Advocates of contextualization often cite the illustration of holding one’s doctrine and theology in a closed hand (symbolizing non-negotiability), and one’s methodology in an open hand (symbolizing fluidity). As an example, one proponent said,

What I am arguing for is a two-handed approach to Christian ministry. In our firmly closed hand we must hold the timeless truths of Christianity, such as the solas of the Reformation. In our graciously open hand we must hold timely ministry methods and styles that adapt as the cultures and subcultures we are ministering to change.

It would be foolish to suggest that every method for our ministry must never change. However, our methodology should not be as unmoored from our theology as the above illustration suggests. Our presentation of the message does indeed matter if it communicates or implies something about the message that is untrue. As Will Metzger says, “Our message will mold our evangelistic methods and regulate our spiritual experience. We must not use an incongruous medium to present the God of Truth.”[1]

The methods commonly prescribed under the rubric of cultural contextualization do imply something untrue about our message. When we believe that we should change our presentation of the message based on the characteristics of our audience, we are demonstrating that we believe something about the message itself—and something about the work of the Triune God in salvation—that is out of accord with biblical principles. To be specific, it betrays a lack of faith in the sufficiency of the gospel alone to save sinners (cf. Rom 1:16–17).

If the gospel message is truly and faithfully proclaimed, we need not be concerned about adapting the packaging in which we present it to our various listeners. That is because the message faithfully proclaimed is sufficient in and of itself to accomplish what God desires. As God says in Isaiah 55:10–11, the word which goes forth from His mouth “will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.” Men and women are born again not through clever gimmickry or cultural savvy, but solely “through the living and enduring word of God” (1 Pet 1:23).

Faith comes not from so-called missional living;
it comes “from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17)

When we think we need to adapt our methods to our audience, we implicitly deny the sufficiency of the gospel to do what God intends it to do. It is as if we believe the Holy Spirit needs our help “getting in the door,” so to speak, and so we have to help the message with our relevant methods.[2] But this is just not the case. The Word of God properly preached is sufficient.

Our methodology must be consistent with the character of the message. Rather than understanding doctrine as being in one closed hand while methodology is in another open hand, the methods are more like an instrument in the hand of doctrine. Our methodology flows directly out of and is intensely shaped by our theology.

And the methodology we have been commissioned with is preaching. Proclaiming. Heralding. Authoritatively declaring the truth. When someone asks, “Yes, but how do we preach the gospel?” they are confusing the issue. Preaching itself is the methodology. It is the “how.” Whenever one seeks to add a medium to a medium, the result is confusion.

In a marvelous chapter on the foolishness of preaching,[3] Duane Litfin examines the relationship between theology and methodology by contrasting the ancient kērux, or herald—that is, what New Testament preachers are called to be—with the orator that Paul labored so diligently to distance himself from (1Cor 1:17–2:5). While the whole chapter is worth your time, here are a few notable quotes:

  • “The herald could not maneuver rhetorically to achieve some particular effect. It was his fate to deliver his message and then watch the chips fall where they may” (119).
  • “Unlike the orator, the herald was not results-driven; he was obedience-driven. He was a man under assignment, methodologically obligated, so to speak, restricted to the task of announcing” (119).
  • “By the standards of the world, the gospel of ‘Christ crucified’ is indeed a supremely foolish message. But it is important to see that this content is not the only thing that lacks standing in the eyes of the world. When an audience wants and expects to hear the persuasive argumentation and formal eloquence of the orator [or, we could say, the cultural relevance of a contextualizer]—in fact, demands them if they are expected to be impressed—the simple heralding of a declarative message will be greeted by derision. Along with the content, this form too will appear paltry and foolish by comparison, so much so that it will insult them. It will offend the worldling’s pride and seem demeaning to him that he should be expected simply to accept the message as announced, on the mere say-so of its source” (125).

Litfin demonstrates that it is the orator who was audience and results-driven, like many of evangelicalism’s consumerist, celebrity pulpits. The herald, on the other hand, was obedience-driven and methodologically obligated by his theology.

In a day where we suppose that we can hold our theology in a closed hand but our methodology in an open hand, Litfin demonstrates that Paul avoided such an understanding lest his congregation’s faith rest on the cleverness, wisdom, and ingenuity of men, rather than the power of God (1 Cor 2:5). By contrast, the apostle Paul’s methodology was clearly and carefully determined by his theology. And so must ours be.

For more on evangelism, see our guide: The Art of Soul Winning


[1] Metzger, Tell the Truth (1984), 36.

[2] For example, consider this assertion from Ed Stetzer: “Many…are convinced that if you just ‘preach the Gospel’ and perhaps ‘love people’ that your church will reach people. They are wrong, and their ideas hurt the mission of the church. Communities across North America are filled with churches led by loving gospel preachers—most of whom, if statistics are true, are not reaching people” (Stetzer, Breaking the Missional Code, 14).

[3] Duane Litfin, “Swallowing Our Pride: An Essay on the Foolishness of Preaching,” in Preach the Word: Essays on Expository Preaching: In Honor of R. Kent. Hughes, eds. Leland Ryken and Todd Wilson (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), 116–26. Other relevant selections from that chapter may be found here.