Preach Christ, and if Necessary use Words?
"Preach Christ/the Gospel, and if necessary, use words."
This is a saying that supposedly goes all the way back to St Francis of Assisi (although that is disputed), and remains a phrase that gets tossed around a lot in Christian circles today. I have heard it used many, many times, I am sure you have also.
In this post, I want to offer a brief analysis of this phrase and its appropriateness as a Christian slogan. While it definitely contains an important truth, I believe that on the whole it is misleading and creates confusion about Christianity, and it is a phrase I have avoided using for that reason.
First, I want to affirm the important truth that this slogan captures. We are saved by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone. The Bible teaches us that true Disciples of Christ bear the fruit of good works in our lives, and that these good works not only include personal holiness but also love of neighbor. The parable of the good Samaritan is perhaps one of the most pointed challenges by our Lord to live out an ethic of practical love and care towards others that we see in need. James reminds us that true religion is this, to "visit orphans and widows in their afflictions, and to keep oneself unstained from the world." Jesus teaches us that as we do these good works we adorn the gospel, and that people will "see our good deeds and give glory to our Father who is in heaven." We should indeed pray that our lives are a living testimony to the fact that we are new creations in Jesus Christ, and that it lead people to ask us "what is the reason for the hope that is within you?"
But this leads to the concern I have with this little phrase, as popular as it may be. Namely, to share the hope that is within us involves more than doing works of kindness for others. We actually have to use words. To imply that we can "preach Christ" without using words, is to suggest that all it means to follow Christ is to do good works of kindness to others. It implies that Jesus cares more about how we live then what we believe (and this is often the way the phrase is used in our contemporary secular culture). But this is not the main message of Jesus or the Christian faith! Jesus did not come to be a great moral teacher who leaves us a legacy of being kind and good to others in his name, he came to save sinners from the wrath of God that we deserve by becoming a curse for us. And this central message is not one that good works alone can communicate, we actually have to preach it (See Romans 10)! Good works of love and kindness, as important as they are to give evidence to our real faith and make the gospel more attractive to outsiders, do not themselves call people to faith and repentance in Christ. There are many people today who do good works of kindness apart from faith in Christ. In such a context, if we really expect that people will "see our good deeds and glorify our father who is in heaven," then we must be willing, as we have opportunity, to tell people that it is because of Jesus that we do what we do, and present the Gospel. In other words, we have to use words.
To suggest then that we can "preach Christ" simply by acts of love and kindness, is to leave out of "preaching Christ" what is most important about "preaching Christ:" The cross and resurrection. It's not that our deeds are not important, they are just not enough. Faithful Christian witness is both word and deed. The main problem with this slogan is that it emphasizes the deed over the word, creating a false dichotomy. And by doing so, it very subtly bolsters the common American error that Jesus was merely a great moral teacher and all that he wants from people is to do acts of love and service to others. This is a Jesus that fits well with our contemporary pluralistic age, which is one reason I think this phrase is still so popular. His call to acknowledge our sinful rebellion against God and receive the forgiveness that only he can offer doesn't fit quite so easily.