86. Contextualization and the Essence of the Gospel

This article tries to explain why a contextualization of the gospel, such as described in Shaping the Gospel Message so that it Resonates, does not compromise the Bible or the gospel message. It argues that one universal explanation of the cross is insufficient to communicate the gospel message because of the depth of the gospel and the diversity of the nations.


“Don’t talk to him.  He has a demon!”

It was a fairly cool day in the Sindh, Pakistan when I sat down on the cot in the courtyard of Nathaniel’s1 house to chat with him.  I noticed another man in the corner of the courtyard, sitting by himself.  I asked Nathaniel who he was.  “He is my uncle,” he replied.  “But don’t talk to him.  He has a demon.”  I was somewhat taken aback by this and rehearsed in my mind any teaching or training I had received in Canada that would have equipped me to deal with a demon.  I came up with a blank and so took Nathaniel’s advice.


each culture’s reading and experience of the world is vastly different

While living in Pakistan we came to the realization that the stories of Jesus’ authority over demons had a far different impact for Sindhis than the stories had for Canadians.  While Sindhis welcome the possibility of overcoming a very real fear in their lives, Canadians tend to be puzzled about the lack of demons in the world and discuss how “demons” should be understood.  The contexts determine the significance of the story.  Because each culture’s reading and experience of the world is vastly different, people’s responses to the stories are different as well.  Similarly, some expressions of the gospel message that are impacting in Canada do not connect with the Sindhi people.


The Main Question

Some people assume that there is one particular understanding of the significance of the cross that is “real,” all other biblical descriptions or images are considered mere metaphors of that one perspective.  But is this so? Or are all the images equally true and “real” expressions of the atonement?  In particular, is the “penal substitution” description of the meaning of the cross, i.e., that “Jesus satisfies the wrath of God by enduring the punishment we deserved on account of our sins,”2 the essence of the gospel message, or is it one expression out of several, albeit one that helps those understand the gospel who have a particular worldview?


I propose that the “penal substitution” picture is a true and valid explanation of the gospel that, along with other equally valid metaphors, helps us understand and experience the reality of Christ’s work on the cross.  It is a picture that connects well in a culture that values the rule of law and sees justice as a leading principle. However, it is not the only valid image.  Other cultural contexts require different or additional descriptions to appropriately grasp the enormity of the gospel message. Due to the nature of the gospel, multiple images are required to do justice to the universe-altering impact of Jesus’ death and resurrection; and, due to the nature of cultures, multiple images are required to speak to the diversity of worldviews and experiences of reality.


What I am NOT saying

When I speak of an “image” or “picture” of the gospel, I am not suggesting that it is less than, or other than, the gospel. Rather, the use of images and metaphors is a necessary form of communication that allows us to comprehend the gospel by using symbols and concepts familiar to us.  It can be compared to the image of God as “father” in the New Testament.  This description of God used by Jesus is a contextualization of an absolute truth; it is an aspect of God’s character that constitutes reality. Jesus uses a cultural symbol and metaphor (“father”) so that we may grasp the relationship that God desires to have with us. The depth of God’s love for us is revealed through our experiences of familial love in our human contexts.  In the same way, proper contextualization of Christ’s death on the cross draws on appropriate and impacting images from the cultural setting in order to communicate in a way that resonates with that culture.  By “resonates,” I mean that it connects in a meaningful and relevant way so that lives are transformed.


When I suggest that a contextualization of the gospel will use a different metaphor for salvation than “penal substitution,” this should not be construed as a denial of the truth of that description.  A judicial or legal perspective of our standing before God is a biblical picture. Perhaps the clearest imagery used to support this view comes, not from the New Testament, but from the suffering servant in Isaiah 53:

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all (NIV, verses 5,6).

This understanding of the meaning of the cross recognizes that God cannot overlook sin, and the consequence of sin is God’s wrath, i.e., death (Rom 6:23).  Furthermore, it emphasizes substitution, the need for Jesus to die so that we can live.  “Either we die or he dies.”3 “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).


