The Gospel in a Muslim Culture

Contextualization has become a buzzword in Christian mission discussions for some time now.  There are proponents who extol the value of building bridges for people groups unfamiliar with biblical concepts and terminology, and there are others who accuse ‘contextualizers’ of syncretism[1].

Referring to terms like contextualization and syncretism, one author commented,

“As commonly used, [these terms] function on the boundary line between heresy and orthodoxy, with a strong suspicion that syncretists have crossed the line into heresy while contextualists have enabled people to experience new creativity and depth in their faith” (emphasis added).[2]

Many have understood this as a reality and have thus attempted to distinguish where the “boundary line” should be drawn.  Drawing this line has proven a difficult task indeed.

Defining our primary term of interest, one author wrote,

Contextualization is ‘taking the unchanging truth of the gospel and making it understandable in a given context.’”[3]

This essay has adopted this definition for its usefulness and clarity.  If one understands contextualization in these terms, then one can hardly accuse such of syncretism.  After all, making the Gospel understandable is the goal of any person engaged in evangelism.

The muddying of today’s contextualization water seems to have come from a particular interest in applying this principle to Muslim or Islamic people groups.  In such a context, one may rightly understand that the “goal is not to make Scripture as Islamic as possible; rather, it is to communicate the unchanging truth in a particular Islamic context so it makes sense.”[4]  Again, this seems fairly straight forward thinking for the purpose of evangelism.

In addition to the social and religious context that is the makeup of the Islamic or Muslim worldview, one question that arises is the use of non-Christian sacred texts in evangelism.  Miles explains the use of these texts in relationship with the Bible or Scripture in the following terms.

“The search for truth must begin with Scripture, must be submitted to scripture, and must honor the one to whom Scripture points.  Where non-Christian sacred texts corroborate the truth of Scripture they may be used apologetically or evangelistically.”[5]

From this view, any perceived sacred text may be used (to one degree or another) as it aligns with the biblical truth, but only as a secondary and complimentary source at best.  Representing a different view, Dutch says, “The gospel is… initially perceived as harmonious with – and to some extent supported by – Islamic scripture.”[6]  In this view, the Islamic sacred text is in some way ‘harmonious’ with the Gospel itself.

Miles, however, goes on to say, “Any non-biblical sacred text that is quoted should be ‘lifted out of its original setting and clearly reoriented within a new Christocentric setting.’”[7]  Non-biblical texts do not present themselves as “disoriented truths about the Almighty,” but they intentionally claim an entire worldview.  Therefore, contrary to the claims of Dutch, the Gospel may not be perceived as harmonious with the Islamic text; rather, the Gospel would stand in stark contrast to the whole of the Islamic text.

Another concern for those engaging Muslims for the sake of the Gospel is that of cultural and religious identification.  Some Christians have gone as far as calling themselves Muslims in order to gain acceptance by the Muslim community, but Leffel points out,

“identifying one’s self as a Muslim in only the cultural sense or in a radically reinterpreted religious sense is grossly misleading.”

He also reminds us, “Evangelicals have long deplored the semantic mysticism of liberal theologians as they import deceptive meanings to biblical terms that are utterly foreign to their context.”[8]  It does not seem honest or beneficial for Christians to attempt such a covert operation in the name of evangelism.

However, labeling Christians who evangelize Muslims does not seem to be nearly as difficult as categorizing Muslims who have converted to faith in Christ.  Dutch rightly notes,

“We should remember that the term ‘Christian’ does not come as a God-ordained label for followers of Jesus.  The name arose as a local – and probably derisive – name for Jesus disciples in Antioch (Acts 11:26).”[9]

In addition, the term “Christian” has been perceived through faulty lenses in the Muslim culture for a very long time.  It simply does not carry an accurate meaning in the mind of a Muslim.

However, it is not only the label “Christian” that seems to bother some of those attempting to evangelize Muslims.  There is also an allergy for many of the biblical distinctives and an aversion to separating from many or all Islamic religious routines and structures.  Just how much does a Muslim have to look like a Christian in order to be considered a follower of Christ?

In order to measure the progression from the look and feel of Western Christianity to what has been called Muslim-background believers, a spectrum or scale was devised known as the “C-scale.”

The C-scale begins with C1, described as “a church foreign to the community in both culture and language,” and ends with C6, described as “secret believers, may or may not be active members in the religious life of the Muslim community.”[10]

This scale is helpful in organizing the categories of Muslims who have been evangelized based on their various responses to the Gospel.  Of particular interest is the significance of a Muslim’s new identification with Jesus or Isa (the Arabic name for ‘Jesus’), and the significance of his remaining identification with Islam.

