Paul did, in fact, contextualize the gospel. He presented it differently with the Thessalonican Jews than he did with the pagan Athenians. But in so doing, we noticed two principles that characterized his relationship to their culture:
1. Paul didn’t approve of the culture, he was repulsed by it.
2. Paul did not immerse himself in the practices of the culture, he shunned it.
Paul’s method was not to immerse himself in the culture so that he could present the gospel using the popular idioms of the day. His purpose instead was to try to understand their ways of thinking, their presuppositions, and their worldview so that he could discredit them and preach the gospel to them.
Contextualization is necessary. Paul had to understand the differences in thinking between the Jews in Thessalonica and the pagan intellectuals in Athens. These people had no knowledge of the true God or the Bible. They had never heard of Moses, never read the Old Testament, and believed in multiple gods. They had a completely different worldview than the Jews.
We can learn some important principles about proper contextualization from Paul’s preaching on Mars Hill because today we are in a very similar situation in America as Paul was in Athens. Until fairly recently, most people in America had some form of what is known as a Judeo-Christian worldview. They had at least a cursory familiarity with the Bible. They at least believed in the existence of absolute truth and morality.
But that is largely no longer the case. More and more we come across people who are completely ignorant of the Bible, and they hold a modernist or postmodern worldview. Let me explain what I mean by those terms.
A modernist is someone who relies solely on empirical, scientific evidence for his beliefs. If you can’t prove something scientifically, then he won’t believe it. Therefore, a modernist doesn’t believe at all in the supernatural. The strength is that he still believes in absolute truth, but it is truth devoid of God and must be proven through the scientific method. This is very similar to the Epicureans of Athens. Many people in our day hold to this kind of worldview.
On the other hand, postmodernism completely rejects absolute truth or morality. For the postmodern, experience and feeling are key. They tolerate religion as long as every person is allowed to believe what he wants. They reject that anything can be proven with any certainty. This is very similar to the Stoics in Athens, and again, many people in our day hold to this kind of worldview.
I think we fail often today when presenting the gospel in assuming too much of our audience. We don’t do enough to really understanding the though patterns and presuppositions of our listeners. For instance, we might approach someone and tell them “Jesus loves you and died for your sins.” But we are assuming so much with that statement, and if we don’t qualify and explain it, we might cause a lot of confusion. People today have absolutely no concept of sin because they don’t believe in absolute morality. Most people see sin a relative. What is sin in one culture is not necessarily sin in another. Sin is a sickness or a psychological condition as a result of pressure from the community. And so someone like this would hear what you say and interpret it in merely psychological terms. They might think that Jesus died to fix a psychological problem rather than real guilt before God.
It is crucially important that we understand what people are thinking, where they are coming from, and what they hear when we use biblical terminology. Chances are, they don’t hear the same thing as you do when you hear terms such as sacrifice, guilt, or sin. We need to understand their thinking and then present the gospel in a way that will confront their thinking. That’s biblical contextualization.
Paul was confronted with people who had very opposite wordviews than he had and than a typical Jew had. So how did he present the gospel to them? He started with the basics.
God is the Ruler of All
So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place (Acts 17.22-26).
What’s Paul’s basic point in this first part of his message? His point is this: There is one God who is the ruler of all things. He made all things in the world and in the heavens, He does not live in any earthly dwelling and He doesn’t need anything from us because He controls everything. In fact, he made all of us and he determined our life spans and where we would live. He is the ruler of all. That’s the first point of Paul’s gospel presentation.
Man is responsible to God
Paul then draws an implication from that point:
That they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said, “For we are indeed his offspring.” Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man (vv. 27-29).
What implication does Paul draw from the fact that God created all things and is in complete control of all things? It’s this: we are all responsible to Him and must submit to His rulership. God has authority over us because He created us, and He wants us to seek Him out and serve Him. And there is such a thing as absolute truth and morality — it is based upon the Creator Himself.
But there’s a problem. People are ignorant of God — Paul has already illustrated that by the fact that these Athenians have an altar “To an Unknown God” — and they are ignorant of who he is, and therefore they don’t serve the God who created them. That leads Paul to the third point of his gospel presentation.
God Will Judge Men For Their Rebellion
The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead (Acts 17.30-31).
Paul’s third point is that God will no longer overlook ignorance of Him. He demands that people repent of their sin and turn to Him or he will judge them. The day has been set by God, Paul says. There is no way around it. If you do not submit to God, you will be judged.
So point one, God is the ruler of all. Point two, He demands that people serve Him. Point three, you must repent of your idolatry and turn to God or you will be judged. Notice that he has yet to say anything about Jesus, his love, his death for sin, or forgiveness from sin. Why? Because he had to deal with these people’s faulty worldview and presuppositions about God and about themselves before he could go anywhere near discussing Jesus.
