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.


  1. neonmadman01 said,

    January 29, 2016 at 5:51 pm

    “Feed the hungry; if necessary use food.”

  2. Kevin said,

    January 30, 2016 at 7:47 am

    Faith comes thru hearing the word of God, not thru seeing, although Im sure we cant eliminate seeing from hearing. K

  3. Craig Boeing said,

    January 31, 2016 at 1:54 am

    “the unbeliever is going to ask you why you’re different.” What world do you live in? Unbelievers are NOT asking Christians about our lives; they’re not intrigued because our lives are just as image-conscious, arrogant, materialistic, self-protective, and enamored with power and warfare as everyone else’s. They don’t care that we send our kids to classical schools and don’t shop on Sunday.

  4. Nathanael said,

    January 31, 2016 at 9:28 am

    Francis of Assisi definitely never said, “Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.” I was suspicious of the quote since Francis was a preacher who founded an order of friars dedicated to preaching so I did some digging. There apparently are no references to the quote before the 1990s. Yes, you read that correctly, the quote is only about 20-25 years old.

  5. Kevin said,

    January 31, 2016 at 4:12 pm

    It seems rather the in thing for Protestant ministers to use Franciss of Assisi. He was idolator who self admittedly had a insatiable desire to worship the Roman Eucharist. He is the first recorded contractor of stigmata, given to Him by God for lusting after the Roman Eucharist. K

  6. greenbaggins said,

    January 31, 2016 at 5:10 pm

    Nathanael, somehow that doesn’t surprise me. When you think about it, the quotation does seem to be more like some modern person trying to sound profound, than it does anyone who is ancient.

    Kevin, I haven’t seen this phenomenon much, so I can’t speak to it. I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned him in a sermon.

  7. greenbaggins said,

    January 31, 2016 at 5:14 pm

    Craig, you have entered an excellent argument for why Christians should look different than the world. There is so much worldliness in the church right now that you’re absolutely right, and that unbelievers aren’t interested in why we’re different, because we’re not. However, if Christians were living differently, and if we actually were living like Christians, then don’t you think that unbelievers might be a bit curious as to why we’re different? The Bible suggests that they may indeed become curious (see 1 Peter, in particular).

  8. Ron said,

    January 31, 2016 at 9:02 pm


    Whereas I believe your response to Craig contemplates the worldliness of the organic church, Craig’s words would seem to have us believe that all Christians without remainder behave as one who loves this age. I trust he doesn’t really deny definitive and progressive sanctification, or that Christians can live a life, although imperfectly, conscious of the reality of the recreation in Christ.

    Lastly, that the world doesn’t ask what makes one different doesn’t imply that it doesn’t recognize the fruit of the Spirit.

  9. Ron said,

    February 3, 2016 at 8:39 am


    If I wasn’t clear, I agree with what you wrote to him.

  10. February 4, 2016 at 12:04 am

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  11. February 4, 2016 at 6:26 am

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  12. The Reformed Seminarian said,

    March 31, 2016 at 4:34 pm

    Great post. Thank you. Irenic, and yet devastating to the notion.

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