In an attempt to extract the C-scale from its primary focus (namely ‘how Muslim can a former-Muslim remain while he professes to have a new identity in Isa or Jesus Christ’), Mark Williams provides a loose analogy in the form of “Christian Music.”  Measuring his selections and placing them along the C-scale, he names hymns as C1 level “Christian Music” and changes only the instrumentality for the C2 category (still singing hymns, but using a wider variety of instruments).

For the C3 level he names “Maranatha Music” (a very eclectic and modern style of music with much less content) and for C4 he lists a wide-ranging musical style that fits under the heading of “Contemporary Christian Music.”  This style is even less substantial in content than the aforementioned hymns.  Lastly, Williams recognizes that the “music [listed under the headings of C5 and C6] might not even be considered Christian by any of the [other] four ‘C’ types;” then he proceeds to list the band “Evanescence” as an analogous the C5 level of “Christian Music” and the singer “Lenny Kravitz” as an example of C6.[11]

Unless one is personally involved with either Lenny Kravitz or any of those associated with the band Evanescence, one cannot know their personal worldview or theological positions, but I think it safe to say that none of the music put out by Evanescence or Lenny Kravitz has any distinctly Christian themes whatever.  In fact, it seems hard to imagine someone referring to either of these as “Christian” music or “Christian” artists with any real sincerity.

If Williams’ analogy is accurate, then there is no reason whatever to consider C5 and C6 as remaining under the umbrella of Christianity at all, and there should be serious reservations about what is included as such under the C4 heading.

Much of the debate over contextualization seems to stem from some disagreement about identity and obstacles that may hinder a person or group from finding their identity in Christ. 

While there is certainly value in removing obstacles, and such a goal is worthy of further conversation, it should not be overlooked or quickly dismissed that the Gospel message itself is an obstacle.  The Apostle Paul says that the Gospel of Christ is “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23).  In other words, it is a barrier to the Jews and foolishness (another kind of obstruction) to everyone else.

While evangelism demands that we present the Gospel in understandable terms, the Gospel itself – when contextually understood – will still remain intolerable to some.

It seems that the chief goal of evangelism should not be to make the Gospel more palatable but to make it understandable

If one understands the Gospel, then he may find it wonderful or offensive, but we may not adjust the call to abandon all else for the sake of Christ simply because it is an offensive call.

 

Reference List

Dutch, Bernard. “Should Muslims Become “Christians”?” International Journal of Frontier Missions 17, no. 1 (Spring 2000).

Heideman, E. S. “Syncretism, Contextualization, Orthodoxy, and Heresy.” Missiology: An International Review Missiology: An International Review 25, no. 1 (1997): 37-49. WorldCat.

Leffel, Jim. “Contextualization: Building Bridges to the Muslim Community.” Xenos Online Journal. Accessed June 20, 2014. http://www.xenos.org/ministries/crossroads/OnlineJournal/issue1/contextu.htm.

Miles, Todd L. A God of Many Understandings? : The Gospel and a Theology of Religions. Nashville, Tenn.: B & H Academic, 2010. WorldCat.

Oksnevad, Roy. “Contextualization in the Islamic Context.” Lausanne World Pulse, April 2007, 16-19.

Williams, M. S. “Revisiting the C1-C6 Spectrum in Muslim Contextualization.” Missiology: An International Review Missiology: An International Review 39, no. 3 (2011): 335-51. Accessed June 20, 2014. WorldCat.

 

 

[1] Syncretism carries the idea of mixing Christianity with non-Christian ideas without regard for the purity of the Christian Faith.

[2] Heideman

[3] Oksnevad

[4] Oksnevad

[5] Miles

[6] Dutch

[7] Miles

[8] Leffel

[9] Dutch

[10] Williams

[11] Williams

The Wonderful Cross

Have you ever stopped to consider the meaning of the words Christians say and sing?

Oh, the Wonderful Cross” is the title and chorus of a popular church song, written by Chris Tomlin in 2001. This modern song is really an updated version of a much older song (1707) by Isaac Watts, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” Both songs highlight a profound Christian paradox. This paradox is, in fact, the essence of the Gospel.

