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1/28/13 at 09:12 AM 21 Comments

History: What Did Francis of Assisi Mean When He Said, “If Necessary Use Words”?

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You’ve probably heard the quotation at least a few times, most likely in a sermon encouraging people to live their faith in the world.

“‘Preach the gospel at all times,’ Francis of Assisi said. ‘If necessary, use words.’”

It’s a heartwarming sentiment with two flaws.

First off, St. Francis never said it; second, even if St. Francis spoke these words, they aren’t true.

Mark Galli puts the historical myth to rest in an article that reads, in part,

First, no biography written within the first 200 years of his death contains the saying. It’s not likely that a pithy quote like this would have been missed by his earliest disciples. Second, in his day, Francis was known as much for his preaching as for his lifestyle. … He soon took up itinerant ministry, sometimes preaching in up to five villages a day, often outdoors. In the country, Francis often spoke from a bale of straw or a granary doorway. …

He apparently was a bit of a showman. He imitated the troubadours, employing poetry and word pictures to drive the message home. When he described the Nativity, listeners felt as if Mary was giving birth before their eyes; in rehearsing the crucifixion, the crowd (as did Francis) would shed tears. …

[An] early biography talked about how his preaching was received: “His words were neither hollow nor ridiculous, but filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, penetrating the marrow of the heart, so that listeners were turned to great amazement.”

Ed Stetzer summarizes the problem with the sentiment itself in an article entitled “Preach the Gospel and, Since It’s Necessary, Use Words.”

The Apostle Paul summarized the gospel as the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, through whom sin is atoned for, sinners are reconciled to God, and the hope of the resurrection awaits all who believe.

The gospel is not habit, but history. 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. We do live out its implications, but if we are to make the gospel known, we will do so through words.

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