Contextualizing the Gospel in an Egalitarian World


Recently at lunch, a friend and I were discussing how to best proclaim the Christian message of the gospel among America’s diverse sub-cultures and generational divides. (Sometimes I wonder if we’re all beating questions of contextualization and relevance to death. But the rate of technological change and the ever-shrinking globe must mean they will continue to become more pertinent.)


I referred in our conversation to a distinction Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll makes in his book Confessions of a Reformission Rev. between a gospel of forgiveness, a gospel of fulfillment, and a gospel of freedom. Traditional churches preach a gospel of forgiveness. Contemporary churches preach a gospel of fulfillment. And emerging churches preach a gospel of freedom, Driscoll says.

“According to the gospel of forgiveness,” he writes, “we have sinned against God and are under his wrath until we ask for his forgiveness and live changed lives of repentance.” Driscoll personally affirms these truths, but he worries that these days it “seems judgmental, mean-spirited, naïve, and narrow-minded” to an ever-growing number of people.

The gospel of fulfillment comes under more direct attack: “The therapeutic gospel is a false gospel and an enemy of mission for many reasons”—reasons you can read about in his book if you want.

The gospel of freedom begins with the observation that we were made to live in community with God and each other, but sin has wreaked havoc in all creation. “And though we are self-destructive,” Driscoll writes, “God in his loving-kindness has chosen to save us from ourselves.” What then did Jesus do to accomplish our salvation? “Our God, Jesus, came to live without sin as our example, die for our sin as a substitute, and rise from death as our Lord who liberates us from Satan, sin, and death.”

In sum, “the gospel of freedom says that only through Jesus can we be brought back into friendship with God and with each other, because he takes away the sin that separates us.”[1]

So preach forgiveness, you’ll get blank stares. Preach freedom, and you’ll watch the eyes open.

Driscoll is not the only one to speak this way. New York City pastor Tim Keller says something similar in his much noted article, “Post-Everythings”:

Traditional gospel presentations assume that the people want to be ‘good.’ But our kids’ generation wants to be ‘free.’ Luther said, ‘Look, you want to be free? Good. It’s good to be free. But you’re not. You are living for something and, whatever that something is, it enslaves you.’ If a person lives for reputation, then he is a slave to what people think. If a person lives for achievement, then he will be a workaholic. As did Luther, we should tell such people, ‘You want to be free? Fine. But you’re not going to be free unless Jesus is your salvation.’[2]

Sitting at lunch, my friend asked me whether I thought this was a right kind of contextualization. Should we preach a “gospel of freedom”?


I answered by saying that if I put a sociologist’s hat on, I can sympathize with these authors. Think about it. What Driscoll calls the gospel of forgiveness—sinners asking for forgiveness from a wrathful God—depends on a hierarchical formulation of the biblical evidence. It depends on a strong conception of hierarchy between man and God. It also depends, in light of Christ’s work of propitiation, on a very strong notion of functional hierarchy (not ontological or moral) between the Son and the Father.

If Driscoll is tracing the gospel of forgiveness back to the traditional churches that led the way fifty years ago, it seems worth observing that the average citizen fifty years ago generally conceived of his (or her!) life within the framework of the hierarchies he (or she!) occupied, at least more so than the average person does today. Students more quickly obeyed their teachers in the classroom. Wives more quickly deferred to their husbands in the home. And minorities resigned themselves to the back of the bus.

Many hierarchies were unjust, and much authority was abused. Yet just or unjust, the average person would have more immediately grasped, I should think, what it meant to transgress the will of someone over you, thereby drawing the authority’s condemnation, even if that was only a ruler slap to the knuckles for blowing spit wads in arithmetic class.

For a non-Christian, a gospel of forgiveness may have been considered foolish for many other reasons, but a near inability to think in terms of authority and hierarchy was less likely to be one of those reasons. People expected authority to be exercised over them, and they perceived this state of affairs as somewhat normal.

Less so today. Beginning in the sixties, the very ideas of hierarchy and authority have been burned to the ground and stomped on (for which we can be deeply thankful on topics like race relations; perhaps less thankful for topics like behavior in the classroom.) In their place, the ideas of entitlement, autonomy, and self-creation have blossomed. Surely these latter ideals have defined America from the beginning, but I don’t think I’m forging into new territory by suggesting that they have recently taken hold in our consciences with a blinding vigor. A ruler slap to the knuckles today will land you with a lawsuit.

