A Balanced Compassion

“Compassion” is not a commonly discussed concept, but it is an important motivator for our actions. To be compassionate is to be moved in the inward being; to have pity toward someone; that deep feeling in the heart and in your affections that moves you to action.  It is the motivation behind most of the actions we take on behalf of others. Feeding the hungry, providing for the poor, clothing the naked, visiting and serving orphans are things we do which are motivated by compassion. The majority of mission work around the world is humanitarian, and much money is spent to bring relief to the suffering. This is all done from hearts that are compassionate.

Yet, we are often not balanced in our compassion. There seems to be more urgency to be compassionate toward the physical needs of people than toward their spiritual needs. There is a greater desire to eradicate physical famine than to alleviate spiritual famine. Imagine presenting this scenario to a church:

Take five minutes and describe a recent famine situation in any part of the world. Make the case that children need food, clothing, medicine, and water. Be sure to make the point that it is our responsibility as Christians to provide for the needs of the poor (give enough biblical support). Then, take another five minutes to describe a theological famine in any part of the world. There are people starving for lack of solid spiritual food. They are still living on milk and as a result are not strong in their faith. They need us to provide them with solid food that will last into eternal life. They need people to commit to living among them and teaching them the word of God. They need the Bible translated into their language. Make the case that it is our duty as believers to meet the needs of those going through theological famine.

You have just described two cases: one, starving people who need material things to alleviate their situation, and starving souls in need of the word of God for them to survive the coming judgment. Now, ask the people in your church to respond to the two needs over the next week. You need to raise $25,000 to send a teacher to train pastors for more effective ministry. You need to raise $25,000 to bring food and other needs for people suffering famine. What do you think will be the outcome?

If by the following week, all the money for starving people is raised and a third raised for theological famine, what would you say to the church? What if the situation were reversed? My guess is that it is easier for people to give toward immediate physical needs of people because they feel for them and are compassionate toward them. Although people are eager to agree that there is a need for theological education around the world, this is not an area that easily touches the heart and moves us to compassion. Yet, compassion should be the motivating force behind both the provision for starving people and for starving souls.

We need to be balanced in our compassion. We need to be moved to provide for physical needs and even more so moved to provide for those who are spiritually hungry. We can have a balanced compassion towards physical famine and theological famine.

This balance is attainable. It is exemplified in the ministry of Jesus. He had balanced compassion. He met the physical needs of the crowds in that he fed hungry people (Matt. 15:32) and healed the sick (Matt. 14:14; 20:24). He also met the spiritual needs of the crowd. When he saw that the crowd was “harassed and helpless, like a sheep without a shepherd,” he asked that prayers be made to the Father to provide workers for the harvest. Jesus saw the needs of the people and looked for solutions. It they were hungry, he fed them. If sick, he healed them. When confronted with the spiritually helpless, he asked for prayers for workers and he sent out workers to bring in the harvest (Matt. 9:35-38; 10). In all of these instances, the motivating force behind these acts was his compassion towards them. A balanced compassion in the church, following the example of Jesus, will attend to people’s needs both physically and spiritually.

Are you a compassionate person? Are you a compassionate church? How is that reflected in your giving as an individual? How is it reflected in your church budget? Let us follow the example of Jesus who sought to bring both physical and spiritual healing to those who were in need. Just as we respond to physical needs by providing help in various forms, let us also respond to theological famine by providing theological servants for the church of God around the world. Both are important. One is temporal. The other is eternal. Which one will you invest in most heavily?

You decide.

Setting Apart Specific People for the Work of Missions: The Role of the Local Church in Choosing and Sending Missionaries

How does your church choose and send missionaries? How does one go about becoming a missionary? Are there principles to guide this process? In most cases, an individual realizes that God is calling him to missions. He approaches a mission agency, which agrees to send him. Afterwards, he tells his church leaders (or the missions board) that God has called him to missions. Then the church accepts him as called, and prepares to send him to the mission field after he fulfills whatever requirements they have in place.

This is not necessarily a bad approach, but it does raise questions about the role of the local church in choosing and sending missionaries. It seems obvious that the local church needs to be intimately involved in the process, both in recognizing those who are gifted in the work of missions, and in seeking God for how they could be set apart for that work. Missions ought to be a major part of the life of the church.

