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There’s a popular saying often repeated by Christians. It has found new life on Facebook and Twitter. Maybe you have even uttered these words, commonly attributed to Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel. Use words if necessary.” I think we can appreciate what many are getting at when they say something like this. As Christians, we should live in such a way that our lives point to the person and work of Jesus. However, good intentions cannot overcome two basic problems with this quote and its supposed origin. One, Francis never said it, and two, the quote is not biblical.

Mark Galli has pointed out that there is no record of Francis, a member of a preaching order, uttering anything close to this. In fact, everything we know about the man suggests he would not have agreed with his supposed quote. He was well known for his preaching and often preached up to five times a day.

The idea may not have resonated with Francis, but for many today, wordless ministry is a compelling approach. “Words are cheap,” we like to say, and “Actions speak louder than words.” Galli explains that the sentiment complements our culture rather well:

“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, 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.

And this is the real problem—not from whom the quote originally came, but just how it can give us an incomplete understanding of the gospel and how God saves sinners. Christians are quick to encourage each other to “live out the gospel,” to “be the gospel” to our neighbors, and to even “gospel each other.” The missional impulse here is helpful, yet the gospel isn’t anything the Christian can live out, practice or become.

The Apostle Paul summarized the gospel as the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, through whom sin is atoned for, sinners are reconciled to God and the hope of the resurrection awaits all who believe. The gospel is not habit, but history. The gospel is the declaration of something that actually happened. And since the gospel is the saving work of Jesus, it isn’t something we can do, but it is something we must announce. We do live out its implications, but if we are to make the gospel known, we will do so through words.

It appears that the emphasis on proclamation is waning even in many churches that identify themselves as evangelical. Yet proclamation is the central task of the church. No, it is not the only task God has given us, but it is central. While the process of making disciples involves more than verbal communication, and obviously the life of a disciple is proved counterfeit when it amounts to words alone, the most critical work God has given the church is to “proclaim the excellencies” of our Savior.

A godly life should serve as a witness for the message we proclaim. But without words, what can our actions point to but ourselves? A godly life cannot communicate the incarnation, Jesus’ substitution for sinners or the hope of redemption by grace alone through faith alone. We can’t be good news, but we can herald it, sing it, speak it and preach it to all who listen. In fact, verbal communication of the gospel is the only means by which people are brought into a right relationship with God. The Apostle Paul made this point to the church in Rome when he said:

For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. But how can they call on Him they have not believed in? And how can they believe without hearing about Him? And how can they hear without a preacher? (Rom. 10:13–14, HCSB)

If we are to make disciples of all nations, we must use words. Preaching necessitates the use of language. So let me encourage us to preach the gospel, and use words, since it’s necessary. But let me also say that agreeing to the centrality of proclamation is not enough. We need to move from agreement with the idea to effective execution of it. Let me encourage us to be a people who not only use gospel words but use them in four ways.

1. Let your gospel words be comprehensible.

In our bid to be accurate about theological issues, we must also make certain we are comprehensible. We want to declare the biblical gospel in a culturally accessible manner. This requires us to define theological words as well as embrace the language of the people to whom we speak wherever appropriate. I find it ironic that some who love the Puritans sometimes betray the Puritan practice of speaking “plainly.” Gospel words should be offered, as much as possible, in the common language of the listeners. How shall they hear if we speak in another language?

2. Let your gospel words be earnest.

We communicate that the gospel is a serious matter because it is a serious matter. I’m not suggesting that everyone should have the same temperament, but I am saying that life-saving “good news” should be offered with sobriety, sincerity and zeal. No one listens to proclamation about serious issues presented in frivolous ways. When preaching Christ, we need clarity and sincerity.

3. Let your gospel words be heard outside the local church.

Making disciples means giving the gospel to those outside the church. Since we believe that the only God-given means of transferring people from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light involves the preaching of the gospel with words, we should be compelled to speak such words to any who will listen. As the ones sent by God (that’s us), we should be ready to “tell the story” to the unconverted people in our neighborhoods, schools and workplaces.

4. Let your gospel words be heard inside the local church.

The gospel should be spoken in the church because even the redeemed can drift back toward the opposite temptations of legalism and lawlessness. One of the most important things a Christian does is to redirect other Christians back to Jesus though the good news of the gospel. And we need to speak it in the church so that the unbelievers visiting among us can hear how precious it remains to our lives, that it is not merely a way station on our spiritual journey. The gospel is spoken in the company of faith for both our sanctification and our worship.

