Is The Gospel Words?

Earlier today this quote showed up in my Twitter feed:

“‘Share the gospel & if necessary use words’ is like saying, ‘tell me your phone number and if necessary, use digits.” – JD Grear

The major caveat I obviously need to make before I continue is that I have no idea of the context for this. I am quite possibly taking it out of the context he (assuming JD is a he) was talking about. Maybe he  went on to say exactly what I am about to say. I don’t even know who JD Grear is, or what the conference/church service/class/book/something else was where this was said. So the disclaimer: any comments that follow are comments on this one quote, standing alone, not on JD Grear or on the overall discussion.

For those who aren’t familiar with it, the first part is a fairly popular quote, although I can’t tell you who first said it. You’ll hear it around evangelical circles occasionally when talking about evangelism. The point being made is that spreading “the Gospel” by way of walking up to a stranger, saying a few sentences, and walking away without showing any actual interest in them, is not really spreading the Gospel. It is a statement in opposition to the concept that the Gospel is simply a string of logical propositions, whether you call that string of propositions the Roman Road or the 4 Spiritual Laws or something else.

I’ve heard many critique this initial quote quite fairly. It often can be taken, probably out of context itself, to say that we never need to talk about what we believe. If we just live out our faith properly, then people will figure it out on their own, or at the very least they’ll ask. I have no idea if the original speaker meant that, but I don’t accept that idea either. I do think we should actively talk about our faith.

Interestingly, this quote from JD (at least out of context like this) actually seems to be trying to re-establish the opposite. Perhaps I am over-analyzing the analogy, but to me the parallels he is trying to make is obvious. Just as a phone number is by definition composed of digits, so the Gospel is by definition composed of words. Maybe that isn’t what he was going for, and he probably went on to explain it, but after a couple of hours of thinking about it, that seemed to be the obvious point of comparison. So you can’t share a phone number without digits because a phone number is digits, and you can’t share the Gospel without words because the Gospel is words. Again, I fully support sharing the Gospel in ways that include words.

Maybe I need to backtrack a bit to the obvious question: What is the Gospel? If the Gospel is words (a set of propositions), then of course trying to share it without words is stupid – it’s a contradiction in terms. This is a fairly standard position in a lot of evangelical circles, especially out of the highly-intellectual Reformed tradition. The core is belief, so as long as you have the right intellectual ideas, you’re fine. Therefore conveying the right intellectual ideas and getting people to give assent to them is sharing the Gospel. Most do encourage more after this, of course, but this is what they tend to define as the salvation act: saying that prayer that acknowledges those four spiritual laws, granting intellectual belief. Don’t understand me as critiquing too much here, because there are a lot of things really good about the intellectualism of the Reformed evangelical tradition, but I definitely have a problem with this type of reductionism.

But if the Gospel is something bigger than that, something beyond simply ideas, then JD’s quote is completely missing the mark. Maybe words are necessary to try to give some explanation of the Gospel. Of the original quote, I do think the majority of the time, the “if necessary, use words” ends up true. But I don’t like defining the Gospel as words or as propositions. If you clicked the link above, I attempted to give four different aspects of the Gospel, but I also said that I don’t think the Gospel is a list of propositions so even my own attempt was somewhat in vain for me. Instead, I think that the Gospel is a person, a life, a relationship, which is too big to be encapsulated in words. Unlike digits making up a phone number, the Gospel to me is not just the right combination of words to form the right ideas that we should believe in order to be saved.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.