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The Gospel in Our Pagan World
By Carmen C. DiCello
Some Suggestions for the Effective Communication of the Message of Salvation:
"We do not need to make the Gospel attractive by dressing it up in modern clothes. The Gospel already is attractive. It is up to us to bring out this attraction as clearly as possible, grounded in the situation of the people we talk to" (Alister McGrath).
"It is the task of theology...to discover what God has said in and through Scripture and to clothe that in a conceptuality which is native to our own age" (David Wells).
"There is non-negotiable, Biblical, intellectual content to be proclaimed. By all means insist that this content be heralded with conviction; by all means seek the unction of the Spirit; by all means try to think through how to cast this content in ways that engage the modern secularist" (D.A. Carson).
"Our business is to present the Christian faith clothed in modern terms, not to propagate modern thought clothed in Christian terms.... Confusion here is fatal" (J.I. Packer).
The more one observes the trends and belief-systems of this world, the more obvious it becomes that we are an essentially pagan society. Not so many years ago it was common for people to have some measure of religious background and Biblical literacy. Thus, a degree of mutual understanding could be assumed to exist in discussions between the Christian and the person of the world.
Today the situation has shifted dramatically. Religious training and Biblical language have all but vanished from the minds of our generation. Humanistic philosophies and anti-supernatural presuppositions dominate in most segments of our population.
The Church has a task, therefore, in disseminating the Gospel to a people who have little or no Christian perspective, men and women who are by-and-large ignorant of Biblical terminology and teaching. We have not, in the main, faced up to this task. Indeed, most of professing Christendom appears ignorant of the Church's responsibility to communicate the Good-News in a manner coherent to modern ears.
Furthermore, many believers (including Pastors!) are themselves guilty of gross ignorance when it comes to understanding the evangelistic message. The Christian community has a great challenge before it. We, like all prior generations, must communicate the Bible's unchanging message to an ever-changing world.
Evangelistic Failures & Oversights
One of the great purposes of the Church is to communicate the message of Jesus Christ to a lost and condemned world. While Christians have an array of responsibilities to one another, they must also heed the command of Jesus to proclaim His words to those outside of the believing community (e.g., John 17:18-21).
Unfortunately, errors abound when it comes to communicating the Gospel. Some lack a solid grasp of its content, while others are not cognizant of the need to make the message plain and easy to understand.
In response to our evangelistic needs, many within the Church have proposed simple little formulas which, we are told, equip us for the task of evangelism. From "the four spiritual laws" and "the sinner's prayer" to "the Romans road," a number of witnessing tools have been suggested. While some of these may aid the Christian in presenting the plan of salvation in a rather organized form, none of them fully captures the essence of what the Bible terms the Good-News.
From the human perspective, there are at least two components of sound evangelism. First, we have to understand the message we proclaim. Second, we must seek better ways of communicating it to our particular audiences.
Knowing The Gospel
Many assemblies in our day function in a way far removed from the New Testament model. The Church has often become pragmatic in outlook, and has thrived primarily on solving the ills of society. Programs and issues are given such precedence that one wonders what separates Christ's Church from any merely secular social agency.
While contemporary issues have their place, the call of Christ goes beyond the external needs of society. The Christian Gospel is a message which reaches to the very inner being of people. The New Testament Church is one in which the people of God are morally, mentally and spiritually edified by means of the Word of God. So far as evangelism is concerned, local churches are called upon to preach and teach the Scriptures so that God's people are adequately prepared to share Jesus Christ with those on the outside.
There is another side to this story as well. Members of local congregations must be good listeners, that is, both hearers and doers of the Word (James 1:21-25). In other words, both Pastor and congregation play a role in laying the foundation for a program of sound evangelism. The point here is that the Gospel messenger must strive to assimilate the truth of God, and so apprehend its meaning and implications.
It is not enough to memorize a few verses (though it is certainly very helpful) or to have a shallow understanding of the Bible. We must endeavor to obtain a more complete perception of what the Scriptures teach concerning God, man, sin and salvation. Jesus said that "knowing the truth" would set us free. It follows that our knowledge of the Gospel can be a means to setting others free as well.
Furthermore, we must truly understand the meaning of the words we use/ speak if we hope to utilize this information in a manner helpful to unbelievers. While we "package" our message in words and phrases that are (hopefully) Biblically derived, the non-Christian seldom accepts our Gospel formulations (if they ever do) without some measure of skepticism and inquiry.
Therefore, it is imperative that we acquire a level of literacy that equips us to effectively answer questions and objections. To that end we have inherited a wealth of Biblical and theological terms/ constructs. These can provide a grid for understanding the theology which undergirds the Gospel message.
