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March 05, 2008



Matt, Matt, Matt ... I think you understand all too well ... what I don't understand is how so many disciples he has amassed over the years ... well ok, I guess I understand that too ...


I don't even use words when I preach the gospel. And sometimes I don't even go into the same room as other people. I wouldn't want to provide a context for the message I bring. And the elect are elect, none will be lost, so why bother even preaching the gospel anyway.


I liked your post. So that's a pretty good sign that you're in for major trouble.


Hi george:

"I don't even use words when I preach the gospel."

The Bible does not contain images, musical notes or
any other form of communication except words. Since
the Bible is God-breathed, words are the best way
to communicate the gospel.

"And sometimes I don't even go into the same room as other people. I wouldn't want to provide a context for the message I bring."

If you don't provide a context (ie. the biblical context), your "preaching" will be interpreted by the
prior intellectual context of the "hearer". So, in all likelihood, your "hearer" will misinterpret your "preaching".

"And the elect are elect, none will be lost, so why bother even preaching the gospel anyway."

It's commanded.


Mark McAndrew

I love John MacArthur and his ministry has had more than a little effect on my life personally. His study Bible was hands down (not counting my dad) the most important tool in my life for helping me grow the first two years after God regenerated my heart. I have been blessed by hearing a bunch of his sermons and I love his commitment to the Word of God as absolutely supreme and inspired and infallible and breathed out by God. He has spent more than 50 years of his life studying the Bible and I sometimes wonder if he isn't more familiar with the New Testament than most people alive today.

But, from what little I've heard from him on this whole contextualization thing, I do think he's wrong, or at least not Biblically balanced. I think he leans too far against it than he should. I really do believe that without any contextualization less people would be saved than otherwise, because of Paul's words in I Corinthians 9, saying that he becomes all things to all people so that by all means he might Win Some. Implying that the salvation of at least some human beings hangs on contextualization.....which is really just removing as many unnecessary obsticles as you can between a given person and the Gospel.

The only other time I can remember hearing MacArthur about this was at Together for the Gospel in 06. During the panel discussion he was asked if he agreed with Al Mohler's approach to cultural engagement, and basically what he said was that we get enough of the American culture just living here in America, and it's not necessary to read all the best selling books and watch a bunch of TV and go to comedy clubs in order to be relevant to Americans. Then he added that reading the newspaper and Al Mohler's blog will give you plenty of information about the culture without having to go too deep into the more potentially dangerous stuff.

He also mentioned that his commentaries have been well received in other countries where he has been told they are easily understandable even in non-English speaking places. And I remember him saying in response to that that if he preached highly contextualized sermons (talking about pop-culture constantly, and making references to celebrities, etc.) that in 20 years his sermons would lose tremendous value and would become, at least to some degree, unintelligible to people.

But reading the excerpt from above from MacArthur I disagree pretty strongly with it. It even has a little hyper-Calvinistic flavor to the part about the elect, even though I know MacArthur is not a hyper-Calvinist at all.

And I also want to ask this: Is it possible to over-emphasize contextualization or make too big a deal out of it? And isn't it possible to fall into sin on the side of delving too deeply into pop culture?

I remember John Piper, while at Mark Driscoll's conference last week, saying that if he dove as deeply into pop culture as Mark did, that he would just evaporate spiritually, that he would shrivel up and become, in Piper's words, "a very carnal person." That's where I struggle some with this whole issue, I feel like contextualization is essential if we want to be obedient and see as many people genuinely saved as possible, but it is also very easy to immerse yourself too deeply into culture and end up hurting yourself and dishonoring Jesus in the process.


Just thought you should clarify that the section you cited is not actually a transcript of John's message, but paraphrased notes. I think it says that on the sfpulpit website. Anyway, just a small point of clarification.

Rick Frueh

Why does a true Calvinist care about "tare churches"? If they are tares and not elect, let them have some false hope and joy on their way to hell. I will never understand the watchman "mission" when they are Calvinists, is it about:

*** Making sure the tares know they are tares?
*** Keeping the elect saved?
*** Chasing dead goats?
*** Exalting your own perfection?

