Long ago St. Francis uttered some words that have unfortunately survived to this very day and constitute a popular quote among many Christians regarding evangelism: “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” This statement—or the thinking behind it—has perhaps become as popular in evangelical church culture as the Great Commission itself. While many in the church do many good things, it is still noteworthy that the church culture in this day and age seems intent on wriggling out of its obligation to share the gospel message with a dark, lost world.

The latest manifestation of this resistance (in my own personal experience) happened yesterday at a home Christian gathering, where one particular individual taught a lesson based on 1 Thessalonians 1:8-10, which reads as follows (from two translations):

The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath. (NIV)

For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith toward God has gone forth, so that we have no need to say anything. For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come. (NASB)

The gist of the man’s lesson was that this passage teaches us that the gospel message can go forth apart from words. The teacher of the lesson argued that, just as people in distant locations in Paul’s time heard of the Thessalonians’ faith, so also now people can hear of our faith—and learn about the gospel—simply through the devout Christian lives we lead. Thus, the point was that sometimes the gospel message is not necessary, and it was nothing new; it was merely a repackaging of the centuries-old quote by St. Francis. Just like Francis of yore, this gentleman tried to teach that the gospel message—the one that God declares to be the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes (Rom. 1:16) and to be absolutely necessary for salvation (Rom. 10:14)—is optional. According to this idea, there are times when words are unnecessary and it is enough simply to live out a pious Christian life before the lost.

To reinforce his point, the teacher provided anecdote after anecdote from his own life that allegedly testified to the truth of his idea. One such example was the claim that a non-Christian somehow learned of his being a follower of Christ completely apart from any direct interaction with him. I am not sure what this proves exactly. Perhaps another coworker told him that he was a Christian…?

Others in the group supported him by sharing anecdotes of their own. Truly we live in the age of storybook theology, a curious era in which major theological “truths” are determined by the canon of personal experience. The word of God was not consulted. Neither the immediate context nor the broad context was examined, no biblical cross-references were mentioned and no attempt was made to bring other Pauline passages into the discussion. Once again postmodernism triumphed, doing what it does so well: interpreting the word of God—an objective text—solely through the lens of personal experience—a non-text. Whatever happened to sola scriptura? It seems that over and over again contemporary evangelical church culture favors non-text over context. That is not a good sign at all.

There are three reasons why this man’s interpretation was wrong: Paul’s intention was not to point out that people were converted; the interpretation is irrational; and it contradicts Paul’s clear teaching in
other places in the New Testament.

First, as to Paul’s intention: In this introductory section of the first epistle to the Thessalonians, the apostle does not mention even a single non-Christian coming to faith through news of their godly reputation. In fact, he specifically points out in v. 7 that it was believers who had heard about the Thessalonians, not unbelievers:

And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. (NIV)

Second, as to the irrationality of the argument: The teacher essentially argued that the word can go forth without the word. What this does is actually redefine the term “word.” In the entire Bible, the word of God preached by men is always described as a verbal message, whether proclaimed by Old Testament prophets or New Testament apostles, with words heard by an audience. To say, therefore, that a verbal message—in the biblical sense of the word—could be communicated without words is the same as saying that a grilled cheese sandwich could be served without any cheese. One could try to pull it off, but it just wouldn’t work no matter how diligent the attempt. When we remove an essential attribute of a term, we are redefining that term. Woe to us when we take it upon ourselves to redefine God’s own terms.

Third, the argument contradicts Paul’s clear teaching in other places in the New Testament. Paul made it very clear in Romans 10 that learning about Christ is impossible without the verbal communication of the gospel message:

For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. As the Scripture says, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news! But not all the Israelites accepted the good news. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our message?” Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:10-17, NIV)

In another epistle, Paul taught that it is God’s will that the lost should be converted through preaching of the message of Christ:

Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength. (1 Corinthians 1:20-25, NIV)

Some might object by saying, “Doesn’t Paul point out that some plant while others water? Everyone has different abilities, and one person’s job in the salvation process might be simply to live out a godly life, while others are given the task of explaining the gospel message.” (In fact, one of the people at the gathering yesterday actually brought this up to reinforce the teacher’s point.) This might sound at first to be a strong argument, but it really falls apart under close scrutiny. First of all, when Paul wrote, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow” (1 Cor. 3:6, NIV) he was referring specifically to the work of preaching, for Paul himself was an apostle, whose primary mission was to preach the gospel, and Apollos is described in Acts as a bold speaker who was very knowledgeable in the Scriptures and used the word of God to refute others in public and to prove that Jesus was the Christ (Acts 18:24-28).

Although this experience grieved me, it was nothing new. I have heard talk like this in evangelical church culture for quite a few years now, so it is certainly not surprising. What is alarming, however, is the agenda that is apparently behind it: Many in the church—of all places—seem determined to make the direct communication of the gospel an issue. This is odd and baffling in light of Christ’s Great Commission. One would think that the church would be passionate about teaching the gospel to the world, going out of their way to bring the gospel message outside the confines of the church walls and into the marketplace. In practically every church, though, it seems that people seek a way out of sharing the gospel directly with the lost. According to the Bible, this is contrary to God’s will, which is that the gospel message be proclaimed, taught and communicated verbally. There is no gospel message without the verbal presentation thereof. Sorry, Francis.

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