I heard that phrase again this week. You’ve probably heard it too: “Preach the Gospel always, if necessary, use words”. Attributed to Francis of Assisi, there is no record of him actually saying this, so the origin is murky. But for obscure origins, this phrase has certainly traveled! It has found its way into the theology of many Christians and churches. In some ways, the phrase is attractive to me, but the problem is that it is woefully inadequate to the Commission we all share.
What I like about the phrase is that it implies the Gospel is in motion. It is in use. It is being shown in practical ways to be good and useful. It implies relationship. And caring, and love. Galatians 5:14 says “the whole law is fulfilled in one word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (ESV). If the Gospel cannot be shown to be practical and valuable for everyday living, then of what value is it? This is the part of the phrase I can identify with.
The secular world, be it humanist, atheist, or other, values and esteems doing good works. Being a good person and helping others is important. It is, in fact, important to most people, regardless of their spiritual life. We appreciate and esteem people who help others, and we all see it as behavior to encourage. This is also why the secular world happens to love and affirm the good works of the church. When they see it, they see a commonality of purpose and they appreciate and esteem the WORK. And therein lies the problem. They esteem your work, but not the God whom you serve.
An atheist once told me he thought there was little difference between us. I had this faith which he considered odd and uneducated, so he was the more educated, but we both did good works and so we were both good people. And that was the best that he could achieve in a life without higher purpose. Someone has to speak the Good NEWS! The world needs to know a higher calling than just good works.
“Live the gospel in practical, fruitful, loving ways, never failing to speak the Gospel.” There are probably better ways to say it, but that is how I would correct the theology. Romans 10:14 states the need to ALWAYS USE WORDS: “…how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (ESV) Richard Stearns, President of World Vision pointed out in his book “The Hole in Our Gospel” that a church full of preaching with no good works was incapable of influencing culture. He has a good point. But the opposite is true as well. Good works – without the Gospel being shared – is malpractice. It also does not influence culture. Worse, it withholds the BEST!
Be rich in good works, but never withhold the words of the Good News. Give Hope. Give Life. Give Bibles!