Contextualization: Fight or Flight?

You ever get sneaking suspicions? Here’s my sneaking suspicion: I suspect that the reason that everybody’s into contextualization today has nothing to do with the diversity of people groups at all: nothing. As a matter of fact—this is radical—what I really think contextualization is, is a way of not offending false Christians who are in the church. I think it’s a huge shell game, where we act as if we’re speaking to the culture, we’re not at all! We’re actually carefully designing what we say in such a way as to not offend the pagans who want to have a bit of religion—just enough to be comfortable, just enough to be respectable, just enough to have the funeral in the church. That’s what I think it is.

Here is another transcript from the 2009 ClearNote Fellowship Conference, this one of a sermon delivered by Tim Bayly and titled Contextualization: Fight or Flight?

This sermon has particular application to pastors regarding preaching, but it has been most useful to me as a layman also in sorting through how to properly apply the Scriptures to myself and those around me. I commend it to you as useful.

Listen to the audio first if you can; the transcript may serve as a useful reference afterward.

(This is sermon 2 in a series; see also sermon 1, sermon 3, and sermon 4.)


What is contextualization?
Precious Promises
More definitions
A morally neutral tool
Bore yourself like a drill bit into them, or not make an ass of yourself?
Innoculated against the authority of the Word of God
The abuse of contextualization
The proper use of contextualization
To know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified
Sermon 1: Peter at Pentecost
Sermon 2: Peter in Solomon’s portico
Sermon 3: Stephen
“A master of contextualization”
We don’t believe in it
“Those very deeds which they refuse to share in the commission of, they often decline to find fault with”
Empty nutshells
To see Scripture as it really is, to love people the way they really are


Let’s pray. Father, we know that we are stupid and foolish and cowardly and sinful. And yet we also know that Your word is true and it testifies that when we were Your enemies, Your Son Jesus Christ died for us. And so by faith we gather here, seeking from You everything we need to be obedient to You. And we particularly pray this morning and during this conference, Lord, that You will help us to see the true nature of this world that we live in and of the church today, and that You will give us the ability to read Your Word without deleting it, without smoothing it out, without silencing it, without gagging it—to see it as it is and to let it come into our hearts and live there and produce fruit. We pray that it will produce fruit in this church and this community, and in every church and community represented here today. Now may the words of my mouth and the meditation of every heart here be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and Redeemer. We pray in Jesus’ Name, amen.

As you all know, the conference is titled “Standing in the Gap”, and last night Pastor Baker spoke to us about the nature of gaps. And to some degree it’s going to be difficult for you to understand how this or that area is a gap, because what we’re really talking about is finding the places that Satan is using his wiles to destroy souls, and working at that place. And so sometimes the image of a gap, you know, with the orcs laying a bomb, trying to blow up a wall in Lord of the Rings—to some degree this image works, but to some degree it doesn’t. What we did last night was talk to you generally about the concept of gaps, finding the place of danger and standing there. And then today we’re going to take three of them and we’re going to talk to you about those three. First I’m going to talk about contextualization, and then Pastor David Curell is going to talk about cheap grace, and then the third one is worship—and it’s kind of interesting that everybody knows that worship is a place of battle, but I hope those of you who maybe have a propensity to like high aesthetics and classical music will listen very closely this afternoon, because we are convinced—the elders are convinced, the pastors are convinced—that the issue of how we communicate our love for the Lord in song, what kind of music we give ourselves to, is a key part of standing for the Lord today.

I couldn’t help but think while we were singing A Mighty Fortress Is Our God that really that is the song that began me on the pilgrimmage of understanding that we couldn’t live any longer with just the tickling of ivories in worship—because if you think of contemporary music today, none is being written that talks about hell and Satan—it just isn’t out there. And there’s a reason for this.

What is contextualization?

So first then this great battlefield known today as contextualization. First let’s define it: what is contextualization? Well, the root of contextualization is context. Merriam-Webster Online defines contextualize as “to place a word in a context”. We can speak of it as “to place a verse in its context.”

Precious Promises

Now let me take an example of this, because I think it will be helpful to you. Let’s take a verse that is very commonly used by people as a “precious promise”. When I was young, I had an Aunt Elaine who was part of the Moody Bible Institute, Wheaton, Harry Ironsides generation, and every Thursday before Boys’ Brigade I would go over to her house, do a little work around the house, then she’d feed me dinner, and then we’d sit and talk for a few minutes and then I’d go off to Boys’ Brigade. And one of the things I remember about her table where we ate was in the center was a little plastic box, and it was labeled “The Promise Box”—there were probably a hundred, a hundred fifty cards in there—and if you took the cards out one by one they had little promises on them from Scripture. And you know that every one of those cards was a positive promise. There were no negative promises. “I tell you, unless you repent, you shall all likewise perish.” That wasn’t in there. It’s a promise, but it wasn’t in there.

Now here’s one of the things that surely was in that little box: Matthew 18:20 says, “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” Now that’s a beautiful promise, isn’t it. Many times you’ve been in prayer, you’ve been part of a prayer meeting or a worship service and you’ve heard that quoted. Now work your way back up in the text, because that verse has a context. What is verse 19? Well, it’s Jesus saying, “Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by my Father who is in heaven”—another precious promise: If you agree about anything that you ask, in prayer, then it’ll be done; and then, “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” Two precious promises, right?

But if you look at an even larger part of the context of these verses, what do you find? When Jesus speaks about agreeing about something here on earth, what precisely is it that He’s speaking about us agreeing on? This is the context: Matthew 18:15, “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private. If he listens to you, you have won your brother, but if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by my Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.

Now, what’s my point? My point is that these little promises that we yank out of the context of Scripture have a context, and the context is important.

