Heard and Seen

In the June issue of Tabletalk magazine Ed Stetzer has an article entitled, “Preach the Gospel, and Since It’s Necessary, Use Words.” You may recognize the well-known saying Stetzer is addressing in his article; supposedly St. Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the gospel. Use words if necessary.” At least that’s Stetzer’s rendering of it; I have seen it in a slightly different version, but that is irrelevant to this discussion. In the first paragraph of his essay Stetzer says that there are “two basic problems with this quote and its supposed origin. One, Francis never said it, and two, the quote is not biblical.”

I am not concerned with whether or not Francis said it. Stetzer says that according to Mark Galli there is no record of Francis ever having said it, and I reckon I’ll just take his word for it because, as I said, it really doesn’t matter. What I think does matter though is Stetzer’s assertion that the idea is not biblical. Before I share my thoughts on that, though, I think I should let Stetzer speak for himself (and quote Galli).

Stetzer cites Galli’s claim that the quote suits our culture well with this quote: “‘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.” (I don’t know where Galli wrote this; Stetzer doesn’t say). Stetzer then goes on to say that the quote “gives an incomplete understanding of the gospel and how God saves sinners. Christians are quick to encourage each other to ‘live out the gospel,’ to ‘be the gospel’ to our neighbors, and even to ‘gospel each other.’ The missional impulse here is helpful, yet the gospel isn’t anything the Christian can live out, practice or become.”

Stetzer makes a bold claim when he asserts that the idea articulated in the quote in question is not biblical. After all, for a Christian, that is–or certainly should be–the deciding factor. If something is not biblical, that is synonymous with saying that it is wrong. So, I suppose I will need to respond with a bold claim of my own. While there are several words that come to mind, I’ll go with this one: ridiculous. For Ed Stetzer to suggest that preaching the gospel without words is not biblical is ridiculous. According to dictionary.com that means “causing or worthy of ridicule or derision; absurd; preposterous; laughable.”

Stetzer goes on to say that, “The gospel is the declaration of something that actually happened. And since the gospel is the saving work of Jesus, it isn’t something we can do, but it is something we must announce.” I do not disagree with this, of course. The gospel–literally, the “good news”–is that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came to earth as a human, lived a sinless life, died on the cross to pay the penalty for my sins (and yours), was buried, rose again three days later, was seen alive by thousands, ascended to heaven where He now sits at the right hand of the Father, and will come again some day. None of that is anything I can do, and it is, as Stetzer writes, something I, and every other believer, is called to announce.

The trouble comes in the fact that Stetzer seems to assume that the announcement has to be made by words. I–and whoever it was who said what has been attributed to Francis–do not agree. It is not enough for me to simply say I do not agree, though–or at least it should not be. Rather, let me explain to you why I do not agree, and provide biblical support for my position.

First, Paul, when writing to the church at Philippi, wrote, in 4:9, “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things…” (ESV). I would, for the purposes of this discussion, emphasize that four-word phrase “and seen in me.” The message of the gospel requires a verbal announcement (words) but it also requires a demonstration–a life lived out in a manner that is consistent with the words that are proclaimed. And, I might add, it generally requires this both before and after the words. The actions are the book ends that support or hold up the words.

In the same letter, Paul encourages the believers to “let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ. Why? “[S]o that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit…” (Philippians 1:27, ESV). In other words, Paul told the believers to preach the gospel with their lives, and if they did so, he would hear about it. Actions would lead to words.

In Matthew 5 we read Jesus Himself teaching that actions are indeed an essential part of preaching the gospel. In verse 13 Jesus calls believers to be salt. That takes action. After all, salt is an actual thing; to borrow from and rearrange another passage of Scripture, it will not do you any good if you ask for salt and I say, “There you are, pretend your food has been salted.” Nope; that won’t work. You need me to give you real salt. In the next verse Jesus says that each believer is like a light, and that believers are not to hide their lights but to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Same thing–action required.

Another well-known quote I heard numerous times growing up but have no idea who originally said is, “If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” The meaning is, of course, that if someone really believes the gospel it will be evident in the way he or she lives their life. Belief leads to action. While I agree with Stetzer that the gospel message needs to be proclaimed with words, I dare say that his assertion is far more dangerous than any danger he sees in the “live out the gospel” position. Why? Because there are many, many believers who preach, teach and live like the gospel message is nothing but words. What I mean is that I have heard many times–and likely you have, too–someone say, “If you’ll just say this prayer,” or “If you ask Jesus into your heart….” If this is news to you than I hate to disappoint, but there is no magic in saying the words. Words in and of themselves are just that–words. They do not mean anything; they are mere sounds that literally linger but a moment in the air. It is the meaning of the words that matters, and the meaning comes from whether or not I act in a way that indicates my belief in the words I speak.

