When I was just an undergraduate student studying ancient Greek, my professor explained that he had learned ancient Greek while studying at a university in Germany. Consequently, he often had to translate English sentences into German in his head before translating them successfully into ancient Greek.
This process of “double translation” is very much like what every person attempts when they share the gospel.
While the gospel is timeless and changeless, we each learned the gospel while mired in our own culture, along with the language, symbols, and assumptions that came with it. Personally, my tendency is to combine those cultural assumptions with the gospel as if they are one and the same thing. I create something new, the gospel-as-Ben-knows-it, or what we might call the gospel-plus-Ben.
However, when I share that gospel-plus-Ben, the “plus-Ben” part gets in the way. The person I am speaking to is not, in fact, Ben at all. Even two people sharing the same culture will have different experiences within it. In my own home, I notice that I can speak with different assumptions than my wife or children.
Now you can begin to understand the problem of world missions.
Whether we are taking the gospel across distance to a different culture or across time to a new generation in our own land, we must consider what assumptions we have attached to it in the process.
Every time the gospel is preached, it is preached to a particular group of people living at a particular place at a particular moment in time. Gospel preaching is taking the timeless and universal gospel and translating it into the local world, language, and reasoning of a particular people.
This process is often called “contextualization.”
Just as language has to be translated from one culture to another, the message of the gospel and its meaning must be translated time and again throughout history and across the globe.
Gospel contextualization begins with an appraisal of culture.
As Timothy Keller summarizes, “Every human culture is an extremely complex mixture of brilliant truth, marred half-truths, and overt resistance to the truth.”
This nuanced view of culture is rooted in the teaching of Paul that human culture is both fallen (“a debased mind,” Romans 1:18-32) and indelibly stamped with the moral traces of God’s image (“the work of the law is written on their hearts,” Romans 2:14-16).
Therefore, contextualization is the practice of adapting within Christianity to transform and redeem an existing human culture. Or, as my missions professor, Robin Hadaway, wrote, it is “the correct application of biblical truth using insights from a society’s culture and worldview in order to communicate the unchanging gospel to a constantly changing world.”
Keller further defines sound contextualization as “translating and adapting the communication and ministry of the gospel to a particular culture without compromising the essence and particulars of the gospel itself.”
While this definition is relatively new, Christians have been practicing precisely this sort of contextualization – either intentionally or unintentionally – for two millennia.
The Case for Contextualization
We could begin making our case with Paul’s preaching in the Greek world.
In Acts 17, Paul preaches the gospel in Athens to an audience utterly unaware of the Hebrew Scriptures. Paul, who would prefer to know nothing but “Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:1-2), was faced with a culture that would not even recognize the Hebrew concept of Messiah or Christ.
Paul rose to the occasion. Hadaway observes: “Paul did not appeal to the Athenians through the Old Testament, as he did with the Jews in Pisidian Antioch in Acts 13. Paul omits Jewish history from his presentation because the Council of the Areopagus was composed of Greeks. Here the apostle engages Greek philosophy and mythology, leading them to the cross.”
In Athens, Paul does not even use the word “Christ” to preach the gospel because his audience wouldn’t have understood it anyway. Instead, Paul tells them they would be judged “by a man whom he has appointed,” one raised from the dead (Acts 17:31).
Instead of citing Moses, Paul favorably quotes Greek poets. As James Tino summarizes, “Paul, who [would] ‘become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some’ (1 Cor 9:22), here ‘becomes’ as a Greek philosopher.”
Nor is the Athens sermon unique in this regard. The epistles to the Thessalonians also lack any “thus saith the Lord” style quotations from the Old Testament. Still, the epistles fiercely oppose the pagan worldview, praising the Thessalonian converts for having “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Th 1:9). Paul the Pharisee made himself at home among the giants of Greek philosophy.
In the post-apostolic eras, Christians continued to practice contextualization.
David Bosch claims, “From the very beginning, the missionary message of the Christian church incarnated itself in the life and world of those who had embraced it.” In debates with Jews, such as Dialogue with Trypho or Against the Jews, Christians quoted the Old Testament. However, authors such as Justin Martyr appealed to philosophy among the Greeks and Romans.
Is there any danger in using the culture to reach the culture? Of course.
Keller acknowledges that “many will balk at the idea of supplementing the Bible,” but he comments on Acts 17, “By affirming people’s better impulses, by granting insights where he finds them, by adopting concepts and ways of reasoning that they understood, Paul is not merely seeking to refute them, but also to respect them.”
Paul’s contextualization finds common ground with the Athenians but never compromises the gospel message.
The process was not without challenges, prompting Tertullian to famously state, “What has Jerusalem to do with Athens, the Church with the Academy, the Christian with the heretic?” Today, the critique of contextualization justifiably retains that question.
Keller explains the danger of “not adapting the gospel to a particular culture, but rather surrendering the gospel entirely and morphing Christianity into a different religion by overadapting it to an alien worldview.” The looming fear for any contextualizing strategy remains that Christian conviction will be compromised for the sake of communication.
In the end, however, we will either find new ways to translate and contextualize the gospel to the world as we encounter it, or we will have nothing to say at all.
As D.L. Moody famous quipped, “It is clear you don’t like my way of doing evangelism. You raise some good points. Frankly, I sometimes do not like my way of doing evangelism. But I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it.”
 Timothy Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 109.
 Robin Hadaway, A Survey of World Missions (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2020), 159.
 Keller, Center Church, 89.
 Hadaway, A Survey of World Missions, 167.
 James Tino, “Paul’s Greatest Missionary Sermon: A Lesson in Contextualization from Acts 17,” Lutheran Mission Matters 25, no. 1 (May 2017): 171.
 Timothy Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (Penguin, 2015), 100–107.
 David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 431.
 Keller, Center Church, 92–93.
Dr. Benjamin Williams is the Senior Minister at the Central Church of Christ in Ada, Oklahoma and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his books The Faith of John’s Gospel and Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.
This post was originally published at So We Speak.