Principles in Contextualizing the Gospel

God’s desire that all men be saved (1 Tim. 2:4) requires that Christians sympathize with God in this desire. God does not act unilaterally to carry out His purpose. Rather, He relies on man’s agreement, consent, and obedience. If Christians respond sooner, then God’s purpose will be accomplished sooner. For this reason, the Bible tells us that we can actually speed up the day of Christ’s return (2 Peter 3:12).

The first step in doing this is to preach the gospel of the kingdom to all the nations. In fact, the preaching of this gospel is immanent to the end itself.

And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole inhabited earth for a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.

-Matthew 24:14

Because all the nations are involved, the question of culture naturally comes into play. Based on this realization and based on what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:22 (to the weak I became weak), some have advocated our need to contextualize the gospel. In short, this means reaching others with the gospel in a way that they can actually be reached.

I’ve been thinking about the limits of contextualizing the gospel or rather, what it doesn’t mean. Below are some principles that I feel should govern any endeavor to contextualize the message of the gospel.

Principles in Contextualizing the Gospel

1.  Contextualization should occur mainly in our speaking to people.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t live out the gospel that we preach or that we shouldn’t be humble, compassionate, or kind. To me if we view the gospel as the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16) than we will realize that the gospel has an inherent ability to touch people at their core and revolutionize them from within. The main channel of God’s move is our speaking, not our charitable events. This has been so clear to me in my recent reading of Acts. So the extent that we need to understand and relate to others’ cultures is whatever is profitable for us to convey the gospel to them.

2.  The gospel is not actually bound by culture differences.

The gospel transcends cultural differences because the gospel touches on the universal truths that define the relationship between God and man. And theses are equally applicable to all human societies. The gospel is God’s official public announcement to all of humanity concerning His eternal purpose, man’s sin, and the person and work of Christ. These great truths are understandable by all men regardless of their cultural backgrounds.

3.  “Pursue peace with all men and sanctification.” -Heb 12:14

As we attempt to reach people with the gospel we must be balanced by our sanctification before God. God never condones trying to reach people through unholy means no matter how sincere they may be.

4.  “Do not love the world nor the things of the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him” -1 John 2:15.

We should be careful that our “meeting people where they’re at” does not stem from a hidden love for the things in the world in us. In other words, if we are trying to shepherd someone by attending a basketball game with them, we should check to see if our going with them is really based on our love for basketball versus our concern for them.

5.  We must learn what it means to follow the sense of life and obey the teaching of the anointing.

This is very experiential and is the true safeguard in caring for people in order to gain them for Christ. We need to learn that the standard for whether or not we do something is never outward or based on right or wrong but is inward and based on the sense of life within our spirit. This is what living by the tree of life means rather than the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Even in preaching the gospel Paul followed the rest in his spirit and not the open door in his environment (2 Cor. 2:12-13). To me this is the biggest shortcoming of many Christians- they simply do not have much inward sensation regarding their spirit. Many aren’t even aware that they have a spirit. In our care for our “yet-believers” we must always cultivate and honor our sense before God.

Regarding the teaching of the anointing, Witness Lee has an amazing message on the difference between the law and the prophets and how that relates to the law of life in Romans 8:2 and the anointing in 1 John 2:27.

The law corresponds to God’s unchanging nature. For time and eternity, God’s nature will remain the same. Although the law does not change, the prophets do change. A prophet of God may tell you one thing today and the opposite thing tomorrow. If you consult a prophet about going to a certain place today, he may say that it is all right to go, but if you ask him the same question tomorrow, he may tell you not to go. God is living. As the living God, He is the highest Person, having the full right to tell us one thing today and another thing tomorrow. Due to this, the word of the prophet may change. The law is according to God’s nature, but the prophets are according to God’s activity, God’s move. God may want you to stay where you are today, but tomorrow He may want you to go elsewhere. The law is always the same for everyone. For example, the law commands you to honor your parents. God will never tell you to honor your parents today and then command you to hate them tomorrow.

-Witness Lee, Life-Study of Hebrews, Ch. 67

To effectively contextualize the gospel we have to learn to follow the anointing of the Spirit within our spirit. The law of life within us that corresponds to God’s nature of holiness will never agree with our compromising our holiness as God’s sons to accommodate others. However, whether we should say something to someone, what we should say, how much we should say, should we just listen to them, should we buy them a meal, should we help them in some practical way- such questions can only be answered as we heed the anointing within us and understand what God is teaching us through the Spirit at that moment.

3 thoughts on “Principles in Contextualizing the Gospel

  1. Kyle,
    I am reading a book by David Kinnaman, called You Lost Me Now, which describes the disillusionment that a lot of young people feel towards the institutional church, and a reason offered for that is the church leader’s failure to connect the dots between faith and real life. I think a deeper look at what it means to clearly communicate the Gospel (contextualization) is much needed. I’m refreshed by this post.

    I was especially excited on your emphasis of speaking the Gospel (#1), as opposed to just living it out (also necessary). It seems that the urge to contextualize is sometimes accompanied by the fear to speak. The Gospel must be heard! And it must be comprehended.

    I needed to hear #4. The medium is NOT the message, and the reminder to constantly check motives is well-timed for me. Of course, I wouldn’t go as far as you have by implying that basketball cannot be enjoyed in and of itself. Everything belongs to God, and if it is intrinsically good, it can be enjoyed on its own merit, whether or not mission is being actively engaged in. But even if it’s questionable, for example, in a rated “R” movie, it still may remain on the radar, but as an issue of redemption, not immersion. Plenty of questionable culture is up for redemption, including some rated “R” films (ahem…”The Passion of the Christ”). It would be far better to judge a movie by the Holy Spirit and conscience, than by the sweeping rating of “R”. Like the Gospel, it’s the content that matters, and even bad content has some redemptive value.

    Speaking of, I am convicted by your call to being anointed by God in such things. My desire to contextualize sometimes seems to forget that element. Contextualizing can sometimes have that “Whoever-is-the-most-culturally-savvy” pressure to it. Thank you for the reminder.

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    • Lazo,

      Thanks for the in-depth comment.

      I think another good place to begin is to look at what we understand John to mean when he says “don’t love the world.” Clearly there are things like basketball that we do for recreation and that we find pleasure in doing. And there is nothing wrong with this. But John seems to indicate that at a certain point these things can become more than a hobby or amusement (of course Amish is not what I’m after either). We can become so involved in our interests that they usurp the supremacy and headship of Christ in our lives and frustrate our pursuit of Christ.

      I think another key thought, following John 17:14-20, is: “in the world but not of the world.”

      Also, at its core the gospel is a confrontation. The gospel was introduced with a provoking word- repent! That means, change your thinking, change the way you’ve been doing things and viewing life. That’s not very politically correct. And for that matter taking a stance on anything these days seems unpopular. We live in a post-modern world.

      BUT this isn’t to say that we should run around forcing the gospel on people in an unwise way. I’m not advocating we walk around shouting repent at people. Jesus was a man among men. He ate with the tax collectors and sinners yet didn’t compromise His holiness or forsake His message. We should ultimately make disciples though and not just friends.

      We need both the clear word of the Scriptures to guide us and also the leading of the Holy Spirit in our conscience in any attempt to contextualize the gospel.

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      • Yes, John had a whole list of different “worlds.”

        You hit on it, when you say “Change your thinking, change the way you’ve been doing things and viewing life.”

        The world John often commands us not to love is more of a worldview than a physical space or object.

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