Many Images, One Gospel

These are important truths that cannot be lost, but more than one explanation can accommodate them. Moreover, it is important for the sake of communication of the gospel into other cultural contexts that we do not to elevate one concept, such as “penal substitution,” above the other images of atonement given to us in the Bible in order to communicate these realities.  If we assume that the “penal substitution” scenario, in which we are acquitted of punishment because Jesus pays the price through his death, is the one and only true description of the work of the cross, then all the other images – redemption, ransom, propitiation, sacrifice, forgiveness, deliverance, etc., – become “mere” metaphors pointing to the one penal substitution truth.  In contrast, contextualization assumes that all the biblical descriptions of the death and resurrection of Jesus can be used to bring people to faith in Christ, and their emphasis and expression will depend on the context.


There are a number of reasons why teaching penal substitution as the only true and real understanding of the significance of the cross is problematic:

  • First, it undermines the impact of the other biblical images, which are also true and real descriptions of the cross of Christ, by attempting to make them “fit” into a penal substitution model.
  • Second, when it is considered the only “real” description of the meaning of the cross, people attempt to answer all questions about the atonement according to that one picture. The result is that the logical implication of the metaphor can be pushed too far leading to a perversion of the gospel message.  For example, I have talked to a number of people who have abandoned their faith because this expression was interpreted as “divine child abuse” or a cruel manipulation.
  • Third, it fails to recognize that a worldview grid that emphasizes law and justice makes this particular image resonate in a western culture.  As a result, it is sometimes used as the default explanation within cross-cultural contexts even though other biblical images would have a better impact and communicate a clearer message of the cross.


The Core of the Gospel message

There are aspects of the gospel message that must not be lost, no matter what image is used to communicate the gospel.  The core is that Jesus’ death and resurrection accomplishes our deliverance from sin (1 Cor 15:3,4).  The images used to communicate that reality will depend on the context of the audience and will require the message to be shaped in a way that speaks to them in their cultural forms and language.  The following article will explain why contextualization is inevitable, and provide the beginning of a theology of culture to support the claim that any and all explanations of the cross are culturally shaped.  A future article will provide one particular model of the atonement that facilitates the contextualization of the gospel in other cultures.

Mark spends part of his time assisting churches in developing significant cross-cultural relationships. If you are interested, please contact him via the Contact Me form. If you would like to leave a comment about this article, please use the “comment” link at the bottom of this article.



  • 1 Not his real name.
  • 2 Green, J & Baker, M 2000. Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in the New Testament and Contemporary Contexts. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 13.
  • 3 Morris, L. 1955, 1983. The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 213.
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Author: Mark Naylor DTh (missiology)

I have been with Fellowship International since 1984. Karen and I served in Pakistan for 14 years and returned to Canada in 1999. I have continued to be involved in Bible translation traveling twice a year to Pakistan. My current role with Fellowship International and Northwest Baptist Seminary is as Coordinator of International Leadership Development

6 thoughts on “86. Contextualization and the Essence of the Gospel”

  1. Christ’s substitutionary death (in man’s place) answers the fundamental problem of all time – we cannot do it ourselves. Mankind cannot live up to God’s righteous requirements as described throughout the Old Testament, nor can he pay the penalty for his inability. He requires a Saviour who can do all that “in his stead” and then take one step further and rise again victorious over both sin and death. This is more than imagery and metaphor, more than a picture that “is a true and valid explanation of the gospel”. This is the very heart of the Gospel.

    For the Muslim, this is the precise message that he needs to hear. He has been taught all his life that he must strive to do enough “amal salih” (http://www.iqra.net/Hadith/amal.php) to please Allah and to earn his way into blessedness. The Gospel, in diametric opposition to all that he knows, tells him that “amal salih” is useless (diabolical, actually), its goal, unattainable! But therein lies the Good News – Jesus has already paid the price for man’s sin and by His death and resurrection has made provision whereby man’s (the Muslim included) unrighteousness is exchanged for Christ’s righteousness. (For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV)

    Mark, my friend, I think you are confusing the essence of the Gospel with imagery – a dangerous thing to do. There is no imagery here – the facts are clear: Jesus Christ the Righteous One died in our place so that through faith we could stand before God, justified and at peace with our Creator. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24). “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, …” (1 Peter 3:18).

    Every tribe and tongue and nation needs to know that truth – not presented as pictures or symbols (no matter how culturally nuanced) – but in clear statement of fact.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Loren. It is a helpful response and I can see where I may have miscommunicated. Let me add the following:

    First, I fully affirm and agree with the expression of salvation that you have provided. Jesus is our substitution and he has taken our punishment. Jesus dies so that we do not die. He accomplishes our salvation because we are lost without his work on the cross. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree.” “He became sin for us.” Amen.