There are two texts that are helpful in knowing how a church should choose and send out missionaries.

Matthew 9:37-38

Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.

Acts 13:2-3

While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying, they laid their hands on them and sent them off.

The following points and questions are based on the two passages above, and are meant to help you think specifically about the role of your own church in choosing and sending missionaries.

  1. The church should recognize the serious need for laborers. Jesus made it clear to his disciples that the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few. That remains true today. Do you see the need and are you moved by the lack of workers in the field? How so? Can you think of specific ways that show you see the need and are concerned?
  2. The church’s response to the need is earnest prayer. Jesus asked his disciples to respond in prayer to the Lord of the harvest by praying earnestly for him to send out laborers. Are you a church that is earnest in prayer to God to send out laborers? What are specific ways in which you are doing this, and what are some ways you think you could do it better? Who are you asking God to send out?
  3. The church should be ready to obey the leading of the Holy Spirit. When the church recognizes the need for laborers and prays earnestly, the Spirit will speak. That is what happened in the church in Antioch (Acts 13:2). Is the vision for missions in your church such that it is evident in your worship services regularly? Or is it something that is only evident once a year? In your worship of God, and your fasting and praying, do you listen to the Holy Spirit? If so, what is he saying to you concerning missions and the sending of missionaries?
  4. The church should be obedient to the instructions of the Spirit no matter how hard they may seem. The church in Antioch responded in obedience when they were asked to set apart Barnabas and Saul for the work of missions (Acts 13:3). How can this be applied in your own church? In your fasting and praying, what has the Spirit said and how have you responded? Who are specific people in your congregation that the Spirit has called to missions? Have you affirmed that call? Are you willing to respond in obedience if the Spirit instructs you to set apart the best in your congregation for the work of missions? Barnabas and Saul were prominent people in Antioch, but when the church fasted and prayed and knew it was the will of God, they responded in obedience. How can you follow this example in your own church?

In sum, the role of the local church in the choosing and sending of missionaries is very important. The decision to send a missionary should be one that is made and affirmed by the whole church. When the church recognizes that many in the world are perishing without the gospel, and that laborers are few, her response is to turn to God and pray for him to send out laborers. We do so knowing that the Holy Spirit will ask us to set apart people from within our own congregations for the work of the gospel. The role of the church is therefore to worship, fast, pray, and set apart as the Spirit leads and to commission those thus set apart. This makes the choosing and sending of a missionary more than an individual decision: it is corporate.

How Should the Gospel Relate to Culture?

The question of how to relate the gospel to culture is a question about how to express the gospel message in genuinely cultural and authentic terms, while at the same time maintaining the purity of the gospel. Speaking of gospel and culture in the African context, Kato says,

Culture as a way of life must be maintained. It is God’s will that Africans, on accepting Christ as their Savior, become Christian Africans. Africans who become Christians should therefore remain Africans wherever their culture does not conflict with the Bible. It is the Bible that must judge the culture. Where a conflict results, the cultural element must give way.”[1]

In relating the gospel to any culture, it is good for the preacher to have an objective, which in this case is to make the gospel relevant without compromising the purity of the gospel.

In the history of missions in West Africa, different approaches have been taken in relating the gospel to culture.[2] One approach believes that there is nothing redeemable in the culture and thus seeks to destroy the cultural practices of the people before establishing Christianity. This is what Pobee calls Tabula rasa. With this approach, Christians were more or less called out of society instead of being redeemed in society. One very different approach is what was called accommodation but now is called adaptation, localization, or indigenization. This view acknowledges that there is “a whole heritage in the non-Christian culture and consciously attempts to come to terms with that heritage” (Pobee 59). Here the missionary makes use of he belief system of the people and builds on what they already know. Yet, everything in the culture cannot be accepted en masse. Wisdom and discernment should be used. Some elements will have to be modified but others will be rejected. Again, Kato notes,

In the African evangelicals’ effort to express Christianity in the context of the African, the Bible must remain the absolute source. The Bible is God’s written Word addressed to Africans —and to all peoples—within their cultural background (Kato, 148).

This second approach has to do with couching the gospel message in genuinely African terms and categories, while at the same time not compromising the truth of the gospel. The point here is that while the gospel remains the same, its truth should be communicated in a culturally relevant manner.

