Francis, Preaching, and the Gospel

Last night I linked to Dr. John Kossler's post where he shared some thoughts on the place of words in the Christian life and pushed back on the words often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, "Preach the gospel. If necessary use words." I appreciate what John had to say. Other's don't (I've heard from a few). But, John wasn't the first to push back. In 2009 Ed Stetzer wrote, "Francis never actually said this, nor would he have done so due to his membership in a preaching order." Earlier that same year Mark Galli (who has written a biography on St. Francis) wrote in Christianity Today, "The problem is that [St. Francis] did not say it. Nor did he live it. And those two contra-facts tell us something about the spirit of our age." He backs it up historically, and then gives us a picture of the real St. Francis--a gifted preacher who developed other preachers. He then says, of the slogan attributed to his subject,

"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. As blogger Justin Taylor recently put it, the Good News can no more be communicated by deeds than can the nightly news.

...To be sure, words used cheaply, thoughtlessly are worse than no words at all. As Westmont College professor Marilyn McEntyre says in an essay in the upcoming August issue of Christianity Today, "In an environment permeated with large-scale, well-funded deceptions, the business of telling the truth, and caring for the words we need for that purpose, is more challenging than ever before."

I understand that we have seen too many Christians and churches who talk a good game, but do not walk anywhere. As James wrote, "Faith without works is dead." But, those who want to push back on this popular saying are not pushing back on works of mercy. Rather, they are pushing back on a misunderstanding of gospel.

The gospel is solely the work of Jesus Christ to which we bear witness. His substitutionary life, death, and resurrection is our salvation. We cannot "do" the gospel, or "be" the gospel, but we can and must preach the gospel. In fact, most of the time when the gospel is referenced in Scripture it is connected to proclamation. See: Matt. 4:23; 9:35; 11:5; 24:14; 26:13; Mark 1:14; 13:10; 14:9; 16:15; Luke 9:6; 20:1; 3:18; 8:1; 4:13, 43; 16:16; Acts 8:12, 25, 40; 10:36; 14:7, 21; 15:7; 16:10; Rom. 1:15; 10:15; 15:20; 16:25; 1 Cor. 1:17; 9:14-18; 15:1; 2 Cor. 2:12; 8:18; 10:16; 11:14; Gal. 1:8-9, 11; 2:2; 3:8; 4:13; Eph. 6:19; Col. 1:23; 1 Thess. 1:5; 2:2, 9; 1 Pet. 4:6; Heb. 4:2.

Preaching the gospel with words is both prescribed and described as normative for the church everywhere in the Bible. It's not a way to do it. It is the way. The saying is at least confusing because when we say, "Preach the gospel. If necessary use words" we are saying that one can preach the gospel without words. But let's be clear about this. Our good works and godly lives can and should compliment our confession, but they cannot themselves announce the good news.

I appreciate the sentiment of most who use the slogan. I am pro-slogan. I even have five popular slogans from the sixteenth century tattooed around my arm! But I also appreciate clarity and accuracy--especially when it comes to the gospel and the mission of the church.