The Curse of Gospel Contextualization

by Mike Ratliff

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:13-19 ESV)

Several weeks ago I found myself in a battle of words with a couple of men who tried every argument you can imagine in an attempt to move me away from the stance I have taken, which is that truth is the truth regardless whether people believe it or not. Along with this, I also refused to “compromise” by admitting that what I held to be true was only my opinion and, therefore, their “opinion” was just as valid. While this culture may actually side with those two fellows rather than me, I still stand and refuse to budge from the stance that the truth revealed in God’s Word is not hidden from the regenerate heart. The Holy Spirit works in our hearts to validate what is true and what is not. I have always allowed discussion on these topics as long as the one disagreeing with me will use scripture alone, in context, as the basis for his or her argument. No one has taken that challenge. Instead, all I have received are philosophical arguments and quotes from some source other than God’s Word.

One of the points of contention we have dealt with here on Possessing the Treasure is whether the Church Growth movement and its seeker-sensitive model are Biblical or not. Does this paradigm line up with the Word of God on how our Lord builds His Church?

Carefully read Matthew 16:13-19, which I placed at the top of this post. Who is building the Church? Is it men or is it Christ? Upon what does Christ build it? What is the foundation? Peter was an Apostle. Christ here proclaims that He will build His Church on the foundation of the Apostles, with Peter being the representative of the others. Peter proclaimed in 1 Peter 2:4-8 that all believers have become “living stones” by virtue of their association with Christ, with the apostles as the foundation (Ephesians 2:20,21; Revelation 21:14). Now, let us look at Christ building His Church this way in action.

When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians–we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” (Acts 2:1-11 ESV)

The Apostles were praying on the day of Pentecost after the Ascension of our Lord into Heaven. The Holy Spirit came in power causing them to begin preaching the mighty works of God in the languages of all of the various people in Jerusalem. These people came from all over the known world with each having a different language. However, the message that each heard was exactly the same. It mattered not what the culture or language was of the one hearing the Gospel because it is transcendent across all cultures and languages.

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:6-8 ESV)

The command is to take be Christ’s witnesses in all parts of the earth regardless of culture or language. The message is the same. It is never contextualized in order to make it culturally relevant. However, the Church Growth movement says the opposite. It is all about appealing to the flesh. What was the message preached at Pentecost by those whom the Holy Spirit empowered to speak in the languages of those hearing them? The message was all about the mighty works of God, not on becoming part of a “totally cool” new religious movement. Who does the drawing when the Gospel is preached correctly?

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:35-40 ESV) 

No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me— not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. (John 6:44-47 ESV)

Our Lord’s words here are very clear. All whom the Father gives to Son are also drawn to Him and they all believe and receive eternal life. They are drawn to the Son by the effectual call of God not by cultural contextualization. This is supernatural not cultural.

For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1 Corinthians 1:17-25 ESV) 

This is also very clear. God has made the wisdom of the world foolish. Preaching of the Gospel is not made more effective with cultural add-ons or the input of human wisdom. These things empty the cross of Christ of its power. Instead, those who operate according to the wisdom of this age see the preaching of Christ and Him crucified regardless of culture as folly. The ones who hear the real Gospel with belief and repentance are those who are called. The real Gospel to those who are called is the power of God and the wisdom of God. The Gospel is very simple and it is transcendent across all cultures and languages.

Gospel contextualization is a curse. It is a reworking of the Gospel according to the wisdom of men, which empties the cross of Christ of its power. The Gospel works when it is preached free of the words of eloquent wisdom of men. God will save those He gives to the Son. He will call them to believe and repent as they hear of the mighty works of God, which is the Gospel. On the other hand, the presentation of the contextualized gospel may indeed cause many people to join those churches where this done, but this is not the same thing at all. The curse of contextualization is the trap of spiritual blindness in which its proponents are unable to see that they have been deceived. Those who are in these churches operating this way believe they are Christians because they responded to the contextualized gospel, which was to “try Jesus” or “come to Jesus so He can make your life better.” They did not hear that they were sinners who could not save themselves, but Christ went to the Cross to atone for the sins of all who will believe. When God draws people to Christ, this is the Gospel they hear and believe.

This also explains why so many of the seeker-sensitive/Church growth movement proponents are insistent that salvation and repentance are not related at all. In other words, unrepentant sin in the life of a professing Christian is no big deal. They are unregenerate and, therefore, they are still in their sins. They may be religious, but they are not genuine Christians.

Soli Deo Gloria!

24 thoughts on “The Curse of Gospel Contextualization

  1. Mike:
    Thanks for taking a stance for truth. I know some of the skirmishes as well but “love does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices in the truth.” God bless you my brother. You remain in my prayers.

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  2. This is one of the best commentaries I have read in a VERY long time. Thank you for your stance on God’s Word. It has always been sufficient! Amen, and amen!

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  4. Mike said: ” Peter was an Apostle. Christ here proclaims that He will build His Church on the foundation of the Apostles, with Peter being the representative of the others.”

    It is this interpretation that led to the formation of the Roman Catholic Church with a pope as its head.

    I differ with you on this Mike. Christ said in answer to His question’s response, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” that He will build His church on that ROCK – the fact that He is the Christ, the Son of the living God!

    Only our living Christ is the foundation of the church, not Peter or any other man. Christ is also the Chief Cornerstone of the church.

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  5. Paul,

    Without a doubt Christ is the Chief Cornerstone on which the Church is built, but He built the foundation from there onward starting with the Apostles, not just Peter, but all of them except Judas.

