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
Last Sunday’s sermon from Acts 17 pointed out that when Paul went to a new place with the gospel, he started with his own people, the Jews, and went to their home turf, the synagogue, where he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explained the connection between the Scriptures and Jesus, and gave evidence supporting his claim by pointing to the resurrection. So as we consider our own strategy for telling others the gospel, here is something to think about …
“Somehow when we think of sharing the gospel, our minds move to the hardest possible circumstances—to those least likely to be responsive and most likely to be antagonistic. Paul’s strategy was to start the harvest where the crop is more likely to be ripe and ready than to try to harvest where no fields have been plowed and no seed has ever been sown!
All around us are people who have grown up in churches, are familiar with the gospel and the Word, and even think they know God but have never put their faith in Jesus Christ.”
Perhaps we would be better served in thinking about where to start in speaking to others about Jesus Christ by starting with the familiar territory around us! Churches are filled with people who know the Bible and know about God but who have never come to know Him because they have never put their trust in His Son!
Tragedy is no respecter of persons.
On the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the United States, the date September 11, 2001 appeared in every major media outlet imaginable. Analysis of the event itself, re-plays of the devastating video footage, articles and featured documentaries exploring the impact on the culture in the years since–everywhere you turned yesterday, there was yet another reminder of the trauma of that tragic day one decade ago.
As the nation united in prayer and cried out to God for understanding, protection, comfort and the like, churches were filled with desperate people trying to make sense of the raw evil behind such callous disregard for human life as that demonstrated by the terrorists. But as the crisis grew more distant with each passing day, so did the sense of need to call on the Lord. Churches that were packed the week of the attacks, soon settled back into their routines. People who dashed to places of prayer for the first couple of days returned to their prayerlessness within weeks.
Clearly there were many lessons to be learned by the followers of Christ during and after 9/11…the fickle nature of the human heart (that we already knew but saw it revealed so definitively as people crowded then abandoned churches quicker than the tide comes in and goes out!)…the devastating reality of evil in action…the vulnerability of a nation once perceived to be beyond the reach of global enemies…in fact, many sobering lessons were either learned and re-learned.
Yet there were some positives to be found as well…in the face of life-threatening circumstances, family and loved ones became more of a priority…awareness of our mortality led to expressions of love becoming more intentional and taking spiritual matters more seriously…public servants among firefighters, police and emergency workers gained new respect and appreciation that their sacrifices have long deserved…and again other valuable life-lessons moved us in the right direction.
But one lesson I have never forgotten did not occur to me until some days after the attack. At the end of a pastors and Christian leaders conference in Ooty, India, I was in my hotel room packing to start the long journey home when the phone rang informing me of what was happening at home. So my first impressions of the impact of the tragedy came from CNN in a hotel room on the other side of the world!
We determined that we would go ahead and begin our journey home and go as far as we could–knowing that US airports might not open again for an indeterminate period of time. So the next morning, we made the trip to the airport knowing that we might not get very far!
The surprising lesson began as soon as we pulled up at the departure side of the terminal. There was the usual array of porters, security officers, military personnel, customs officials and airport staff present when we arrived. I found myself already bracing for the brusk, almost rude treatment I normally experience as a US citizen traveling in many international contexts. But something was very different!
The first porter who came up to help with the bags was polite and almost apologetic. He then voiced the words that I heard from one person after another all through the airport–“I am so sorry for your loss–this is a sad day for your country.” Over and over again, those who would seldom have given me the time of day were outwardly expressive of their condolences and their shared sense of grief for the tragic and senseless taking of so many lives by the terrorists. I was moved by their concern and surprised that they would express it so freely.
When I had been home for a little while, it finally occurred to me that the lesson to be learned was a simple but profound one. The normal treatment I had received as the “ugly American” traveler in so many international circles was born out of the impression that we always have things our way in the US…that we are so demanding and selfish in their land only exaggerates their disdain for the arrogance they perceive to be present in all they meet from our land. But that day, it was different.
As a nation facing crisis, we had been given full membership in the global community of the broken-hearted and as we sank to our knees, the fact that we had fallen off the pedestal put us on equal footing with the rest of the world. Don’t get me wrong! We have always been on equal footing as failing, flawed human beings, but sometimes the perception was quite different. On that day of national grief and desperation, the poorest porter at the airport as well as the highest official in the customs office saw me and my fellow US citizens as equals in suffering and therefore they could treat us as peers in the pains of life in a broken world.
