If Necessary, Misquote Saint Francis of Assisi

All Christ-followers are called to lives of good deeds, but not at the cost of gospel proclamation.

October 3rd traditionally marks the death of Saint Francis of Assisi, a wealthy merchant’s son-turned-impoverished-friar who challenged the Roman Catholic Church’s spiteful attitude toward the untouchables of society.

Instead of bowing down to the pervasive philosophy that poverty and sickness only befell those who deserved it, he took the narrower path, pursuing the truth that Jesus didn’t come for the righteous and morally upright, but to heal the sick and needy (Mark 2:17). Francis felt it wasn’t enough to serve the outcasts from an arm’s length, and so he decided to live among them, devoting himself to a life of simplicity and meagerness.

During the Middle Ages, the widely-accepted notion that the rich have the responsibility to show mercy to the underprivileged would have been met with resentment at best and execution at worst—depending on who voiced the proposal. Nonetheless, Francis proceeded in the Lord’s direction, ultimately shifting the moral narrative in Christian culture by popularizing God’s command to help the poor and less fortunate.

Although his hands were often busy treating lepers and serving the poor, Francis never missed any opportunity to preach. It wasn’t uncommon to find Francis in the countryside or townsquare, atop haybales or on city steps, proclaiming to any who would bend an ear—from clerks to serfs—the transformational message of Christ crucified and resurrected.

According to Francis’ first biographer, Thomas of Celano, his words were rarely wasted breath: “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.”

He became somewhat of an itinerant preacher until his death, traveling and speaking up to several villages each day.

For a man who dedicated the majority of his life to showing the evangelical power of the gospel through both word and deed, it is unfortunate that the following infamous saying still clings to the legacy of Saint Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.”

Beyond the fact that his utterance of such a phrase is mere hearsay and most likely false, it doesn’t do justice to the actual life he lived, which was a healthy and biblical balance of word and deed.

Additionally, Francis was an educated scholar who poured himself over Scripture, and was thus likely aware of the apostle Paul’s nonnegotiable premise about the communication of the gospel—that people cannot come to saving faith unless they hear (Romans 10:14). Thus, to exalt this supposed quote by Francis as a defining factor of his faith is to misrepresent the true content of his faith.

Despite the confused origin of the unhelpful expression, it is commendable in what it seeks to affirm. Faith in Christ will foster habits and routines that overflow into a certain lifestyle. Indeed, James calls into question the faith of a person whose words result in empty actions (James 2:15-17).

On the other hand, the value God places in words cannot be overstated. In Genesis, God spoke all of creation into existence, indicating the power of words. The Lord communicates to us through words—his revealed word in Scripture. Ultimately, salvation comes through hearing. Action-based ministry is only a medium to open doors for gospel conversations, but explicit proclamation of the gospel is a non-negotional in the mission of the church.

At the end of the day, Jesus emphasized and carried out a word and deed ministry, which should prove to us that both are essential pieces to a perfect and complete picture of the gospel.