I know, I know...glorifying God. Only we poor "Arminians" belive that these things can actually alter a sinner's eternity one way or the other. I know, I know...the works of man.

MacArthur states that the early church struck fear in the people so no one would go into a service easily or carelessly. Wow, there's the "goodness of God leads thee to repentance". Fear? Can you imagine a sinner who says "I feel empty and I want to go in there but I'm afraid. Oh well...". Do people feel afraid when they step on the gluttonous "Christian cruises" he leads where people overeat, buy books and cds, and the preachers, their wives, and the singers get to go free while making money at their merchandise tables. The others? Thousand$, baby.

I like some of his ministry, but with the world in the shape it is in and the church in need of revival, they strike the same old Calvinist themes at these conferences. I have a difficult time listening to someone who knows everything and shares it while standing on Gutenburg's shoulders to become a millionaire.

Matt Adair

Rick - You should know better than to poke at people with sticks.

George - Sarcasm apparently gets you nowhere.

iMonk - Sadly, it probably will.

Andrew - I'm pretty sure George would agree with everything you said.

Mark - To answer your questions...yes. Contextualization can be overemphasized and efforts to do so can lead one into sin. But that's different than calling contextualization sinful - or cursed - which apparently is what Dr. MacArthur believes.

Passerby - Done. Thank you.

Rick - Thanks for taking the time to comment. I don't share most of your sentiments.

Philip Walker

Your fourth point is spot on, I think. The gospel isn't so much a message of propositions as a story of a person, and stories can be told to all people in all places at all times: but the differences mean that there will be distinctive re-tellings of the one story.

Which bit of "I have become all things to all men" did we miss?

Catman Dude

I guess a definition of "contextualization" is needed. Does contextualization mean change the non-Gospel aspects to meet the "context" that the Gospel will be presented? Such as change the language, clothing, music, etc. to match that of the audience, place, etc.?

Does it mean to change the Gospel to fit the morals of the people within that context? Such as de-emphasizing the sin of homosexuality (for example) when witnessing to the gay community? Start talking about a "Divine Being" instead of Jesus when witnessing to the New Agers?

Obviously, if your audience speaks Chinese, it is better to speak Chinese yourself. But a lot of what todays' churches are doing...changing themselves in music style, clothing style, building aesthetics, de-emphasizing sin, worship style, all for the sake of contextualizing....

is like the embarrassing attempts by a desparate old man trying to look "cool", trying too hard to be young and hip...embaaaarrrraassssinggg!

Matt Adair

Philip - Thankfully, we don't have to choose between the gospel as proposition and the gospel as narrative. In fact, I think more than a few of our internal debates about the gospel have been caused by taking an 'either-or' rather than a 'both-and' approach.

Catman Dude - That's why I asked the question about shaping the gospel versus changing the gospel. I think they're two different questions and issues that MacArthur seems to want to lump together.

John Fooshee

Wow, you got a lot of posts.

MacArthur is messed up here. No doubt that the gospel is not presented identically in every setting, but rather is contextualized to different audiences. I'm with you on Acts 13 & 17. And also in Acts 16:11-40; the gospel is presented to three different people in three different ways - all in one passage!

Phillip B

I have nothing to add to this discussion. I'm just leaving a comment in hopes that this post will have more comments than last month's post about urinating.

Matt Adair

Phillip - Great...just when I was hoping we could let that one go away quietly...

Philip Walker

That's not exactly what I meant: for sure, you can cash the gospel out in propositional terms if that's what floats your boat, no doubt about it. To take an example, the statement, "Jesus Christ is risen from the dead" is certainly propositional; but that's not what's most important about it.

My point, really, was that MacArthur's approach seems predicated on a view of the gospel which is purely propositional, and the point about propositions is that they transcend culture.


I'll add to that.