So approach the average Boomer or Gen X-er and tell them about the “debt” they “owe” to the “Lord” God for which they must be “forgiven,” and the circuitry of their brains—hardwired to entitlement and autonomy by an entertainment-driven, instant-credit, politically correct culture—cannot process the data. It sounds naïve at best, judgmental at worst. Just like Driscoll said.

The struggles of daily living send the average person today in search of good news somewhere, no less than his counterpart fifty years ago. But can we say that more of today’s struggles occur internally to the individual? Is that not a reasonable assumption to make, if we also assume along with the Bellahs, Lasches, and Putnams that society has become more atomistic? So we struggle with the angst of self-creation (tattoos anyone?), the structure-less-ness and direction-less-ness of radical autonomy (e.g. prolonged adolescence, high divorce rates), and the worldview ambiguity of many clashing perspectives (e.g. globalization, historical revisionism, etc.). Less is our battle with “the man.” More is our battle with listlessness, a sense of meaninglessness, shallow relationships, insatiable appetites, and, the worst enemy of all, addiction. At least this is the level at which we consciously experience the battle—a.k.a. “existential angst” or “felt needs.”

How should we then respond?

Some say we need a gospel of purpose. Driscoll and Keller say we need a gospel of freedom. The gospel of freedom requires little to no hierarchy in its expression. In one sense, it’s the explosion of hierarchy. Yes, God is God and we are not, but the emphasis has moved and away from the above/below strata of propitiation to the side-by-side reconciliation of estranged relationships and broken community.

So—I said to my friend at lunch—I’m sympathetic with their analysis when I’m wearing my sociologist’s hat. But to understand what’s going on here, we need to push a little further.


It would be easy to respond to all sociologically-driven thinking with the clichéd “Hey, the church must aim at real needs, not felt needs.”

Yet Scripture gives us a variety of metaphors for explaining what Christ’s atoning work accomplished: propitiation, justification, reconciliation, redemption, freedom, adoption, conquest, and so forth. Moreover, it’s commonly pointed out that each one of these metaphors or family of metaphors carries with it a host of associations. Justification resounds of the law court. Redemption takes us to the marketplace. Reconciliation the family. And so on.

Not only that, when we add the array of emotionally resonant images from the vast tracts of Old Testament and Gospel narrative—”I brought you out of Egypt”; “You have played the whore with many lovers”; “my compassion grows warms and tender”; “Lord, I want to see!”; “The kingdom of heaven is like . . .”—we find ourselves with an embarrassment of riches for explaining the good news of what God has accomplished in our salvation.

Presumably, God has blessed us with a wealth of biblical images for what his Son did in accomplishing our salvation, both so that we might praise him for the multi-splendored nature of his work, but also so that we might recognize the gospel’s relevance in and through the many dimensions of our daily lives. All these metaphors and images and their diverse associations point to, I believe, an aspect of subjectivity in the communicating and the comprehending of the gospel message. In other words, real needs can sometimes be deciphered through felt needs.

A pastor-friend recently told me about an impromptu evangelistic sermon he gave in Brazil to a group of artists that had descended from Brazilian slaves, and who were now rumored to suffer from demon possession. So he preached the gospel in the language of Romans 7 and freedom. That makes sense.

I remember sharing the gospel with a college student in a semi-closed Muslim nation a couple of years ago. It emerged in the conversation that he had an acute sense of Allah’s justice, so it was easy for me to explain the gospel emphasizing the doctrine of justification.

When preaching through books of the Bible, a rightly interpreted and contextualized text should be what pushes a preacher toward one family of metaphors or another. Mark 10:45—I don’t need to tell you—is about ransom or redemption. Second Corinthians 5—another softball—is about reconciliation. What about the exodus? Redemption, perhaps. The Passover story then points us to sacrifice and expiation. Move into the offerings of Leviticus and the aroma that is pleasing to the Lord, and it’s hard to avoid talk of propitiation. I’m brushing in broad strokes, and whether you agree with my assessment of any of these books, hopefully you get the point. Different passages will emphasize different aspects of our salvation and how we can understand it.

At the same time, a pastor should know his congregation, and a Christian should know his non-Christian friend, so that a pastor and a Christian both can exercise wisdom and sensitivity in communicating the gospel.


