I’ve been thinking a lot lately about that popular saying, “Preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary use words.” It gets tossed around frequently and is commonly attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, although there really isn’t solid proof for that citation. Now, I get it. The purpose and intent of the quote is often used in the context of spurring us on to be good neighbors toward others. And that’s great. The problem is, doing good things for other people is not the equivalent of preaching the gospel. Preaching the gospel is an audible proclamation that requires a response (Romans 10:8-10).
We in more conservative theological circles tend to attack this popular phrase as being naive or, even worse, plain stupid. I remember hearing Pastor John MacArthur say at this years T4G conference that he wouldn’t attribute this quote to anyone, let alone St. Francis, because of how stupid it is. Similarly, Pastor RC Sproul Jr. is known for saying, “Preach the gospel at all times, if necessary, rebuke anyone who says ‘if necessary, use words.'”
But I think if we’re honest, for all of our theological correctness about what preaching the gospel is and what it is not, we tend to let this be an excuse to – well – not be a good neighbor. We can get so hung up on having the best apologetic responses and defense of Christianity, so caught up in trying to make sure that we know every word we’ll say to someone about our faith, that we never pull the trigger and actually tell somebody. Or, even worse, we’re so caught up in our “good theology” that what we say to people comes off as cold, indifferent or even mean. That’s probably because it is.
Theological correctness should never be an excuse for neglecting the call to be a good, kind and hospitable neighbor toward others.
Recall some of the faithful Christians who have had the most impact on your life and faith. If you think about it for a second, you’ll realize that the reason they had so much impact on you was not only because of what they said but because of how they said it. You’ll probably remember these individuals as being warm, kind, hospitable, gentle, humble and caring.
What happens when we combine the audible proclamation of the gospel with warm, kind, hospitable, gentle and humble actions? We incarnate Christ himself; we physically represent the truths that we proclaim. See, the gospel will always be offensive; but not you. Christian, you are called to be warm, kind, hospitable and gentle towards others. This fact does not come at the expense of theological accuracy.
I don’t know what this looks like for you, but take time to think about how this dual reality of gospel proclamation and Christ-like character should shape your attitude towards friends and neighbors. Maybe you just need to bake cookies for someone or mow their lawn. Call them when you know they’re having a hard time. Buy their kid a birthday present. Spend time thinking about how you can just be a kind neighbor toward others and, when the time comes, preach the gospel with bold, audible words.
From “A Short Declaration of the True, Lively and Christian Faith”
A man may soon deceive himself, and think in his own fantasy that he by faith know God, love him, fear him, belong to him, when in very deed he doth nothing less.
For the trial of all these things is a very godly and Christian life. He that feel his heart set to seek God’s honor, and studies to know the will and commandments of God, and to frame himself thereunto, and leads not his life after the desire of his own flesh, to serve the devil by sin, but sets his mind to serve God for God’s own sake, and for His sake also to love all his neighbors, whether they be friends or adversaries, doing good to every man, as opportunity serves, and willingly hurting no man ; such a man may well rejoice in God, perceiving by the trade of his life that he unfeignedly hath the right knowledge of God, a lively faith, a steadfast hope, a true and unfeigned love and fear of God. But he that casts away the yoke of God’s commandments from his neck; and gives himself to live without true repentance, after his own sensual mind and pleasure, not regarding to know God’s word, and much less to live according thereunto ; such a man clearly deceives himself, and sees not his own heart, if he thinks that he either know God, loves him, fears him, or trusts in him.
Some peradventure fancy in themselves that they belong to God, although they live in sin; and so they come to the Church, and show themselves as God’s dear children. But St. John says plainly, If we say that we have any company with God, and walk in darkness, we do lie.
Others do vainly think that they know and love God, although they pass not of his commandments. But St. John says clearly, He that says, I know God, and keeps not his commandments, is a liar.
Some falsely persuade themselves, that they love God, when they hate their neighbors. But St. John says manifestly, If any man say, I love God, and yet hates his brother, he is a liar. He that says that he is in the light, and hates his brother, he is still in darkness. He that loves his brother dwells in the light; but he that hates his brother is in darkness, and walks in darkness, and knows not whither he goes: for darkness hath blinded his eyes. And moreover he says, Hereby we manifestly know the children of God from the children of the devil: He that doth not righteously is not the child of God, nor he that hates his brother.
Deceive not yourselves, therefore, thinking that you have faith in God, or that you love God, or do trust in him, or do fear him, when you live in sin : for then your ungodly and sinful life declares the contrary, whatsoever you say or think. It pertains to a Christian man to have this true Christian faith; and to try himself whether he hath it or no; and to know what belongs to it, and how it doth work in him. It is not the world that we can trust to ; the world, and all that is therein, is but vanity. It is God that must be our defense and protection against all temptation of wickedness and sin, errors, superstition, idolatry, and all evil. If all the world were on our side, and God against us, what could the world avail us? Therefore let us set our whole faith and trust in God, and neither the world, the devil, nor all the power of them, shall prevail against us. Let us therefore, good Christian people, try and examine our faith, what it is ; let us not natter ourselves, but look upon our works, and so judge of our faith what it is. Christ himself speaks of this matter, and says, The tree is known by the fruit. Therefore let us do good works, and thereby declare our faith to be the lively Christian faith. Let us, by such virtues as ought to spring out of faith, show our election to be sure and stable; as St. Peter teaches, Endeavour yourselves to make your calling and election certain by good works. And also he says, Minister or declare in your faith virtue, in virtue knowledge, in knowledge temperance, in temperance patience, in patience godliness, in godliness brotherly charity, in brotherly charity love. So shall we show indeed that we have the very lively Christian faith; and may so both certify our conscience the better that we be in the right faith, and also by these means confirm other men. If these fruits do not follow, we do but mock with God, deceive ourselves, and also other men.
Well may we bear the name of Christian men, but we do lack the true faith that doth belong thereunto: for true faith doth ever bring forth good works; as St. James says, Show me thy faith by thy deeds. Thy deeds and works must be an open testimonial of thy faith: otherwise thy faith, being without good works, is but the Devil’s faith, the faith of the wicked, a fantasy of faith, and not a true Christian faith. And like as the devils and evil people be nothing the better for their counterfeit faith, but it is unto them the more cause of damnation ; so they that be christened, and have received knowledge of God and of Christ’s merits ; and yet of a set purpose do live idly, without good works ; thinking the name of a naked faith to be either sufficient for them, or else, setting their minds upon vain pleasures of this world, do live in sin without repentance, not uttering the fruits that do belong to such an high profession; upon such presumptuous persons and willful sinners must needs remain the great vengeance of God, and eternal punishment in hell, prepared for the unjust and wicked livers.
Therefore as you profess the name of Christ, good Christian people, let no such fantasy and imagination of faith at any time beguile you; but be sure of your faith; try it by your living; look upon the fruits that come of it; mark the increase of love and charity by it towards God and your neighbor; and so shall you perceive it to be a true lively faith. If you feel and perceive such a faith in you, rejoice in it; and be diligent to maintain it and keep it still in you ; let it be daily increasing, and more and more be well working ; and so shall you be sure that you shall please God by this faith ; and at the length, as other faithful men have done before, so shall you, when his will is, come to him, and receive the end and final reward of your faith, as St. Peter names it, the salvation of your souls. The which God grant us, that hath promised the same unto his faithful ; to whom be all honor and glory, world without end.