When Christians present the gospel message about salvation from sin, especially when they mention sexual sin, they’re often told that this pushes people away from the gospel. I agree that this can happen if we do it without tact or empathy, but some say we shouldn’t even mention concepts like “sin” or “hell” at all. Instead of preaching with words that offend, we’re told simply to love others and are assured that they will see Christ through this inoffensive love.
Some who give this advice also say we should emulate St. Francis of Assisi, who, they say, exhorted us to “Preach the Gospel, use words if necessary.”
But Francis actually never said this—and if some people think that preaching about hell or sin is a problem, then they have a problem with him.
Many people think of St. Francis as a hippie clad in brown robes who preached peace to an audience of wide-eyed animals from a Disney film. And although he was kind to animals and praised God for all of creation, that’s a modern, sentimental view of Francis. It’s also inaccurate, because it glosses over the man who rebuked his former, sinful life and subsequently wanted to preach Jesus Christ to others.
Thomas Celeno, who wrote the first biography about Francis, says, “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.”
In Francis’s time, homiletic training at Europe’s universities stressed scholarly acumen more than pastoral sensitivity. This resulted in sermons that were dry or harsh in tone, but Francis didn’t attend one of these universities, so his preaching drew primarily from his conversion experience. His preaching was also so vibrant and energetic that Francis would at one moment sing and dance with joy and in the next moment openly weep when talking about God’s mercy.
Historian Mark Galli says that Francis “imitated the troubadours, employing poetry and word pictures to drive the message home. When he described the Nativity, listeners felt as if Mary was giving birth before their eyes; in rehearsing the crucifixion, the crowd (as did Francis) would shed tears.”
Francis’s focus on sharing one’s interior spiritual life can be seen in this advice he gave other members of his order: “The preacher must first draw from secret prayers what he will later pour out in holy sermons; he must first grow hot within before he speaks words that are in themselves cold.” Ugolino Brunforte, who collected some of the earliest traditions about St. Francis, records what happened when he drew from this spiritual well while preaching in his hometown of Assisi:
St. Francis ascended the pulpit, and began to preach in so wonderful a way on holy penance, on the world, on voluntary poverty, on the hope of life eternal, on the nakedness of Christ, on the shame of the Passion of our Blessed Savior, that all those who heard him, both men and women, began to weep bitterly, being moved to devotion and compunction; and in all Assisi the Passion of Christ was commemorated as it never had been before.
One of the topics that Francis often preached about was the joy of repenting from sin. Far from being a “light and fluffy” new-ager, Francis did not mince words when it came to this subject: “Blessed are those who die in penance,” he wrote, “for they shall be in the kingdom of heaven. Woe to those who do not die in penance, for they shall be children of the devil whose works they do and they shall go into everlasting fire.”
Francis did not sugarcoat the reality of damnation, but he also preached the joy that comes from Christ liberating us from sin and its justly deserved punishments. He told his lay and religious followers, “O how holy and how loving, gratifying, humbling, peace-giving, sweet, worthy of love, and above all things desirable it is to have such a Brother and such a Son: our Lord Jesus Christ, Who laid down His life for His sheep.” He also gave them practical advice in the form of admonitions:
Where there is poverty and joy, there is neither greed nor avarice.
Where there is peace and meditation, there is neither anxiety nor doubt.
Where there is a heart full of mercy and discernment, there is neither excess nor hardness of heart.
Preaching was so important to Francis that he required his religious brothers to get permission to do it. Those who could not formally preach he encouraged to “preach by their deeds,” but this did not mean he thought evangelism should be restricted to public displays of good deeds. After all, an unconverted person might see an example of piety that inspires him, but then doubt that God would love a “sinner” like him. This person doesn’t just need an example of holiness; he needs encouraging words about God’s transforming love for him (or the gospel), explained in a way he can understand.
St. Paul recognized the need for this preaching when he wrote the Christians in Rome a message that is just as true today as it was 2,000 years ago. It is a message you should always bring up when someone suggests that you “preach the gospel” apart from words:
For, “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” But how are men to call upon 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 a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach good news!” (Rom. 10:13-15).