We evangelicals can be myopic in our conception of the gospel. Perhaps we have learned a formula at high school or uni that has once worked like Two ways to live, Alpha, or a tract etc…
But Keller reminds us that while these methods might have merit, we should not cling to them too tightly, because there is no standard way to explain the gospel. In the Synoptics, for example, the writers emphasise the Kingdom, but John emphasises eternal life. In the NT, Christ’s salvific action is described using different phrases where redemption is derived through substitution: Jesus pays the debt of sin, defeats evil powers, bears the curse and wrath of God, secures us salvation by his grace, and is an exemplar (see p. 40).
The gospel is intrinsically tied to the storyline and themes of the Bible. We can read the bible and see the gospel as it sits in systematic theology (sin, forgiveness, covenant etc) or we can read the bible diachronically which draws out the narrative themes (creation and fall, the incarnation etc). The systematic and diachronic approaches compliment each other and help us to understand the gospel from different angles. Keller gives a helpful diagram (p. 41) showing how to think about the gospel using the different narrative threads in the bible.
Here is an example
- At creation made for: God’s kingdom and kingliness
- Sin is/results in: idolatry, causing enslavement
- Israel is: looking for a true judge/king
- Jesus is: the returning true king, who frees us from the world, flesh, Devil
- Restoration: true freedom under the reign of God
A similar logic can be applied to other themes such as:
- Rest and sabbath: how do we enter God’s rest?
- Justice and shalom: how can we restore peace?
- Trinity and community: how can we become part of the community of God?
- Righteousness and nakedness: how can our sins be covered?
- Marriage and faithfulness: how can we find true love and closure?
- Presence and sanctuary: how can we flourish in the presence of God?
- Image and likeness: how can I become truly ‘myself’?
- Idolatry and freedom: what or who do I need to commit my life to in order to find freedom?
- Wisdom and the word: how do I become wise?
With all these examples, Keller demonstrates that the “gospel is not a simple thing.” (p. 44) The Bible is a well of treasure for us to draw our questions, imagery, narrative, and logic. Therefore, because the gospel can be explained in different ways it should be explained in different ways. We should be committed to the art of contextualisation – finding the best cultural inroads so that the gospel can be heard, just like Paul explains that he did to the Greeks, Jews and Pagans (1 Corinthians 1:22-25, Acts 13, 14, 17).
I really good friend of mine and ministry colleague who I respect, recently asked me in a gentle but slightly concerned way, “Do you think the Bible is intrinsically interesting?” The question came out of a conversation where I had been explaining different strategies I was exploring for preaching. I had recently watched a lecture from Ira Glass from This American Life on his method of constructing narrative and I was hoping to apply some of his ideas in my sermon the following Sunday. My friend has heard me ramble on over the years about different ways to be creative in evangelism and preaching and I guess he started wondering if I was trying to overcompensate for a “boring Bible.” My answer to him was that of course I believe the Bible is inherently interesting, but that does not mean that everyone in the congregation listening to the Bible being read, or reading it at home for themselves, will see the interest. If you don’t understand what you are reading or hearing, if it washes over you and becomes babble like slabs of Shakespeare does when you are at the theatre and you can’t keep up, if the long Hebrew names of Kings and places and the dense theology of the Pauline epistles confuse you, then all the beauty and “interestingness” will fly through to the keeper (as we say in Australia). My endless pursuit of different methods of communication, of crazy creative ideas, of video clips, illustrations, songs, newspaper articles and quotes are my attempt at contextualising the gospel.
I think from what Keller is saying, the thing I have to do to become better at contextualisation, is to work more intimately with those big biblical themes. If I start there, really get my head inside what the Bible is saying about idolatry, marriage, kingdom, community or whatever theme I choose, then I think my gospel communication will have effect. This requires some discipline because it’s easy to get distracted finding the right movie clip.
Tip for me: Start in the Bible, look at all the thematic angles and choose one, then move to culture.