The lesson was powerful for me! What a privilege to be viewed as we really are–people who are desperately lost and broken and in need of a way to find hope. As followers of Christ, we are exhorted never to think more highly of ourselves than we ought but to think so as to have an accurate assessment, a sane estimation, of who we really are–people from every nation who need the hope that only Jesus Christ can give. Therefore, the lesson is to always take the low place…to see the great value of humility and servanthood in all our interactions, at home or abroad…to be honest about our struggles so that there is no false impression given that we have it all together.
Great lessons to be learned in the deep waters and storms! Hope yesterday gave you time to reflect on what the Lord wants to teach you through all of this. My “take away” from 9/11 is to value the level ground at the foot of the cross and see tragedy as the great equalizer that shows how much all of us need Jesus!
Today marks the beginning of the Equipped for Life Blog site. The most effective blog sites have consistent entries and excellent content. I can promise neither! But I do want to provide a place for biblical observations about life and helpful resources to help others grow in Christ.
Information alone is insufficient to produce growth. There must be a heart that longs to know Christ. A. W. Tozer in his book, The Pursuit of God, wrote,
“…Too many…seem satisfied to teach the fundamentals of the faith year after year, strangely unaware that there is in their ministry no manifest Presence, nor anything unusual in their personal lives….
For it is not mere words that nourish the soul, but God Himself, and unless and until the hearers find God in personal experience they are not the better for having heard the truth. The Bible is not an end in itself, but a means to bring men to an intimate and satisfying knowledge of God, that they may enter into Him, that they may delight in His Presence, may taste and know the inner sweetness of the very God Himself in the core and center of their hearts.”
That is at the core of what I long for…for myself and for those I love. My prayer is that this site will help equip you in your pursuit of Christ. Glad you found me and I hope you will share this page with others. I look forward to hearing from you!
A Prayer for the Church and the Nation
September 16, 2001
by David Horner
Almighty and Most Glorious Lord,
With grateful hearts we bow before you,
proclaiming your matchless strength,
taking comfort in your sovereign dominion, and
confessing our complete dependence upon You.
We come to You and join together with all who love your name
to declare that You alone are the Lord.
While all around us, people lose heart and hope,
we find our future anchored in Christ and our peace resting upon Christ
who alone upholds all things by the power of His might.
Whom have we in heaven but You?
And besides You, we desire nothing more on earth.
One by one, we cry out, “My flesh and my heart may fail,
But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
In a fallen world, You have told us that
“When vileness is exalted among the sons of men,
the wicked strut about on every side.”
But you have drawn us near,
held us close, called us Your own and
sheltered us beneath the shadow of Your wings.
What can man do to us when our lives are in You?
May the devastating losses of these days of terror
never be wasted on futile thoughts of revenge, but
may we take captive every thought born of the tragedy.
May each of those thoughts serve us well and act
as a sober testimony to the frailty of human existence, and
as a grim reminder of the unlimited wickedness of total depravity.
For those who mourn,
for those whose sorrows weigh heavily
upon hearts crushed with grief,
O God, be their comfort and their peace.
For the brokenhearted, be merciful and bring
a touch of healing,
a sense of Your presence, and
a promise of hope.
In days past, we have enjoyed Your great favor,
consumed Your gracious bounty, and
scarcely even said, “Thank You, Lord!”
On this day, our hearts cry out to You with gratitude for the way
the lines of our lives have fallen to us in pleasant places,
the beauty of our heritage has marked us as a blessed people, and
the fullness of our joy has been limited only by our own short-sightedness and ingratitude.
Now as the dark clouds surround us, we still give thanks, for you are the Lord.
Now as the nations roar with indignation, we will give thanks, for you are our Sovereign God.
Now as the foundations are shaken and the false sense of security has been exposed,
we come before the God of all creation, the Lord of heaven and earth,
and we give thanks!
“Though the fig tree should not blossom, and there be no fruit on the vines,
though the yield of the olive should fail, and the fields produce no food,
though the flock should be cut off from the fold, and there be no cattle in the stalls…”
Though the centers of trade and the towers of commerce should fall,
though the strongholds of warriors and the bastions of might should crumble,
though the comings and goings of the nations cease…
“…Yet I will exult in the Lord,
I will rejoice in the God of my salvation.
The Lord is my strength!”
May we know the perfect sufficiency of our Savior,
the blessed comfort of the Holy Spirit, and
the everlasting mercy of our Father,
as we enter into uncharted waters together.
Father, we ask that You give
comfort to our troubled minds,
peace to our anxious hearts and
rest to our weary souls.
In the difficult days ahead, our desire would be for You
to bring the greatest glory and highest praise
to Your Son, our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ!
Our hope and our trust are in You, O God our Father;
Guard our hearts as we persevere in your peace.
This we pray in the powerful name of Jesus, Amen.