Especially today at a time when no churches do any church discipline except for an axe-murderer—that’s about what you have to be to be disciplined in the church today. You know, the idea that somebody would actually be privately rebuked and then with two people rebuked and then taken to the elders and to the whole church is laughable today, unless it’s some mother who would, like, take a hatchet and cut off the head of her newborn baby. I mean, that’s what you’d have to do today. And so we look at this promise and we think, what is Jesus doing here? Well what Jesus is doing here is Jesus is making a very clear promise that when the church does church discipline that God will see the discipline and will confirm it. That’s what it means! And so, trembling, fearful, with nobody agreeing with you, with every other church in town doing its damnedest to try to obstruct your discipline as a church, ok, Jesus is saying, Go ahead and do it. Because let me tell you, if two or three of you are gathered in prayer, I will be there, and my Father will do what you ask Him to do. Now that’s pretty intense. In other words this promise is in the context of church discipline, and what it’s doing is emphasizing the authority of the church when the church practices church discipline.

Now, would that make the promise box? I don’t think so!

So here’s the deal. In the study of Scripture, context is very important. Those verses don’t just have a context of other verses, but they have the context of a book—they’re in Matthew, they’re not in John. They’re not in the Epistle to the Colossians, they’re not in Exodus.

Now, let’s flip it around: let’s say, here I am, I’m a preacher, and it’s my job to take the text of Scripture and to to to understand it accurately in its context, alright? Not to read into the text what I want the text to say, but to understand what the text says. But then I have the job of feeding you from the Word of God. And so it’s not enough for me to understand the context of the text—to understand Greek, to understand Hebrew—to understand what really people need to understand, which is how to read, how to comprehend. Forget Greek and Hebrew. You don’t need that. What you need is to learn to read, because you’re all video, audio people. You know how to read, you know how to understand what you’re reading and how it fits in to the larger part. Then, your job is to come to your neighbors, to your children (those of you who are parents), to the people that you preach to if you’re a pastor, the people that you teach as an elder or as a Titus 2 woman—your job is to take that and to bring it to the people that you’re feeding in such a way that it’s helpful! That it is what it says, and that it’s helpful. And so you’re to look at the context and then you’re to look at the people, and you’re to contextualize it for your people.

That is what everybody means today when they talk about contextualizing things. They’re not talking about looking at the context of Scripture; they’re talking about looking at the people that you’re trying to preach to, that you’re trying to evangelize, and saying, “How can I get the message across?”

More definitions

Now let me read to you a definition of contextualize. In his book Contextualization: Meaning, Methods and Models, Professor of Missions David Hesselgrave defined contextualization as it’s used in Christian missions in the church today as follows:

Christian contextualization [is] the attempt to communicate the message of the…Word…of God in a way that is faithful to…Holy Scripture, and…meaningful to respondents in their respective cultural and existential contexts.

So what does this mean. Well, contextualization as Christians use it is to communicate the words of Scripture, the truths of Scripture, so that you’re faithful to the Scripture, but also so that you’re able to be understood by the people that are listening.

And you understand that their language, their culture that they grew up in, whether or not they had a father, whether or not their wife is happy, whether or not they’ve been given children—all these things enter into the ability of you now to listen to me and to hear me.

In his article “Contextualizing the Bible in Africa”, Allen Turner defines contextualization this way:

Contextualization is the application of Biblical truths to the circumstances and situations to be experienced in a target culture.

So if you think of me preaching, I have a gun, right, I’m shooting you, you’re the target culture. You’re the target people, you’re the target church, you’re the target congregation. And so he says, it’s “the application of Biblical truths to the circumstances and situations to be experienced in a target culture.”

So contextualization is the work Christians do to make our Christian testimony understandable, particularly to the unbeliever. We observe the unbeliever’s world, his language and cultures, his likes, his dislikes, his prejudices, his worldview, and we craft our communication so that it’s likely that he will understand what we’re saying.

But of course, we aren’t the center of the project, are we? It isn’t our own thoughts, our own ideas that we should be working to get across, but the truth of Scripture. It’s the Word of God that we are working to communicate to the unbeliever.

To pass Scripture on to another culture requires—are you ready?—contextualization.

We’re concerned with this this morning: Communicating God’s Word accurately to those not familiar with it or more to the point, communicating the gospel to unbelievers in a way that faithfully carries God’s truth to them so that they hear and understand the gospel.

A morally neutral tool

Now like most tools, the tool of contextualization is morally neutral. A hammer doesn’t have moral content. If you take it to my head, it does. If you take it to a nail, it does. One’s positive; the other, I hope you’ll agree, is negative. Right? It becomes evil when it’s an instrument used to bludgeon someone to death. But if you’re using it to put the shingles on my roof, that’s good.

Now we must be able to recognize that contextualization is like any other tool: it can be used positively, it can be used negatively. But the inappropriate use of contextualization does not invalidate its proper use. We live by faith and so we never give ourselves to reactionary insecurity or to fear. Now listen to 1 Corinthians 9:19, “For though,” the Apostle Paul says, “I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all so that I may win more.” I’m free, but I’ve made myself a slave, why? For the sake of the gospel. We all understand this.

To the Jews, I became as a Jew, so that I may win Jews. To those who are under the law, as under the law, though not myself being under the law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; 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 may win those who are without law. 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.

It’s a beautiful description of godly contextualization: when in Rome, do as the Romans. The Apostle Paul is looking at his target audience and he’s saying I want to become like Church of the Good Shepherd. I want to dive into the DNA of these people. I want to become like Bloomingtonians. I want to become a Hoosier. I want to become an American. I want to become like the people that I’m ministering to.


