This post continues my “digesting” of Keller’s book Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City.
Is the Gospel a simple thing? Yes and no. If by “simple” you mean “understandable,” then the Gospel certainly is simple. It was simple enough for me to understand when I was a preschooler. But there’s another sense in which we can say that the Gospel is not simple. It is complex and multifaceted. You can’t stuff it into a “one-size-fits-all” presentation. Where in Scripture do we find an ultimate paradigm for presenting the Gospel? Matthew, Mark and Luke conceive of salvation in terms of the “kingdom of heaven” or the “kingdom of God.” In contrast, John frames the Gospel in the words “eternal life.” Paul’s precise theological terminology–reconciliation, propitiation, redemption, adoption, etc.–reveals even deeper nuances of the Gospel.
So we see that the Gospel is complex in that the human authors of Scripture present it in different ways. But this does not mean we cannot identify its irreducible components. Indeed, this is what Keller does. He sees that “at the heart of all of the biblical writers’ theology is redemption through substitution.” A systematic theologian sees the Gospel essentially as God, sin, Christ and faith. Someone reading Scripture as grand narrative (the redemptive-historical method) sees the Gospel essentially as a story of God’s restoring fallen humanity to a right relationship with himself. In what sense, then, is the Gospel “complex”? It is complex in that you can’t see the whole thing from only one angle. Or, as Keller puts it, “A person can explain the gospel from beginning to end through any of these themes, but no single theme gives the full picture” (41).
How is the Gospel’s complexity an advantage to us? It is an advantage to us because we are complex creatures. The multi-dimensional quality of the Gospel speaks to the multi-dimensional make-up of human beings. The Gospel meets us on every front of our nature. We are broken in every way. The Gospel restores us in every way. Beyond this, different human cultures (and different people within those cultures) grasp truths in different ways. In the complexity of the Gospel, then, we see God’s grace and wisdom.
Keller argues that the Gospel’s complexity demands Gospel contextualization. There is no stock formula for presenting the Gospel. The bearers of the Gospel have the privilege and responsibility to choose which face of the diamond to display to their hearers. Keller cites Paul’s “contextualization” of the Gospel. To the Greeks, Paul “confronted their culture’s idol of speculation and philosophy with the ‘foolishness’ of the cross” (44). To the Jews, Paul “confronted their culture’s idol of power and accomplishment with the ‘weakness’ of the cross” (44).
Although Keller gives no formal definition of Gospel contextualization at this point in the book, it appears that contextualization is merely the choice each Christian must make about how to present the unchanging truth of the Gospel in a way that most directly speaks to the hearts of the listeners. What are their idols? What is their conception of salvation, and how have they been pursuing it? Contextualization is not tampering with the Gospel. Contextualization is not tickling the ears of the listeners. It is waking them up to the jolting reality that they are in desperate need of what Christ has done. If Keller is right, then we have no choice about whether or not we will contextualize the Gospel. Rather, it is a matter of whether we will do it intentionally. It is a matter of whether we will do it well.