Tracting the Gospel

A couple of years ago I took a local church to task for the “gospel tracts” they were handing out and which we received. Here’s what I said then about such “gospel tracts”:

A “gospel tract” is a small pamphlet that tells people how to get to heaven. There are many different versions, but that’s the gist of it. They offer, as I said above, a kind of “fire insurance and a ticket to heaven”—salvation from eternal torture in hell, to eternal bliss with God beyond this earthly life.

I went on to declare, rather strongly, that this is in fact not the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s because it isn’t. And in the post I detailed why.

I ended the post with these words:

All this has made me wonder: what might a true “gospel tract” look like, one that is based on the gospel as proclaimed by Jesus and his Apostles in the Bible?

Not the gospel.

Now, there are good reasons to be suspicious of “tract theology” generally. Like its close kin, “bumper sticker theology,” tract theology assumes that the gospel can be sufficiently summarized in just a few words: a pithy phrase for a bumper sticker, four spiritual laws and a thousand words for a tract. Also, these pop theology media assume that the gospel can be divorced from any context: any extended biblical context, any deep context of Jesus’ life, any context of relationship between messenger and hearer.

As I say, these are good reasons to be suspicious of the whole gospel tract enterprise. That’s why the genre is dominated by truncated, even unbiblical “gospels”: Christians who have a more nuanced, contextual understanding of the gospel tend to be allergic to attempts at communicating the gospel in a pithy, slickly marketed way, devoid of context.

Nevertheless, there are good reasons to make the attempt. One is that, for some people, these “gospel tracts” do work. And I don’t just mean that they convince some people. I mean that, out of all the people they convince, there are some who actually go deeper and become authentic Jesus-followers. This utilitarian reason is not enough; by itself, I loathe it, because I’m not sure that the ends (a few Jesus-followers) justify the means (many receiving and believing a distorted gospel). But it’s not the only reason.

There is also a history of tract- and slogan-making within Christianity, going back to earliest Christianity. Many of the Reformers and Radical Reformers wrote tracts: brief (by 16th century standards, which meant titles a mile long), general treatises on a subject, intended for wide circulation, to be read without any relationship with the author or any context other than the readers’ own. Slogans—pithy phrases to summarize larger ideas—were also part of this Reformation era (think sola gratia and sola fide).

This use of tracts and slogans actually goes back all the way to the New Testament itself. The gospel was in fact summarized in pithy ways by the Apostles and their followers: “Jesus is the Messiah,” “Jesus is Lord,” “Christ crucified,” “Christ died for our sins according the Scriptures, was buried, and was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,” and more. And as for tracts, many scholars view Ephesians as a general letter intended for multiple audiences. 1 John shows some of those same features, a kind of “sermon-letter” for a few different congregations.

If these tracts and slogans are not viewed as “the totality of the gospel” or a replacement for sharing the good news of Jesus within relationship in both deeds and words, then these can have their place. They can summarize for Christians what it is we profess and proclaim. They can be an introduction to the Christian message and an invitation to the way of Jesus for those who are curious or seeking.

I’ve summarized “the gospel” in various places on this blog, including that post about “gospel tracts.” Each time I do this it’s is a little different (that whole nuance and context thing). Nevertheless, in making a gospel tract these are the things I’d want to see:

  • A gospel that is based on the biblical descriptions of “the gospel” (euangel– language) and the “evangelistic speeches” of Acts, as well as informed by the New Testament descriptions of the “word of God/the Lord/salvation/truth/life/etc.” which are synonymous with “gospel.”
  • This means, then, a gospel that is about “God,” about “Jesus,” about “God’s kingdom,” and about “salvation,” as these are the most common “big-picture” content descriptions of the gospel in the Bible.
  • It means a gospel that includes the whole good news story of Jesus: Jesus in his person and character and way of life, and Jesus’ life from his baptism through his kingdom teachings and healings, his death “for our sins” at the hands of the “rulers and powers,” his resurrection by God “on the third day,” and his exaltation by God as Lord over all powers.
  • It means a gospel that is “good news for the poor.” This means the literal poor, yes—the economically disadvantaged and destitute. But in Scripture “the poor” is also often a cipher for all kinds of powerlessness: the widow, the orphan, the alien and stranger, the lowly, the last, the least, the lost, the “sinner.”
  • It means a gospel that calls forth “repentance” and “faith” that leads to “love,” as these are properly understood in biblical context. (For instance, “faith” doesn’t merely mean “agreeing that certain claims are true,” but it is more akin to “fidelity” or even “allegiance.”)

If someone presents a gospel that does not square with all these things, they are not proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. There may be a million different ways of presenting the gospel—as there must be, because human contexts differ and change—but these should be some guiding principles. At least, they are for me.

In the next post you’ll find my Michael Pahl Certified™ gospel tract: “God’s Good News.” If you need to attach further labels to it, you’ll find it to be Anabaptist-friendly and Christus Victor-leaning—not because that’s what I am, but because I am those things after thirty years of studying and teaching the Bible. (You might also notice my nod to “The Four Spiritual Laws.” Sorry, couldn’t help myself. 😊)