Now. What does that involve? Well, it involves dangers. All of us have had the experience of knowing that we just blew it—that we became so much like our target audience that we’re of no earthly good. After all, if the Bible warns us that the day will come when preachers will be heaped up around people wanting their itching ears to be scratched, what’s wrong with the preachers that are doing that? Well the problem is that they’ve become like their target audience, they’ve given up their integrity, they have no word from God, and they’re simply parroting back to people what the people want to hear.

So what are the dangers? Well in his book called Contextualization in the New Testament, Dean Flemming explains the dangers surrounding contextualization. He says this:

In reality contextualizing the gospel is far from an easy task. In spite of an explosion of literature on the subject in recent decades, there is still a great deal of confusion about what it means and how it should be practiced. Many sincere Christians are still suspicous that attempts to contextualize theology and Christian behavior will lead to the compromising of biblical truth.

Now if you know how to read, your nose is smelling something foul with that sentence. I mean, how should that sentence be written? Not the way it is. Listen to it again: “Many sincere Christians”—well, condescension, patronization. Sincere Christians, people like you and me—sincerely wrong, but sincere. “Many sincere Christians are still“—at this late date!—“suspicious”! Sincere Christians, suspicious. Still! “…that attempts to contextualize theology and Christian behavior will lead to the compromising of biblical truth.”

Now listen people. One thing’s for sure. And that is, that contextualization is all the time compromising biblical truth! You should be suspicious. In fact, people who aren’t suspicious of contextualization are fools. It’s just so obvious that contextualization can do terrible damage. If you want to get into the mind of the people that you’re communicating the gospel to and you want to identify with them so closely that you’re able to speak in such a way that they listen to you, what’s the first thing you should do? The first thing you should do is avoid speaking of sin! Avoid repentance! Avoid judgment and avoid hell. And surprisingly or not surprisingly, that is of course exactly what is characteristic of those who preach and are big on contextualization. There’s no sin, there’s no hell, there’s no judgment, and there’s no repentance.

I defy you to go on the web, pick your favorite preacher known for contextualization who will remain nameless, and download a few sermons at random—just click some, and then listen to them. Is there hell, is there judgment, is there sin, and is there repentance? For that matter, is there authority?

And the answer is no. So listen to this man again: “Many sincere Christians are still” (at this late date)

…suspicious that attempts to contextualize theology and Christian behavior will lead to the compromising of biblical truth. Christians throughout the world find themselves caught between the desire to communicate the Word of God in culturally relevant ways and the fear of giving away too much of the gospel in the process.

Well look, what that’s saying is that this is a seesaw, and that if you contextualize too much you’ve given away the gospel, but if you hold firm to the gospel, the people won’t listen to you. That’s what you’ll see in all these discussions. You’ll see it’s a see-saw and as one goes down the other goes up. Negatively correlated, right, that’s what he’s saying. And he’s right! That’s why you’re supposed to be suspicious. That’s why you’re supposed to be on guard.

In addition, emerging global realities pose new challenges to the task of doing contextual theology. What, for example, will it mean to contextualize the gospel in a world that is moving toward increased economic and cultural globalization…?

Now think about this, it’s funny. The problem here is, that if you want to make a case for the need for contextualization what you need to do is establish the diversity of cultures. But what’s happening is, in India and in Africa they’re downloading Trinity Broadcasting Network! What’s happened to our great multi-diversity? We’re becoming a global village, so somehow what’s going to happen is everybody’s going to speak Roman. But it’s not Roman today, it’s American, it’s English. Everybody’s going to suck in our television programs—even China, they’re not going to be able to keep it out. Everybody’s going to be watching our famous preachers who are successful, everybody’s going to want to have our level and our form of government—in other words, we’re becoming a global one, that’s what’s happening. America is exporting her culture and it’s becoming the culture of the world.

Ben was telling me the other night about the TV show Top Gear, and he’s explaining to me these guys are driving around America on a recent episode and they’re trying to be cool like Americans. If you go over there they won’t admit that that’s what they’re trying to do—and so what we have here is on the one hand the case needs to be made that we have to contextualize the gospel for every people group, every language, every culture, every tribe, and each one requires a different set of skills, a different understanding, a different way of communicating. But on the other hand we have America exporting her culture and we’re moving into a global village.

Bore yourself like a drill bit into them, or not make an ass of yourself?

You ever get sneaking suspicions? Here’s my sneaking suspicion: I suspect that the reason that everybody’s into contextualization today has nothing to do with the diversity of people groups at all: nothing. As a matter of fact—this is radical—what I really think contextualization is, is a way of not offending false Christians who are in the church. I think it’s a huge shell game, where we act as if we’re speaking to the culture, we’re not at all! We’re actually carefully designing what we say in such a way as to not offend the pagans who want to have a bit of religion—just enough to be comfortable, just enough to be respectable, just enough to have the funeral in the church. That’s what I think it is. Now mind you, I believe in contextualization. One of the things I explain to people is that when I preach, I watch your faces, I really do, and as I preach I bore myself like a drill bit into you—you don’t know it’s going on sometimes, sometimes you do. I bore into you because I’m trying to contextualize the message. I’m trying to think your thoughts as I preach. Of course contextualization is good—that’s not what’s being taught to you when you read about contextualization. What’s being taught is that you need to preach in such a way as to not make an ass of yourself. Because the worst thing that could possibly happen if you go to Covenant Seminary or Westminster is that you come out of there without the ability of massaging the consciences of your people. And then there will be conflict and then you’ll be kicked out of a church and then you’ll make a bad name for your seminary. Because seminaries depend upon churches wanting the pastors from that seminary. Do you think anybody wanted Jesus’ disciples to be the leaders of their synagogues? I mean, think about it, have you ever thought about that? If Jesus’ disciple training of three years was a seminary, would anybody hire anybody from that group? And then we get to Paul!