The gospel requires—demands even—words. So let’s preach the gospel, and let’s use words, since they’re necessary. May they be clear and bold words that call those inside and outside the church to follow Jesus.



Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and serves as Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center for EvangelismPreviously, he served as Executive Director of LifeWay Research. Ed recently started Mission Group in order to create unique and practical resources for church leaders. He has trained pastors and church planters on five continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books. Ed is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine and Catalyst Monthly, serves on the advisory council of Sermon Central and Christianity Today's Building Church Leaders, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USAToday and CNN.

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Talk about it...

James J Green

commented on Oct 8, 2014

What is the Gospel in this Age of Grace?

Ralph G Gillard

commented on Oct 9, 2014

A very good question James. I think that most evangelical christians don't have an adequate answer to the question "What must a person do to be saved?". For 40 yrs I have been seeking to clearly understand the answer and I have written a book titled "What does the bible say I must do to be saved?" The book reasons from the scriptures on the answer to the question. If anyone emails me on minlot@eol.co.nz I will send them a free pdf of the book by return email.

Gene Cobb

commented on Oct 8, 2014

Actions DO speak louder than words. The actions of Jesus Christ are the very foundation of our salvation and hope. The Sermon on the Mount is the greatest message in the Bible. But without the death and resurrection what do the words matter? Also I am so glad you were around to know that St. Francis never said "Preach the Gospel at all times, when necessary use words." That clears up so much for me. I guess then our preaching comes down to "do as I say, not as I do." Which is good considering the condition of the ministry. That way we as Pastors can continue to live as we please as long as we speak enough words......and yes these last statements are sarcasm.

Richard Scotland

commented on Oct 9, 2014

Hi Gene, I like your style, cutting to the chase every time! Words and actions both matter for sure, sometimes in different balances depending on the situation.

Deacon Mike Daniels

commented on Oct 8, 2014

Wow ... that was a different spin on this. I kind of believe the point Frances (or whoever) is trying to make is that your faith should be so apparent by your life that you don't need words. It is not to be interpreted that we don't need words at all. Ed ... I think you missed the point.

Timothy Liwanag

commented on Oct 8, 2014

Thank you for this article! I don't contend with St. Francis' own words, but I would say that they are incomplete. Yes, actions matter, and Jesus' actions matter eternally. Although, we ought to be explicit about what the gospel truly is, especially in light of our postmodern culture. Words matter. They can help explain to someone why we act the way we do, and isn't that a good thing to aim for? To lead others to the person who deserves our praise?

Stephen Belokur

commented on Oct 8, 2014

Thank you, Brother Ed for the great article! Both the Gospel in word and action are the an invitation to the lost. Just trying to imagine the implementation of the great commission without words boggles the mind. Imagine the accounts of the missionary journeys of the apostles without the proclamation of the Gospel! Boldly proclaiming and boldly living out the transformational Gospel of Jesus Christ is the only hope for this world. Thank you Jesus for the Good News! PTL!!

Patrice Marker-Zahler

commented on Oct 8, 2014

Yes Gene, actions do speak louder than word, and Jesus Christ understood this. He meet peoples need were they were at, before he preached to them. Today, many people saved and unsaved can tell you what Jesus did, but not what he said accurately. If you want to witness to someone, and show them your faith, you do it by deed before word. This way you gain their respect. If your all talk and no show, your just a bunch of hot air.

Jason Smith

commented on Oct 8, 2014

Good article... Being a good example is very important before lost people (it is commanded by the Lord), but our example is not the gospel... it is not evangelism. In many ways, churches have redefined evangelism to ease their consciences and to make it so all of the service and evangelism is done within the walls of the church building. This contradicts the pattern we see in scripture, which is the saints are equipped and trained at the services to go out and be lights to the world and to teach the gospel message to the lost with their words.

Susan Lynn Brandt

commented on Oct 10, 2014

Words have power. God's Word has resurrected power. Jesus gave the Twelve power and authority to go out and preach the Gospel. We must love the Lord our God with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind. If we don't love God and don't love our neighbors as ourselves, the message is powerless. Love is the action and the authority to do it by faith moves it but its the power and glory of God that will be remembered by the listener.

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