Oh, and yes, I was being sarcastic earlier. Any form of mediation is contextualizaton. This "transcendence of the gospel" business doesn't take into account the gospel itself, which not only takes advantage of means, but is dependent upon them. God's work in redemptive history is all about contextualizing himself for a finite world. Maybe if we were all members of the trinity then we could get this "transcendent gospel." But maybe not even then. Obviously I am taking the argument to its extreme end, but I think it makes the point.

But, to take it specifically to what MacArthur was talking about, the reason the gospel presentation had the effect that it did in the early church was exactly because it was contextualized. It came to them in a way they could understand, it came in a way that met them where they were and it challenged them in a way that compelled a response.

It sounds like the context MacArthur functions in might be shrinking and he is demanding that the audience of his contextualized efforts stand firm so he doesn't have to adjust.

David Wayne

Brilliant Matt - great critique!


Tim Keller has done excellent work on the subject of contextualization. His talks can be found on the Covenant Seminary website. They're free!


"The message of Jesus Christ, on the other hand, is transcendent. It goes beyond its immediate culture or sub-culture. It crosses the world, and ignores the nuances of culture. It never descends to clothing or musical style, as if that had anything to do with the message of the Gospel."

Should MacArthur not use this statement as mirror of his own ministry?

What MacArthur seems to think is that everything outside of his culture is contextualization. Does he not see that he has a culture and ministers to that culture ... does he honestly think that wearing a business suit and speaking behind a pulpit is not his contextualization?

I love his strong passion for Scripture but he is losing his voice by only being known for what he is against.


matt---i agree completely---i have a thought/question
the gospel involves a crucifixion---when was the last time anyone in this culture saw an actual crucifixion?
does it not seem logical to explain or in some sense contextualize the cross?

if johnny mac is so opposed to contextualization why did he not insist that his study bible be printed only in the original languages?

okay--that was more than a thought/question


Now I'm just confused.. JM has a nifty sermon builder on his website at:

Stage 1, Step 4: says "Consider the People – Who is my audience?"

The good shepherd not only knows the truth of God's Word, but also the needs of the sheep. Therefore, as he diligently studies, the preacher must prayerfully remember the audience to whom he will be preaching. Sermon construction must not be a merely academic or esoteric exercise. Rather, it consists of exposing people to God's Word. With this in mind, Walter Liefield writes, "It is the personal concern that distinguishes the good pastor from the mere minister." David Larson notes: "The preacher must be concerned to bridge the worlds of the truth of God's Word and the realities of people's lives."

Scott McAndrew

Here is the link to the Keller talks from Covenant Seminary-

Scott McAndrew

Well, that didn't work. Here are two direct links-


"Was Paul's approach the same in Athens (Acts 17) and in Antioch Pisidia (Acts 13)?"

My pastor actually pointed something interesting about acts 17, Paul totally confronted their culture. The Greeks were evolutionists and to say that there is one creator-God was outrageous (pretty much the equivalent of preaching to secular universities with creationism). Not to mention that God became man in the flesh, this was an absurd concept to greeks.

I've listened to MacArthur for a while and have been blessed by him more than just about any other pastor. What he is getting at is not that we need to completely remove all elements of culture from the Gospel presentation, but not to fit the Gospel to worldy culture. He critices elsewhere that pastors endeavour to know every episode of south-park, advertise series of sermons on something overtly sexual, or something else completely worldy

My sermon may not be preached everywhere, but the Gospel can. Regardless of culture everyone knows there is a creator God (Romans 1) and are under his wrath for their sin. There is one man,the son of God Christ Jesus, who is the propitiaion for our sins in whom we are saved by faith alone through grace alone. That doesn't change no matter where you go, and to think that somehow that needs to be made culturally relevant is to misunderstand the universality of sin (all cultures are sinful) and the power of God in salvation. Arminian's and Calvinists believe in Election (though that understanding differs) and because of that we are simply called to preach Christ and Him crucified. It is God, not our ability to relate to a people, that takes away the heart of stone.

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