When I went off to seminary the first thing they did was they gave us the Minnesota Multifaceted Personality Inventory, the MMPI. And you sit down and they ask you questions about some things that even my doctor has not yet asked me about. And you sit there, and as you’re taking it some of the questions are like, “Sometimes God speaks to me.” Well it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know what the answer to that’s supposed to be. “No!” So while I’m taking this MMPI test, what I’m thinking of is the Apostle Paul, and I’m just having this huge fantasy of the Apostle Paul taking the MMPI. So I take the MMPI and then because I’m in the PCUSA (the mainline denomination) at the time, in order to be ordained I have to be evaluated by a psychiatrist. So they do the theological student inventory, which is another psychological test, and the MMPI and a whole battery of these tests. You take them, send them off to Denver, and then they pay for a ticket for you to fly from Boston to Denver and back in two days and you sit down with the psychiatrist. I’ve never met the guy, I go to Denver, I sit down in his office and he says, “Well, Tim, welcome.” And I say “Thank you.” And he says, “Now I’ve looked over your test results and I have a question for you. Are you homosexual?” And I go, “I don’t think so.” And he says “Well, don’t worry about it. We’ve found that this is a profile that matches very closely the profile of a successful minister.”

What is contextualization? How have we gotten to the point where successful ministers are homosexuals, or are psychologically similar to those with same-sex intimacy desires? How have we gotten to that point? You know what Doug Wilson says? Doug Wilson says that evangelicals want women to preach to them, and so let them! Stop trying to make men be women. Give them women! Women are much better at being women than men are.  I think it’s a stroke of genius. Now. Here’s what I asked again: What is the purpose of the discussion of contextualization today? What is it?

Innoculated against the authority of the Word of God

The purpose of contextualization is not unbelievers. You know why? I can guarantee you that if you give me somebody from Wheaton, the center of evangelicalism, in this church, they will not listen to the preaching, the dead-on, straight on, dead ahead preaching of the Word of God. You give me an honest pagan and it’ll be wonderful. Because an honest pagan is not expecting you to be a hypocrite! The honest pagan has not been innoculated against the authority of the Word of God by endless explanations of what the text really means. The honest pagan expects you to tell him that he is headed for hell, that unless he repents he will perish, because he lives every single day with his conscience, and that’s why he hates God, and that’s why he hates Scripture, and so if you’re faithful to Scripture the pagan will either kill you or repent, but that’s the one thing you’ll never get an evangelical to do.

Jody is here from Wisconsin, and I remember arriving at my first pastorate and after I’d been there a little time a woman coming to my wife and me over in the manse next door to the church one day, and she said to us, um, I’ve been reading here, and it says that our adornment should not be jewelry and stuff like that. Should I stop wearing jewelry? Well that’s a question you’ll never ever get from an evangelical! Because evangelicals have had the Word of God perfectly parsed to them very tightly, in such a way that they know that nothing Scripture says has any application to us, except maybe adultery. And so here she was asking, what about head coverings? What about jewelry? What about submission? You see, she had never known that the Word of God was authoritative, and when she was told that it had authority, everything in her life became negotiable. Everything.

What is contextualization? Well contextualization is the process of dealing with people who for years have been told that the Bible doesn’t mean anything it says, and contextualization is the way that you speak to them and preach to them and teach them and elder them and pastor them and Titus 2 woman-an them, in such a way that they do not kick you out of your pulpit. That’s contextualization. Unless of course they’re new Christians, and then if you don’t give it straight to them they will kick you out of their pulpit.

The abuse of contextualization

The subtitle of this talk is Fight or Flight, and this is a simple phrase intended to remind us of the essential difference between the abuse and the proper use of contextualization. Used improperly or abused, contextualization is the “look at the birdie” diversionary tactic of Christians wanting to avoid the gap in the wall. It’s the excuse or cover-up employed by soldiers of Christ who are more afraid of those who can maim or kill their body or fire them from the pastorate than of the One who can cast both body and soul into hell.

Luke 12, “I say to you, My friends,” our Lord said,

do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who, after He has killed, has authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear Him!

And mind you, He was speaking primarily to His followers, not pagans. And so seeing the place of danger, the place of Satan’s attack, the place of the sheep’s vulnerability, seeing the breach, seeing the gap in the wall, those who are unwilling to stand there and contend for the faith will often excuse or justify themselves by claiming contextualization made them do it. They’ll claim their motives were of the purest sort, that they were simply trying to avoid offending the sensibilities of their target audience in secondary matters, while remaining faithful in the primary or the essential things. Somehow though the essential things they do focus on are usually far away from the war cries, far away from the combat, far away from the place where the casualties are the highest. And so there are many who hide behind contextualization, using it to justify their avoidance of the conviction of sin, their refusal to defend the faith, their refusal to guard the good deposit, their refusal to warn their listeners day and night with tears, their refusal, as Stephen quoted last night what Luther says, their refusal to confess our precious faith.

The proper use of contextualization

Now how does this work? Well, on the other side are those who use contextualization properly. They are Christians who see the gap in the wall and are committed by faith to stand there and to fight. And from their commitment to defend the faith—they are committed to lead the church militant—they use this most excellent tool, contextualization, to hone their swords! To make them sharper, not duller. In other words, I believe in contextualization, I just don’t think it should make your sword dull! Rather, I should know you inside and out so well, I should actually love you so much, that when I use the Word of God, I have helped it get even sharper (which is impossible, because it’s sharper than a two-edged sword) But I should like have hugged you right before I preach to you so that you love me, doesn’t that make the sword sharper. Isn’t it God’s economy that you’ll be preached to by a man that can hug you rather than an angel? Contextualization should make you more vulnerable to the Word of God—more open to repentance, more willing to be rebuked. That’s the purpose of contextualization—not to dull the sword, not to dull the spear point. Contextualization is similar to sending out the cavalry to reconnoiter, to spy out the enemies troop placements, their artillery and their strategy, that’s what contextualization should do.