Paying attention to how the gospel is communicated in a culture avoids the concept of working misunderstanding where “a missionary preaches the gospel in very foreign terms and the natives appear to receive it. That is, they may attend church services, obey church regulations, and so on, without any real understanding of what is going on” (Pobee, 59).

The importance of making the gospel relevant in a culture cannot be overstated. Once the gospel is stated in culturally meaningful ways, the people will embrace and own it and no longer see it as a foreign concept. They will embrace Jesus as Savior and Lord of their lives. Bediako writes of this point for Africans;

Once we discover that there is no valid alternative to Jesus Christ, the question is no longer: why should we relate to Jesus of Nazareth who does not belong to our clan, family, tribe and nation? But, how may we understand more fully this Jesus Christ who relates to us most meaningfully and most profoundly in our clan, family, tribe and nation?[3]

It is therefore the duty of the missionary or any one preaching the gospel in another culture to be able to make the gospel message culturally relevant. How should this be done? While one finds many articles and books on methods of contextualization, I do believe that the preacher needs to be one who knows the gospel message well, knows the cultural context of his ministry, and prays for wisdom to make the message clear without losing an iota of it. I commend Paul’s principle on how to do this as seen in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23.

19 For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; 21 to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. 23 I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).

This passage shows Paul’s pattern of ministry to people of different cultures, Jews and Gentiles. Paul made himself a servant (slave) to all with the objective of winning more to Christ (v. 19). He adapted himself to Jewish customs as to win Jews to Christ (cf. Acts 16:3; 18:18; 21:23-24, 26). To those under the law he lived as one under the law (note his qualification of this statement in v. 20) to win those under the law (v. 20). To those without the law, he lived as though without the law (again note qualification of the statement in v. 21) to win those without the law (v. 21). He is weak among the weak in order to win the weak (v. 22a).

He concludes,  “I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some” (v. 22b). Paul’s goal is specific, the salvation of some people. He will do whatever it takes (becoming all things to all men) and he will use whatever means or method (“by all means”) for the purpose of saving some people.

Why would Paul want to become all things to all people with all the risk that might come with this practice? One answer already given is that he does it in order to save some. Another way to look at this answer is stated in verse 23, “I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it.” Paul does what he does because of the gospel, for the purpose of partaking of the benefits of the gospel with those who are saved through his ministry.

It would appear that Paul has a gospel to preach to different kinds of people in different cultures, and he becomes what those people are and uses whatever means necessary in each culture to preach the gospel so as to save some. We could say that while Paul’s gospel does not change, his means of presenting the gospel changes. However, he takes care not to compromise the purity of the gospel itself.

Following Paul’s example, the preacher of the gospel should be willing to make himself a member of the culture in which he is working, so that he can effectively communicate the gospel and save those who believe. He should adapt himself to his cultural setting for the sake of the gospel. There is one unchanging thing in this approach; the gospel. The gospel message will not change but the means of presenting and applying it will change according to the cultural context.

Constant study of the Word of God, culture, and prayer is needed to do this effectively.

 


[1] Byang H. Kato, “Theological Issues in Africa,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 133 (1976): 530.

[2] See the discussion in John S. Pobee, Toward an Africa Theology, (Nashville, TN: Parthenon Press, 1979), 53-80.

[3] Kwame Bediako, Jesus and the Gospel in Africa: History and Experience, (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2004), 32.

The Relationship Between Gospel and Culture: General Observations

The next two blog posts will study the relationship between gospel and culture. In this post, I make some general observations on gospel and culture. The next post will focus more on the nature of the gospel and the challenges of relating it to any given culture.

Nominal Christianity is a problem in certain cultures. This is because, generally speaking, religion is often seen as something that meets a need in their lives. Christianity cannot be presented in a culture as just something that meets a need (you need Jesus, therefore receive Jesus into your life and everything will be fine). The impact of taking Christianity simply as meeting a need is huge in some cultural contexts (particularly in the African Traditional Religion context [ATR]). It is no surprise that for many people, Christianity is a good thing as long as it meets their needs. For these people it is not so important what Christianity demands now. What matters is what it promises now (wealth, good health) as well as after death (eternal life). In that case, people are willing to perform what is required to be a Christian (in hopes that it will benefit them now) so that at death, life will be their portion.

