Rev. VanOverloop is pastor of Georgetown Protestant Reformed Church in Bauer, Michigan.
The last command of the ascending Christ to His church was that it “go into all the world” and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15).
Local congregations and denominations must, to the best of their ability, take the glorious gospel of grace everywhere, to every nation and people. God has elected His people out of every nation, tribe, and tongue to manifest the diversity and extent of His grace. This universality and diversity of the church serve as the occasion for those already saved to take the “good news” to as many as they can, even into different counties with their different cultures.
The gospel crosses cultures. It is greater than any one nation and culture. It may not be limited to any one race of people. It cannot be restricted.
During the whole of the old dispensation the good news of salvation in the Messiah was brought, with rare exceptions, only to the descendants of Abraham. The message of salvation was almost exclusively given to Israelites. The result was that this salvation and its message became an essential part of the life and daily practice of that particular nation and people. The few individuals, from outside of the physical seed of Abraham who were saved were obvious exceptions to the rule; and then (except for the Ninevites) they were saved in the way of being brought into and becoming a part of Israel. The corporate organism of those whom God saved was identified with the nation of Israel. The church and the nation of Israel were seen to be one and the same.
The new dispensation introduces the truth that God saves people “out of every nation.” Jews and Gentiles are made to be one in Christ. Instead of being “without Christ, aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world,” non-Jews who believe are “now in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2). The middle wall of partition between the two is broken down. Circumcision and uncircumcision do not amount to anything in themselves.
The crossing of cultures with the gospel began in earnest, after the Spirit of the ascended Christ was poured out on Pentecost. The Spirit was given to believers from many different nations, and the good news about the coming of the Christ was proclaimed in many different languages.
The task of taking the preaching from one culture into another is no easy task. It was extremely difficult immediately after the Spirit was poured out upon people from every nation. And it is very difficult today.
The apostle Paul was very conscious of what happens when the gospel crosses from one culture into another. So distinct was the presentation of the gospel to the uncircumcised from its presentation to the circumcised that the inspired apostle speaks of two gospels: “the gospel of the uncircumcision” and “the gospel of the circumcision” (Gal. 2:7). The apostle was inspired to use similar language when he wrote to the Corinthians for the first time, and said that to the Jews he came “as under the law,” and to the Gentiles he came “as without law” (I Cor. 9:20, 21). This strong language does not imply and may not be made to imply that the gospel was or is to be changed in any sense. But this language is used to make clear that the manner in which the gospel is to be brought is going to be different. Paul is inspired to use this language to show that the same gospel is to be presented differently, depending upon the audience to whom the gospel is being preached.
In the epistle to the Galatians we are taught that the gospel had to be presented differently to those who had no knowledge of and background in the Old Testament Scriptures, in contrast to those who do have that knowledge and background. The one and same gospel had to be preached differently. It is the same gospel, but its presentation is so distinct that it is called “the gospel of the uncircumcision” in contrast to “the gospel of the circumcision.”
These different presentations of the same gospel brought criticism upon Paul. Some charged him with preaching a false gospel. In the first two chapters of his letter to the Galatians he defends himself and the gospel he had been preaching among the Gentiles, which included the Galatian churches. Paul labors to show that what he preached among them was not of or from man, but was of and from God (Galatians 1:11, 12). To substantiate this claim, Paul describes his conversion (Galatians 1:13-16) and his early ministry (Galatians 1:16-24). Then he speaks of the conclusion of the leaders. of the Christians at the “Jerusalem Council” (Galatians 2:1-10), namely, that God had committed to him and Barnabas the responsibility of preaching the good news of Jesus Christ to the heathen, even as He had committed to Peter, James, and John the responsibility of preaching the good news of Jesus Christ to the Jews. His unique ministry to the heathen was acknowledged and accepted by the church. Finally, Paul is inspired to describe a time when he was forced to confront Peter when Peter foolishly and sinfully conducted himself as if one had to become a Jew to be truly saved in Jesus Christ. The apostle goes to such length in his inspired epistle to the Galatians in order to show that while the gospel is the same, the manner of its presentation is to be distinct, and this distinction is not to, be judged as compromising the gospel.
The Holy Spirit saw fit to include in the book of Acts the record of some of the sermons preached by the apostles. These sermons are examples of the presentation of the gospel and its demands upon those who hear it. In Acts 13 we find a sermon Paul preached to an audience in the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia (Acts 13:16-41). The hearers in that synagogue that Sabbath day were Jews (“men of Israel”—verse 16; “children of the stock of Abraham”—v. 27) and Gentiles who had been proselytized into the Jewish nation (“ye that fear God”—vv. 16, 27). Paul’s presentation of the gospel to this audience was based on the Old Testament Scriptures and on God’s relationship to Israel and His promise to David. There is obviously no need for this audience to have an explanation of who David, Moses, and John the Baptist are. No explanation is needed when quotes are made from Psalm 2, Psalm 16, and Isaiah 55.