Oh, how important it is to grasp the truth in such a way that we do more than merely parrot old phrases. Instead, we must become (increasingly) well-rounded in our knowledge of the "whole counsel of God." We ought to be able not only to speak of faith, but explain it accurately. Knowing the Gospel is fundamental because it lays the groundwork for our next point. We must be able to explain it to others.
Communicating The Gospel
We say we understand the Gospel, and that we've embraced it; but do we truly communicate it? One reason why it is so important to know the truths of Scripture is so that we might be able to more fully explain them to those who lack such knowledge. The day is gone (as we've said) when we can expect the person of the world to grasp the Biblical terminology we use.
Therefore, it is essential that we not only confront people with expressions like "salvation," "redemption," "propitiation," and "faith," but that we define what these terms mean. For instance, let's take the word "salvation." The Christian community is known for its use of the term, but few bother to ponder its wide range of meaning (i.e. semantic range). The world often has to ask: "Saved from what?"and it is a reasonable question!
We must be able to describe mankind's condition before God, and the reality of God's just anger toward those who have broken His law. We need to explain man's natural bondage to his own twisted desires, as well as his enslavement to supernatural/ demonic forces. And, of course, Jesus Christ Himself must always be the key feature of our evangelistic efforts. In this context (i.e., where God's demands and mankind's predicament are understood), it is easier to make sense of terms such as "saved."
To answer the question, "Saved from what?" we can say that salvation is from the penalty we have incurred, the habits we have practiced, and the supernatural enemy whom we face. Though much more might be added, our basic point is very simple: It is imperative that we go beyond the mere use of (what are to us) popular terms, and actually communicate their significance.
It is important also to diligently work at finding what we might call evangelistic synonyms. What I mean is this: Language changes with time. The words we use have real meaning, but that meaning tends to shift over the years. This is one reason why new Bible translations are needed from time to time. Among the translators greatest tasks is that of conveying the original message (from the Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek Mss.) to a contemporary audience. In like manner, it is important that we look for terms that most accurately convey the meaning of the message we desire to share.
While we in no way desire to eliminate such terms as "faith" and "believe" from our vocabulary, it might be helpful to not only explain them, but to make use of language which carries the same meaning. Thus, we might speak of "trusting" in Jesus Christ or "relying" upon His atoning work. The thoughtful use of accurate terminology helps keep our Gospel presentation fresh without compromising the content of the message.
The declaration of the Gospel message is almost a paradoxical endeavor. In one sense, it is quite easy and simple. We must tell a lost world that they need to turn from their ways to Jesus Christ. In another sense, however, communicating this message is no easy matter. Besides the persecution and ridicule that believers often encounter, there is the reality that the world in which we live is changing. As followers of Jesus Christ we must come to grips with these changes, while looking for legitimate ways of dealing with them.
Our commitment is to the Christian Gospel, as well as to clearly and helpfully communicating that Gospel within the parameters of this modern, pagan society. If we fail to progress in the knowledge of the truth, our witness will become stagnant. If we ignore the trends and tendencies of our modern world, our words will remain unintelligible. The task before us is quite challenging. Divine guidance and heavenly wisdom are desperately needed for such a work. Andfrom the human perspectiveour determined and thoughtful efforts are essential as well.
In order to be effective witnesses for Christ we must understand both the Gospel we claim to believe and the culture in which we seek to communicate it. Since this is so, Christian evangelists can never remain satisfied with the status quo. Our knowledge must be ever sharpened, and our presentation of the truth always in step with cultural trends. In view of these facts, the following exercises are intended to stimulate the thoughts of those whose desire it is to be both Biblical and contemporary.
1. Define salvation-related terms such as redemption, reconciliation, and propitiation. Make use of any theological resources that might aid this process.
2. What does Paul mean when he makes use of the phrase "in Him?" How would you explain this to a person unfamiliar with the Bible's story line?
3. Define salvation. What relevance does it have for people in the modern world? People whom you know personally?
4. Give a one minute synopsis of what salvation entails.
5. Look for alternative/ synonymous ways of stating traditional terms (e.g., trusting in place of believing).
6. Consider some of the objections to Christianity which you have encountered over the years. Try to formulate simple and Bible-based responses which stimulate the entire inner selves of your potential hearers: their intellects, emotions, and wills.
7. Write out a 1-3 page summary of the Christian Gospel without making use of Christian lingo such as faith, saved, etc.
This is merely a sampling of some of the basic exercises which can be utilized to help foster successful evangelism. While times are always changing, Biblical principles remain constant. Therefore, we must remain diligent in our efforts to comprehend the Scriptures, and to communicate their saving truths to the people of this generation.
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The above article was posted on this Web site March 15, 1999.
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