Perry C. Brown
American Tract Society
“It’s too simple!” That’s the crux of the debate about the Free Grace Gospel. The simplicity of the Free Grace message has increasingly drawn the fire of the Lordship Salvation camp.
Likewise, that is the attitude of many contemporary Christians toward literature evangelism—using tracts to share the Gospel. “It’s too simple!” I have bumped into this attitude regularly during my last ten years as an editor of Gospel tracts.
I’ve been told that tracts are archaic and don’t fit in with the evangelism styles of the 90’s. Here’s a case in point: I had contacted the publications board of a very large, high-profile, evangelical church in the northern United States to suggest partnering with them to produce a few evangelistic tracts.They told me that while they believed in the ministry of tracts, their church’s evangelism philosophy encouraged Christians to develop a personal relationship with seekers. This church would not endorse what it did not use. There is a subtle dichotomy here: If you seek to get personally involved with those you want to lead to the Lord, you don’t need tracts! Thus, some believe that tracts are only useful in impersonal witnessing situations, such as mass evangelism.
II. Gospel Tracts Are Powerful Evangelistic Tools
In fact, the opposite is true: If you make friends with a seeker and desire to share the Gospel with him or her, tracts are even more effective because you have prepared the way for the message by demonstrating personal friendship and concern.
Balance is needed here. Many Christians do use Gospel tracts in their witness for Christ. The organization I work for produces over 25,000,000 tracts a year used by thousands. But many other Christians do not use tracts. Why? Looking beyond the sad reality that some Christians do not regularly share their faith in any way, a couple of reasons are evident.
First, like the church mentioned previously, many Christians stereotype tract distribution as a person standing on a windy street corner and shoving tracts at passersby, or going door-to-door in neighborhoods and apartment complexes. Many people associate tracts only with mass evangelism.
Second, many Christians don’t see the fruit of tracts, the lives changed for eternity when Christ confronts and convicts someone through the printed page.
I am convinced that the labor of planting the seed of Gospel tracts will become more tolerable, even attractive, when we consider the abundant evidence that God has used and still uses them to confront non-believers with their sin and the Sin-Bearer, Jesus Christ. Of course, a Gospel tract is no more effective than the “version” of the Gospel it presents. But the presentation of the simple, biblical Gospel emphasizing the free grace of God through the sacrifice of His Son in a simple tract has proven to be a dynamic tool in the hands of believers through the centuries. With that in mind, here are eight true stories about how God has used Gospel tracts to bring lost souls into His glorious kingdom.
A. The Tract that Influenced Europe: It Kept Going and Going and Going!
Soon after the invention of the modern printing press in the 1450’s, religious literature flourished. This is especially true of the tracts used by Martin Luther and other reformers during the Protestant Reformation in the early-to-mid 1500’s. In 1557, a young French officer, wounded in the battle of Saint Quentin, lay weak in bed in an enemy fortress where he was imprisoned. His brother, a covert Huguenot, visited him bringing a few evangelical books and tracts. The wounded officer read one of the tracts and trusted Christ as his Savior. When he was released from prison months later, the officer, Gaspard de Coligny, joined the Protestant movement embodied in the Huguenots in France, and he became one of the great spiritual leaders in the history of that country.
But this same tract had still more work to do. Coligny’s nurse retrieved the tract from his sick bed and gave it to the Lady Abbess, the superior among the nuns at a local convent. The abbess, Charlotte of Bourbon, read the tract, and she too was converted. She later renounced her vows and fled to the Netherlands. There she met and married a young Hollander. She bore him six daughters, and she influenced him greatly for the cause of Christ across Europe. Her husband was William of Orange, who was to the Netherlands what George Washington was to the United States. William became a champion of liberty and of Christ in Europe, and he established the political foundations of that European country that still stand today.
This story is a wonderful example not only of the long heritage that gospel tracts have enjoyed, but also of the principle of multiple readership. While some tracts may be discarded before they are read, many others may be read many times, their message consistently repeated over and over because of the fixed nature of the Gospel in print.