    Second, I think our difference may be an epistemological one, rather than theological. That is, when I speak of penal substitution as a metaphor or picture, I am not suggesting that this is not what happened. Rather I am suggesting that we only have one way to express and describe reality, and that is through our cultural forms and concepts. It is not that the reality is something other than penal substitution, but that the reality of the cross can only be accessed through the language and concepts that we use to communicate within our culture. The following article will address this in greater detail.

    Third, I am not suggesting that penal substitution is not a good description, as if there are better descriptions in an absolute sense. Rather, I am suggesting that some images and expressions of the cross communicate the reality of the cross better depending on the cultural context. The more expressions and images that we can use (redemption, deliverance, the blood of Christ, sacrifice, etc.) the more we are able to appreciate the cross.

    Fourth, as I will explain in a follow-up article, I am concerned that an emphasis on Jesus taking our punishment is easily misapplied to become a self-centered concern to be saved from hell and go to heaven. The biblical emphasis is that Jesus saves us from sin. That is, sin is the root cause of our spiritual problem and death is the result. Even though punishment is a critical concern, it is secondary to our problem of sin. An analogy would be the pain caused by cancer. The core concern must be the cancer, not the pain. In the same way the core concern for Jesus was the sin, not the punishment. Because of the sin (primary), he took the punishment (secondary). That was the only way he could remove the sin.

    Fifth, it is very interesting that our experience with Muslims is so different. In the Sindh, due to the influence of Sufism, the primary hope of Sindhi Muslims is not that they will be saved through their good works. Rather their primary hope is the mercy of God. It was this realization that made me change the redemptive analogy I was using. Instead of presenting Jesus as taking our punishment within a court setting due to an accounting of sin, I instead use an incarnational picture of Jesus becoming our substitute by becoming one with us on the cross. He became sin for us. He became separated from God so that we do not need to be. Now that he is alive, all who are “in him” are also alive to God.

    Hope this helps and clarifies any possible misunderstandings.

  3. Thanks for your contribution. There are a number of books that provide very helpful explanations for the penal substitution model. As per the other comments on the article, I would like to clarify that the issue here is not one of having a “problem” with penal substitution, but rather pointing out that other biblical images resonate better with certain worldviews and cultures. The Bible gives several different images and metaphors for the cross that enable us to appreciate and appropriate the reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection. A forensic view of salvation may not be the best introduction to the cross for some people, although a development of an appreciation for what Jesus has done by suffering in our place is one aspect of the multi-faceted biblical explanation of the cross.

  4. Hebrews 2:14-15 presents a view of the atonement that, if it were the only one we had, would have us seeing Christ’s death as a battle and victory over Satan, resulting in the freeing of Satan’s slaves – Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (similarly Colossians 2:13b-15).

    This description is very effective for fear-based cultures (e.g animists). Is it contradictory to penal substitution? No. The way in which Jesus conquered the power of Satan was to remove the judgment that kept us from God and held us in Satan’s power. He did that through penal substitution.

    Mark is right in arguing that there is more than one explanation or facet to the atonement. All are accurate, and together they form a full theology of the atonement. Penal substitution is not a full theology of the atonement, but part of that theology. Do we stress it because our culture tells us that sin and guilt is a bigger issue than alienation and fear? Both (and other factors) constitute our whole problem. How we present that whole problem (or what part we stress) could well depend on our cultural perceptions. I look forward to Mark’s next post.

  5. Wow. Thanks Bill. You not only understood the article but you anticipated where I was heading! Because I developed a new set of cultural “lenses” while in Pakistan, I came to realize that the aspects of the atonement on which we focus do stem from our cultural orientation. Theology is a human endeavor that explores the ways that God’s revelation (both the Bible and the living Word) intersects with our context. This can be both positive, by allowing for resonance and relevance to our lives, and negative, by causing us to remain unaware of or downplay the way God’s revelation of himself is expressed within different contexts. The beauty of the myriad of metaphors for the cross in the Bible is that each one adds a new dimension and depth to our appreciation of Jesus’ sacrifice.

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