If Necessary, Use Words?

St. Francis of Assisi is credited with the proverb “Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.” I think I know what most people mean by this. Most people mean that the gospel has to be embodied in our lives, and that if unbelievers cannot see that, then the ethos of the gospel will not match the evangelist’s life. Integrity is the ultimate thing at issue here. To this extent, the quotation has a useful place.

However, some people take it too far, as if evangelism doesn’t need to use words. Just evangelize by means of your lifestyle. People don’t need to hear the Word. Preaching is over-rated. We don’t need to study apologetics, or have an answer ready for the person who asks us for the reason of the hope that lies within us. Readers can probably guess where I’m going with this one. The quotation can lead to a despising of preaching, of the Word, and of evangelism by means of talking with people.

I hate to break it to the lifestyle-evangelist folks, but the ethos of our lives is not enough. Sooner or later (if our lifestyles are Christian ones), the unbeliever is going to ask us why we’re different. When that happens, we should have an answer ready.

Some people use the Assisi quotation in order to avoid speaking with people, and thus lose many opportunities. Still others use it to ridicule the role of preaching, and thus promote other forms of worship that God has not commanded.

The fact of the matter is that words are necessary. That doesn’t mean that conversion is dependent on us, as the Finneyites would have us believe. The Holy Spirit is the one Who converts. So, we should not get ourselves into a sweat about whether we have the right words or not. Our best arguments, if not accompanied by the Holy Spirit, are useless to convert. By the same token, the Holy Spirit can use our most imperfect efforts to convert. Faith comes by hearing, which implies words. Therefore, I think that even Assisi went too far in the comment, and his zealous followers certainly have.

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