A contemporary personal example illustrates this well. After having lunch at a local restaurant, I left a colorful cartoon tract with my tip for the waitress. A friend happened to be sitting at another table in the same restaurant and observed what happened to the tract after I left. The waitress picked up my tract with the tip and took it with her to an empty booth next to the kitchen. There she sat intently reading the tract, and soon a couple of her co-workers appeared at the kitchen door. They asked her what she was reading, and she invited them to slide into the empty booth behind her so they could peek over her shoulder and read along with her. I had left the restaurant minutes before, but the tract continued to speak clearly to that huddle of three.
The story of Admiral Coligny and Charlotte of Bourbon brings up another point that shouldn’t be underestimated: God has used tracts to save those who have become influential leaders in His church, and who have in turn led many to the Lord.
The next account is a striking example of that truth.
B. The Tract That Sent the Gospel to China
“The best thing I can do is enjoy the pleasures of this world, for there’s no hope for me beyond the grave.” So thought 16-year-old James. Although he had been raised in a devout Methodist home, he was frustrated by his growing feelings of doubt about God. He had tried to make himself a Christian by doing the right things and associating with the right people—and he failed. “For some reason,” he concluded, “I cannot be saved.”
One afternoon, James found a gospel tract on a bookshelf in his home. While reading through the tract he was struck by the phrase “the finished work of Christ.” “What does that mean?” he questioned.
In a moment he remembered something from his religious training: “And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world” (1 John 2:2).
Then he said, “If the whole work was finished and the whole debt paid, what is there left for me to do?”
Years later James penned these words about that moment of truth: “With this [thought] dawned the joyful conviction. . .that there was nothing in the world to be done but [to]… accept this Savior and His salvation.”
It was not long after this eternal decision that James—James Hudson Taylor—now heralded as one of the pioneer missionaries of the 19th century, received his call from God to take this same Gospel of grace to China.
God’s heart for missions explains why He has so often used gospel tracts not only to carry the good news to foreign lands, but also to motivate men and women to become the messengers.
The following is another example of a tract that had a profound influence on its reader, who in turn had a profound influence on foreign missions. This story is a striking example of how God can use a tract even in adverse circumstances, and also how a concerned Christian can prepare the way for the good news in print.
C. Encounter in Copenhagen: A Seed that Bore Fruit Later
A stranger stopped 18-year-old Thomas Bach on the streets of Copenhagen, Denmark and persistently offered him a gospel tract. “Why don’t you bother other people with your religion?” Thomas barked. “I’m quite able to take care of myself!”
Furiously, Thomas snatched the gospel tract from the stranger’s hand, ripped it into pieces, and stuffed it into his pocket. “You attend to your business, and I’ll attend to mine!” he snapped.
Instead of answering Thomas’s anger, the stranger simply turned away to a nearby doorway, folded his hands, closed his eyes, and began to pray. To the astonishment of Thomas, who was still watching, the stranger had tears on his cheeks.
Making his way back to his room, Thomas was overcome by curiosity. He dug the scraps of paper from his pocket and began to piece them together on his desk. Then he read the simple message that “while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).
“As I read,” Brother Bach relates, “I came under conviction, and it seemed like the mighty hand of God was upon me. Before I had finished reading the tract, I was down on my knees asking God for the forgiveness of my sins. He was faithful, and then and there He brought me into the glorious liberty of the children of God.”
Out of gratitude for what God had done for him, Thomas Johannes Bach served God for years as the General Director of The Evangelical Alliance Mission Team. He was a spiritual leader to the mission’s eight hundred workers who labored around the world sharing the same good news that Thomas encountered that day in Copenhagen.
It is trendy today to talk about sharing Christ with “seekers.” But what about those who are not seekers in our sense of the word? What about those who are antagonistic to the Gospel? Can we, should we, tell them the good news too, as with Thomas Bach? With tracts, we can, for a tract will often speak to a person’s heart after that person is alone, away from a face-to-face confrontation, when the Spirit of God can work in quiet conviction.
Moishe Rosen’s story beautifully illustrates this.
D. A Jew Meets Jesus
Mrs. Rosen prayed for her husband every day, often weeping as she asked the Lord to show him the truth about Jesus Christ. She knew that she couldn’t talk much about her newfound faith in Christ, because it was still so upsetting to her husband.
However, she did leave a little booklet about heaven on a table in their home. She knew that her husband was naturally inquisitive, and sure enough, he read it.
A few weeks later Mr. Rosen blurted out one day, “Heaven’s not like that guy says!”
“What guy?” asked Mrs. Rosen.