Seeing the place of danger, the place of Satan’s attack, the place of the sheep’s vulnerability, the breach, the gap in the wall, those who are willing to stand there and contend for the faith will employ this most excellent tool of contextualization, not to lower but to raise the stakes of the combat. To heighten the contrast between sin and righteousness. Between the kingdom of darkness and the kingdom of heaven. To serve the Holy Spirit, who has been sent to convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment.

To know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified

But there are others who don’t trust the power of the Holy Spirit, who avoid causing offense among their listeners, who claim that they’re preaching nothing but the plain and simple gospel. “I just preach the gospel.” Sounds pious, doesn’t it? Making a big show of being missional, of contextualizing the gospel in such a way as to assure their listeners suffer no offense, these Christians make no mention of adultery or fornication, no mention of abortion or of sodomy, no mention of original sin or the federal headship of Adam, no mention of the last judgment and no mention of hell. And certainly they don’t ask their listeners to go get their husband—Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well. “Where’s your husband? Go get your husband.” That’s what contextualization never does. It’s nothing but the simple message of the cross for them and their congregation, and so they justify themselves by quoting the Apostle Paul, who wrote 1 Corinthians 2:2,

For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.

It sounds good, doesn’t it? It sounds real good. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a preacher that determined to know nothing but Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. Endless sermons about Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. Every single Sunday, John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever should believe in Him will not perish but will have everlasting life.”

But is this really what the preachers of Scripture did? Can we assume that the preachers in the book of Acts, for instance, “determined to know nothing but Jesus Christ, and Him crucified”? Don’t you think that’s an accurate description of the sermons of the apostles in the book of Acts? They knew nothing but Jesus Christ, and Him crucified! and so they determined not to offend their listeners, to scrupulously avoid the idolatries of their target audiences. Did they take a detour around sin and righteousness and judgment and stick to the simple gospel message? Well it’s almost laughable.

The first three sermons we find a thorough record of in the book of Acts are the sermon given by the Apostle Peter on the Day of Pentecost; the sermon given in Solomon’s Portico, also by the Apostle Peter; and the sermon given by deacon Stephen that led to his martyrdom—and that in itself should tell us something.

Let’s examine these three sermons to see if Peter and Stephen contextualized the gospel in such a way as to avoid offending their listeners. Now remember, we can assume that these sermons are “determined to know nothing but Christ, and Him crucified.” They weren’t breaking the principle that Paul says he always sticks to.

Sermon 1: Peter at Pentecost

So Acts 2, here we have the Day of Pentecost, it’s Peter preaching, he stands with the eleven, he raises his voice, and here’s the sermon: he declares to the people listening,

“Men of Judea and all you who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you and give heed to my words. For these men are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only the third hour of the day…”

That’s contextualization, right? He knows what they’re thinking, he deals with it. And it may well be that there was a bit of humor there.


Now, look what comes next:


What’s that in there for? I mean, it’s a quote of the Old Testament, but what was it in the Old Testament for? Blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke–what does that speak of? Judgment! It’s not velveteen rabbit stuff. It’s judgment. It’s fearful.


Is this velveteen rabbit stuff? No, it is a fearful thing.


It’s a warning, isn’t it? A very clear warning.

“Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God…”

In other words, you guys were all there, you saw the miracles, God could not have been clearer.

“…a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst…”

You were there.

“…just as you yourselves know–this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God…”

What? What comes next?

He says:

…you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death.

Now let me ask you, is this determining to know nothing but Christ, and Him crucified? It is!

For what purpose? For the purpose of sharpening the Work of the Holy Spirit—it’s impossible, but that’s what he was trying to do such that it would cut to the hearts of the people. They would be exposed for who they really are, and they’d realize they are absolutely hopeless before a holy God. That’s why it’s done.

Verse 24,

“But God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power. For David says of Him, ‘I SAW THE LORD ALWAYS IN MY PRESENCE…'”

Now skip down, he speaks about how this is not a prophecy about David but rather of Jesus Christ, and then pick up with verse 33,

“Therefore having been exalted to the right hand of God…”

This man they killed by the hands of evil men—

“…having been exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He has poured forth this which you both see and hear. For it was not David who ascended into heaven, but he himself says: ‘THE LORD SAID TO MY LORD, “SIT AT MY RIGHT HAND, UNTIL I MAKE YOUR ENEMIES A FOOTSTOOL FOR YOUR FEET.”‘”

Now what comes next?

“Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ–this Jesus whom you crucified.”

In other words, you’re in a heap of trouble. You killed Him, you used wicked men to do it, and now He sits at the right hand of God, and God has made Him both Lord and Messiah. This Jesus whom you crucified.

Now when they heard this…

What happened? It says, “they were pierced to the heart”. Is that the purpose of contextualization?

Is contextualization something we use to pierce people to the heart?

When they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?”

Now look. If you’re a gentlemen, if you’re gracious, at that point you lighten up. It’s clear they got the point. But what does Peter do? Peter responds and says,

“Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins…”

Does that sound like contextualization?

For the promise,

“…and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.” And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation!”

Is that contextualization? Is that a message that Philadelphia could use? This perverse city. Not brotherly love. Not at all. What about Manhattan? What about downtown Indianapolis? Cincinnati? What about Bloomington? “This perverse generation.” Was Peter careful to avoid offending his target audience? Was he careful not to expose their sin, their wickedness, their depravity? Did he leave them comfortable with his own spiritual direction and open to continued dialogue? With him, of course, having experienced his great learning and deep sensitivity.

