How do we present the gospel in a way which is uncompromising and yet culturally relevant to postmoderns? Some major on relevance others on doctrinal faithfulness. Few seem to wrestle with both at the same time. As a result, for those who concentrate on relevance, style becomes more important than content whilst, for others, content is king and style is largely overlooked. Unfortunately many gospel presentations trying to be culturally relevant end-up compromising the content of the message in the process. Yet those committed to representing the gospel in a way which is faithful to the scriptures often seem to assume that compromise is doing anything differently to how they’ve always done things.
However, this is not merely to argue that some happy middle ground must be found between these two camps. They are not two opposing views which must be reconciled. Rather they are both equally important. The Gospel is the power of God for salvation. To compromise is to rob it of it’s power. If Paul needed to warn Timothy to guard his doctrine, how much more should that warning apply to us? Yet the gospel must be intelligible to the hearer (1 Cr. 14:6-9). Consider Paul’s presentations of the Gospel throughout the New Testament. Each one is different, suited to the needs of his audience. Contrast how Paul presents the Gospel to the pagan / pantheistic men of Athens in Acts 17 with his sharp contrast of law and grace to his Jewish readers in Romans. It is not just about the language used or even the style in which it is presented, the message must make sense to the hearer. And that means more than merely defining terms. Presuppositions that will prevent the hearer from understanding may need to be identified and challenged. For example, it is of little use trying to explain how someone has broken God’s law if, to them, there are no moral absolutes. First we need to challenge that presupposition. To fail to understand and deal with objections rooted in the other person’s worldview will more than likely lead to charges of arrogance or irrelevance and the conversation will reach an impasse.
I am not, however, arguing for extended apologetics that trades arguments for and against the existence of God and so on. Instead it is a call to go after the motivations of the heart. After all, what is a breaking of any commandment other than a failure to honour God as Lord in your heart? The essence of sin is to go after another ‘god’, by thinking, for example, that the thing or neighbour’s wife we covet will satisfy the longings of our hearts. It seems to me that churches either hardly grapple with how to see holiness develop in their people or, through the omission of the gospel as the only motivation to holiness, they effectively teach that holiness is about outward conformance. It’s our hearts God wants to transform not our behaviours. Don’t get me wrong our behaviour should change but only as the result of a transformed heart not as a means to gaining one.
So what does this look like? How do we tell someone who has no belief in God nor in His laws that they have broken His laws and deserve His wrath? There is no right or wrong way but the key is to try to understand what makes your listener tick. What is the thing or things to which they have ascribed ultimate meaning? The thing which they just have to have? From what or whom do they get their sense of identity and purpose? The answers to these sorts of questions reveal the idols of people’s hearts. The things they worship in place of the Lord our God. Exposing how people’s idols do not satisfy their deepest longings can lead to a greater openness to hear what we have to say and begin to sow seeds of doubt in their own worldview.
In the next post I’ll give an example of what that might look like.