A very popular quote has been passed around which states, “Preach the gospel. If necessary, use words.” Many believe that it was Francis of Assisi who coined the phrase. Others doubt it. Who said it doesn’t really matter to me. I’d like to address the point it makes.
We’ve heard other pithy sayings intended to communicate the same thought. “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one…People won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” and so on. Often the intent is to emphasize the importance of living the life we preach. And of course that must be done. But just as often the intent is to diminish the importance and necessity of the preaching. Many people have bought into the notion that the lost will be saved if the saved set the right example. Actually the idea of the world being lost is not part of the mindset of many sweet-natured example setters. The agenda is making the world a nicer place to live and fix its social ills. It’s really no wonder this is such a popular idea. Most all the world welcomes nice guys and gals who do nice things for other people. Much fewer are receptive to being told they are in need of a savior and that repentance is essential. When simply setting the right example becomes the agenda of the church, overlooked is the critical social ill from which the world suffers. That critical social ill is not hunger, drought, loneliness or nakedness. That singular social ill is sin. And until the weight of a person’s sin is brought to bear, all the smiling, serving and sweetness will fall short of God’s agenda—teaching people with words what they must believe and do to be saved. Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18–19). Did you get that? Jesus was anointed to proclaim, not to just be nice. Jesus didn’t just set a good example for people. He taught them. He preached to them. He used words.
God did not commission his church to take the gospel to the world by being a society of do-gooders. God commissioned his disciples, those who have learned, to teach those who have not. Christians are to be “an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12). But the very next verse says, “devote yourself to the reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching”. Because to preach the gospel, you must use words.