Many years ago I stumbled onto the quote widely attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi: "Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words."
For a long time, I took refuge in (actually I hid behind) these words. If I could just focus on living in a God-honoring way, my actions would speak louder than any words I could use and souls would be won for Christ, I reasoned. One of the primary reasons I came to a saving faith was by the example I saw lived out in the lives of Christ-followers. They had something I wanted—I could see it in the way they lived.
Like John 13:35 and the hymn say, "They'll know we are Christians by our love." That certainly rang true with the people who attracted me to Christ. They preached the gospel with their life, and their actions spoke louder than words.
But eventually, I started asking these believers about their faith. Their joy and hope was palpable, and I wondered what was behind it. It was through conversations with them—shared words—that I ultimately staked my life on Christ. They preached the gospel to me with words. And ultimately the Word became flesh for me—Jesus was real.
There is mighty power in words. In his article, "Speak the Gospel," my colleague and fellow editor Mark Galli sets the record straight about our misguided understanding of what Francis meant by his words:
"Preach the gospel; use words if necessary" goes hand in hand with a postmodern assumption that words are finally empty of meaning. It subtly denigrates the high value that the prophets and Jesus and Paul put on preaching. Of course we want our actions to match our words as much as possible. But the gospel is a message, news about an event and a person upon which the history of the planet turns.
Blogger Justin Taylor says preaching the gospel with words if necessary "makes about as much sense as telling a reporter he should broadcast the news but that words are optional."
The Good News is meant to be spread primarily by word. In Romans 10:14, Paul asks: "But how can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them?"
For people like me who do not have the spiritual gift of evangelism, sharing the gospel can seem daunting. And yet 2 Timothy 4:2 tells us to "preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season. . . (NIV)."