At the cross of Jesus Christ, we see the apex of God’s plan to redeem, to save, to rescue sinful people. Here we encounter the God of righteousness and mercy, justice and grace, holiness and love. While Jesus Christ was a perfectly obedient man, fulfilling every requirement of God’s law, Jesus was counted as sinfully wretched and utterly shameful.

It was my shame and sin which Christ bore on the cross, and this is why I sing.

When I survey the wondrous Cross
On which the Prince of Glory died
My richest gain, I count but loss
And pour contempt on all my pride

But why!? Why would the Prince of Glory put Himself under the wrath of God in my place? Ah, this is the matchless love of God on marvelous display… Not that I am so loveable, but that His love is so profound.

The Bible teaches us that God has loved with an unfathomable love. We read of God’s loving self-disclosure when we come across phrases like, “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses…” (Ephesians 2:4–5). Or consider the amazing love of God here: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

Since God has loved me so, and since He has demonstrated His love in such a meaningful way, I sing again.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were a present far too small.
Love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.

When I survey the wondrous cross, I do indeed marvel. Such a wonderful cross it is, this monument of suffering and glory, of sorrow and love.

May God graciously grant that my soul, my life, and my all would be an acceptable offering of gratitude.

Cursed Jesus

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’” (Galatians 3:13; cf. Deuteronomy 21:23).

The Gospel of Jesus Christ sets Christianity apart from everything else in the world, including all other religious systems. The good news according to Scripture is simultaneously ugly and beautiful, appalling and glorious. This is true on multiple levels, but the paradox is especially vivid at the cross of Christ.

Jesus is the perfect man, He is the obedient servant and the selfless king. There is none like Him. At the cross, however, Jesus becomes the most heinous sinner of all time. He is utterly righteous and morally pure, but something happens that we are not able to see with our eyes.

God the Father took all of the sin, rebellion, malice, hate, enmity, perversion, arrogance, indifference, greed, and lust from all those who would trust/believe in Jesus and put it on the Son. The perfectly pure One – Jesus Christ – was made to be shamefully guilty.

What unthinkable impropriety we see at the cross of Christ!

Ah, but this is the wondrous and mysterious beauty! That pure One was cursed in order that the cursed ones may be pure. The sinner is exceedingly guilty and, therefore, cursed by God. The sinner deserves God’s wrath, and God is perfectly justified in His vengeance. BUT, God redirects His intense fury! Instead of delivering it on the head of the sinner, God counts Christ as exceedingly guilty and, therefore, curses Him in the sinner’s place! Christ, then, received the justified vengeance of God’s wrath, and the trusting sinner is set free.

This exchange, the sinner’s guilt and Christ’s righteousness, is the very heart of the Gospel. This is the reason the Gospel is most precious to some and most ridiculous to others. To those who are being saved by it, it is most assuredly the power and wisdom of God.

Behold the wondrous mystery, and look to Christ – the hideous and glorious Savior!

Do you know the Gospel?

In short, the Gospel is the story of God’s plan to save sinners. Throughout human history, God has been actively involved in revealing Himself as both righteous Judge and gracious Savior. The story of God’s redeeming work may be best understood if we begin with creation and work our way towards Jesus. In fact, it is a good rule of thumb to always be in pursuit of Jesus.

You are a sinner.
God created everything good, but humanity sinned against God. Sin is any doing, saying, or thinking what God forbids or not doing, saying or thinking what God commands. For our sin, we were cursed with death (both physical and spiritual [Gen 3]) and are born with a wicked aversion to God or the things of God (Rom 3:9-18). The curse of God is fixed upon all sinners, and all sinners deserve no less than the full wrath and judgment of God (Eph 2:1-3).
God loves sinners like you.
God, demonstrating His love for His children, sent Jesus Christ to redeem us (Rom 5:8).
Jesus is unique.
Jesus, God the Son, was born, a man, without sin (Jn 1). He lived as a man and did not sin once (1Cor 5:21). He fulfilled and obeyed every law of His Father, God, and then was condemned to die (Matt 5:17).
Jesus took the place of sinners.
In Jesus’ obedience, He laid down His own life as a substitutionary sacrifice for the sins of all those who would believe in Him (Jn 10:17-18). During His suffering for the sin of His sheep, He received the full wrath of God that they deserve (Rom 3:23-26).
Jesus overpowered death, and He is the risen Lord.
Upon His death He was buried in a grave, but shortly after was raised from the dead (Acts 2:22-33). Jesus’ resurrection assures all Christians that God the Father accepted His sacrificial work and that He is the Son of God.
The only right response is trust.
Because Jesus has died for all those who believe, we are grateful for the wonderful and beautiful sacrifice that He has made for us. We may simply call out to Jesus (Rom 10:13) and completely trust Him alone to save us from our sin and the penalty that comes with it (Acts 4:12).
God adopts sinners by His grace.
Because of the redemptive plan of God, the obedient life and death of Christ and the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, all who trust in the promise of God to save them are united forever in the family of God (Eph 2:19-20).
If you have questions about the content and/or application of this post, I’d be glad to hear from you.