There is a sincere human need for answers about how religion relates to our present life and what happens after death. African Traditional Religion, for example, has its own answers. Life is lived now under the watchful eye of the spirits and ancestors. Certain rules must be followed, otherwise judgment will be swift. As to what happens when one dies, ATR is mostly silent since not everyone gets the opportunity to become an ancestor. Christianity comes into the picture and offers answers to life now, and better yet, to life after death. Since ATR does not forbid different religious views, adherents to ATR find no contradiction in holding to the Christian faith, while at the same time holding to the practices of ATR.  There is a real danger in presenting Christianity simply as a need-meeting religion, since it is taken simply as that. The result is syncretism and nominal Christianity.

The gospel does not simply meet a need. It calls people to respond to the revelation of God as seen in Christ and presented in the gospel. As such, the gospel calls for a response (conversion) that permeates the whole of life (culture). The gospel calls for people to respond to God’s revelation, a response that includes a change of view in all areas of life (including cultural values).

The fact is that culture, and life in general is religious, in the sense that each culture seeks to make sense of the creator and the created. So first, Christianity should not be presented as just one more need of man that is met in Christ, but rather as the only answer to the real life questions about God, man, and the relationship between God and man. When the gospel comes to people “in culture” and not “outside of culture” they begin to change their worldview (culture) rather than add Christianity to their worldview, which remains unchanged. The gospel, therefore, transforms culture from inside out. It does not add to culture as if the two were independent. So in a real sense, no culture, no gospel, in the sense that culture is a vehicle for the gospel.

The gospel calls for a change in worldview (how one sees the world, God, and mankind). A change in worldview necessarily involves a change in cultural practices and values. There should therefore be a Christian culture within the culture of a people, in that when people turn to God, they necessarily reevaluate their culture and at the same time begin to form a new culture that is consistent with the gospel they have received. Thus, a Christian culture emerges within the culture.

In the area I worked in Cameroon, it was sad to notice that some young people feel that being a Christian means rejecting some of their cultural practices (even those that are not harmful in any way). They need to be helped to embrace the gospel within their culture and see that the gospel, rather than calling them out of their culture, is instead calling them to honor God in their culture. It is not uncommon to hear a person say, “I will not do this because I am a Christian.” This is a good statement, but problematic when they say it in rejection of an innocent cultural practice. Rather than this promoting Christianity, this attitude tells people that to be a Christian necessarily means divorcing oneself from culture.

I am not saying that believers should not be critics of their own culture. I am saying that where the culture is not inconsistent with the gospel, let us be a part of the culture (being truly cultural Christians without compromising the gospel). In some cases, there are certain practices that are inconsistent with the gospel. Even in these cases, an outright rejection of the cultural practice becomes a hindrance to the gospel. While pointing out the wrong aspects of the practice, we can seek to change it by explaining why we differ and showing how it can be done differently. For example, in 2001 I returned from U.S.A. to my village in Kom, Cameroon. I was told that while I was gone, one of my cousins died, and it was required that I provide a chicken to appease the ancestors. I was with a couple of students from the seminary who were quick to remind me that as a Christian, not to mention as a visiting teacher in the seminary, I was not allowed to do such a thing. To their amazement, I told them that I was going to do it. Instead of taking one chicken, I took three. At the event, those deemed to be the most respected elders in the village were gathered. I was instructed to take the chicken to the chief elder and present it to him and he would take things from there. I knew that after giving the chicken to him, he was going to take it to the grave (which in this context is right in front of the house) and address the ancestors by saying appeasing words on my behalf.

So I took the chicken to the chief elder and instead of handing it to him, I expressed my thanks for their labor in burying my cousin and mourning with the family. As a token of my appreciation, I said I had brought with me three chickens. When he asked me to give him the chicken I was holding, I declined, saying instead that I had brought a few friends who were waiting outside ready to kill the chickens so that we could all eat together. At that point those present realized that I was not going to perform the required ritual. So I was told to hand the chicken over so that the rightful rituals could be carried out. At that point I said that because I am a Christian (which they all knew) and do not subscribe to the rituals, I wanted things done my way since my interest was to feed those present as a way of saying “thank you.” It didn’t take long for the elders to ask my friends to kill the chickens so the people could eat.

