Someone I was talking with mentioned “silent evangelism.” He suggested there was no need to share the message of salvation because his “words speak louder than words.” His argument was that loving deeds of service point people to a loving God who cares for them. An underlying presupposition of his “silent evangelism” talk was that there was no need for repentance, confession of sin, and the announcement of forgiveness in Jesus. Conversion of a lost sinner was not the end goal of “silent evangelism.”
Acts of compassion … good works done in the name of the triune God … are good and necessary. God’s Son says, “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16) Again, our Lord says, “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” (John 15:8; cf. Matthew 25:34-40) There is a place for “silent evangelism” as these acts of kindness and compassion open doors and prepare hearts to hear the life-giving, life-changing words of God.
But, the Bible is equally clear: faith comes from hearing the message of Christ. “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.” (Romans 1:16) Paul writes to Timothy, “… from infancy you have known the holy scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation.” (2 Timothy 3:15) The purpose of John’s Gospel is that “you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31) It is for good reason that Paul writes, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:15) The end goal of speaking God’s Word is the conversion of a sinner … to have the Word work repentance and confession which leads to the forgiveness of sins. (Luke 24:46-47)
Ed Stetzer has posted a thoughtful reflection on this issue under the title, “Preach the Gospel, And Since It’s Necessary, Use Words.” Stetzer writes,
There’s a popular saying often repeated by Christians. It has found new life on Facebook and Twitter. Maybe you have even uttered these words, commonly attributed to Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel. Use words if necessary.”
I think we can appreciate what many are getting at when they say something like this. As Christians, we should live in such a way that our lives point to the person and work of Jesus. However, good intentions cannot overcome two basic problems with this quote and its supposed origin. One, Francis never said it, and two, the quote is not biblical.
Mark Galli has pointed out that there is no record of Francis, a member of a preaching order, uttering anything close to this. In fact, everything we know about the man suggests he would not have agreed with his supposed quote. He was well known for his preaching and often preached up to five times a day.
The idea may not have resonated with Francis, but for many today, wordless ministry is a compelling approach. “Words are cheap,” we like to say, and “Actions speak louder than words.” Galli explains that the sentiment complements our culture rather well:
“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, 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. …
It appears that the emphasis on proclamation is waning even in many churches that identify themselves as evangelical. Yet proclamation is the central task of the church. No, it is not the only task God has given us, but it is central. While the process of making disciples involves more than verbal communication, and obviously the life of a disciple is proved counterfeit when it amounts to words alone, the most critical work God has given the church is to “proclaim the excellencies” of our Savior.
A godly life should serve as a witness for the message we proclaim. But without words, what can our actions point to but ourselves? A godly life cannot communicate the incarnation, Jesus’ substitution for sinners, or the hope of redemption by grace alone through faith alone. We can’t be good news, but we can herald it, sing it, speak it, and preach it to all who listen.
To read Ed Stetzer’s complete reflection on this topic, you are encouraged to visit his blog: The LifeWay Research Blog and then scroll down to his posting of Monday, June 25.