As I said, the question is laughable. On the contrary, Peter tuned his horn to sound a clear note of coming judgment, a crystal-clear bugle call to repentance.

Sermon 2: Peter in Solomon’s portico

So then let’s turn to the second sermon, found in Acts chapter 3. There we have a record of Peter’s sermon, given in the temple in Solomon’s portico after he and John healed the lame man. And what do we find in that sermon? Acts 3, beginning with verse 12:

[Peter] replied to the people, “Men of Israel, why are you amazed at this, or why do you gaze at us, as if by our own power or piety we had made him walk? The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified His servant Jesus…”

Now you know what’s coming, right?

“…the one whom you delivered and disowned in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release Him. But you disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, but put to death the Prince of life, the one whom God raised from the dead, a fact to which we are witnesses.”

Skip down to verse 17,

“And now, brethren, I know that you acted in ignorance, just as your rulers did also.”

When ignorance, being accused of ignorance, is a relief, you know that what’s going on is pretty intense.

“But the things which God announced beforehand by the mouth of all the prophets, that His Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled. Therefore…”

What do you think?

“Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away…”

Down to verse 23,

“‘And it will be that every soul that does not heed that prophet shall be utterly destroyed from among the people.'”

Down to verse 26,

“For you first, God raised up His Servant and sent Him to bless you by turning every one of you from your wicked ways.”

So what about the second sermon? This time was Peter careful to avoid offending his target audience? Was he careful not to expose their sin? No, on the contrary, he blew a clear note of coming judgment, a crystal-clear call to repentance.

Sermon 3: Stephen

So then let’s turn to the third sermon, maybe Stephen will give us something different. Stephen the deacon, they’re compassionate. How did he craft his message? How did he put things together in order to do a good job communicating the gospel to his target audience? Acts 7 beginning with verse 2: “Hear me, brethren and fathers!” he calls out,

“The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia…”

So he goes through God’s promises to Abraham, then he goes to Isaac and Jacob and the twelve patriarchs, and then verse 9 he says this:

“The patriarchs became jealous of Joseph and sold him into Egypt.”

Well this is their patriarchs! So it’s not a positive note there to point out that failure. Then we skip down the whole way, he goes through the history of Israel, he gets to Moses and in verse 35, he says,

“This Moses whom they disowned, saying, ‘WHO MADE YOU A RULER AND A JUDGE?’ is the one whom God sent to be both a ruler and a deliverer with the help of the angel who appeared to him in the thorn bush.”

So he’s showing how they and their ancestors rejected the leader that God gave them, right? Then verse 39 he says,

“Our fathers were unwilling to be obedient to him, but repudiated him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt, SAYING TO AARON, ‘MAKE FOR US GODS WHO WILL GO BEFORE US; FOR THIS MOSES WHO LED US OUT OF THE LAND OF EGYPT–WE DO NOT KNOW WHAT HAPPENED TO HIM.’ At that time they made a calf…”

Now why do you have to go through this? Wouldn’t contextualization cause you to avoid rehearsing the day of infamy in the children of Israel? I mean, the bare bones of contextualization would keep you from rehearsing and rubbing their nose in the day more than any other day that the people of Israel could wish that they would forget. Right?

“At that time,” he says,

“…they made a calf and brought a sacrifice to the idol, and were rejoicing in the works of their hands. “But God turned away and delivered them up to serve the host of heaven; as it is written in the book of the prophets, ‘IT WAS NOT TO ME THAT YOU OFFERED VICTIMS AND SACRIFICES FORTY YEARS IN THE WILDERNESS, WAS IT, O HOUSE OF ISRAEL? ‘YOU ALSO TOOK ALONG THE TABERNACLE OF MOLOCH…'”

Now who was Moloch? Moloch was the god that they sacrificed their infants to. Is this contextualization?


And so he speaks of the captivity. And then he goes on talking about the fathers, he talks about David building the dwelling for God, but Solomon was the one that built a house for Him, verse 48, and then he says,

“However, the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands; as the prophet says: ‘HEAVEN IS MY THRONE, AND EARTH IS THE FOOTSTOOL OF MY FEET; WHAT KIND OF HOUSE WILL YOU BUILD FOR ME?'”

What was the pride of the Jews at the time? The temple. Even the disciples said, “Jesus, look at that temple!” Everybody was caught up with the magnificence of the temple. And here’s Stephen, contextualizing. By what? “God doesn’t need your temple.” What can you give to God?

You see, contextualization—and Stephen’s mouth is honing the sword and the spear, making it perfectly sharp to pierce to the hearts of his target audience. And then, verse 51—what comes next? Stephen says this:

“You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised…”

Can you imagine anything more perfectly contextualized to drive them to fury, than to say that they are uncircumcised?

“You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit…”

Is this the kind of preaching we have today?
Is this good preaching?
Is this Holy Spirit-inspired preaching?
Is this effective preaching?
Is this evangelistic preaching?
Does this preaching produce fruit? (There’s never been fruit like the book of Acts. Never.)

“…you are doing just as your fathers did…”

Well, he didn’t say “your mother,” but it was close!

“Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become; you who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet did not keep it.” Now when they heard this, they were cut to the quick, and they began gnashing their teeth at him.

Is this contextualization?
Is this “knowing nothing but Jesus Christ, and Him crucified”?

But being full of the Holy Spirit…

In other words, whatever he just said must have been a product of the Holy Spirit. Like John the Baptist in the womb of Elizabeth, jumping for joy recognizing the presence of his Master. “And she, being full of the Holy Spirit said…” “He, being full of the Holy Spirit, said…”

…he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears and rushed at him with one impulse.