What is the point of telling this story? Simply put, the whole point behind such a practice is for people to fellowship over a meal. Every member of the family plays his or her role to show community solidarity. Culturally, to make sure that no one ever refuses to provide the required birds or animals, the culture built into place protective measures such as the gods, ancestors and spirits who are constantly watching to make sure you fulfill your duties or else face consequences.  When they accepted my offer, I realized that for them, the whole point was about eating and not so much about the well-being of the ancestors and spirits. As a Christian, I tried to change a cultural practice rather than outrightly rejecting it. At the same time, it was clear that I am a believer in Jesus Christ. Can we be all things to all people in different cultures without compromising the gospel we preach (1 Cor. 9:19-23)? Absolutely!!!

An example of a Christian culture within the culture would be how Christians carry out the activities or shared patterns that identify and distinguish their people groups, in such a way that these practices are all transformed by the gospel. When gospel comes into a culture, there is then a conversion not just of souls, but a conversion from the culture of men to the culture of the gospel; from a culture informed by the values of men without God to a culture informed by the values of the gospel.

To the extent that there is no difference between the cultural practices of believers and unbelievers, there has not been true conversion. In this case, the gospel has not transformed culture. It has simply been added to it. When you put the gospel and culture together, things must change. One of the two must change, and it cannot be the gospel. The gospel is the same in all cultures and cannot change. Culture must change to conform to the gospel. The gospel will never change to conform to culture. The truth is that culture contains in it truth about God as well as errors about who God is and how man must relate to God. The gospel exposes these errors. An example is the foolishness of idol worship (Ps. 115:4-8; Is. 44:9-20).

In answer to the question of how culture and gospel relate, I have argued that Christianity cannot be present in culture as something that simply meets a need. Rather, the gospel calls for a conversion, not just of souls, but of a worldview. The gospel commends Jesus to people in any given culture. The gospel calls people to the reality of the kingdom of God now in their midst and the need for them to accept the will of God as their rule for life. Before the coming of the gospel, culture or tradition determines how people should live. This no longer is the case for those who receive Jesus through the preaching of the gospel. For them, the values of the gospel determine how they conduct their lives in their own culture.

Gospel and Culture-What is Culture?

Jesus said, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matt. 24:24). In line with the need for the gospel to be proclaimed throughout the whole world, Paul, speaking of the need to hear the gospel and believe, said,

But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? (Rom. 10:14).

All the nations to whom the gospel is a testimony are the different peoples of the world. As the gospel is taken to the different people groups, the preacher has the task of communicating the gospel of the kingdom in settings that are not familiar to him. He is bringing the gospel into different cultures. But, he must proclaim it in such a way that the people will hear and understand in order to call on the name of the Lord and be saved.

For the gospel to be proclaimed effectively, there needs to be an understanding of the culture into which we are preaching the gospel so that people will hear and understand and respond in genuine faith that produces works in keeping with their repentance. When one travels to another culture, he is said to experience culture shock. Culture shock, simply put, is when one gets a sense of confusion, uncertainty, and even anxiety when he or she is in a different culture. This culture shock is a result of a lack of adequate preparation for that environment. For example, an American will give a hug or shake your hand once as a way of greeting. This is not repeated if he meets you again during the day. In Cameroon, hand shakes are done each time you walk up to a person. If you happen to meet that person 10 times during the day, you will shake his hand ten times. This is a polite way of greeting. When I first came to America, I found that people often asked me how I was doing. That happened at church and in college. Each time, I would stop to explain how I was doing that day. How my little child just caught a fever the night before and I stayed up and could not finish my reading. How my family back home is stressed and who has died in my extended family. That to me was news worth telling. Shockingly, each time I turned to explain my situation; the person would already be gone. It took me a while to realize that they never meant to hear how I was doing.  Contrast this with Cameroon in general. In a community like a seminary or church or village, if you are walking by and see a person standing or a group having a discussion, it is respectful to stop and greet everyone in the group. These are issues of culture. An African in America has culture shock just as an American in Africa experiences culture shock. (The reason is always that neither was well prepared for what they are now experiencing.)

Since these differences in culture exist, it is important to prepare for each culture by understanding it before serving in it. In this post, I want to attempt to briefly define culture.

What is Culture?

