We’ve all seen this quote thrown around at some point or another, and perhaps you’ve even quoted it yourself: “Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.” – St. Francis of Assisi.
Seems like a good quote – it sounds pretty spiritual, and you definitely get extra points for quoting an old monk.
The only problem is that St. Francis of Assisi never said any such thing. Search as you may, you won’t find any record of St. Francis saying this. In fact, Francis was a highly active preacher, often preaching up to five times a day (and yes, to clarify, he was preaching ‘with words’). This widely spread quote turns out to be pseudepigraphical.
There is certainly truth in this (mis)quote: we can’t simply preach the gospel with words if we don’t back it up with how we live. This is totally true, and very important. If we don’t practice what we preach, our words very quickly start to look empty. And I think this is the sentiment that people are often going for when they (mis)quote St. Francis of Assisi, which isn’t a bad thing at all.
Despite this nugget of truth, however, the overall message is actually quite pernicious.
The danger of this quote is that we can be encouraged by it to justify the fact that we don’t preach the gospel (i.e. with words) by the fact that we live a pretty good life. We see this quote, and we think, “oh, I can’t remember the last time I actually articulated the good news of Jesus to anyone recently, but hey, at least I live a pretty good life.”
But here’s the thing: if you are simply living a good life, but not proclaiming the good news of Jesus, how are you any different from a morally upright Buddhist? How will your witness be any different from a philanthropic atheist?
The implicit claim behind the quote is that you can preach the gospel without words, by living a life that shows evidence of the gospel. But this simply isn’t true. No one has ever come to faith in Jesus by someone’s good life if they haven’t heard the gospel. How could they? The Christian faith is not based on a moral system, it’s based on a message. And it’s this good message that we are to proclaim.
“Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).
The nugget of truth in this quote is that gospel preaching needs to be backed up by a gospel-centred life, but the gospel preaching still needs to happen! This quote creates a false dichotomy between preaching the gospel and living it out, but the reality is that we need both.
St. Francis himself was indeed insistent on the need for a life of love and care for the poor, but he also proclaimed the gospel. He preached the gospel – with words – in addition to living it out. The gospel is a message. It is verbal. It can’t be proclaimed by actions or lifestyle.
I’m sure people (mis)quote Francis with good intentions. But next time you see it pop up on your news feed, remember that we have been entrusted with a message that is good, and we have been given the privilege of sharing that news with others.
Live in such a way as not to disqualify your sharing of the gospel, but don’t forget to share it!