28 March 2023

Preach the gospel. And use words.

There’s this really popular quote Christians use. It’s attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, but we’ve no evidence he ever said it. Kinda like the St. Francis prayer, which Francis didn’t write either. People really like putting words in Francis’s mouth, don’t they?… but I digress. The saying is, “Preach the gospel [at all times]—use words if necessary.”

Which sounds profound and nice, doesn’t it? How Christians typically interpret it is, “We preach the gospel through our actions. Not just our words; not just with sermons and literature, but being kind to others, doing good deeds, loving our neighbors, and otherwise demonstrating our faith isn’t dead by doing good works.” And isn’t good works a fruit of the Spirit anyway? Shouldn’t we already be doing them?—and in so doing, we follow the Holy Spirit and Jesus?

But here’s the thing: Words are necessary.

I’ve met many a pagan who’s seen Christians do good works. Who’s seen us be kind to people, seen us create and run charities, seen us actively get out and help the needy. But when you ask ’em why these Christians are doing good deeds, their answers are always, always, “Oh they’re just trying to get to heaven.” They think we think we’re saved by good karma.

Heck, I’ve seen many a Christian who says the very same thing. “Oh those Christians are practicing ‘faith righteousness.’ You know we’re not saved by works though; we’re saved by faith.” Of course when these people say “saved by faith” what they really mean is “saved by the Christian faith,” i.e. saved by believing the right things, saved by orthodoxy. And we’re not saved by that either! We’re saved by God’s grace. Get it right, folks.

God’s grace is a huge part of the gospel: God’s kingdom has come near, so let’s repent, and trust God to save us, and he will. Grace is central to Christianity, central to forgiveness, and what God’s kingdom runs on. Yet these people watching us Christians do our good works—both pagan and Christian—have somehow not picked up on the grace thing. Even when we’re actively demonstrating grace by doing good things for people who don’t deserve it, can’t earn it, and in some cases don’t even appreciate it.

Grace went over their heads. Hey, they don’t practice it, so it stands to reason they won’t recognize it.

And this is why, when we proclaim the gospel, we have to use words! Actions are open to interpretation, and people will naturally interpret things based on themselves, based on their own prejudices and biases. They see us doing good deeds, unconsciously think, “Why might I do those good deeds?” and conclude all sorts of self-serving ulterior motives. Some of those motives are downright evil, by the way. That’s why they’ll sometimes get really suspicious of Christian charities: “Oh, you must be doing this for the same reasons I’d do it. You’re trying to get tax breaks. You’re trying to get good public relations to make up for something really bad you’ve done, or you’re secretly doing. You’re trying to look good. You’re trying to feel good about yourselves. I know what you’re really about.”

No, they really don’t. Not unless we tell them. So we gotta tell them. With words.

It’s why the bible was written in words. Why Jesus uses words to share parables, make statements, reveal God, and describe the kingdom. He didn’t leave it up to guesswork; he didn’t expect people to watch what he was doing and come to their own conclusions. You might recall some of ’em, on their own, reached the conclusion he was using Satan’s power to do his miracles. Clearly they weren’t listening to his words—and again, Jesus used words to rebuke them.

So when Jesus sends out his followers to go make him more followers, he expects us to use words. To teach them, not just with actions and good deeds, but with words, “to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” Mt 28.20 KJV —and how’d he command his students? With words.

Those who don’t wanna use words.

Part of the reason this phony-baloney “St. Francis” quote is so popular, is there are a lot of Christians who really don’t wanna use words to preach the gospel. For various reasons.

Sometimes it’s because they don’t feel they can communicate the gospel articulately enough. They’re afraid they’re gonna share it wrong, or get some details wrong, or otherwise mangle the message. And okay, if that’s your worry, relax! Take them to somebody who communicates the gospel right. Give them a tract which explains the gospel properly, and read it along with them. Point ’em to a website, a video, or if you’re right there with another able communicator, introduce them to that person. You’re not alone; you’ve got resources! Use them.

But often it’s because they don’t wanna communicate the gospel. They feel unworthy, incapable, or think of themselves as lousy examples of a Christian. They feel uncomfortable with other people, and just want to stand back and quietly, unobtrusively do good deeds. They wanna be behind-the-scenes Christians, who support the gospel rather than preaching it.

Hey, I’m not knocking those people who wanna support the gospel with behind-the-scenes activities. I do a fair amount of that stuff myself, and we could always use more help. But if you’re hoping to only do that, instead of sharing Jesus with other people… you’re really gonna fumble things when you find yourself in a situation where someone needs you to share Jesus with them.

When we’re fearful and introverted, and hesitant to share Jesus for any number of reasons, we gotta learn to conquer those fears. We gotta learn to love people so much, those fears get eliminated. 1Jn 4.18 And I’ve found the best way to do that is to do the sort of good deeds which obligate us to interact with people. Go give sandwiches to the hungry. Go give water bottles to the thirsty. Go wash feet. Go help people, and in so doing it’ll get way easier to talk with people, and point ’em to Jesus.

Because anybody can give away food and water, and care for the needy. Lots of people do! Lots of pagans do. Other religions do good deeds, because they do believe they’re saved by good karma. So just doing good deeds and nothing more isn’t gonna proclaim God’s love, and point to Jesus, unless we say so. The good deeds have to work hand-in-hand with the message. Use words.