The most basic definition of culture is given by the University of Minnesota CARLA Center for Advanced Research:

Culture is defined as the shared patterns of behaviors and interactions, cognitive constructs, and affective understanding that are learned through a process of socialization. These shared patterns identify the members of a culture group while also distinguishing those of another group.[1]

This definition of culture shows that it consists of shared patterns that either identify people or distinguish between them. Culture is about the common ideas, feelings, and values that guide the behavior of a community, as well as personal behavior. These ideas, feelings, and values also regulate how the group thinks and feels about God, the world, mankind, and man’s relation to God and to each other. The cultural shared patterns of each culture determine how the people of that group relate to the world and to each other.

The shared patterns of a culture are evident in social gatherings, celebrations, marriage practices, initiation rites, death and burial practices, view of children, inheritance laws, view of man and woman, the gods, etc. All these practices are informed by the values of a group.

These shared patterns also identify and distinguish different people groups. People who are proud to be identified with their tribes uphold the values of that tribe no matter where they are in the world.

Implicit in the definition of culture is the point that culture is a human creation. In order for people to live together as a group, they set in place the values that will guide them in the group. As such, it is a human creation. Biblically, we understand that culture must necessarily reflect some truth about God since people who are created in the image of God create it. The religious practices of different people groups reflect their search for God. The laws of each culture have some values consistent with the Law of God. Paul says that even unbelievers can do what is in accordance with the Law of God because it is written in their hearts (Rom. 2:14-16).

So we assume that culture is a human creation and that man is created in the image of God, therefore his culture reflects some truth consistent with the law of God. This point should to be taken seriously where the gospel is proclaimed in different cultural contexts. In a real sense then, culture serves God even though created by sinners because they bear the image of God.

Knowing then what the gospel is, the preacher of the gospel has the task of studying the culture of the people to whom he is going to proclaim the gospel. It is his task to seek out and know the shared patterns of the people, those values, belief systems, and practices that define a people. He also needs to be aware of his own cultural patterns so as to keep them from becoming part of the gospel.

Some Questions to Ponder

  1. What is your culture? In light of what you have read so far, how would you explain your own culture in terms of shared patterns?
  2. Is God calling you to a particular people group around the world? Are you planning a short-term mission trip soon? Where? If yes, what do you need to do in order to be effective when you go?
  3. Are there people in your church or city from the part of the world that you are planning to travel to? What have you done to get to know them and to learn from them? They are your best teachers and a ready resource while you are still preparing to travel.
  4. What cultural patterns do you have that might be difficult to put aside as you preach the gospel?
  5. For those of you in Africa (and other places too), why is it that pastors feel that they must wear a suit to preach, when in their day-to-day life they wear African clothing? Have we made the clothing style part of the gospel? How should we dress to make the gospel authentic to Africans?

 


[1] See http://www.carla.umn.edu/culture/definitions.html for this definition and a list of many others.

Gospel and Culture-What is the Gospel?

In seeking to see how the gospel relates to culture, it is important to answer the question “what is the gospel?” We cannot assume that this question is easily answered. My experience on the mission field has shown that while many say that they know and believe the gospel, they are not always able to explain what it is. This raises the question of the authenticity of one’s faith if he cannot put in plain words the content of the gospel.

Why is it necessary to talk about what the gospel is before talking about its relation to culture? It is necessary as a way of reminding us, as Peter rightly says:

Therefore I intend always to remind you of these qualities, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have. I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to stir you up by way of reminder, since I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me. And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things (2 Peter 1:12-15).

Although we know the truth of the gospel and are established in it, we need to be reminded over and over so that we will not forget and we will be sure to pass it on. The following is an explanation of the gospel. It is not meant to be detailed but simply to lay out the most basic content. We cannot relate the gospel to any culture without knowledge of its content.

What is the Gospel?

The Gospel is about God

The gospel message begins with God and is the revelation of God to man. In the gospel, we see how God works to save sinners (Rom. 1:16). The gospel message assumes certain truths about God. These truths about God provide a better understanding of what God did and why He did it. Depending on your context, different truths about God could be explicated but here are just a few that set the ground for the gospel message:

God is holy. God does not sin, do evil or make mistakes (Num. 23:19a; James 1:13b). Because God is holy, he wants us also to be holy since without holiness, no one will see God (Lev. 19:2; Heb. 12:14; 1 Pet. 1:15-16). The holiness of God means that God is totally separated from sin, because the two cannot co-exist. This is why Adam and Eve hid themselves from the presence of God when they sinned (Gen. 3:8). In the OT, the “holy of holies” in the tabernacle and temple was a reminder to the Israelites that God was separated from them because he was holy.

