There is a quote that has permeated Christendom for hundreds of years now, and it is usually attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, who died in 1226. You have probably heard it, it goes like this:
“Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.”
Francis of Assisi is no doubt an inspirational Church Father. He was born into a wealthy family, but he gave it all up to live a life of poverty and devotion to the Lord. He founded the Franciscan Order, he preached the Gospel, and I most respect him for seeing the brutality and devastation of the Crusades and going to Egypt on mission to win the Sultan to salvation. What if we went into hostile territories with the Gospel instead of guns? It not concretely known if Francis made this statement or if someone else, but irregardless, this sentiment rings through churches and Bible studies regularly. But here’s the problem:
It is impossible to preach the Gospel without words.
Unless you are a mime and are silently acting out the story of Jesus, your actions, your service, your deeds do not preach the Gospel. People who do not know Jesus do just as many “good deeds” as Christians. Have you ever heard of Angelina Jolie? She no doubt has given more money, visited more orphans and widows, and spearheaded more human rights initiatives than my entire church combined. But she is not a Christian. So how can our feeding of the hungry be preaching the Gospel, if non Christians can and do do the exact. same. thing?
And here’s why it’s not. The love of Christ is not feeding the hungry. The love of Christ is not clothing the naked. The love of Christ is not being nice to that jerk at work. The love of Christ is taking our eternal punishment of damnation, paying for it on the cross, and satiating the wrath of God against us:
“By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him.”
– 1 John 4.9
“Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.”
– John 15.13
“We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.”
– 1 John 3.16
Do I need to go on?
“But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
– Rom 5.8
Now, please do not hear me incorrectly. We, as Christians, are commanded to provide for and visit the orphans and widows.
Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
– James 1.27
Jesus also expects us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison and care for one another. In fact, He says that when we do so, we are loving Him:
“Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine,even the least of them, you did it to Me.’”
– Matt 25.34-40
But notice here: the focus is on loving Jesus. Jesus does not say that when you serve the poor you are being Jesus to them, He says that our service to the poor is ultimately service to Him. Our love for God should compel us to serve and care for one another in extravagant ways. But it is not the Gospel. It is service to Jesus. It is the overflowing of our love for God pouring out to one another.
The Gospel is the story of our sinfulness and consequential separation from God temporally and eternally, but the hope that we have of forgiveness and eternal life through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Gospel is not soup at a soup kitchen. The Gospel is not holding an umbrella while a man changes his tire on the side of the road. The Gospel is not being nice to the unlovable. The Gospel is the story. And we cannot know Jesus and be saved unless we hear and believe the story.
…”for ‘Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things!'”
– Rom 10.13-15
Paul does not say, “How beautiful are the feet of those who feed the hungry, provide clean water, provide electricity, etc”. No. It says, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things”. Preach the Gospel: the story of hope through Jesus. Unless they hear, they cannot call on God. They cannot be saved. And the Gospel is the offer of salvation. There is a man who was born a Muslim, who came to know Christ, and after being exiled from his family and community he chooses to live his life by this motto: “I tell everyone about Jesus, and those who want to believe will be my friends”. That, friends, is someone who gets it. Our niceties will save no one. Only Jesus will.
Let’s not believe the lie, and make an excuse for ourselves to be cowards. Jesus died on the cross for our salvation. The least we can do is tell people about it!