Now listen, people. Either Stephen was a master of contextualization or he was an imbecile, and you have to make a choice. Either that is a model for preaching today, or that’s the one thing you should never do. But it can’t be anything in between those two things.

When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!”

You see, he loved them, and that’s why he did what he did. And

Having said this, he fell asleep.

While I was writing this last night, my dear mother, to keep me awake and because of her love for me, came over and rubbed my back. And she must have rubbed it for 20, 25 minutes as I typed. And then all of a sudden I listened to her. And I thought that she was falling asleep. She couldn’t move, she started blubbering, and it’s so precious to be around old people, because heaven is so close, and if you have a mother who’s about to die and then you’re going to get up and preach, then maybe you can preach the way Stephen did. Because you realize this is just an anteroom to eternity. And the worst you can possibly do to me is fire me. Because they wouldn’t let you kill me. (I don’t think they would. I know if I was in Martinville they wouldn’t let you kill me. Or Poland. Bloomington, they may. Bets are off with Bloomington.)

Having said this, he fell asleep.

And he was ushered from this vale of tears into the presence of the Lord.

So then what about the third sermon. Did Stephen die because he was careful to avoid offending his target audience, because he took great care not to expose their sin? No, on the contrary, like the Apostle Peter, Stephen too blew a clear note of sin and righteousness and judgment. And after all, this is the ministry Christ promised would be performed by His Holy Spirit when He came. Jesus said, John 16:7,

“But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you. “And He, when He comes, will..”

What? He will…

…convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment; concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me; and concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father and you no longer see Me; and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged.

“A master of contextualization”

One of the principal men in our country today who is known to be a master of contextualization, who will remain nameless, I want to read a little bit of what he writes about contextualization. He says this:

As a practitioner of ministry, I see contextualization is adapting my communication of the gospel without changing its essential character.

Do you think that’s what Stephen thought as he began to preach? “What I need to do is communicate the gospel without changing its essential character.” I mean, think about that. Can you imagine Stephen trying to get that straight in his brain as he was starting to preach. “Now what I need to do is communicate the gospel without changing the essential character.” Was there any pressure on Stephen to change the essential character of the gospel?

He goes on, he says,

Paul does not change the gospel, but Paul adapts it very heavily.

Yikes! And then he says,

Sure, this opens the door to abuses, but to fear and refuse to adapt to culture opens to abuses of the gospel just as much. The balance is to not on the one hand succumb to relativism nor on the other hand to think that contextualization is really avoidable. Both are gospel-eroding errors.

Is that what Stephen was doing, trying on the one hand not to succumb to relativism? But on the other hand to still contextualize.

Missionary strategy consists of two parts: on the one hand, be sure not to remove any of the offensive essentials of the gospel message…

This is absolutely insane. There is not one place in the New Testament that you will find any of this going on, except with Simon Magus.

Missionary strategy, then, consists of two parts: on the one hand, be sure not to remove any of the offensive essentials of the gospel message, such as the teaching on sin, the need for repentance, the lostness of those outside of Christ, and so on…

He actually writes that, “and so on.”

On the other hand, be sure to remove any nonessential language or practice that will confuse or offend the sensibilities of the people you are trying to reach.

Now, people.

Was it really essential to talk about the worship of the golden calf?
Did it offend their sensibilities?
Was it essential?
Couldn’t we have skipped that part of the story?

Was it necessary to talk about them trying to repudiate Moses when God gave them Moses as a leader?
Did they need to bring that up?

Was it essential for him to say, “You killed him!”
Is that essential?
Did it offend their sensibilities?

You see, people, the entire orientation of this presentation of contextualization is away from conviction of sin, it’s away from repentance, it’s away from hell—now I know that he just said that you should make sure you don’t mess around with the essentials, such as teaching on sin, the need for repentance, the lostness of those outside of Christ, and so on. I know he says that; but what I’m thinking is, “The louder he talked of his honor, the faster I counted my spoons”! Or, “Methinks the lady doth protest too much…” He has to say that!

The key to effective mission is to know the difference between essential and unessential.


It’s very interesting that in 1 Corinthians 14 we have an extended section dealing with the propensity of the Corinthians to desire to speak in tongues but to denigrate and to not value and to not seek the gift of prophecy. And so the Apostle Paul goes on at length with them, talking about the importance of desiring the gift that is able to build up the church. Why is prophecy able to build up the church? Because you can understand it, it’s not in a foreign tongue. You understand what I’m saying? It’s in that context that we find the statement that should be at the front of our minds whenever we go to worship in any church today. Which is, at the end of that section, he says (verse 23),

Therefore, if the whole church assembles together and all speak in tongues, and ungifted men or unbelievers enter…

Isn’t this what we want. Evangelism—we want unbelievers to enter the church. He says, therefore, if the whole church gets together—Sunday morning, Sunday evening, corporate worship,

…and all speak in tongues, and ungifted men or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad?

They can’t understand, they’ll think you’re crazy. But then he says this:

But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you.

That’s evangelism. He comes in, he hears the Word of God perfectly contextualized, and he is convicted, he is called to account, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, he falls on his face and he worships God, declaring that God is certainly among you. That’s what’s supposed to happen in our churches. That is a seeker-sensitive church. That is a contextualized church.