God is committed to his glory. All that God has done, is doing, and will do is all for his glory alone (Ps. 102:15; Ex. 9:16). Jesus came for the glory of God, prayed for the glory of God, and he healed for the glory of God (John 17:5, 24; 11:4). In the end, God’s goal is for the whole earth to be filled with his glory (Hab. 2:14; Mal. 1:11). He created us for his glory (Is. 43:6-7) and as those created by God; we are to do all things for his glory (1 Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:17).

God loves us and has a plan for us. God, who is holy and cannot sin or do evil, loves us who are sinful. Because He loved the sinful world, he sent his only Son to save the world through his death on the cross (Rom. 5:8; John 3:16). God, from the very beginning, made a plan to bring salvation to sinful mankind. He chose us before the world was created to be holy and blameless (Eph. 1:4). God planned our salvation. He made a promise to Abraham that through his offspring, the nations of the earth will be blessed (Gen. 12:3). This plan or promise of God unfolded throughout the OT and was fulfilled in the NT. This offspring of Abraham is Jesus Christ and the promise is the gift of salvation to those who believe in Jesus (Gal. 3:7-7, 13-14, 16).

Summary. We see then that God is holy and separated from sin and that he is committed to his glory in all things. He loved a sinful world and made a plan to bring us salvation through his Son Jesus Christ. Now, how do we see God bringing about this salvation through his Son?

The Gospel is about Jesus Christ

Jesus is the content of the gospel. Jesus Christ is the good news of salvation. Scriptures teach that Jesus is the content of the gospel. For example, Peter’s first word in his sermon in Acts 2:22 are “Jesus, the Nazarene.” In Acts 5:42, the apostles were “teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.” After Paul’s conversion, “he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues” (Acts 9:20). Philip preached Christ in Samaria (Acts 8:5, 35). After the persecution of Stephen, some people went to Antioch preaching “the Lord Jesus” (Acts 11:20). Paul says that the gospel is about Jesus Christ (Rom. 1:4) and in another place he says “we preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23; 2 Cor. 4:5). It is apparent that to preach the gospel is to preach Christ, but how is this done? What is emphasized in the preaching of Christ? Again we look to Scripture to see how the apostles preached Christ. We find that in preaching Christ, they emphasized certain truths about him.

The gospel centers on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul explains that the things of “first importance” in the gospel he received and preached are the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15:3-4).  The words “of first importance” mean that the gospel must necessarily be about these two facts, without which there is no gospel. Any serious student of the Bible quickly learns that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are the height of God’s plan to bring us salvation. Any preaching of the gospel that excludes or minimizes these historical facts is no gospel at all. Jesus died for our sins and was raised on the third day. This is good news, in that Jesus’ death and resurrection are a demonstration of God’s love for us sinners (Rom. 5:8).

Paul is not alone in emphasizing the death and resurrection of Jesus as the key points of the gospel. At the heart of Peter’s sermons in the book of Acts we find the death and resurrection of Jesus (Acts 2:23-24, 32; 3:15; 5:29-32; 10:39-40). During his first missionary journey, Paul emphasized the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Acts 13:26-39). Jesus himself placed great significance on the fact that he was going to die and be raised on the third day (Mark 8:31-32. See also Mark 9:31; 10:33-34).

It makes sense, then, that the apostles would emphasize these facts in their preaching of the gospel, since Jesus himself placed emphasis on them. Paul could point to Jesus’ death and resurrection as “of first importance,” and this too ought to be our approach. In preaching Christ, we proclaim first and foremost his death and resurrection.

The death and resurrection of Jesus are saving events. Preaching Christ crucified and resurrected as simple historical facts is not enough. Someone can accept objectively that Jesus died and rose from the dead and yet not be saved. They must be preached as saving events.

His death is a saving event in that he died for our sins (1 Cor. 15:3). He “gave himself for our sins so that he might rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Gal. 1:4). Thus, his death is not just something that happened in history. It had a purpose, to rescue us from the kingdom of darkness and bring us into the kingdom of light (cf. 1 Peter 2:9). Jesus himself saw his own death as a saving event (Mark 10:45). Without the death of Christ, there is no redemption. 

