In Ashamed of the Gospel 2.0, I criticized the man-centered, pragmatic approach of contextualization. I also promised to post four tools God has given us for the sake of making disciples of all the nations. All of the following are founded on the Sword of the Spirit and also require dependence on the Spirit Himself. So before we trade up for a new set of gospel gadgets that will prove themselves lemons, what are the divinely authorized gospel implements?
Before the gospel can save it must be believed, and before it can be believed it must be understood. This is why the first tool of clarity cannot be over overemphasized.
As Paul gave thanks for the work of the gospel among the Colossians he stressed:
the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and growing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth, just as you learned it from Epaphras
The gospel must be “heard” and “understood”; it is something “learned” and is therefore connected with “truth.” Hearing, understanding, and learning are matters that require clarity for them to materialize. Epaphras is extolled as a “faithful minister” not because of his ability to reach the Colossians “where they were,” but because of his clear proclamation of the gospel. Undoubtedly that is why Paul knew that he ought to speak about Christ in the clearest possible terms.
Clarity is a sharper tool than contextualization for disciple-making.
2. Common Sense
The second implement of disciple-making is common sense. Note that Paul instructed the Colossians to
Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.
First of all, “outsiders” are outside the church not outside our culture. Second, contrary to the emerging contextualization clamor, postmodern people are not outside our culture (I intend to argue in a subsequent post that postmodernism is not a culture anyway, it is an anti-God mindset that transcends culture). American Christians have no need to “contextualize” the gospel for American unbelievers because we haven’t entered an unfamiliar context. Yes, foreign missionaries study culture and customs. But we are not foreigners! We know the language. We live under the same government. We are familiar with the same social customs and ways of communication. And so while we can never proclaim the gospel outside a particular context, we are not on the outside looking in.
So it makes sense to speak English to English speakers, and Spanish to Spanish speakers, etc. We are wise to follow the regular rules of grammar and sentence structure. It is suitable to talk to a student about the gospel before or after the test, not during it. And it is logical to take your shoes off in a home where that is customary in order to avoid offending the host. An awareness and appreciation for where we are and who we are talking to is appropriate.
Purposefully engaging in conversation with unbelievers is imperative for every follower of Christ. And these encounters should be marked by our wise conduct. But prudence and discernment is not equal to contextualization; it is simply called common sense.
Love is a powerful tool. We are told to employ this third tool even on our enemies. Our sympathetic concern for the painfulness of a person’s guilty conscience and their fear of God’s holy wrath is as necessary as it is helpful.
We ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. So there is no reason for us to be proud or condescending. Insensitivity and inconsideration is out of place in outreach. So our defense of the faith is always to be with gentleness and respect. Our speech toward unbelievers is always to be gracious and seasoned with salt. Soft answers turn away wrath and often are powerful enough to break bones. But considerate and caring disciple-making is not contextualization.
The fourth tool of disciple-making is prayer. Paul pleaded with the Colossians to supplicate for his work:
Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison—-that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak.
Paul regularly talked about open doors when it came to the gospel ministry. Apparently these “open doors” were sovereignly appointed opportunities for evangelism where God had prepared the soil to receive the seed.
We pray for open doors because God is sovereign in salvation. Only He can give new life to dead people, free slaves of sin, deliver from the domain of darkness, and transfer into the kingdom of the Son of His love.
Make no mistake, seasons of great spiritual awakening come from God’s sovereignty, not from our skill. There are not, nor have there ever been “magic bullets” of evangelism. The problem is not our inability to tackle “defeater beliefs” but our inability to conquer spiritual deadness. No amount of philosophizing or pre-evangelism can prepare a corpse to receive life. Being born of the Spirit has everything to do with the Spirit.
Supplication trumps contextualization because it depends on God’s sovereign power instead of our superficial competence.
Somewhere along the way we’ve stopped praying for open doors and started picking at the locks. Not only is this fruitless, it is an insubordinate deviation from the Master’s plan of evangelism.