Welcome to another a partners-only edition of The Payneful Truth. Today’s ruminations concern little subjects like the nature of the gospel, evangelism and the importance of catechism.
Is it worth fixing?
The washing machine was flashing ‘F06’, and as my eyes scanned down the list of error messages in the dog-eared manual, I knew in advance what it was going to say. Not something simple like “F03—“Turn the tap on, you idiot” or “F10—“Clean the filter like you were supposed to do every six months but haven’t done for six years, you idiot”.
Of course it was: “F06—Call our service department, and get ready to bleed cash, you poor sap”.
And so the internal debate begins. Is it worth fixing? Do I want to pour $400 into a 15-year-old washing machine? Or pay $1000 for a new one? $400 would be good value if you got another 10 years out of it. But will we? Is this a good-money-after-bad scenario?
I hate these sorts of dilemmas, but every exercise in repair or renovation raises them.
I’ve been thinking in this vein recently about the revision of Two ways to live (2wtl). The 2wtl outline itself has been around now for around 40 years, with only minor nips and tucks over that time. The training material that utilises it is nearly as old, and had its last major revision about 20 years ago. It’s certainly time for some renovation, but is it worth it? Or was 2wtl great for its time and context, but now just no longer relevant or useful? Would it be better to start again?
This leads to the underlying questions: Why have a gospel outline in the first place? And how would you evaluate what a good one was like?
Thinking back over the many conversations I’ve had about this since my involvement with 2wtl started in the early-80s, I think I’d summarize the rationale and nature of a gospel outline in the following six points (I guess it has to be six).
Any outline like 2wtl is predicated on the idea that the gospel is a certain thing and not something else—that it has identifiable content that is capable of being summarized, learned and shared. A gospel is not a philosophy or a theory (although it has philosophical underpinnings and implications); it is not a story (although it has narrative elements, and often sits within a larger historical story); and it is not primarily an answer to a question that we have (although depending on the news it may answer certain questions). A ‘gospel’ is the announcement of grand news. It’s a trumpet blast declaring that something of great import has happened. In the case of the NT gospel, it is an announcement that certain meaningful events have taken place concerning Jesus Christ, leading to a particular state of affairs now being in effect, and a particular future being in store. (In this sense, the NT gospel announcement has the character of a promise—to be heard, believed and acted upon.)
What is the identifiable content of this announcement? It is that the crucified and risen Jesus has been established as the Christ, the Lord of all the world; that God now offers forgiveness of sins by Jesus’ atoning death to all who repent and trust in him; and that in the future he will return to judge the world and save his people. Or something like that. We could argue about the precise way of putting it, how to connect the elements of the announcement together, and what background knowledge might be required to understand the announcement (e.g., knowing what ‘sins’ are, or what a ‘Christ’ is). But the gospel is a thing like this—a declaration of the meaning and implications of certain historical events. It’s not a malleable set of metaphors that answers certain human longings. It’s an announcement about Jesus that calls for a response from us.
How do we know this? How do we discover that the NT gospel is an announcement with this kind of content? The answer (as always) is to be good apprentices and sit at the feet of the apostolic authors—starting with the nutshell gospel preaching of the Gospels (“The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel”), through to the commission to preach the gospel to the nations in Luke 24, the actual examples of gospel proclamation in Acts, and the retrospective summaries of the gospel contained in the epistles (classically in places like 1 Cor 15:1-8). If we attend to these carefully, we discover a consistent core of content—a ‘tradition’ as the NT sometimes calls it—that was to be kept, guarded, preached, taught, and passed on. This is in fact how 2wtl was originally written—through a process of looking at all the gospel summaries and gospel-preaching examples of the NT, identifying the core elements of the announcement and how they fitted together, and seeking to summarize them in a coherent, memorable, understandable form.