“The guy who wrote the pamphlet that you left lying around,” replied Mr. Rosen.
But when he began to point out where the pamphlet was wrong, Mr. Rosen was forced to face his own thoughts about God honestly, and he recognized his prejudice. The pamphlet he had read had forced him to examine Christianity so that he could disprove his wife’s faith. But the information he had gleaned had planted the seed of the Gospel in his own heart.
Both of them were surprised when Mr. Rosen trusted Christ. The next morning they went to church together, where Mr. Rosen publicly proclaimed his faith.
And God had plans for Moishe Rosen. He became the founder of Jews for Jesus, now a worldwide ministry dedicated to proclaiming the good news of forgiveness and eternal life purchased by a Jew named Jesus Christ.
Sharing the Gospel with family members demands a special delicacy, for unlike the man on the street or the neighbor next door, a rejection of the Gospel by a relative may mean severing flesh-and-blood ties.
But even after religion becomes a taboo subject between relatives, gospel tracts keep on speaking—as Kaye found out in our next story.
E. Her Father’s Salvation: Overcoming Family Objections
Kaye was faced with a decision that no young person should have to face. She had just become a Christian; she had been born again and for the first time in her life she knew real forgiveness of sins.
So what was the problem? Kaye’s parents had raised her in a church that was part of a mainline denomination, and she had been taught to trust Christ plus tradition, not Christ alone, for her eternal salvation. Now her parents gave her an ultimatum: Come back to the church and forget this born-again nonsense, or leave home. Kaye was forced to leave home.
For years she had little communication with her parents, and she carried a heavy burden for their salvation as well. And even as time somewhat broke down the barriers between her and her parents, they still remained hardened against the message of the Gospel.
Kaye’s father had always been sensitive about keeping out of debt, and when Kaye saw a gospel tract entitled “Paid in Full” at a church in Rhode Island during her summer vacation, she saved one for her dad. The tract discussed the biblical phrase “It is finished!” (John 19:30). It declared that “Jesus Christ ended the agony of bearing the punishment for the debt of the world—your sins and mine—on a Roman execution cross.” Kaye’s selection of this tract was appropriate not only because her father was sensitive to debt, but also because of his trust in Christ plus tradition to make him acceptable before God. The tract she gave him stressed that “God is satisfied that Christ’s payment covered the debt you have with Him. Now all He asks is that you acknowledge the debt and accept the payment. The Bible calls that ‘believing in Christ’ for salvation (Acts 16:30-31).”
With much prayer, Kaye gave the copy of “Paid in Full” to her father, and she kept praying as her father considered the claims of the Gospel as he read them in the tract. After weeks of anticipation, Kaye’s father trusted in Christ alone for his salvation. The barrier between Kaye and her dad was finally gone, and so was the barrier of sin between her dad and God.
So many, like Kaye’s father, know the Gospel, but resist it. But many more—more than we imagine—have still never heard a clear presentation of faith alone in Christ alone.
The next story shows how a tract can cut through the clutter of “religion” and get to the heart of the Gospel, and how quickly its fruit can multiply.
F. A Waitress and the Bread of Life
Sumner Wemp is a widely known Baptist evangelist who has been an untiring advocate for Gospel tracts for decades. During one of his trips, Sumner had stopped in a restaurant in Salt Lake City, Utah for lunch. As was his habit, after the waitress took his order he shared a Gospel tract with her and politely asked her to read it when she had the time. A short time later she brought his lunch and then left to wait on a few other tables.
Later she came by to check on Sumner, and she said, “I read your little paper.”
“Great!” said Sumner.
“I did not know that,” she said.
“You did not know what?” Sumner asked.
“I did not know that Christ suffered for my sins,” she said, her eyes now full of tears.
Sumner’s heart leaped for joy, and he quickly said, “Christ really did suffer and die for sins. He took the punishment and paid the debt for all we have ever done wrong and then rose again from the grave. He is alive today, and we can know Him personally.” Then he carefully explained the Gospel and how we are not saved by our works but by what Christ did on the cross.
When Sumner asked if the waitress understood what he had told her, she said, “Yes, I see that now.” He asked her to trust Jesus as her Savior. Almost crying now, she believed in Christ for eternal life. She had assurance that now she was truly saved. She had served Sumner a meal that would feed him for a few hours, but he had introduced her to the Bread of Life (John 6:35) that would save her for eternity—all because he shared a simple gospel tract.
