There is a phrase often repeated (and wrongly attributed to St. Francis of Assisi) that goes something like this, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary use words.”
The purpose of this well-liked phrase is to remind Christians to let their actions speak for themselves, and to say more about love than anything else. And in this sense, it seems like a useful phrase. It does no good for anyone to go around telling others about Jesus while showing them a lack of empathy. Actions speak louder than words, and if we truly want anyone else to care about what we have to say, we had better start by caring about them as people. We certainly do not want to be like those who honor Jesus with our lips but whose hearts are far away. Instead, we should do as Jesus commands us, and live lives that glorify God by loving and serving our neighbor.
But there are some problems with this instruction. To begin with, the Gospel is literally the Good News of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. News must be shared via words, lest the actions be misunderstood or misinterpreted. And faith comes not by watching, but by hearing. My neighbor might mow my lawn, but unless he tells me it’s because of Jesus, I have nothing to otherwise connect the two – and being kind and helpful are certainly not unique to being Christian, so he might have mowed it without even knowing who Jesus is. We may (and should often) be kind and loving without sharing the Gospel, but we cannot share the Gospel by being kind and loving alone.
We may (and should often) be kind and loving without sharing the Gospel, but we cannot share the Gospel by being kind and loving alone.
The other problem is that our actions, no matter how noble or selfless, preach the opposite of the gospel, which is the news of what God has done for us. When someone serves me selflessly, I will likely think about how great they are, rather than how great God is. I might feel guilty that I’m not more selfless, which turns my focus inward upon myself, rather than upward toward God. Again, that is not to say our actions cannot be kind, loving and good, it’s just that they cannot suffice in themselves to share the Gospel.
The Gospel is the Good News of God’s actions, not ours. Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, and is not by our works (Ephesians 2:8-9). It is through the cross and the empty tomb that we are made whole; that our debt of sin is paid; that we receive everlasting life. When we say something like “Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary use words,” we are redefining the Gospel to be about our actions rather than God’s. When we do that, we make Christianity a religion of works, like any other.
We should absolutely strive to live lives that reflect the glory and salvation of God – in fact, it is what we were created to do (Ephesians 2:10; Matthew 5:14-16) – but our lips must proclaim that which our actions cannot: that “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23).”
May we love people enough to show and tell them how loved they are by the God who saves.