right thing may get people to ASK me about my faith (at which point note that I use words), but it can never PREACH my faith. Actions do not tell people about Christ, but words do.
The danger in taking the "it's possible to preach the Gospel without even opening your mouth" or again, "Live the Gospel", mindset is that, inevitably, it makes the Gospel about you and what you do. You are the one who must be good enough that your actions preach the good news somehow. You are the one who needs to be so great that people receive the forgiveness of sins in Christ's name just be watching you work, instead of by hearing of Christ's work.
But when we focus on speaking the Word, we, like Peter in the opening chapters of Acts, point strictly to Jesus Christ, on the cross, in the tomb, and risen again. We communicate the truth that God incarnate humbled Himself to the point of death, for the once and for all forgiveness of sins. We speak the truth of the atoning blood of the lamb, and our new status, through that event 2000 years ago, as Sons of God.
In other words: We tell our neighbor about the great work God has done for us, instead of doing great works ourselves and hoping our neighbors somehow pick up the implications by osmosis.
So the take home message is: don't listen to the folks who tell you to "live the Gospel" or "preach the Gospel at all times, but only use words when you absolutely must".
If your Pastor is up in the front telling you cute-but-irrelevant stories and being a "nice guy" and saying how you can be just as good if you give your heart to Jesus, all in the name of supposedly "preaching the Gospel", throw tomatoes at him until he starts telling you about He who is sinless, and what He did on the cross to win that heart of yours back from the Devil.
If someone tells you it's possible to preach the Gospel through what you do, without words, take them through the book of Acts and show them how on every single solitary occasion it wasn't the actions of Peter and Paul that gave people the Gospel, but their inspired words.
The Holy Spirit hasn't chosen to work faith by "nice" and "good" actions that just anyone (Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Atheists) can (and often do) do. Rather, He works faith by the pure Gospel preached in the Word.
So, St. Francis (or whomever actually came up with that quote), with all due respect, I'm going to correct something here:
"Preach the Gospel always; it IS necessary to use words. Nothing else will do."
Ah. Much better.