Jesus Changes Everything

The Gospel is the story of Jesus.

Jesus is the whole point of the Gospel. Rather than a message of self-help or religious structure, the Gospel is the story of a real historical person. Who He is and what He did (and does) is the essence of the Good News.

This news, however, is not just something we add to the overabundance of news we receive every day. No, this news changes everything… Jesus changes everything.

When we hear about a car accident across town, we are hopeful that there were no serious injuries, but we are not detoured from our daily activities. If someone tells us about a weather front that is causing flooding in another state, we are prayerful that there will be no fatalities, but our plans for dinner go unaltered.

There are a multitude of headlines and news captions vying for our attention every day, but the message about Jesus is different. The message about Jesus is personal and serious. Jesus claims to be our King and our Judge, and this means that we are either in submission to Him or at war with Him. Jesus claims to be the singular remedy for our problem of eternal guilt, and this means either we enjoy His cure for our condemnation or we bear the judgment still.

Growing in Gospel Understanding = Spiritual growth

Christian spiritual growth is experienced as the believer comes to a greater understanding of the Gospel and grows in his/her conviction that the Gospel is actually true. Of course, every Christian believes that the Gospel is true. And yet, there is a progression in every Christian’s practical and active alignment with that belief.

We believe that Jesus is our King, but we still disobey Him in various ways. We believe that His love for us is overwhelming, but we still sometimes imagine that His rules are meant to steal our joy. There are numerous examples, but the point is that each Christian lives with a greater or lesser degree of consistency. We believe the Gospel is true, but we do not yet live exactly according to what we believe. Spiritual growth, then, is our increased understanding of the Gospel and its implications for everything.

Jesus Changes Everything

If Jesus is truly our savior and redeemer, then this changes everything! This changes our heart of opposition to a heart of gratitude. It changes our despair into hope, and our shame into freedom. The Gospel is not just news; it is THE NEWS, the best news, the greatest news, the news that changes everything!

Make no mistake; Jesus changes everything. The Christian life is lived as a daily renewal of perspective, desire, and activity.

Are You in the Dark or the Light?

In the Bible, God often uses themes and imagery to make His teaching clear. Light and darkness are presented to us in the opening pages of Genesis when God tells us that He created light to dispel darkness at His command (Gen. 1:2-3).

This theme is picked up throughout the Bible, and it is especially prominent in the Gospel of John. John’s Gospel presents a world of darkness, inhabited by wicked people who want to remain in the shadows rather than be exposed to the light.

We find this to be true in our own experience, don’t we?

When someone does something they know they should not do, they often try to hide their activity under the cover of darkness. Either literally or figuratively, wicked things are generally done in darkness (in secret).

Additionally, when these secret things are exposed (when the light shines upon them), the nearly universal response is to run away from the light. How many times have we witnessed people lying to cover up their wickedness? Do the lies stop when someone is caught in a lie? No! The lies continue and become increasingly complicated. This common experience is not only found in the activities of others; it is found in our own activities as well.

What we read about in John’s Gospel aligns perfectly with our own experience: wickedness loves darkness and hates light.

The world of darkness and its wicked inhabitants is disheartening, for sure, but there is hope to be found in the light. John’s Gospel also teaches us that God’s light is both exposing and enlightening. God’s light of truth simultaneously condemns wickedness and provides a clear path towards redemption.

The essential message of Christianity is not a message of personal improvement or moralistic ascendency… quite the contrary.

The good news of Christianity is that God has shown love and mercy towards those who are morally filthy and personally blameworthy. However (and here is the rub), the mercy God offers is only available to those who are willing to expose their own wickedness to the light of His judgment.

If you want to keep pretending that you aren’t as bad as you really are, then you may remain in darkness (at least until you stand before God at the final judgment). But, for those who will come into the light, expose themselves of guilty and disgraceful, there is a great hope.

The hope we may have is provided in the reality that Jesus Christ is the substitute for all who trust in Him.

