Recently I was listening to the Fighting for the Faith podcast hosted by Chris Rosebrough. He was dissecting a Kerry Shook sermon where Kerry falsely quoted Francis of Assisi saying, "Preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words." Chris rightly pointed out that this saying is utter nonsense, since the gospel is good news to be proclaimed. He then had me in hysterics when he said this...
"That's like saying, feed the hungry at all times, and if possible, use food."
I think what makes Chris' statement so funny was how true it is. The gospel is a message about what Jesus has done for us. How can we preach the gospel without using words? In light of this, I thought I would try to come up with some of my own analogies. Here goes...
Brush your teeth twice a day, and when necessary, use a toothbrush and toothpaste.
Look both ways before you cross the street, and when necessary, open your eyes.
Take a shower every morning, and when necessary, use soap and water.
Stop at a red light, and when necessary, use your brakes.
Pay your bills on time, and when necessary, use money.
Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes, and when necessary, use bullets.
Despite my lousy attempt at being funny, this is a serious problem in missions today. I have met a number of missionaries who truly believe that the best way to communicate the gospel is by meeting societal needs. I'm not saying that Christians should not do these things. In fact, they should try to love their neighbors in this manner. Yet what we do is not the gospel. The gospel is what Jesus did for us. The only way we can communicate that is by using words. This type of communication should be the missionary's top priority. What eternal good does it do if you feed a person their whole life, yet never communicate to them about Jesus? If you provide them shelter, education and even a career, but they never hear about the one who can help with their ultimate need for salvation?
Need based ministries separated from the proclamation of the gospel is a great cruelty. It is like putting a bandaid on a wound that needs seventy-five stitches. People need to know that, though they are at enmity with God, He has provided a Savior for them. They need to understand that God became man in the person of Jesus. Jesus lived a sinless life, yet He died on the cross as a propitiation for their sins. The wrath that God should have poured out on them was instead poured out on Jesus. Jesus then rose from the dead three days later, defeating sin, death and the devil. He ascended to the right hand of the Father in heaven and is an advocate for all who repent and have faith in Him.
People need to hear this message of forgiveness. Without words like these, how can a person receive salvation? They may have food for a day, a month, a year or a lifetime, yet, without this message, they will spend all eternity in the lake of fire suffering under the wrath of God. So preach the gospel, and because it is necessary, use words.