“So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” Romans 10:17 (ESV)
In recent years, a saying widely attributed to St. Francis of Assisi has become popularized; “Preach the Gospel, and if necessary, use words.” This saying has especially become owned by those in various missional movements who advocate a more incarnationalform of evangelism, less dependent on words to promulgate the message. This approach is big on living a lifestyle that affirms the Gospel; thus, preaching withoutwords.
This is a valid aspect of truly biblical evangelism. It reminds us that the preaching task consists not only of words, but a lifestyle that affirms the message. Jim Peterson, in his classic book Evangelism as a Lifestyle says that valid biblical witness requires two things: proclamation and affirmation. Affirmation means that our words are backed up by a lifestyle that is commensurate with the Gospel. So in this sense, the saying attributed to St. Francis holds true. We have to preach the Gospel by living a lifestyle that affirms its truthfulness.
But yet, words are not only important—they’re necessary! The saying should in fact say, “Preach the Gospel, and by necessity, use words.” That is the meaning of the text in Romans 10:17. In this chapter, Paul is defending preaching as the means by which men and women are saved: “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us? So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” His rationale in this portion of Scripture is plain: Men cannot believe if they have not heard. And they cannot hear without someone preaching. So for Paul, that means preaching is not merely an accoutrement—it’s a necessity!
I once asked a man in my church if he shared the Gospel at work. He told me he didn’t but he smiled a lot. I told him that was good, but it could easily be assumed he was on crack! I know what he meant by that. My point was that at some point words are necessary if men and women are to be saved. That is why, until the Lord comes, preaching is a necessity.
Sometimes, we are called to affirm the message before we proclaim. But we should always look for the opportunities to preach using words. A friend of mine moved to Israel a number of years ago. He told of an opportunity to share the Gospel at the bank that he frequented. Israelis are not known for their patience and there are usually long lines at the bank. One day, my friend stepped up to the teller and said hello. She asked my friend, “Jerry, why are you so patient?” My friend began to explain to her that his life had been changed by the Jewish Messiah and he had taught him patience. He had affirmed the gospel for many months and that opened the door for him to proclaim.
The phrase “word of Christ” in our text does not refer to hearing God’s voice but the message of the gospel. Faith comes when we hear the gospel. That is why Paul argues for the necessity of Gospel preaching. We would think, after Paul argues for the doctrine of election in Romans 9, one would believe that preaching becomes unnecessary. But for Paul, preaching is the means God uses to create faith in hearts.
“Preach the gospel, and by necessity, use words.”