Question: Many Christians love the Saint Francis of Assisi quote, “Preach the Gospel and when necessary use words.” Why do you dislike this quote?
Answer: First, according to scholars this quote did not come from Saint Francis of Assisi. An article by Glenn Stanton writing for the Gospel Coalition, says this:
“None of his disciples, early or later biographers have these words coming from his mouth. It doesn't show up in any of his writings. Not even close really. The closest comes from his Rule of 1221, Chapter XII on how the Franciscans should practice their preaching:”
“No brother should preach contrary to the form and regulations of the holy Church nor unless he has been permitted by his minister . . . All the Friars . . . should preach by their deeds.”
“Essentially, make sure your deeds match your words. While there's a nice and good sentiment in the statement—be sure you live out the grace and truth of the Gospel—the notion as it is typically presented is neither practical, nor faithful to the Gospel of Christ. It does not align with St. Francis' own practice.”
While visiting Nice France, I purchased and read a biography on the life and ministry of Saint Francis of Assisi by John Moorman. I learned 1) He dedicated his life to helping the poor, and 2) He dedicated his life to sharing the Gospel. Everywhere he went he preached the Gospel telling people about the forgiveness of sins available through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Second this quote exalts living the Christian life as superior to telling people about Jesus. I have had people tell me I don’t share my faith, I just live it out. One individual told me sharing your faith is offensive to others. Instead she said we are called to simply live it out and by doing so people will see Jesus in our lives. Are you telling me if I live like Jesus, people are going to rush up to me and bend their knees to Him? Even Jesus who lived a perfect life had to use words. All the disciples lived like Jesus and they had to preach the Gospel. The Apostle Paul, who lived an exemplary life, told everyone he met about Jesus.
Essentially, the person is saying even though Jesus, the disciples, and Paul had to preach the Gospel, I don’t have to because it is evident in my life. In other words, my life reflects Jesus better than Jesus!
This quote is usually utilized by people who don’t have the courage to share their beliefs. The Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 10:14-15: “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!'” Paul writes if people are going to believe in Christ, we need to verbally share the good news. We cannot preach the Gospel with our lives only; we must say something.
There are lots of good people who are not Christians who live better lives than I do. Even if I live an exemplary life, if I don’t talk about Jesus, I will get the credit for being a good person. I don’t want or deserve the credit! My life was turned upside down by the power of the Holy Spirit and I want the credit for anything good in my life to go to Jesus.
I read of book about a young man who went around the world living with the poor and doing incredible acts of kindness. He didn’t want to his motives to be judged so he didn’t share anything about Jesus. He just wanted to live out his faith. So what’s wrong with that? The entire book was about him and he got credit for being a great guy. However, his acts of kindness didn’t point people to Jesus; it just got him multiple compliments. We are not here to be pat on the back for being a good person. Our good lives are to serve as a foundation to support our preaching the Gospel.
I once was asked, which is more important words or works? I responded with a question, on an airplane which wing is more important the right or the left? Both are important but works without words is dead.