Greg Koukl explains why “preach the gospel and use words if necessary” is an incomplete and dangerous saying to live by.
Caller: Since coming to faith—I guess it’s going on about 20 years now—we’ve been members of about four churches, and each one we go to, when it comes to either evangelism or living out our faith, during the Sunday service, they’ll say you just want to let Christ’s light shine through you in the world. And when I hear that, my immediate, knee-jerk response is, why? Because when I was an atheist, I could have cared less about your light in Christ. It meant nothing to me. It wasn’t offensive. It just was irrelevant. The unspoken modus operandi, I guess, when it comes to witnessing and evangelizing, could probably be just best summed up like what I think it was Saint Francis of Assisi said: Preach the gospel. Use words if necessary. Which really, in translation, means conduct yourself in a good moral way. Keep your mouth shut about Jesus, and that, unto itself, by itself, is going to cause people to come ask about the hope that lies within you. And I don’t get it.
Greg: I think that is bad advice, frankly. I don’t know that anyone in the New Testament practiced it. This is what I call a “pastorism.” A pastorism is a saying—an aphorism, of sorts—that has a measure of truth to it but, if we’re not careful, can be deeply misleading. There’s another one that’s similar to this: “People don’t care how much you know unless they know how much you care.” Well, that’s kind of a clever aphorism. The fact is, it’s not true.
My wife, her doctor is apparently a very, very, very good surgeon, but he’s got a little bit of a brisk bedside manner, and you don’t get the sense that he really cares about you, but this does not matter to us. What matters is all the people who are medical people who said, “That’s the doctor I would choose.” Well, I don’t care if he’s the nastiest guy in the world. I care that he knows what he’s doing.
The truth about that aphorism is that communicating effectively something like the gospel is not just simply communicating a bunch information, throwing information at people. If you throw them the correct message, and you do it in a nasty way, that certainly is going to have an impact on their openness to the message. That’s true. But what it ends up doing is, it gets the cart before the horse. It’s like, oh, you’ve got to show how much you care first. Well, you know what? For most people it’s difficult to talk about Christ. It’s difficult to get into the gospel. And I understand that, especially in a hostile environment. When they’re told, “People don’t care what you know until they know how much you care,” or, “Preach the gospel, and use words if necessary,” that means, well, I can go and do a whole bunch of stuff that is going to feel like I’m moving forward that isn’t going to make anybody angry, and so, I’m going to do that. I’m going to preach the gospel without words. I’m going to show people how I care because there’s safety in that, but that doesn’t save anybody. Nobody gets rescued from that, and this is why nobody in the New Testament acted that way. They didn’t go around just being nice. They preached the gospel. In fact, this is what Jesus said before he left at the end of Mark. Go preach the gospel to the whole world through the good news, and preach the kingdom of God. They had to open their mouth and talk about these things.
Now, is our behavior important? Sure. And in 1 Peter 3, we have that famous passage that you’re familiar with about defending the gospel, always being ready to give an answer for the hope that’s within you, yet with gentleness and patience and respect. So, there’s that element there. What’s interesting in that passage is that Peter says, you know, we should not be returning evil for evil, but blessing instead, because we were chosen to inherit a blessing, and then he gives this verse in the Old Testament, and then he says, “And who is there who’s going to harm you for doing good?” And then he says, “But even if you are persecuted for goodness’ sake”—and then the verse—“sanctify Christ as Lord in your heart and always be prepared.” So, even that verse is not set in an environment where you know everybody’s loving you and saying, “Man, you’re the most wonderful. You’re so fabulous. What’s different about you?” That isn’t the context of that verse. It’s when you’re being persecuted.
I think that, on occasion, you hear people give a testimony, and somebody says, “What’s different about you? What is it that’s different?” I think that’s wonderful! I think we should be seeking to comport ourselves in a way that we have an appealing lifestyle, morally speaking. Keep in mind, by the way, when we live a lifestyle that is morally appealing to God, it is not necessarily going to be appealing to the rest of the world. Jesus had lots of enemies, and he was morally perfect. So, this idea of “preach the gospel and use words if necessary” suggests that the bulk of the gospel is action and not words, and that’s wrong. That’s backwards. It’s just false. People take it as virtuous, and again, I’ll say, there is a virtue being expressed there. Communicating the good news entails more than just barking out facts, as it were, but I have said, in the past—when I talk about being a good ambassador—that the gospel is offensive enough, and that we shouldn’t add any more offense to it. But we cannot remove the offense inherent to the gospel, and some people don’t want to talk about the offensive stuff because that bugs people.
People think they’ll just be nice, and being nice is what will win others to Christ, which is, I think, the point you’re dealing with now, and my response is, just keep in mind, if this is your theology, you will never be able to out-nice a Mormon. They’re the nicest people in the world. They just have a false gospel. And, so, if you’re going to use niceness as a method, you’ve got tough competition.
Caller: There are plenty of nice atheists, too.
Greg: And, by the way, that could be appealing to a lot of Christians—that they see atheists aren’t as bad as they thought.
So, anyway, I think this is bad advice—“preach the gospel and use words if necessary.” I think it is counterproductive, even though there is an important truth kind of buried in there somewhere. It’s way too heavy-handed. The way it’s expressed, it’s in the same category as “people don’t care what you know until they know how much you care.” For both of those, there’s something true in there, but if you take them at face value and practice it, you end up in trouble, and I think we should follow the directives of the New Testament. We speak graciously, intelligently, persuasively, and truthfully. This is what we do, and then we let the chips fall, and if we’re not nice, well, shame on us. But that doesn’t mean that all we have to do is be nice.
Paul says in Colossians 4, “Conduct yourself with wisdom towards outsiders, making the most of the opportunity. Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned, as it were, with salt, so you know how to respond to each person.” So now, notice, he talks about being nice, but he’s talking about the thing that you’re nice in is the speech that you’re using to respond sensitively to each individual with the truth of the gospel. It’s not like you’re just being a nice guy. “Oh, they know where I stand.” I hear that a lot, too. I mean, sometimes, you’ve made your plea, you made your statement, you told how it’s going to be, and you’ve done as much as you can with an individual, and then you continue to be gracious to them. Then they know where you stand, but sometimes, even if they theoretically know that you’re a Christian, it’s really important to weigh in with the reasons that challenge them—or questions—and that’s what I favor: questions that will get people thinking.