Zeal for God
A misguided phrase is often shared online, which you have perhaps seen recently: “Preach the gospel. Use words if necessary.” I like the impulse - love your neighbor. Show through your actions how Christ has transformed you. Give others the dignity they deserve through quiet actions and consistent love. It reflects the gospel that we hold so dear in our own lives. Francis of Assisi supposedly authored this quote; however, there are serious fundamental problems with it. The first is that Francis did not say it. The other more serious problem is that nowhere does scripture tell us to treat the gospel as an action we produce devoid of words.
In Romans 10, Paul says that zeal for God through actions is not enough to save. The Jews had no lack of zeal. “For I bear witness that they have zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.” That righteousness is found in Christ alone. That righteousness is revealed to sinners through the clear declaration of the gospel through words, not actions.
Here is what God’s word says (and Francis as well), “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim).” (Romans 10:8) It is the proclaimed word that goes out in power to transform and save sinners. “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news! Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Romans 10:14,15)
It is by words that we communicate the gospel. By all means, serve and love others by action and deed, but the gospel is communicated by words. One theologian says,
“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.”
The historical Jesus came and lived, died, and was resurrected so that we might believe upon his declared name, have forgiveness for sin, and eternal life. Preach this gospel. Preach it with words that draw men, women, and children to the voice of God, who invites them to salvation.
Grace and peace,