Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Why famous quotes can be dangerous

St. Francis of Assisi is often credited with the following quote:
“Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.”

The first, and less important issue, is whether or not St. Francis actually wrote or spoke these words. Most scholars agree that this phrase does not appear in any of his writings, although the spirit of this quote is very Franciscan in nature. Thus, it is likely Francis said and demonstrated many things in his life that were consistent with the idea portrayed in this quote.

Regardless of where this quote originated, it is a very popular quote and can be quite misleading. It is true that the fruit of our lives should point people to Christ and the gospel, but we must use our words as well. This quote implies that you could preach the gospel to your neighbor by mowing his yard. This is simply not true. Now, I am not saying that you shouldn't mow your neighbor's yard. This is a great example of the humility and service that should characterize the life of Jesus' disciples. But doing a good deed for your neighbor will not bring him or her to faith if they do not know Christ. It might open the door to a relationship, or the opportunity to share the gospel, but at this point words must be spoken.

To imply that we can preach the gospel without words is as ridiculous as saying, "Tell me how to spell your name, use letters if necessary."

Most of the time this quote becomes nothing more than an excuse for Christians to not share the gospel with others. I understand, because I too find it difficult to share Christ in a one-on-one setting. I am afraid of awkwardness, rejection, pushing someone farther away, being too is much easier to hide behind a quote, an idea that if I just keep being a nice person this might in some way help people find their way to the cross.

"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)

What do you think? Have I misunderstood the quote? Can we preach the gospel with our actions?


  1. I used to be a sales trainer. I taught our distributors' sales force to use and sell our products in an industrial setting. Because our distributors sold a lot of different products, besides ours, they were often a little afraid of being aggressive. I don't mean, pushy or obnoxious, but they sold a lot of commodity type items that their customers could get just as easily from any of their competitors with similar service. They were in a frame of mind of dropping off a price list and perhaps offering a slight discount on volumes to knock off their competitors. (They tried to increase revenues often by pressing their suppliers for discounts I think. :P )

    Anyway, I would go out with these guys and demo products and I noticed a common trend. Okay and bunch of trends (like leaving sample for the customer to use themselves creating all sorts of negative possibilities to overcome) but I'll stick to my point.

    They were typically afraid to ask for the sale.

    I am talking about after a successful demo where we identified problems in the customer's line and solved them with our products, saved them money, or created sufficient interest. They were so used to waiting for their customers to call them to order from the catalog they left that they did not ask for any sort of commitment from the customer.

    I would invariably step in and ask them how many gallons I could get them; and if there was some resistance we would discuss the benefits and I would offer to sell them enough for a job and offer to come back (or send my well-trained distributor to help get things started). (Okay I am getting off-track with follow-up strategies)

    The point is that we like to engage in some spiritual talk with folks. We might even get to share the Gosple with someone but too often we wait for the person to ask us how they might move forward in their walk. Instead we should ask for the sale. (I know, that sounds almost crass but I am not talking about "selling" anything here, it's an analogy, it breaks down :P ) We should present the Gosple, and we should be bold in asking if the listener would like to take the next step, whatever you happen to think that is. (The anxious bench? :P )

  2. Hey! Hey! This hits a bit close to home because it is one of my favorite quotes! I look at it this way - peoples actions speak much louder than their words. Words are cheap, really cheap. Actions are much more "expensive" and lasting.

    Your point is well taken. We cannot neglect sharing the Gospel, but we must do more than just talk. A question - have you ever told someone you were going to pray for them and then walked away and did not follow through? What has more eternal value, your (empty) words or time on your knees? I point you to Matthew 21:28 - 32. "What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work today in the vineyard.' 'I will not,' he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, 'I will, sir,' but he did not go. Which of the two did what his father wanted? "The first," they answered. Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him."

    I take from this that our actions are important, as are our words. Repenting is an act of the will, spoken with your mouth, but believed in your heart. Your actions will reflect a true change in your heart.

    Back in Matthew 19, the Rich Young Man asked what "good thing must I do to get eternal life". Jesus quotes commandments, then instructs him to remove the idols from his life and follow. He does not tell him to go and preach the Gospel, he tells him to follow.

    So, all said to conclude we must have both words and actions. I struggle with folks that "talk" a great gospel, but do not act upon it. Maybe that is why I like the quote.

    Peace & Grace to you my friend. Keep making me think!

    - Otter

  3. Otter,

    Thanks for the well thought-out comment. I agree with you that we must have faith+action. Works/action can never save us, but they are the genuine fruit of a genuine disciple who has been saved by grace through faith. Scripture makes it clear that a genuinely regenerate life will produce good fruit/deeds/works.

    I guess I would like the quote better if it read, "Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary use words." We cannot preach the gospel without words. They are not optional. We can live out our Christian witness with our actions. We can demonstrate the fruit of the Christ-vine with our actions. But the gospel must be shared with words in order for someone to come to faith. (See the verses at the close of the post.)

    I understand the benefit of this quote, and I think there is a lot of truth behind it. Empty words are not helpful. Empty words are not the gospel. However, gospel action without gospel truth is not the complete gospel.

    There is a Piper video a few posts down, and I like the way he sums up the issue...
    "Tell people the Good News of Christ from a heart of love and a life of service."

  4. I had not visited in a while and worked my way down to the Piper video. Excellent. You know, thinking about our friend St. Francis, he did start a monastic order. Would fit right into the "actions ahead of words" mantra! I miss having you around dude.

  5. this Dave Hedges by chance? I thought it was a total stranger, but Sarah immediately thought it must be Dave. Then it became more clear as I read your next response.

  6. Yeah, it's Dave. Sarah is a smart one.