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. 😊)

Not the Gospel

Last week our kids took the dogs for a walk (bless them). Along the way they encountered a couple of friendly folks handing out free fire insurance and a ticket to heaven, otherwise known as a “gospel tract.”

Not the gospel.

You know what I mean. Maybe you’ve had someone stop by your house with a “gospel tract,” or you’ve seen one left on a restaurant table or in a public bathroom (yes, people do that). Maybe you’ve even handed them out yourself at some point (full disclosure: I have).

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.

The tract my kids brought home is entitled, “Heaven: How Do I Get There?” It assures its reader that they can “KNOW how to get to Heaven” based on “the very Word of God,” by which is meant the Bible. Quoting Bible verses, then, the tract proceeds to outline the gospel in four points: i) “We are all sinners.” ii) “There is a penalty for our sin,” described as “death in Hell.” iii) “Jesus Christ paid that penalty for us.” And, iv) “Trust and take Jesus as your personal Saviour.” The tract then gives a prayer the reader can pray, affirming these four things, and it declares that if you have prayed this prayer “You will go to Heaven, not by what man teaches, but by God’s Word.”

It’s a nice tract: attractive, simple, clear, and confident. There’s only one problem with it: it doesn’t actually present the gospel. This “gospel tract” my kids brought home is, in fact, not the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Now, this is a bit of a touchy topic. Most Christians likely believe some form of the message found in this “gospel tract”: we all sin, and so we all deserve God’s penalty for our sin; but Jesus has died to pay the penalty for our sin and so, if we believe this, we will go to heaven when we die. Even more, most Christians likely believe this “gospel” is clearly taught in the Bible, and that it is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. So, when someone questions this, accusations of “rejecting the Bible” and “denying the gospel” and “not believing in heaven” and “not believing in Jesus” and “not being a true Christian” fly fast and furious.

That is ironic, and terribly tragic, given that it is actually the “gospel” of these “gospel tracts” that is not the biblical gospel.

I’d encourage anyone who doubts this to do some simple Bible study. Go to all the places in the New Testament where “gospel” or “good news” is mentioned, and read around those verses to see how this “gospel” is described. Then read through the evangelistic speeches in the book of Acts, all those places where the Apostles preach a message of salvation to people. Take some notes on what the gospel is, what the message of salvation is, what is included—and not included—in the true “gospel of Jesus Christ.”

If you do that, here are just two of the surprising things you’ll discover.

First, the gospel is not about us leaving earth and escaping hell and going to heaven. It’s about God’s kingdom coming near, God’s reign of justice and peace and life being established on earth. None of the New Testament descriptions of the gospel even mentions “hell,” and any time “heaven” is mentioned it’s talking about blessings coming from heaven to earth.

Mark’s Gospel says this quite directly: “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the gospel.’” In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus states what this “come near” means: it means God’s kingdom coming “on earth.” This was the Jewish expectation of God’s kingdom: however the reign of God would come about, it would come about on earth, bringing true justice and lasting peace and flourishing life. This was in fact the “gospel” promised by the Prophet Isaiah: that God would come and establish God’s reign on earth, a reign of liberation for the captives and justice for the oppressed.

Also not the gospel.

In various ways the rest of the New Testament affirms this. Every time Jesus is called “Christ” or “Messiah,” for example, it is like a mini-statement of faith: Jesus is the promised king bringing in God’s kingdom on earth. To say that the gospel is a story about “Jesus Christ” means that God’s kingdom is brought about on earth through Jesus’ whole life and ministry. To say that “Christ died for our sins,” or to “preach Christ crucified,” means that God’s kingdom is brought about on earth through Jesus’ death. To say that “Christ was raised on the third day,” that by resurrecting him from the dead “God has made this Jesus both Lord and Messiah,” means that God’s kingdom is brought about on earth through Jesus’ resurrection.

This leads right into the second thing: the gospel doesn’t just focus on Jesus’ death, but as much or more on Jesus’ resurrection. In fact, the gospel encompasses Jesus’ whole life and ministry. There are only a couple of places in the New Testament where Jesus’ death is the sole focus of the gospel being described. Most often there are other things about Jesus also mentioned, and sometimes Jesus’ death isn’t even in the picture.

Jesus’ lineage, being in the family line of David, is gospel—because it gives credence to the claim that he is indeed the promised Messiah come to establish God’s kingdom on earth. Jesus’ teaching is gospel—because it teaches how we can participate in bringing about justice and peace on earth. Jesus’ miracles are gospel—because they are signs that God’s kingdom has come near, bringing flourishing life where there was none before.

Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion are gospel—because by bearing the sins of others and resisting evil powers nonviolently, even out of love, even unto death, Jesus has overcome those powers and delivered us from sin. Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation are gospel—because they are God’s declaration that Jesus is indeed the Messiah bringing about God’s kingdom through self-giving love, that he is even the true Lord over all, including any and all powers of this world.

So, when we make the gospel about leaving earth and escaping hell and going to heaven, we are proclaiming a false gospel. When we focus our attention solely on Jesus’ death in a way that doesn’t mesh with Jesus’ life, teachings, and especially his resurrection, we are proclaiming a false gospel. Sounds harsh, I know, but these popular understandings of the gospel are simply not biblical. They are not the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Yes, the Bible emphasizes that sin is a reality—all those ways we cause harm through our attitudes, words, and actions. And yes, the Bible underscores that when we sin there are consequences—we experience “death,” all that is not-life, including guilt and shame and hostility and pain and even physical death. And so, yes, the Bible points us to the need to be “saved” from our sins, delivered from our harmful ways. But the gospel is not merely a private transaction between me and God, the problem solved by praying a prayer.

And yes, the Bible teaches that Jesus’ death on a cross was “for us,” “for our sins.” But Jesus’ death is not the whole of the gospel, and when that is divorced from the larger story of Jesus the Messiah bringing in God’s kingdom on earth, we can even end up with a distortion of the gospel.

And yes, the Bible assures believers that we will be “with the Lord” after death. But that is not the gospel. In fact, it’s not even the end of the story: the New Testament affirms that at the end of all things we will be resurrected to a transformed bodily existence on a renewed earth. In the end, heaven, in all its fullness, will come to earth.

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?

[Update: Here’s a follow-up post on creating a gospel tract, and here’s the tract I’ve created!]