The Jews in Thessalonica had generally correct presuppositions. They believed in Yahweh. They believed the prophesies of the coming Messiah. So all Paul had to do was to show them how the prophesies fit with the realities of Jesus. That doesn’t mean they all just accepted his message; most did not. Salvation still takes a supernatural work of the Spirit of God. Nevertheless, with Jews, Paul was able to go straight to Jesus.
But he couldn’t do that with these pagans. And we cannot do that with most people in our culture today. There was a time in the history of America where you could just walk up to someone and say, “Let me tell you how you can be forgiven of your sin,” and it would have made general sense. Again, salvation still took at supernatural work of the Spirit, but people at least had a general understanding of absolute truth, of God, and of Jesus. Most people had some sense of responsibility to the Creator and the sinfulness of mankind.
Not so today. Most people deny any inherent authority in anything and deny absolute standards of morality. With most people it would be unwise to start with Jesus because they have no conception of a need for Him. It would be unwise to start with forgiveness of sin, because people have a warped concept of what sin is. If we start with “Jesus loves you,” the immediate response in the mind of a typical modernist today would be, “Well, if God is love, then why is their suffering in the world?” You have to start with a right view of God and a right view of man first before you can talk about the love of God or Jesus’ sacrifice for sins.
When giving the gospel to postmodernists or modernists today, we need to contextualize the gospel like Paul did in Athens. We have to get two overarching truths straight in their minds before we can go anywhere near the good news about Jesus and forgiveness:
1. The absolute authority of God.
2. The absolute depravity of man.
And to get these two points straight, we need to do what Paul did: start at the beginning. Tell the whole story of the Bible. We need to establish that God is the Creator of all. We need to establish that mankind as the creature is responsible to God. And we need to establish the fact that all people everywhere do not serve Him and will be judged if they do not repent.
So how does this affect us practically, then? I want to suggest a few ways.
1. We need to make efforts to understand the thinking of people around us.
This means that we need to spend time with unbelievers. We need to get to know them. You need to have your neighbors over for dinner or for games. You need to have a neighborhood barbeque at your home. You need to go out to lunch with your co-workers. You need to get to know unbelievers around you so that you can begin to understand how they think.
But remember, like Paul, we do not have to immerse ourselves in their sinful culture. We don’t have to go to the sinful places they go or do the sinful things they do. We can get to know them and understand how they think without getting dirty ourselves. And one of the greatest ways to protect ourselves is accountability within your church. This is why the task of evangelism has been given to individual believers in the context of a local church. We need each other for accountability so that while we get to know unbelievers, we can protect ourselves from the temptation to join them in our sin. Be careful with a “Lone Ranger” mentality when trying to reach unbelievers. Satan would like nothing more than to catch you in a trap.
Christian fellowship is so crucial and important. But we need to be careful that we don’t limit our relationships or activities to Christians only. Really, the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Invite your neighbors over and a family from church. Work together on this.
2. We need to know how to answer people’s presuppositions.
This means that we need to know the Bible. We need to know the gospel. Now this is where most people get caught up. You think, “Well it’s easy to get to know my neighbors,” but you’re afraid of actually engaging them in conversation about the gospel.
I really think that one of the biggest reasons we don’t give the gospel is that we’re afraid that we won’t do it right; that we’ll mess up; that we’ll confuse things. I understand that fear. But we need to remember that it is God who saves, not us. And God can use an imperfect presentation of the gospel to save someone.
Look at Paul’s presentation here in Acts 17. He didn’t get a chance to give the whole gospel before he was interrupted, and yet God evidently gave him opportunity with some individuals later because they believed in Christ.
Some plant, some water, but it is God who causes growth. You may mess up. You may not have time to present the whole truth. But God can still use that. It is still our responsibility to know the gospel the best we can and present the message so that people will understand.
The best tool I know of that can help us present the gospel just like Paul did here in Acts 17 is “Two Ways to Live.” What I like about this tool is that it presents the gospel just like Paul did. The first three points are these: (1) God is the ruler of the world, (2) We all reject the ruler, and (3) God will judge us. Again, we have to get those three points right first before we can go any further. Yet most presentations of the gospel start with things like, “God has been so good to me,” or “Jesus died for you.” Are those statements true? Yes. But they will not make proper sense unless people get right the concepts of God’s rulership and their sinfulness. We have to start there.
Really these principles are no different than for any kind of communication. You have to know your audience and you have to know your subject. Yet I’m afraid we often take one or both of these principles for granted.
Let’s be deliberate in our evangelistic endeavors. Let’s contextualize the message not by letting ourselves be stained by the world, but by understanding our audience and seeking to engage their thinking with the truth of the Bible.