Stetzer gives only one nod to the point I am trying to make in his article, and that comes in this statement: “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 that God has given to the church is to ‘proclaim the excellencies’ of our Savior.” Stetzer ends his article with four ways in which Christians should use words, and I do not disagree with any of them. Sadly, however, the words alone simply are not enough.

If I tell my wife I love her but my actions never demonstrate that love will she believe me? Not for long. Neither will anyone else. That’s why the words in and of themselves are not enough; the action is required. In fact, if you want to take Mr. Stetzer’s argument to its logical extreme, the very gospel he so wants Christians to proclaim with their words would not exist if words were all that was necessary.

What do I mean by that?

Well, if words were really the most important thing, God could have had His Son come to earth and tell everyone that He was the Son of God and that He could pay the penalty for their sins–and that if they would just believe Him their sins would be forgiven. If words were what mattered, Jesus did not have to die. Instead, I–and anyone else–could simply express my belief that Jesus could die, rise again, conquer sin, hell and the grave, and provide a way for my sins to be forgiven. But God is not concerned with whether or not I think Jesus could do that; He wants to know if I believe Jesus did do that.

So, Mr. Stetzer, I respectfully disagree with your premise. Not only do I disagree with your assertion that to preach the gospel always and when necessary to use words is not biblical, I would actually embrace the exact opposite argument–that to suggest that the gospel can be preached without actions is what is not biblical. The gospel demands action; it demands lives that are “worthy of the gospel of Christ.” So let us live lives that draw people to Christ, that open doors for words to be spoken, and that cause those outside of the church to ask about Jesus.

3 thoughts on “Heard and Seen

  1. happy 100th birthday. Just returned from MO, so caught up now. Come visit us and you can learn to throw a boomerang while we engage in heavy philosophical conversation but I’ll have to be the listener. Live and talk right.

  2. I try to avoid issues that might seem to turn on semantics, but Stetzer contends that the essence of the Gospel message is that God did something for us, and proper distinction is made between that and what we do as recipients of this completed work. This is probably a needed message in an existentially-laced culture where “living out the Gospel” might find folk doing a lot of things that bear no relation to the message of Christ’s completed work, yet they believe that the Gospel is somehow being accomplished. While the life of a believer may be a tool with which to draw others, delivery of the message of the Gospel itself is the means God uses to redeem people. I think that’s a fair assessment of the author’s intent here. Food for thought.

    1. I appreciate your feedback, Jamie. After I read it, I went back and read Stetzer’s article again. I think you accurately summarize Stetzer’s contention that the Gospel message is what God uses to redeem people, and I certainly do not disagree with that. While I agree with much of what Stetzer stresses regarding the delivery of the Gospel through words, however, I think he was too strong in his assertion. I don’t know if it was an effort to be controversial and spark a discussion or if it was really what he believes, but I find that there are far too many passages of Scripture that specifically address the importance of “living out the Gospel” to suggest that the statement attributed to St. Francis of Assisi is “unbiblical.” Jesus Himself and most of the NT writers provide exhortation to live our lives in such a way that others will see the difference between our lives and theirs and will, subsequently, be drawn to the message of the Gospel. I guess if I were to put in one sentence I would say that I think the Scripture calls for a “both/and” approach, whereas Stetzer seems–by using the word “unbiblical”–to suggest that it is “either/or.” Had he not used the word “unbiblical” it is quite possible that Stetzer’s article would not have aroused the response from me that it did.

      Stetzer seems, on numerous occasions throughout the article, to start to acknowledge this, but then always retreats. For example, he writes, “A godly life should serve as a witness for the message we proclaim.” I agree. He then states, though, “But without words, what can our actions point to but ourselves?” I don’t think Francis, or whoever made the original statement in question here, was suggesting that words are never appropriate; rather, that words usually are not effective until the actions of one “living out the Gospel” have prepared the heart of the hearer for the words. Rarely are “cold call” attempts at evangelism effective–certainly not as effective as evangelism done by someone who has a relationship with an individual and who has demonstrated the Gospel to him or her through actions prior to sharing the words of the Gospel. Plenty of research supports that. And, at the end of the day, I know of too many stories of people who have been drawn to the truth of the Gospel by the consistent actions of Christians around them to be able to embrace the assertion that preaching the Gospel without words is unbiblical.

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