A big discussion among Christians debates the dangers versus the necessity of contextualizing the gospel.
Some see only dangers in addressing an unbelieving audience with terms most likely to be understood by those who have a wholly unbiblical frame of reference for life. The greatest danger they see is compromise, a very real concern if the message is adjusted, watered down, to make it more palatable. But practically and biblically it is not only possible but advisable to learn the cultural language as we make an attempt to communicate the unchanging truth of the gospel.
Others see the necessity of becoming evangelistically bi-lingual in order to translate biblical truth into words and concepts that are completely biblical and consistent in every way with the whole counsel of God. The sad reality is that many have failed miserably in their attempt to do so because they took the guts out of the gospel to make it more popular and acceptable. That is, sad to say, one of the defining marks of some extraordinarily popular ministries–that there is so little of the gospel in their message that they mislead people into thinking positively about themselves instead of recognizing their sin and need for a Savior.
When Paul went to Athens as recorded in Acts 17, some commentaries today suggest that he deviated from his normal evangelistic pattern and failed…that by engaging in cross-cultural apologetics he did not “preach Christ and Him crucified” as he had done elsewhere. They even point to his statement to the church in Corinth, the city he visited just after Athens, that his approach at the Areopagus was off target and that from now on he would stick with the preaching of the cross and no longer try to connect with the language and ideologies of the culture: “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, that the cross of Christ should not be made void” (1 Corinthians 1:17). They even declare his evangelistic efforts in Athens to be a failure because “some men joined him and believed…” instead of having widespread success (obviously forgetting the response in Philippi–Lydia, not even from there, a slave girl, a jailer and his family).
The text does not support such a conclusion. Paul presents an amazing model of effective apologetics in showing how to speak coherently to a people unfamiliar with biblical language and ideas.
I like what Michael Green says about what Paul did at Athens in his presentation of the gospel in the Areopagus. He clearly argues for thinking missiologically about any culture in which you want to gain a hearing for the life-changing, saving truth of God’s grace through Jesus Christ.
If we do not understand and relate to the culture of our times we will not gain a hearing. If we do not challenge the culture of our day we will not bring anyone to faith. Instead, we will have compromised the gospel beyond recognition. But notice how cleverly Paul addresses his audience. He begins, like the classical orators, by calling them “O men of Athens” and ends by challenging them to repent! He knows, alludes to, and shows the weakness of their idolatrous world view. He clothes biblical teaching about God the creator, life giver, world ruler and judge in non-biblical language. He is gracious, but uncompromising. He sees gospel pointers in the midst of secular culture…He does not hold them accountable for their ignorance of God in times past, but now in the light of Jesus incarnate, atoning and risen, they are challenged to repent. I love these two topics on which Paul dwells, Jesus and the resurrection. They are crucial for the evangelist, of course, for they are central to the gospel. (Thirty Years that Changed the World, Michael Green, IVP, 2002)
In order to connect without compromising, we must make sure that whatever language we choose to use, we present an accurate picture of Jesus Christ, the one who died for our sins and rose again to defeat sin and death once for all that all who believe in Him might be forgiven and be made alive together with Him.
Tomorrow morning, I get to preach from Acts 17:16-34 and go into more detail about this! What a great challenge to handle God’s truth with integrity and be stirred up, “provoked” by the lostness of the people all around us. Tim Keller refers to this challenge when he speaks of Paul’s ministry in Athens as one which began with tears and concluded with truth. What a calling…love them enough to care enough to tell them the truth in a way they can hear and understand so that they might believe!
Updated 9/20/11: Here is the link to the message from Sunday, September 18, 2011.
Unknown No More, Acts 17:16-34