Monday, March 5, 2012

Beware the Tract!

At the end of an arid run in Las Vegas, I stopped at the McDonald's a block down from the hotel to grab something to drink. I figured they wouldn’t appreciate sweat rolling off my face as I stood in line, so I went into the rest room to rinse off a little. It was there that I spotted a couple of “tracts” obviously left in a strategic spot by some enterprising evangelist. One of my odd little quirks is collecting tracts. There’s a folder in our aging file cabinet with tracts from all over the place. You never know where you’ll spot one, and it’s always an adventure trying to predict from the cover what the inside will reveal.

One of the two tracts was titled “The Last Days” – I’ll leave that one to your imagination. The other was titled “ANGEL OF LIGHT,” and it was decidedly un-angelic and unenlightening. These particular black and white beauties were obviously made on somebody’s copy machine, each held together by a single staple. While the author did reference multiple Bible verses, he or she lacked a proper understanding of the distinction between Law and Gospel, and lacked an understanding of simul justus et peccator, that we’re simultaneously saint and sinner.

Our tract starts out with the protagonist, James, being convicted of his sins by a pastor’s sermon, followed by his repentance. We then see this scene:

James replies: “But Johnny, the Bible says we can’t serve two masters! maybe you aren’t a Christian.” Says Johnny, “Loosen up! you’ll figure it out, don’t worry so much, God understands.” And James replies “Sorry I can’t go. I’m going to study the Bible.” Two pages later we again find James listening to a sermon:

Page 7 continues:

Then on page 8: “I don’t wilfully do wrong. –Wilfully- what does the Bible say about wilful? Aw, Hebrews 10:26 for if we sin wilfully after that we have recieved the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins! Once I recognize a thought, an attitude, a false statement, or anything else is wrong, what I do with it determines whether it is sin. I have the will to choose! There is no sin I must do! They are not sin until I realize the wrong, and continue in it!”

The rest of the tract piles the Law so high that it’s difficult to find any Gospel, quoting 1 Peter 2:21-22 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. The author fails to understand that we are simultaneously sinner and saint. Christians are called to avoid sin, yet we still sin. And if you did manage to go without sinning, you’re still a sinner, because original sin corrupts your nature. St. Paul answers James’ rhetorical question of page 6,
For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. Romans 7:22-25 ESV
Continuing, the author turns Romans 3:24-25 into Law. The emphasis is not on Christ’s redemptive work, which is interpreted as something done in the past and that has no relevance for the present – the emphasis is rather on your own Law-keeping.

The tract ends with more Law, offering no hope for Christians who are weighed down by their sin, instead preaching a message of “just try harder”:

James certainly started out on the right path, repenting of his sin. But he is then misled by a clever use of Bible verses to twist Law and Gospel, ignoring our ever-present sinful nature and need for a Savior. The Law is portrayed as a verdant path that can be easily trod, rather than one leading to a house of mirrors which reflects the horror of our sin. The Law is dressed up to look like the Gospel, obscuring Christ's glory and blocking the path to true righteousness.

The title of this tract, ANGEL OF LIGHT, is referenced on page 10: “I’ve got to warn people. They are following the Angel of Light! Not the true light Jesus Christ, and his teachings. II Cor 11:14 For Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light.” James should have heeded the pastor’s message on page 6, realizing that Christians continue to struggle with sin throughout their lives.  Through contrition and repentance, the old Adam must be drowned daily, killed by the Law, and the new Adam daily arise to live  before God in righteousness and purity, enlivened by the Gospel. Ironically, a tract which on face value seems to be warning against Satan is actually preaching his message. Satan is quite happy with this arrangement. He gets a little bad press, and in exchange can serve you an enticing plate of false doctrine which places you squarely under the curse of the Law. He will lead you to damnation by tempting you to rely on your own Law-keeping and self-righteousness:
For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, "Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them."  Galatians 3:10 ESV
So what’s the moral of the story? There are several:
  1. Don’t believe everything you read. Just because it’s something sprinkled with Bible verses on top doesn’t mean it’s the truth.
  2. Study up, so you can recognize truth from falsehood!
  3. Always be prepared to give an answer. That tract lying on the sidewalk might be your entrée to share the real Gospel with someone.
  4. The world truly is a spiritual battleground, one in which our struggle is not against the tract writers of the world, but one against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
  5. Don’t despair when it seems as though Satan has the upper hand. The battle is the Lord’s.
  6. Beware the tract!

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