In Acts 17 the Holy Spirit records another sermon. This sermon, preached by the same apostle who preached in Antioch’s synagogue, is a sample of the kind of sermon which was preached to the heathen. There the apostle Paul is presenting the gospel to philosophers of the Epicureans and of the Stoics, to the men of Athens. In this sermon the apostle does not quote from the Old Testament, nor does he refer to figures of the Old Testament, but he begins by declaring God to be Creator and Sustainer of the universe. This sermon of the apostle is not to be judged a poorer sermon than the one preached to the Jews in the synagogue in Antioch. It is rather to be seen as evidence that the one and same gospel is to be proclaimed in different manners, depending on the audience. The sermon is of the same quality as that preached in the synagogue in Antioch. The difference is not in the gospel presented, but in the manner of its presentation to different cultures. Whether to the Jews and proselytes of Antioch, or to the Gentiles on Mars’ Hill, Paul condemned sin and demanded repentance and belief in Jesus Christ.
Further biblical evidence of the necessity of distinct presentations of the gospel, dependent on the culture of the audience, is found in I Corinthians 9:19-22. Paul declares himself to be first and foremost a servant of Jesus Christ. This servitude compelled him to preach (I Cor. 9:16). But Paul is also a servant of the audiences to which he preached (“I made myself servant unto all”—v. 19). Because the minister is a servant to God, he must make himself a servant to others. He serves his Master by serving his Master’s people. Like the Master, missionaries and pastors are called, not to be served, but to serve those to whom they preach. It is this servitude to the audience which demands a presentation of the gospel which they can most easily understand.
Paul describes his servitude to those to whom he preached as being “made all things to all men” (v. 22); “To the Jews” Paul conducted himself “as a Jew,” that is, “as under the law” (v. 20). The Jews to whom Paul brought the gospel believed themselves to be bound to the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament. They were still observing the temple service, the sacrifices and feasts, circumcision, and the distinction between clean and unclean food. Paul knew that in Christ he was free from having to observe the ceremonial laws. But for the sake of the gospel which he brought to the Jews, Paul lived under, that is, in observance of those laws. This does not mean that Paul compromised biblical principles by taking up Jewish ritual and practice. But it does mean that, when among Jews, Paul observed Jewish custom concerning things indifferent. Paul did not consider it a sin to observe a ceremonial law, if this observance was not done as a means to acquire salvation and righteousness. He preached Christ from the Old Testament Scripture, but concerning food and drink he lived as a Jew. Though he was free to eat whatever food he wanted, he abstained from that which had been forbidden by ceremonial law, so as not to give offense. In order not to offend the Jews to whom he came with the gospel, Paul had Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:3). For the same reason Paul took upon himself an old dispensational vow (Acts 21:23ff.). But Paul refused to have Titus circumcised when those who demanded Titus’ circumcision said it was necessary for salvation (Gal. 2:1-3): Paul’s observance of the ceremonial laws did not compromise the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ alone, but it was an accommodation in order to win the Jews and to avoid being a stumbling block to them.
On the other hand, to the Gentiles Paul came “as without law” (v. 21). In Christ, Paul and we are made free from needing obedience to the law to be saved. But salvation in Christ enabled Paul and enables us to keep the law by loving God and our neighbor. So when Paul was among the Gentiles, then he preached Christ and demanded repentance and obedience, but he refused to live and act as a Jew. Paul also refused to demand that the heathen conform, to Jewish traditions and practices. As much as possible Paul lived as the people with whom he labored.
The purpose for the distinctive presentations of the one gospel, according to the inspired apostle, is “that I might gain the more” (v. 19), or “that I might by all means save some” (v. 22). This does not mean that Paul saw himself as the one who was gaining or saving people. Rather, Paul was conscious that God is pleased to use earthly means to perform His miracles of saving and strengthening His people. God can use anything He wants or nothing at all, for nothing is impossible with Him. But He is pleased to use means, and the Scriptures show us that the means He normally uses for bringing the gospel is the preaching by ministers and missionaries. God’s sovereign use of the preaching of ministers and missionaries does not relieve them of their responsibility to present the gospel in the preaching in the best possible way and to the best of their ability. In fact, from a certain perspective, God’s use of these men increases their responsibility to do the best they possibly can do. Paul was fully aware of this responsibility. He knew that those who preach the gospel can offend unnecessarily by their conduct. It is a terrible sin to cause offense by conduct. Those who preach the gospel have the God-given responsibility to conduct themselves with “meekness and fear” (I Pet. 3:15) and to see that their “speech be alway with grace, seasoned with salt” (Col. 4:6). They are to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (Matt. 10:16). Paul used this approach because he desired, the salvation of those to whom God sent him to preach.
Paul adapted himself, in his presentation of the gospel, to the weak. His purpose was to bring them to Christ. Paul did not adapt himself to the stubborn, because his purpose was not to further man’s own interests. But in as far as he is able before God, Paul sought to live among the people to whom he preached the gospel, in such a way that he would not by his personal conduct unnecessarily offend the hearers.
Taking the gospel across cultures requires wisdom, much wisdom, but it must be done. We must learn from the experiences of the early New Testament church, for they are recorded as an example for us.
It is the intent of the four men responsible for this rubric during this volume-year to deal with the subject of cross-cultural missions biblically and practically. What is involved in bringing the glorious gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ to Singapore or Ghana or Jamaica? It is our prayer that these articles will make it easier for all to understand the issues and difficulties of taking the gospel to other lands. We covet your prayers, your interest, and your questions and responses.