Jesus (fully God and genuinely human) was born without darkness and guilt. He lived a life of perfect obedience to God’s law, exposing Himself as morally and personally pure in the light. However, when Jesus died upon a Roman cross, He was counted as filthy and blameworthy on behalf of all those who would trust Him as their substitute. In this way, God both exposes wicked sinners for who they are and provides hope for their escape from His righteous judgment.

Because the sinless Savior died, my sinful soul is counted free;

for God the just is satisfied to look on Him and pardon me.

Since our first parents disobeyed God, creation (including humanity) has become dark. Truth and righteousness have been dulled and obscured in disobedience (Rom. 1:18), and humanity has happily sided with the darkness (Jn. 3:19). However, God’s light is an overwhelming beam (Jn. 1:4-5), both exposing sin and bringing life to those who humbly receive Him (Jn. 1:12-13; cf. Jn. 3:16-21).

May the light of Christ’s truth shine upon us today.

Who needs the Gospel?

It may shock you to learn just how many people think that they do not need the Gospel. Does everyone really need the Gospel? Do you? Does your family? Your friend? Your neighbor?

The message of the Gospel is often assumed or dismissed in my stomping ground. Therefore, you must allow me to briefly articulate the Gospel before I get to the actual meat of this brief article.

What is the Gospel?

The Gospel is the story of God’s reconciling work on behalf of guilty people. God created all things good and for His glory, but humanity rebelled against God’s good authority. Ever since our first parents disobeyed, all humans find it undesirable to submit to God’s good authority. For this reason, the human experience is marked by bad decisions, hurtful relationships, physical suffering, and ultimately death itself.

However, God did not leave humans to suffer without hope. God promised that someone would bring guilty, disobedient people into a gracious and good relationship with Him. God delivered on that promise in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Jesus of Nazareth, the only man who is also God, lived a perfectly obedient life in order to earn God’s blessings. Even though Jesus is perfectly good, He was counted as utterly guilty and bad when God punished Him for the disobedience of others. Jesus was the substitute for all those who would trust Him for it.

God’s fury against rebellion was poured out on Jesus when He was crucified on a Roman cross in the first century A.D. After Jesus died, He demonstrated His power, His person, and His provision by coming back from the dead. Because Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead, He gives hope to all humans who trust Him to rescue them from God’s wrath. Therefore, God has reconciled guilty people with Himself by delivering justice and offering gracious pardon at the same time.

So, who needs this message?

People who have never heard it need the Gospel. If someone has never heard the message of God’s redeeming love and grace, then they cannot know freedom from the bondage of guilt and shame. While some people might deny that they feel guilty over the bad that they have done, humans generally know that they are flawed. Such imperfections will pull and bite at the conscience of anyone who takes the time to consider them.

People who think the Gospel is irrelevant need the Gospel. There are a number of reasons a person might think the Gospel is irrelevant, but frequently this thought arises from a lack of understanding. If the Gospel truly is the story of how God reconciles guilty people with Himself, then this message is universally relevant. I would argue that there is no message more relevant to every person everywhere.

People who are unimpressed by the Gospel need the Gospel. I often talk with people who are unimpressed by the Gospel. These are normally people who are looking for an immediate remedy for some obstacle of life: financial trouble, parenting confusion, relational strife, health concerns, etc. Someone looking for help dealing with their tyrannical boss may not see any direct connection between their need and the Gospel. However, this betrays a person’s lacking consideration of the Gospel. The greater familiarity one has with the Gospel, and the deeper understanding one has of the implications of this supremely good message, the more he or she will realize that the Gospel impacts everything. The Gospel is incredibly impressive to those who give quality effort to thinking it through.

People who assume they know the Gospel need the Gospel. In the “Bible belt” (that portion of southern America that has as many churches as fueling stations) many people assume they know the Gospel. A large portion of the population recognizes the vocabulary words of the Christian subculture, and they assume that they know the meaning of the words as well. Additionally, these assumptions become increasingly dangerous when they are combined with the belief that general familiarity is tantamount to full inclusion. Those who assume they are Christians because they assume they know the Gospel are in the gravest danger, for they assume far too much.

In case you haven’t noticed the pattern, I believe everyone needs the Gospel. From ignorant pagans to long-time Christians, we all benefit from deepening our understanding of this greatest story ever told. The Gospel of God’s redeeming love is the joy and pleasure of all those who have come to love the God who authored it.