Doing Missions With the Transcendent Word of God

Missionaries are called to share the biblical gospel—not just a culturally sensitive version.

During the sixteenth century, German monk Martin Luther (1483–1546) stood against the authority of the Church of Rome and the pope by elevating the Word of Christ above every other authority.

The Roman Catholic Church viewed itself as deter­minative over the Bible and its message. It was Luther’s redis­covery of the centrality of Christ’s righteousness in the written Word that launched a gospel reformation and revival throughout Europe and essentially threw off the shackles of Rome’s control over the Word of God.

Similarly, the global evangelical church of the twenty-first century has seemingly slipped into a self-made trap of heeding popular social ideas to interpret and apply Scripture relevantly and respectably. As Christians once languished under the theo­logical captivity of popes and councils, so we now also struggle under the pressure of our cultural captivity. We grow weary of aping the latest talking points, attempting to make the gospel fit every cultural nuance, and relinquishing theological priority and prominence to each person’s unique standpoint. These are not merely neutral cultural communication techniques for con­textualizing the gospel. This repackaging of the gospel based on identity, intersectionality, and standpoint is the effect of a brave new religion. It blurs the transcultural distinctiveness of the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

The centrality of a guilt/righteousness para­digm is the standard key to unlocking the gospel for the world’s macro cultural value paradigms of shame/honor, fear/peace, bondage/free­dom, and weakness/strength. Trust alone receives Christ himself and his benefits/blessings secured by his righteousness and atonement. Those gospel benefits/blessings are the true substance of the patterns of God’s image valued in some cultural orientations. The exchanges of Christ’s righteousness and his benefits/blessings for our unrighteous­ness and curse depend on his substitution and imputation.

The biblical gospel neither adapts nor adopts the imperfect meaning of the world’s value systems. Rather, with transcendent truth, the Bible reinterprets and fills up what is biblically defined as honor, peace, freedom, and strength, bringing clarity to them in the light of the lordship of Christ. The transcultural Word of God brings cohesion and meaning to those cultural value systems by showing how the benefits/blessings of Christ’s work depend on the redemptive center of his work: penal substitutionary atonement, the imputation of his righteousness, adoption into his family, reconciliation with God, and union with Him in His death and resurrection.

The curse-tainted image of God in cultural value systems esteems the true, good, and beautiful aspects of honor, peace, freedom, and strength. Learning how cultures interpret reality and prioritize value systems is important for steering people toward the gospel’s solution to the original sin problem. And learning how cultures contextually interpret ideas and value systems is helpful for knowing how to disciple someone to con­form their thinking to the eternal gospel.

To put it another way, because of those aforementioned essential salvation doctrines that have consistently dominated the Spirit’s illumining work throughout church history, sinners who rest in Christ alone can freely enjoy the grace-filled benefits/ blessings of his active and passive obedience. These blessings include the exchange of our shame, fear, bondage, and weakness for his honor, peace, freedom, and strength—the expiation of our shameful, fearmongering, enslaving, and impoverishing guilt for the imputation of Christ’s honorable, peace-giving, liberating, and strengthening righteousness.

The spirit of the age has profoundly permeated our sensibili­ties. It seems narrow-minded and unsophisticated to suggest that the controlling framework of our theology and missiology should be the self-interpreting Word and its historical gospel doctrines. Instead, indicative of secular theology, we readily query the culture’s ecumenical priorities and multi-perspectival value systems to relevantly adapt the gospel. And this tendency is likely no more evident than in contemporary global missions. We desper­ately need a Word-centered, doctrine-driven reformation that shamelessly upholds the ancient gospel for missions. We must recover the ancient gospel. Its transcultural truths will outlast the brave new religion of this brave new world.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on Founders Ministries and is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, E.D. Burns, The Transcultural Gospel: Jesus is Enough for Sinners in Cultures of Shame, Fear, Bondage, and Weakness. Used with permission.

E.D. Burns

E.D. Burns, Ph.D., has been a missionary in the Middle East, East Asia, Alaska, and currently Southeast Asia, where he develops theological resources and trains indigenous pastors and missionaries. From his international location, he also directs the MA in Global Leadership at Western Seminary. He is author of the new book The Missionary-Theologian.