St Francis of Assisi is often quoted as saying, “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary use, words.” Regardless of whether he actually said this or not, I understand the sentiment of some who quote him. Namely, the Christian faith needs to be lived out, not only talked about.
However, taken as it stands, this quote also seems to provide a convenient loophole clause for those who don’t want to talk about Christ, lest they cause offence or invite criticism. The implication of the quote seems to be that it is possible to preach the gospel without using words. This is simply not the case—neither in the ‘Christian’ West, nor in Buddhist Thailand where I live.
Thai Buddhists often view other religions and religious people as they view themselves, and assume things about Christians and Christianity that are not true. Here are two brief examples.
Thai Buddhists popularly believe that the purpose of religion is to teach you to be a good person. Most believe this to be true of both Buddhism and of all the other religions in the world. Therefore, they assume that the purpose of Christianity is to teach people to be good. If I do good deeds to honour God without talking about the gospel specifically, then Thai Buddhists will usually conclude that Christianity and Buddhism are basically the same, because externally it looks like Christians are trying to do good deeds in obedience to moral teaching, just like Buddhists.
It has been my experience, and that of many other Christians in Thailand, that when I do Christian religious activities, or explain that I am doing a certain moral deed because of my faith in Christ, Thai Buddhists conclude that I am making merit. Thai Buddhists will often seek greater prosperity or good karma by giving offerings to the local temple or donations to charity. So when Christians perform merciful deeds or give to charity, it is assumed that they must also be seeking merit and blessing.
In both of the above instances, Thai Buddhists come to incorrect conclusions about Christ, Christians, and the nature of the gospel. The essence of Christianity is not to teach people to be good, but to reconcile bad people to the good God who created them, through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross.
Jesus’ purpose in coming into the world wasn’t primarily to teach people to be good, but to save from God’s wrath people who had failed to live up to the good moral teaching that they already had. Christians do not do good deeds to earn merit and blessing, but as a grateful response to the merit and blessing that Christ has already earned for them by his righteous life and vicarious death.
The Christian faith must always be a ‘lived out’ faith, but merely ‘living the gospel’ without explaining it will always result in a veiling of the person and work of Christ, and thus shroud the true nature of the gospel.