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Contextualizing the Gospel: An Example Set by Jesus

By January 22, 2020April 29th, 2022Gospel, Ministry & Leadership8 min read

In my last article, I wrote about how contextualization was not about the church becoming more worldly. We looked back at the creational mandate for how God calls us as born again believers to speak His Word to a fallen world.

Our goal is not to absorb the culture but to influence culture with the Word of God. Though His Word is unchanging, cultures can be effected by economics, environment, population demographics, art and politics. Our desire as renewed image-bearers is to speak in a way that can be understood. The Cross is the central point we hope to communicate, for there begins new life for all who believe. Yet, the world is not listening; it has its own ideas of self-improvement and redemption. Though their methods don’t lead to life everlasting, it would appear the West isn’t really looking for that. I think most of my neighbors would agree a prosperous existence on earth is quite fine. But we have come to realize there is so much more even in this temporal life that only God can fulfill.

How do we explain the need for regeneration to someone who has all this life can offer and isn’t looking for anything else? It’s not enough to speak their language; it’s not enough to be relevant. We must speak the truth in a way they can understand. We must tell the salvation story; to do so, we will “contextualize” it to meet the context of their understanding. But how does that work?

Timothy Keller brings to light the idea of “atonement grammars” in his book Center Church. The idea is that the Bible talks about salvation in different ways to help our understanding of it. Human language is limited in its capacity to express the fullness of God’s work, but in these examples or “grammars,” we can see that God has given us some tools to help in contextualizing the message of salvation:

“1. The language of the battlefield. Christ fought against the powers of sin and death for us. He defeated the powers of evil for us.

2. The language of the marketplace. Christ paid the ransom price, the purchase price, to buy us out of our indebtedness. He frees us from enslavement.

3. The language of exile. Christ was exiled and cast out of the community so we who deserve to be banished could be brought in. He brings us home.

4. The language of the temple. Christ is the sacrifice that purifies us and makes us acceptable to draw near to the holy God. He makes us clean and beautiful.

5. The language of the law court. Christ stands before the judge and takes the punishment we deserve. He removes our guilt and makes us righteous”

The advantage of having these grammars is positive communication. It requires knowing the person we are speaking with, perhaps their history, but certainly what they believe and how they view life. In a congregational setting, it requires knowing the people to whom we preach. If my church is close to a military base, the language of the battlefield will speak to their heart. But if my church meets in the University District of Paris (which it does), and I use that kind of terminology, I will only alienate the very people I hope to reach. I could speak to them about exile knowing most of them are far from home or the language of the temple, and they would recognize the ideas of purity and separation. Beyond a usage of common cultural idioms, which could open the door to relevance, knowing the culture where we minister and identifying our own cultural presuppositions will help to choose the atonement grammar necessary for my message. This is contextualization in the sense that doesn’t fear worldliness but seeks to bring the lost to Christ. In the end, it’s centered on the Cross even though I’m concentrated on how to communicate it without compromising the message. This is also the work of the missionary, but not just the foreign missionary, all who are sent out on mission.

Language is a powerful tool, and this is where movie quotes come into play. If a speaker is quoting his favorite Woody Allen film to high schoolers, chances are he’s not speaking their language. He might announce the Gospel in all its finer points, but has the audience understood?

My next point is similar—the importance of reading culture. Sometimes historical, sociological and demographic studies help because they spell out things that are not always obvious. Thank God for the internet that can make this information readily available in a pinch. Yet, even with these tools, there is nothing like going out and experiencing everyday life. How do people buy their groceries; what do they do in their free time; what are their political views?

To further illustrate, imagine an American who wants to go to France and share the Gospel. He speaks a level of French that would even impress Voltaire. But he wears a baseball hat with a political slogan, chews gum while he speaks, uses slang while keeping his hands in the pockets. He goes to a working-class neighborhood, whose only exposure to America is Fast & Furious and the French news. I’m afraid this missionary may have overlooked a few things. Communication is made into a cultural context which gives meaning to words as they are being heard. His message about the love of God will be compromised due to his nonverbal communication.

These cultural biases can hinder our effectiveness. I’ve known many missionaries frustrated but unaware of their own blindness to this issue. It’s been the cause of many well-meaning, socio-cultural blunders (of which I’ve made too). As we seek to reach the culture for the Gospel, we must confront our own presuppositions about the place where God has called us.

In the end, we choose to contextualize, not to become like the world, but to share the unchanging Word of God in a way that can be understood. That’s why we don’t need to fear contextualization to be the cause of worldliness in the church. If we stay true to our goals, it seems more likely that we will become more like Jesus. Yannick Imbert puts it this way:

“If God in the First Testament presents himself as his own defense, if he reveals himself and in that way explains himself to men, isn’t this also true of the coming of Christ? Even if speaking of Christ-like an apologist sounds surprising, it seems very well to be largely justified in view of his ministry told in the four Gospels.”

There is much we could say about incarnation as a physical example of contextualization. Jesus spoke the language of the people He lived among. He adopted their culture and yet challenged it with truth (Matthew 12:1-20; Mark 2:1-12). Even the Sermon on the Mount shows how masterfully He communicated in a way His hearers understood (Matthew 7:28-29). It didn’t make Jesus more worldly, though He was accused of it (Mark 2:16); it brought His divinity into contact with humanity in a way that causes us to fall down on our faces in pure adoration. I believe there is much we could learn from the Lord on this subject as we follow Him daily. Contextualization or relevance? May the Lord help us to be good observers of the mission field He has called us to, so we can know how to be relevant when contextualizing the Gospel.

Mike Dente is the senior pastor at Calvary Chapel Paris located in Paris, France. He received a Master of Theology from Faculté Jean Calvin in Aix-en-Provence, France and is continuing his studies as a doctoral student (D.Min.) at Western Seminary.