Some who are confronted by the claims of Jesus Christ in a tract may not be actively searching for the key to their sin problem. But in other cases, God sovereignly directs a tract into the hands of an active seeker, giving him the answers to precisely the questions he was pursuing.
When that happens, as in the next account, the teamwork of the Holy Spirit, the Christian, the Gospel message, and a tract is powerful.
G. A Pilot and a Pamphlet
It was still early on the morning of December 7, 1941, when 183 Japanese planes left American warships burning in Pearl Harbor. In the skies above, the air commander of the Japanese strike force was safely flying back to his ship to revel in the overwhelming victory. The commander’s name was Mitsuo Fuchida.
After the war, Mitsuo was so troubled by the strife that had led to the bombing of Pearl Harbor that he wrote a book entitled No More Pearl Harbors. It was a warning and a plea to pursue peace. But although he preached peace, Mitsuo had no clue to the source of power that could generate such peace.
On a trip to Tokyo, Mitsuo was handed a pamphlet entitled “I Was a Prisoner of Japan,” written by former prisoner of war Jacob DeShazer. Locked in a Japanese prison for 40 months, DeShazer almost went insane because of the brutality of the guards. But he happened to get a copy of the Bible in solitary confinement and after reading it became a Christian. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, DeShazer found that his hate for the Japanese had turned to love. After the war he returned to Japan to tell the people there about the love of Jesus Christ, and part of his witness included distributing tracts that told of his miraculous rebirth.
From that tract Mitsuo discovered the source of power that could turn hatred into peace—power that he was looking for. He bought a copy of the New Testament in Japanese. By the time he had read about Jesus’ crucifixion in Luke 23, Mitsuo had accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior. A simple gospel tract had played a vital role in leading to Christ the commander of the Japanese planes that attacked Pearl Harbor.
I do not want to leave the reader with the impression that gospel tracts are the alpha and omega of evangelism. They are not. They can stand alone and work independently if need be, but God can best use them in tandem with the personal contact of a caring Christian and, in the last example, the full-blown testimony of the Scriptures. Tracts are but a piece of the evangelism puzzle, but the puzzle is not complete without them.
Having said that, tracts do often build bridges to unbelievers that sometimes cannot be constructed through personal contact. Tracts can transcend race, nationality, economic and social barriers, language, geography, ideology, denomination, personal enmity, and all the other factors that keep us isolated from one another in this fallen world.
This final story is so compelling because it illustrates just this transcending nature of gospel literature. Mary related her story to personnel at the offices of American Tract a couple of years ago. She took the time to recount it to them because of her astonishment and excitement over how God had honored her obedience, and over His startling faithfulness to use His written word today, in the worst of situations.
H. A Teacher and a Tract
Mary was in trouble. For years she had left gospel tracts on her desk for the students in the algebra class she taught. A lawyer on the school board had vowed to have her fired because of her overt Christian witness, and when he was elected president of the school board, he made good on his threat.
Fighting her dismissal, Mary finally got her job back after six months. In a strange turn of events, she discovered that the board members who had lobbied for her dismissal were themselves guilty of certain misdeeds, and they were in turn dismissed from the board—including the hostile lawyer. Again he vowed that he would one day ruin her and that his children would never be allowed in her classes.
Months later Mary attended the funeral of a student at her school. She arrived late and was seated next to the irate lawyer! Though uncomfortable, Mary felt compelled to hand the lawyer one of the tracts she always had in her purse. The only one she had happened to be written by a Christian lawyer.
Time passed, and at the beginning of a new semester the lawyer’s daughter was assigned to Mary’s algebra class. Mary told the lawyer’s daughter that she should be assigned to another teacher, in keeping with her father’s wishes. Smiling broadly, the lawyer’s daughter said that would not be necessary, for her father had accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior because of Mary’s faithful witness and because of the tract that she had handed him that day at the funeral!
Mary’s story is current, plucked fresh from our contemporary culture. Her testimony, like that of so many others, is that God is still honoring the distribution of gospel literature today, just has He has done for centuries.
