In the Church we use the word “gospel” all the time. We talk about gospel services, gospel preaching, gospel truth, gospel songs. We speak about "The Gospels" as specific books in the Bible, and we speak of the big-gospel-story that permeates the whole of Scripture. Sometimes we attempt to describe the gospel in just a few verses, say, John 3:16 or 1 Corinthians 15:1–6, while other times we might consider the entire letter of Romans a gospel presentation.
In his book Gospel Deeps, Jared Wilson writes that the gospel message is so large, it is “bigger than the universe.” But at the same time, he adds that the gospel can “be tweeted in less than 140 characters.”
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because of a sign I saw.
Two of my children attend the public elementary school just up the road from our home. On the way to an open house for parents, we saw a minivan with yellow shoe polish across the side windows. The message said this (punctuation and emphasis original):
"Heaven is for real, So is Hell! Jesus Christ is your only escape! Receive Him Today!!"
After we had walked by, my daughter asked if I saw it. I said I did and proceeded to ask her what she thought of it. “I’m not sure I like it,” she said.
“Neither am I,” I told her.
There are a few things to appreciate, though. On the one hand, consider the brevity. In only five lines, sixteen words, and eighty-five characters, there are four statements about reality and even a call to action (“Receive Him Today!”). I can also respect the gravity and urgency. Something great is at stake in how one responds to the gospel. And along these lines, when it says “your only escape,” I like the second-person possessive pronoun your. It makes the message personal. As a lover of books, I suppose I can also respect that the first line carries an allusion to the title of a popular book about heaven, though not a good one.
With all this said, however, this “gospel” message is missing several things. I’ll mention a few.
First, it’s missing the gospel. Sure, there is a mention of heaven and hell; that’s a good start. And it even goes on to say Jesus is the only way to “escape.” However, this isn’t the gospel. The gospel is the announcement that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah who, through his sacrificial death, bore the wrath of God, then rose again victoriously in a bodily resurrection, ascended to heaven, and will come again to make all things right. This is the gospel. And if we respond to this message in faith, turning from sin and clinging to Jesus as Savior, then we have the promise of unending joy with God, which begins in this life and extends into eternity.
Perhaps this definition is a bit too long for the window of a minivan, but at least it is the gospel.
The second problem is that the message lacks accessibility. Some of the key statements are simply too Christian to be understandable to the general public. Now, I’m not saying the concepts should be less Christian, but they should be understandable to the intended audience (in this case, those outside the Christian subculture). For example, what does it mean to “receive Jesus”? You and I might know, and it’s customary to say this in church because we read these exact words in John 1:14, but will our audience know what this means?
Finally, did you notice how the message portrays Jesus? As written, it seems to indicate that having a relationship with Jesus, the glorious King of the universe, is not the goal of salvation. Rather, as written, Jesus appears to be a mere tool to escape something unpleasant. In this way, “escapism theology” has the same essential message as so-called prosperity theology - Jesus is a means to something else, something deemed more precious. Yet Jesus is not only the way to life; he is life (John 14:6).
Perhaps you think I’m being unfair. After all, it’s a tall order to condense the message of the gospel down to something that can be written in shoe polish. So it’s probably only fair that I write my own. Here we go then. If I was going to put the gospel into one tweetable message, it might go something like this:
Good news! Sin & death have died. B/c Jesus took it all. Now He lives and reigns. And so can you—with Him, Only if He becomes your treasure.
I believe “treasure” language improves on the escapism of the original, while also catching the ideas of repentance and faith. You can’t make Jesus your greatest treasure while simultaneously having something else as your greatest treasure. However, that’s a lot of weight to hang on one word. And my definition is already a little longer than the original. Okay, let’s be honest. It’s almost twice as long, weighing in at 29 words, 5 lines, and requiring all 140 of the available characters with no room even for a clever hashtag.
Nevertheless, besides actually including the gospel, I also think my language is more accessible. I’ll readily admit the line “B/c Jesus took it all” is ambiguous. I’d prefer to include the words “vicarious penal substitutionary atonement,” but I’m not sure that would make it more clear to the audience, and I’m sure it wouldn’t help my word count!
What do you think? If, as Jared writes, the gospel can be tweeted, how would you use your 140 characters? It’s not as easy as I had suspected it would be, but it’s a good exercise nonetheless.