Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.
If you are an evangelical Christian living in the Western Hemisphere, there is a good chance you have heard this exhortation before. Attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi (though it wasn’t until two centuries after his death that this saying was linked to him), this oft-quoted platitude serves as the basis for a common approach to Christian evangelism that suggests it is possible—and perhaps preferable—to effectively communicate the gospel solely through actions.
In other words, evangelism does not always require a verbal explanation of the gospel. If we want to communicate the gospel to people, all that is really necessary most of the time is a pattern of behavior that bears witness to the gospel.
Be kind to others. Help those who are in need. Provide for your family. Be a man of your word. Be faithful to your spouse. Don’t get drunk. Don’t cheat on your taxes. Pay all your bills on time. Love. Forgive. Embrace.
These are all wonderful things that commend the gospel. When our lives are full of these qualities, we give compelling evidence for the power and truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
But this raises a question: Is this all we need to do in order to faithfully and effectively bear witness to our God?
An examination of Scripture says no. Consider, for example, the overwhelming pattern in the New Testament of Christians verbally explaining the gospel. The book of Acts alone is replete with verbal evangelism. Here are a few examples:
- Peter in Jerusalem (Acts 2: 14-41)
- Stephen in Jerusalem (Acts 7:1-53)
- Believers scattered abroad (Acts 8:4)
- Phillip in Samaria, Jerusalem, and Azotus (Acts 8:4-40)
- Peter in Caesarea (Acts 10:34-43)
- Paul in Athens (Acts 17:16-34)
Notice how many of these passages include the phrase “he opened his mouth.” I do not think it is by accident that this phrase occurs so frequently. It seems that the writer of Acts intends to draw our attention to the fact that verbal preaching was the primary means of the gospel being spread in the first century of Christianity. Christians spoke; non-Christians heard and believed.
So the question we must answer is: Why should we expect that it would be any different today?
Well, it isn’t any different at all. Words are still primary in evangelism. The modern emphasis on actions as a primary means of evangelism is rooted in a reluctance to offend people with the very message that is intended to reconcile people to God. After all, if we’re going to people that Jesus is real, we must spend more time doing things that will attract them to the truth rather than turning them away with our harsh-sounding words.
While I appreciate the heart behind this, I think it completely misses the basic fact that the gospel message is inherently offensive to unbelieving ears. What person do you know enjoys being told that he is a guilty rebel who is hopelessly in need of a Savior? But consider for a moment—does an individual’s feelings or response to the gospel make it any less true?
We Christians need to come to terms with the fact that the world simply will not love us and embrace us for preaching the gospel. But this does not discourage us from boldly speaking the truth. To the contrary, we are motivated by the fact that preaching the gospel—regardless of how it is received—gives glory to our God.
Moreover, we know that even if some of our hearers reject the message, others who hear that same message will believe it and put their hope in Christ. Don’t believe me? Look again at Peter, Paul, and Stephen. All three of these men were openly mocked while they preached. Stephen was stoned to death! But in each of these cases, there were some people among the crowd who repented and believed.
Does that mean that we are guaranteed the same result every time we open our mouths to preach the gospel? No. But it does show us that God works miracles to cause people to repent and believe, even when we least expect it. So in faith, we open our mouths—like Peter, Paul, and Stephen—and we plead with sinners to trust in Christ for forgiveness and salvation.
Our actions are important. In fact, the book of James assures us that our actions are vital to our witness as followers of Christ. Do you claim to have faith in Jesus? Well, your life had better back that up. But in the end, that’s all actions are—evidence of the spiritual reality to which we lay claim.
As such, we must deliberately explain the gospel. We must talk about God’s holiness, our sin, and Christ’s atoning death. We must talk about repentance, faith, and sanctification. We must talk about the joys of following Christ in this life and the awesome hope we have for eternal life. We must open our mouths and talk about these things. And we must do it early and often.
Should we be wise in knowing exactly when and how to speak up? Of course. But at the end of the day, we’ve got to speak up or else we cannot really call it evangelism.
The gospel is not self-evident, though we certainly wish it were. Rather, people need to hear the gospel in order to believe it. God has ordained it this way.