It should be obvious that every tract given to a non-Christian will not bring a response like the ones chronicled in this article. However, some will ! So even if our own personal success stories using tracts are few and far between, we still can better fulfill our commission to take the Gospel of grace to the ends of the earth with the help of clear gospel tracts.
With the evidence of God’s blessing upon gospel tracts at hand, here are five guidelines for developing your own strategy for telling your world about Jesus Christ—with tracts.
First, obtain some sample tracts and evaluate which ones you would be comfortable using. Many Christian bookstores carry a wide assortment of tracts, and a few samples will cost you little more than pocket change. If you don’t find exactly what you want at the store, contact the tract publishers directly and ask for their catalogs. (Look for these addresses on the backs of the tracts at your local Christian bookstore). You will have a much larger selection to choose from, and most publishers will send you free samples of the tracts you are interested in purchasing. Evaluate tracts on their quality (Do they look good?), on the way they capture the reader’s attention (Do they arouse interest?), and on their presentation of the Gospel (Is it both simple and complete?).
Second, keep tracts handy. Designate a place in your home, in your car, and at your work where you can keep your tracts available. Access is the key. If you cannot get to them when you need them, or if you don’t know where they are, you will not use them. And don’t forget the built-in tract rack on just about every shirt and some blouses—the front pocket!
Third, identify two or three key situations in which you want to begin using tracts. Plan to have a tract with you when you eat in a restaurant so you can leave one with your tip. (Try writing a personal note to the waiter or waitress on the back of the tract.) Look for an opportunity to share a tract with the neighbor who has been talking with you about spiritual matters. Plan to include a Christmas tract in your Christmas cards this year to focus attention on Jesus Christ, not just the trappings of the season. If you visit the sick or elderly, take a tract with you and leave it with the person. The possibilities are endless. Just ask yourself, “Where do I have contact with unbelievers?”, and then consider using a tract there.
Fourth, prepare the way for the tracts that you give away. That means praying that God will use your tracts, developing as much personal rapport with the person as the situation will allow, and never forcing your tract on someone who doesn’t want it.
Fifth, write your own tract, possibly using your own personal testimony.
Evangelist Sumner Wemp says, “God uses gospel literature; do you?” The world already knows the value of literature in promoting ideologies, and in this sense the “sons of this age” have proven themselves more shrewd than the “sons of light” (Luke 16:8). Consider this final challenge:
From right-wing politicians to Marxists, today’s would-be influencers have grasped modern media and, like the advertisers, developed colossal and effective techniques of national and international propaganda. Films, records, tapes and the printed page have a much greater value to them than bombs, tanks and guns. Their doctrine has already penetrated thousand of villages where the Gospel has never been preached.
We had better not dream about opportunities for tomorrow. Quality tracts are tools within reach of every Christian, and that means responsibility today. Let’s begin to put the best of them to work for the kingdom.
1Perry C. Brown, “Preaching from the Print Shop,” Christian History 11 (No. 2, Issue 34): 34-35.
2Hugeunots were French Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries.
3L. H. Lehmann, The Drama of William of Orange (New York: Agora Publishing Co., 1937), 18-19, 27 (footnote); A. W. Whitehead, Gaspard de Coligny, Admiral of France (London: Methuen, 1904), 59, 68; Paul Lee Tan, The Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations (Rockville, Md.: Assurance Publishers, 1979), 750.
4Roger Steer, J. Hudson Taylor: A Man in Christ (Wheaton, Ill.: H. Shaw Publishers, 1993), 1-8; for a full personal account of Taylor’s conversion, see Howard Taylor, Hudson Taylor in Early Years: The Growth of a Soul (London: China Inland Mission, 1927), 66-67.
5Tom Watson, Jr., T. J. Bach; A Voice for Missions (Chicago: Moody Press, 1965), 12-17.
6Ibid, p. 15.
7Moishe Rosen, Jews for Jesus (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1974), 8-9.
8Account taken from a personal letter to the American Tract Society.
9“Paid in Full,” American Tract Society (1991), 2.
10Ibid., p. 3.
11Account taken from personal correspondence with Sumner Wemp.
12Donald A. Rosenberger, “What Happened to the Man Who Led the Attack on Pearl Harbor?”, Command (Fall/Winter 1991): 4-9.
13Account taken from telephone conversation with the subject.
14Colin Wolrich, “Tracts—The Facts,” Buzz (September, 1986): 21.