The quote appears now and again, and each time I read it I appreciate it less and less. It is sometimes attributed to Francis of Assisi, but one never sees attribution, so it’s doubtful that the Catholic figure ever wrote it. It appears in several forms, sometimes one compound sentence; at other times, as two separate sentences.
I fail to appreciate it because it sets up a conflict of sorts between words and life. It expresses an unbiblical dichotomy.
Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.
The quote is catchy. And it relieves people of responsibility which God placed upon every single saint.
There is no preaching of the gospel without words. It cannot be done.
James says we ought to “humbly welcome the message implanted within you, which is able to save your souls” James 1.21. “Message” is literally “word” (Greek: logos). To save souls, a word must be spoken.
It is when God speaks — and when we transmit his words by saying them — that something new is created. He created light with a word and he creates life in converts by that same word:
For God, who said “Let light shine out of darkness,” is the one who shined in our hearts to give us the light of the glorious knowledge of God in the face of Christ, 2 Corinthians 4.6.
Maybe the spurious quote above wants to emphasize the absolute necessity of a good example. Fine and good. But I know of people who were converted to Christ by unholy saints. God’s word is so powerful that he has the ability to convert a sinner through the preaching of a person with impure motives and immoral hands.
The apostle Paul rejoiced that the gospel was being preached even by people with wrong motives. They didn’t change the gospel, but they weren’t exactly model evangelists, either.
Some, to be sure, are preaching Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. The latter do so from love because they know that I am placed here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ from selfish ambition, not sincerely, because they think they can cause trouble for me in my imprisonment. What is the result? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is being proclaimed, and in this I rejoice, Philippians 1.15-18.
Take that, Francis of Assisi — or whoever invented the quote.
Jesus certainly had the “the power of an indestructible life” Hebrews 7.16. By means of his life, he was able to be our high priest and offer himself as a sacrifice for our sin.
So let’s revise the quote.
Preach the gospel at all times with words. For in it is the power of Jesus’ life.