The death of Jesus is good news because deliverance from sin is exactly what we need. As descendants of Adam, we are all born in sin (Rom. 5:12). The Bible teaches that we all like sheep have gone astray (Is. 53:6), and all we deserve is God’s wrath because we are all under the power of sin (Rom. 3:9-18). We deserve death and exclusion from the presence of God (Rom. 6:23). Because of our sin, we have failed to please God (Rom. 8:7-8) and to be holy (Rom. 3:10-12). We have failed to live for God’s glory (Rom. 3:23), in that we have not loved him as we should, not trusted him as we should, and not treasured Him as we should. Because of sin, God is very angry with us (Rom. 2:5, Eph. 2:1-3) and we are thus condemned to hell (John 3:18, Matt. 22:13). So, sin makes us objects of God’s wrath. It makes us hopeless because we cannot pay the penalty for sin. Because of sin, we are separated from God forever.

Yet, Jesus Christ did what we could not do to bring us into God’s kingdom. Christ became our substitute and took our place. He carried our sins instead of us carrying them. He became the object of God’s wrath instead of us. He died so that we would not die. Scriptures teach that Christ bore our sins (1 Peter 2:24), that he became a curse for us so that we will not come under the curse of God (Gal. 3:13), that Christ became our righteousness so that in him we can be holy ( 2 Cor. 5:21; Rom. 5:19). In Christ we can glorify God (John 17:10).  Jesus is the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29).

Not only his death, but also his resurrection is a saving event. His resurrection means that we will be raised from the dead. If Christ is not risen from the dead, then we cannot believe that we will be raised from the dead. The two go together (see 1 Cor. 15:12-19; cf. Romans 6:3-5). The resurrection of Jesus assures our own resurrection. It is good news because it demonstrates victory over death. Death could not keep him in the grave and death will not keep us in the grave either (1 Cor. 15:54-57). Because he rose from the dead, we are justified – made right with God (Rom. 4:25).

The death and resurrection of Jesus fulfills Scripture. “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). The gospel is not Paul’s invention. It is the fulfillment of God’s revealed plan to bless the nations through Christ (cf. Gen. 12:3; Gal 3:7-9, 13-14).

That his death was in fulfillment of the Scriptures indicates that it was willed and determined by God (cf. Acts 2:23). If the death of Jesus fulfills OT Scriptures, it follows that we must seek to interpret his death in light of the OT, for it shows how God has worked in history to bring salvation to us.  Jesus also understood his death and resurrection to be in fulfillment of OT Scriptures (Luke 24:25-27, 46).

As we proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus as saving events, it is necessary to show that this gospel is in fulfillment of Scripture. The gospel has its foundation in the OT, and that needs to be explained for there to be a better grasp of the message that Christ died for our sins and was raised for our justification.

Proper Response to the Gospel

Repentance and Faith. It is important to know what the gospel is. It is also important to know the proper response to the gospel. This is where repentance and faith come in. The gospel about the death and resurrection of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins and in fulfillment of Scripture makes a demand on those who hear. The gospel demands repentance and faith. Paul says in Acts 17:30 that God now commands repentance. We make is clear that one must repent and turn to Christ. Repentance means turning away from sin and turning to Christ, who is Lord of our life. Therefore we cannot continue to live as if nothing has happened.

The gospel also demands faith. Faith is trusting Jesus daily for the forgiveness of our sins and for the salvation of our souls. But such trust must rest on the facts of the gospel message. Faith is a gift from God, and the way we benefit from what God has done for us in Christ (Eph. 2:8). Faith is trusting in Christ alone for the forgiveness of our sins and the fulfillment of all God’s promises to us (Titus 3:4-7). Faith is treasuring Christ (Matt. 6:19-21; 13:44-46; Luke 12:20-21). Those who respond in faith and turn to Christ receive a promise. Before anyone can receive the gospel message, he must understand what is promised in the gospel. What the gospel promises to those who believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus and affirm him as Lord, is the forgiveness of sins and the salvation of their soul and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:37-41; 13:38-39; Rom. 10:9).

Having explained what the gospel is, I turn now to explain culture before showing how the two relate.

To be continued in the next two posts.