This leads me to a little sidebar. In pondering whether or how to renovate 2wtl, I’ve been looking over the various bits of feedback and critique we’ve received over the years. One of the more significant recent ones is found in Sam Chan’s book Evangelism in a Skeptical World. Sam claims that 2wtl was written as a brilliant exercise in 1980s gospel contextualization. According to Sam, 2wtl was a success because it targeted the ex-Sunday-School-going prodigal-son university types of that period, who resonated with the idea of giving up their rebellion and submitting again to God. But that was then. Sam argues that 2wtl’s main concepts (or ‘metaphors’, as he calls them) of God being the ruler, and us rejecting or rebelling against his rule, “find little existential traction in the postmodern West, where authority figures impose their artificially constructed laws upon us to take away our freedom and authenticity. That’s why in the postmodern West our moral heroes are the rebels who resist and overthrow authorities such as kings to preserve freedom and authenticity. Think of the American Revolution. Or the Australian bushranger. Or Braveheart and his cry of ‘Freedom!’” (p. 86)
I have to say I’m struggling to understand how the anti-authoritarianism of American revolutionaries, Aussie bushrangers and Braveheart are evidence that what was contextually brilliant in the 1980s no longer has postmodern existential traction. Not to mention that it’s simply not how things were in the 1980s (or 70s or 90s for that matter)—people loved rebellion and hated submission to authority in the 80s every bit as much as they do today. Perhaps even more so, I would say. But the point of this little sidebar is to correct the record as to how 2wtl came to be written. What drove the choice of concepts was not a contextualized discernment as to which metaphors might have the most traction, but a principled effort to capture the essential elements and logic of the NT gospel, and to express that in contemporary language for biblically illiterate Australians. (This raises an important larger issue, not only in Sam’s thinking about evangelism, but for contemporary evangelism and apologetics more broadly—namely, whether or not it is the task of evangelism to identify what messages will have ‘traction’ in our culture, and to craft our gospel message accordingly. I will come back to this in the near future, but it is more than this particular edition can cope with.)
Why, we must now ask, is summarizing the gospel in a short memorable form a good idea? The main reason is the one that the NT gives whenever it does so—such as in 1 Cor 15:1-8. Paul wants to remind his readers of the gospel he preached, to lodge it firmly in their minds, so that they will hold fast to it and be saved. In other words, a gospel summary or outline is very useful as a form of catechesis—for teaching Christians the basic truths of the gospel in a way that they can grasp, learn and internalize. 2wtl was designed in part to serve this function: to lodge a simple gospel-shaped framework of belief in Christian heads. Interestingly, many of the suggestions we’ve received over the years to improve 2wtl have asked for it to be more doctrinal than it is—to be more explicit or detailed about the Trinity, the person and work of the Spirit, the nature of imputed righteousness, and so on. Our answer has always been that the ‘gospel’ is not the sum total of the Christian faith, although it is the structuring, animating centre. None of the excellent and important doctrinal themes that have been suggested over the years form part of the gospel preaching or gospel summaries of the NT—which is why they never made it into 2wtl.
The other obvious (and related) purpose of a gospel outline like 2wtl is to give Christians confidence and competence in sharing the gospel with others—to ‘believe and therefore speak’ (2 Cor 4:13). As I reflect back over the history of 2wtl as a resource, I think it’s in this area that we have most consistently failed to explain what 2wtl is for. 2wtl was designed to be an easy-to-remember skeleton summary of the key concepts of the gospel. And like all skeletons, it needs flesh and blood in order to live. 2wtl is like six memorable hooks on which to hang a conversation, or six unforgettable landmarks on a map to arrive at a destination. It was never meant to be trotted out (or handed out) as a bullet-point gospel presentation. All the same, it has been criticized over the years for not being warm enough, or relational enough, or joyful enough, or existentially authentic enough—all things that skeletons can never be. The warmth and joy and relational authenticity come in the personal conversation that the outline equips you to have. (Or for that matter in the gospel talk or Bible study or relational 5-week course that the outline helps you to structure.) Any revision of 2wtl needs to make this clearer!
What must I do?
I think I might have persuaded myself that 2wtl is worth renovating rather than scrapping. After all this time, it remains a very effective attempt at capturing the core content and logic of the NT gospel—a gospel that hasn’t changed in the past 40 or 400 years. It’s worth looking again at how it could be sharpened and improved, and whether any of its language is now dated or less communicative. And in particular, it’s worth going back to square one and thinking through how to utlilize the outline more effectively for catechising Christians and equipping them for gospel speech.
To that end, I’m hoping you might help me. Later this week, I’ll send around a draft revision of the 2wtl outline—just to Payneful Truth partners. I’d really appreciate your feedback and comments!