    So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. (Ephesians 2:19-21 ESV)

    And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. (Revelation 21:14 ESV)

    In Christ

    Mike Ratliff

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  6. Mike~ this was very helpful and filled with biblical insight, may the Lord be praised. It brings to mind what Paul Washer said in regards to false teachers, and those who blindly follow them…“Their god is their belly, but, they look like sheep; how is that? How is it that they look like sheep? By their flattering, smooth speech that in an age of tolerance makes you think they are men most full of love.
    They will never contradict, they will never create a scandal, they will never be offensive, they will never speak forth things to anger men. They have the smooth tongue of a serpent, and they flatter men, and they give carnal men exactly what they want.
    Let me tell you something about false teachers, you think so many times that people fall prey to false teachers, and that, in a sense, can be true, at times. But, I think the dominant theme in scripture is just the opposite. False teachers are God’s judgment on people who don’t want God…but, in the name of religion, plan on getting everything their carnal heart desires.
    That’s why a Joel Osteen is raised up; those people who sit under him are not victims of him, he is the judgment of God upon them…because they want exactly what he wants, and it’s not God!”-Paul Washer, from his sermon, ‘the gift nobody wants’ available at http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=1226081553368

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  7. Mike,
    Does not the ‘foundation’ of the apostles and prophets as John Macarthur points out in his study, refer to the inspired Word that they taught?

    My foundation in Christ is the same as yours – God’s Word. The apostles and prophets also had as there foundation, God’s Word some of which they received through divine means. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.

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  8. Paul, I am just interpreting what the Word says. The Church’s Chief Cornerstone is Christ. He built the Church’s foundation upon the Apostles and the Prophets. This is very clear in those passages I gave you.

    Yes, the RCC erred by misinterpreting these passages making Peter the Pope, etc. That is not what this is talking about at all. This is talking about the structure of the Church and it is built BY CHRIST upon the obedience and ministries of the Apostles and the Word of God given through them and the Prophets. We cannot make the same mistake that the RCC made by implying things the Word does not tell us. If the RCC had not made that error then we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

    In Christ

    Mike Ratliff

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  9. yes. Christ is the foundation. thanks for saying that. and the message of the gospel does not change. fantastic.

    but dont you think the bible translators have made some compromise in making the scriptures more understandable to us? [like translating “heart” instead of “liver” in loving God with all your ‘heart’;

    and dont you think your church has taken some steps to flesh out the gospel in your local culture?

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  10. In reference to TOG’s comment, ‘Does not the ‘foundation’ of the apostles and prophets as John Macarthur points out in his study, refer to the inspired Word that they taught?’
    Doesn’t the Bible teach “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” John 1:1? Isn’t Christ the word? So, in essence, when we say Christ is the foundation, are we not also saying the Word is the foundation? Aren’t Christ and Word one in the same?

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  11. Yes Laurie the Logos referred to in John 1 is Christ.

    To all, here is the challenge. Scour your BIBLES not your commentaries and list for all of us here where Christ said or one of the other writers in the New or Old Testament said that Jesus Christ is the Foundation of the Church. He most definitely is the Chief Cornerstone which holds it all together.

    Just post them here in a comment on this post and we will discuss.

    So far I have one passage 1 Corinthians 3:11: For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 3:11 ESV)

    This is the only one I could find, but does it say that the foundation of the CHURCH is Jesus Christ or is this speaking of MINISTRY? The context of this passage seems to be that Paul is talking about building his ministry on Christ as its foundation. I would not ever suggest that we should place our faith or trust in anyone but Christ. My original statement is this: Christ is the Chief Cornerstone of the Church and HE is building the foundation of the Church starting with the Apostles and this foundation is made up of the Apostles and the Prophets. This is a combination of their ministries and the WORD of God which was given to them which they obeyed and wrote down giving us the Word of God in the form of the Bible. Therefore, we are building stones, those of us in Christ, laid upon the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets with Christ as the Chief Cornerstone holding it all together.

    Another way to conceptualize this is that Christ is the Foundation on which the Foundation of the Apostles and Prophets is laid and the Church is built upon this. Does that make sense?

    In Christ

    Mike Ratliff

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  12. I’ve always tried to explain to people that “truth” must be exclusive, in fact to “actually be” …truth it must stand alone……..think about it…..if ” all ways” to God, to heaven, can be considered truth then it seems as if the truth would be , itself , watered down. But God’s word….God’s ways..God’s truth…Christ alone , has stood as truth..never being stamped out..ever marching on….how comforting and hopeful….and this is why we can lay down our lives and even die for Jesus because our spirits’ bear witness…..THIS IS TRUTH…

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  13. mike – sounds like you are to the idea of contextualization in bible translation but you dont see it in the every day witness of the church to make the mystery of Christ clear to people in a different language and culture and time.

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  14. Andrew,

    I was referring to preaching the Gospel. It is transcendent. The Gospel, including the Law, is the message that cannot be contextualized. God’s Word says that His Law is written on every heart. Therefore, when the real Gospel is preached the hearers must hear the truth that they are utterly lost with no hope of escaping the wrath of God who will judge all SIN. That message cannot be altered or modernized or cleaned up. It must be the Cross with all of its shame and foolishness to the unregenerate heart. God will draw His people to believe when that message is preached while the unregenerate hate it. The contextualized gospel is not this Gospel.

    If you wish to dispute the biblical facts in my article then you must argue from scripture Andrew. Show me where I am wrong from God’s Word. If you are unwilling to do that then we have nothing to discuss.

    In Christ

    Mike Ratliff

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  15. In all seriousness, I’ve found that a big rock is a wonderful tool for describing objective truth. I can ask any group of people the question of if they believe it to actually be a grey painted piece of foam, would it still hurt them if I hit them with it.

    While many have tried to find wiggle room, none have yet accepted the challenge. I tell them that their actions reveal the truth that their mouths avoid! (This works great with young people because they tend to be more willing to admit their mistake and learn.)

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