We don’t believe in it

But you know something, here’s the truth. The truth is, I don’t believe in it and you don’t believe in it. And that’s people here at this church. The truth is, I can’t get you to invite people to church, because you don’t want them to be convicted of their sin. You don’t want them to be convicted of the holiness of God. You don’t want them to see the coming judgment. You don’t want them to know what God says about the killing of unborn children. You don’t want them to know about what God says about fornication and adultery and homosexuality. You don’t want the secrets of their hearts exposed. That’s why you don’t invite people to come with you to church. You don’t want it! Now why don’t you want it? Because everything in your life as a Christian up to this point has conspired to teach you that the very thing that Scripture tells us should happen in a church is precisely what should never happen in a church. You have no faith in the Holy Spirit. None. What you have faith in is my ability to be reasonable, to be somewhat civilized, to wear a tie or blue jeans, to hug people—Stephen’s ability to have a point and to go and get there in a reasonable amount of time, David’s ability to give the whole thing gravitas, the band not making fools of themselves by being out of tune, being tight—in other words, what we have confidence in today is the ability to have newcomers and to feel like it’s a friendly and a warm place, where there is a modicum of true faith, but not a ‘maxicum’. Just enough to make sure that the veneer that’s in place is intact. Honestly, ask yourself, the last time you brought someone to church, was it your goal that they would come under the conviction of the Holy Spirit and that they would be called to account, that the secrets of their heart would be disclosed and that they would fall on their face and worship God. Was that what you wanted to have happen?

“Those very deeds which they refuse to share in the commission of, they often decline to find fault with”

Augustine in The City of God says this:

Although they do not fear them to such an extent as to be drawn to the commission of like iniquities…

He’s talking about Christians living among pagans, and he says, they don’t fear them to such an extent as to be drawn to the commission of like sins,

…nay, not by any threats or violence whatsoever, and yet those very deeds which they refuse to share in the commission of, they often decline to find fault with…

In other words, you’re living among pagans, and you don’t want to be like them and you don’t want to have abortions and you don’t want to commit fornication and you don’t want to give yourself to sodomy. You don’t want to be a proud intellectual, you don’t want to cheat, you don’t want to steal. They refuse to share in the commission of, and yet often decline to find fault with. They don’t rebuke it. They don’t speak about it. They don’t expose it. They won’t join in it, but they keep their mouths shut.

…when possibly they might by finding fault prevent their commission.

In other words, they might be of some good to their friends, to their neighbors, to the pagans they live among if they opened their mouth; but they won’t open their mouth. Why won’t we open mouths?

They abstain from interference because they fear that if it fail to produce good fruit…

They speak up and it fails, the fruit isn’t good, it’s bad, you know—Stephen, dead.

…that if it fails to produce a good effect, their own safety and reputation may be damaged or destroyed. Not because they see that their preservation and good name are needful, that they may be able to influence those who need their instruction…

In other words, it’s not that they want to live to die another day, live to speak another day, live to preach another day because they’re so concerned that their ministry among the pagans will continue—that’s not the reason, he says, “…but rather because they weakly relish,” they love, “the flattery and respect of men.”

And they fear the judgments of the people, and the pain or death of the body.

And then he says this:

That is to say, their non-intervention is the result of selfishness and not of love.

Empty nutshells

That’s me! Is that you? Now listen. Here’s the truth, people. The truth is that we are, all of us, desiring the approval of the world instead of the approval of God. We love the approval of men and not the approval of God. That’s the truth about who we are. And so we don’t love people. One thing you absolutely know is you do not love anybody but yourself. You don’t love God and you don’t love your neighbor. Because if you loved your neighbor you would want your neighbor to come here to come under the conviction of sin and to fall on his face before a holy God, because then he will be a Christian. You don’t love him. You don’t want him to become a Christian, because then there’ll be blood caked on the walls, incommoding the passers-by. Then he’ll ask you to have him home for dinner and want to talk about masturbation, in front of your wife! He’ll have a drug habit, and he’ll be an alkie, and he won’t know how to work, and he might ask the deacons to help him with a car payment—I mean there’s just all kinds of mess, the kind of mess described in Acts, when they began to sell everything and share with each other as they had needs. You see, you don’t love, and contextualization is the way you hide it. You carefully craft your friendships and your classroom talk and your assembly line talk and your union hall talk so that it has a veneer of spirituality and religiosity but just enough to be respectable, and never enough to make the ones that are next to you, your neighbor and your children, fall on their faces before a holy God.

And so that’s why the church is in the condition she’s in today. What condition is she in? Here’s the condition the church is in today. This is titled Empty Nutshells,

God would be loved, and therefore he wants Christians. To love God is to be a Christian. But man’s knavish interest…

In other words, his despicable desire,

…consists in creating millions and millions of Christians, the more the better—all men, if possible. For thus the whole difficulty of being a Christian vanishes. Being a Christian and being a man amounts to the same thing. And we find ourselves where paganism ended. Christendom has mocked God and continues to mock him. Just as if to a man who is a lover of nuts, instead of bringing him one nut with a kernel we were to bring him tons and millions of empty nuts and then make this show of our zeal to comply with his wish.

That’s the condition of the church today. That’s contextualization.

To see Scripture as it really is, to love people the way they really are

What I want to do is I want to encourage you to pray to the Lord, number one, that He will make you able to see Scripture as it really is. You should never read a verse without thinking, “How do I hate this text?” Because it’s God’s Word—see Scripture as it really is, then love people the way they really are. Bore yourself into their psyche and into their body and into their desparate, dark habits, so that you know them inside and out because you love them, you know them. And then, what? Then, what? What then?

Then, contextualize the gospel with the knowledge of Scripture that’s accurate and with the love for the person you’re trying to reach; and if you contextualize at that point, then the person you love will fall on their face before a holy God. And they will be saved. That’s what will happen. There won’t be any show. It’ll just be blood ‘n’ guts. But, “If any man is in Christ, he is a new creation.” Not an evangelical. He’s a new creation. “Old things are passed away; behold,” What? “…all things have become new.” That’s what we want. Let’s pray.

This entry was posted in "tone", ClearNote Fellowship, courage, evangelism, honoring God's Word, love your neighbor, preach the word, stand in the gap, transcripts. Bookmark the permalink.

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