Should we “contextualize” the Gospel, meaning adapt it to our audience?
In the Bible we see that Paul was consistent in His teachings on the Gospel: He taught that mankind was lost in sin, separated from God, bound for Hell, in need of salvation, and able to obtain salvation only in Jesus Christ. For Paul, the Gospel never changed!
But we also see him approaching different people with the Gospel differently. Among the Jews in the synagogues, he presented Christ as the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets (Acts 13:14-43). Among the pagan Greeks, he used their own false philosophies to point them to the one true God and His Son (Acts 17:16-34).
I suspect that the same would be true today. Were I to share the Gospel with an unsaved man in rural Oklahoma, it is very likely that I would approach him differently than I would an unsaved man in rural Bhutan.
Because of Oklahoma’s Bible Belt culture, the Oklahoman would most likely know (intellectually, at least) all about who Jesus Christ is and what He did. Presenting the Gospel in that case would likely be a matter of helping the man see that he had sinned, that God’s judgment would fall on him as a result, that Jesus shed His blood for him, and that Jesus died to bear his deserved punishment: the intent of which would be that, after understanding these things, he could repent and be forgiven.
The Bhutanese Buddhist likely would never have even heard of the one true God, or that He had sent His Son to die for man. Presenting the Gospel would begin from an entirely different perspective. We would have to begin by first pointing this man to the one true God, something the Oklahoman would probably already know.
I’ll grant that this is an extreme contrast, but it is a valid one nonetheless. The Gospel of Jesus Christ has never changed and will never change. In fact, we are thoroughly warned against changing it.
“As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:9, NKJV).
But sometimes we need to approach our audiences differently, as the Holy Spirit leads. Paul’s correct use of multiple lead-ins to the true Gospel could not be more clear than it is in the book of Acts.
Yet, while I am all for communicating the Gospel effectively, I cannot support repackaging the Gospel to make it palatable to those who want a God of their own design. That is something the apostles never did. (Had they done so, they would have been beaten a lot less frequently!) People distort the Gospel when they find it uncomfortable or distasteful (or fear that the unsaved will see it that way); but no person bought by the blood of Christ should be able to find the Gospel distasteful. Paul says,
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek” (Romans 1:16, NKJV, emphasis added).
He further instructs that even though the world may see the Gospel as “foolishness” or “a stumbling block” believers should recognize it as a demonstration of God’s wisdom and power (I Corinthians 1:22-24).
So, should we “contextualize” the Gospel? I believe the answer depends entirely on what we mean by that phrase. If we mean contextualization as we see in Acts, then absolutely! Let us bring people to the truth by any godly means (I Corinthians 9:19-23). If we’re talking about a comfortable Gospel of self-esteem, devoid of judgment or repentance, seen in far too many of today’s churches, then absolutely not! We must affirm God’s truth, regardless of man’s objections (Romans 3:3-5).
It is biblical to use different approaches for sharing the Gospel with different people, so long as we don’t compromise its truth. But our goal in using different approaches should be to make the Gospel comprehensible and truthful, not comfortable and toothless.