He Didn’t Say It

st-francis-of-assisi-posters

Preach and Live the Gospel

Faith comes by HEARING and HEARING through the WORD of CHRIST.

Romans 10:17

Mark Galli posts an excellent essay on the Christianity Today website that dispels the notion that Francis of Assisi taught, “Preach the gospel; use words if necessary.” Galli refutes the modern idea that talk is cheap and living the truth is the only requirement of preaching the gospel. However, Francis preached, Jesus taught, and the Apostle Paul declared the saving truth of salvation by faith through grace AND they lived holy and exemplary lives.

I’ve heard the quote once too often. It’s time to set the record straight-about the quote, and about the gospel. Francis of Assisi is said to have said, “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.” This saying is carted out whenever someone wants to suggest that Christians talk about the gospel too much, and live the gospel too little. Fair enough-that can be a problem. Much of the rhetorical power of the quotation comes from the assumption that Francis not only said it but lived it. The problem is that he did not say it. Nor did he live it. And those two contra-facts tell us something about the spirit of our age. . . .

“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 and 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. . . .

That being said, a better saying (which you can attribute to anyone you like) is this: Preach the gospel—use actions when necessary; use words always.

Mark Galli, “Speak the Gospel” Christianity Today magazine, May 2009 (Web only).

5 thoughts on “He Didn’t Say It

  1. Gary Feister

    Whether St. Francis said it or not, I disagree with Mr. Galli.

    First, he seems to view the statement as “either/or”; as if you can’t do both at the same time. I believe the phrase is clearly “both/and”; it’s saying use both.

    Second, he seems to have a narrow, one-dimensional understanding of the saying. He overlooks the fact that St. Francis was always using creative and sometimes “over-the-top” demonstrations of the message. He was the first to employ a “live” creche, using real people to display the Nativity. In light of Francis’ example, I understand the phrase to be saying, “Preach the Gospel – if necessary, use words – but also use creativity: use drama, use the arts, live it, sing it, dance it; just don’t limit yourself to words alone. Give a full-orbed proclamation and demonstration of the gospel”.

    With Francis, we see that when a believer gives expression to the effects/fruit of the Gospel, they proclaim the Gospel. When a slave celebrates and lives his freedom, he proclaims and demonstrates to others that they can be free also. I think the author misses this point and focuses too much on a narrow interpretation of the saying in question.

  2. Gary Feister

    One more thing: Just because there’s no record of St. Francis saying this statement doesn’t mean he didn’t. In scripture, we don’t know the names of Pharoah’s two magicians until Paul’s letter to Timothy (2 Tim. 3:8); we don’t find out that Jesus said, “It’s more blessed to give than to receive” until deep into Acts (20:35). Until then, it was oral tradition. But, whether Francis said it or not, I think it’s a legitimate statement that’s worthy of consideration and application.

  3. GlennDavis Post author

    Gary:

    Good to hear from you. Several years ago, I was researching some quotes and ran across the blog of a Roman Catholic scholar who examined the original source of famous Christian quotes. He mentioned that this famous aphorism, “Preach the gospel; use words if necessary,” attributed to St. Francis cannot be traced through primary sources to St. Francis’ sermons or writings or contemporaries. This fact caused me to reflect on the statement to determine its biblical reliability. I determined that the quote was not consistent with scripture.

    The statement implies that I should first live the gospel through my actions and then when all else fails, I explain the gospel. In other words, live it first, then talk it. Biblically, the gospel is lived and the overflow of that Life leads me to share it. The two concepts are not held in juxtaposition to one another: I speak because the gospel is my life, my life is the gospel so by God’s grace I live the gospel.

    Probably, the original intent of the statement was to focus on the need to live the gospel that we preach, in other words– no hypocrisy between our words and behavior. However, the quote has been increasing used to deny the need to proclaim the gospel. As one writer stated, “The problem is that this quote is frequently used by those who downplay the need for verbal proclamation of the gospel. The quote then reinforces people’s natural hesitance to speak the gospel by giving an out. The result is that believers think non-believers will come to faith in Christ simply by observing their lives.”

    The quote would be better stated if it said, “Preach the Word always, and don’t let your your life contradict the message you preach.” We must remember that preaching is the only method that has been ordained by God “to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21). Skits, drama, dance, and even liturgy support the one method, preaching, which is ordained by God to win the nations to Christ. We are called to preach and live the gospel simultaneously which I believe is what Mark Galli is trying to communicate.

  4. GlennDavis Post author

    One cannot argue from silence: if there is no evidence from primary source material then a historian cannot be certain of authorship. Sure, I guess Francis could have said it: anything is possible. But it is also just as possible that someone made the statement up in put it in Francis’ mouth.

    In regard to Jannes and Jambres, they were cited in extrabiblical Jewish literature and their names were widely known in the Jewish community. When Paul mentions them, he is verifying by the Holy Spirit that they were real people in space and time. Luke wrote Acts citing witnesses who knew Jesus, so Acts is not that late. I would be careful comparing a two hundred year old biography of Francis with the Spirit’s work of transmitting the New Testament.

  5. Gary Feister

    In response to the first response, I whole-heartedly agree that preaching or telling the good news is primary (Speaking it, I mean) and that our lives should demonstrate what we teach/preach/say.

    On your second response, I agree. I wasn’t so much trying to prove that St. Francis said the quote (I really felt like that wasn’t really a big deal, aside from accuracy in information) as I was simply saying, as you noted, that it’s possible.

    Thanks as always for your insight and friendship. By the way, I’ve been reading George Eldon Ladd’s, “The Gospel Of The Kingdom”. I really like it.

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