But it is this very wealth of biblical metaphors for our salvation and the gospel, as well as the element of subjectivity these permit, which present so much difficulty. Is there a primary metaphor? Should one metaphor or image assert hermeneutical “control” over the others? What are the essential components of “the gospel”?

After all, one metaphor pushed to the exclusion of the others produces a different theory of atonement and a different gospel. We know from 1 Peter 2:21, for instance, that Christ’s work on the cross serves as a moral example for us. But give moral influence an undue emphasis, and you get Abelardianism, or Enlightenment German liberalism, or whatever. I don’t need to tell you that heresy often results from an individual or a group picking their favorite set of metaphors or texts. What makes a false teacher false? Often it’s just reductionism.

I won’t take the time to make the argument here, but I believe that the covenantal structures of redemption history as a whole point to penal substitution as the basic or primary metaphor that a systematic understanding of Scripture yields (so the New Covenant fulfills lex talionis or God’s demand for justice as articulated in the Sinai Covenant; see the book of Hebrews!), an understanding then attested to by manifold individual texts in Old Testament and New. Penal substitution is the gospel.

So pick whatever text you want, respecting the canonical context in your exegesis requires you to understand that text within the framework of penal substitution. For instance, you are preaching through 1 Peter and you land on 2:21, which reads, “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” Respecting the textual horizon, you would rightly preach, “The humility Christ showed in suffering serves as an example for us as Christians.” But respecting the canonical horizon and the nature of God’s work in redemption history as a whole, you should also preach, “Not that we can emulate what Christ uniquely did in serving as our substitute. Indeed, it’s because we have been united to him through his sacrifice of atonement that we are called to follow his example.”

So we must do with texts that point to propitiation or reconciliation; forgiveness, fulfillment, or freedom. Penal substitution undergirds every other metaphor or image the Scriptures use to describe our salvation.

As such, whatever gospel language we employ to subjectively resonate with our listeners, we must always combine it with the basic elements of penal substitution: a holy and offended God, a guilty sinner, a loving and justice-accomplishing sacrifice of substitution by Christ, and the declaration “not-guilty” and “righteous” for all who repent and believe. Anything less is not the whole gospel and will, if used exclusively, win people to something less than the whole gospel.

This is where I am made slightly nervous by pitting a gospel of freedom against a gospel of forgiveness, because the latter sounds a lot like penal substitution. I know that Driscoll and Keller affirm penal substitution, and that this is borne out by their weekly preaching ministries (I believe Driscoll is even writing a book defending penal substitution!). I don’t mean to assess either by a few sound-byte statements, and I don’t assume either individual was trying to present us with an exhaustive systematic theology or a guide on how to preach. As with Jesus’ parables, I assume these two authors, gifted as they are with uniquely good cultural instincts, had one or two basic points they wanted to make with these types of statements.

Still, I would urge caution when making such rhetorical distinctions. The gospel includes a salvation from self and its appetites. Yet the gospel is a salvation from God and his wrath.


There is one further point I think we need to draw out of all this. As I have contested, our culture bucks against structures of authority in a manner more pronounced today than fifty years ago, and this visceral reaction/conceptual incapacity (it’s both, I think) makes the gospel that much harder to communicate and comprehend. But let me be clear: it’s not just the so-called gospel of forgiveness that triggers these reactions; it’s penal substitution. Penal substitution radically depends on one kind of hierarchy between God and man, and another kind between Father and Son.[3]

We don’t typically use the word “hierarchy” when speaking of penal substitution, but it’s there. And it clearly plays a larger role than it plays in other theories of atonement extant today. Consider Christus Victor (popular among Emergents and new perspective writers) or moral influence (always fashionable among liberals) or the all-empathetic “crucified God” (adopted by liberation theologians). With each of these, as well as with any other theory you might find scattered across church history (recapitulation, ransom, governmental, etc.), God is slightly smaller and man is slightly bigger.

Moreover, because these theories downplay or altogether jettison that astonishing moment in which Christ became, in Luther’s words, “the greatest sinner that ever was” who bore the Father’s wrath, I would also contend that each of them diminish the distinctiveness of the Father and the Son’s particular work in redemption, a distinctiveness which depends largely on a meaningful understanding of the words “Father” and “Son” from eternity past.

What occurs to me, by way of casual observation, is that so many of the same individuals who criticize penal substitution as presenting an overly wrathful Father and an overly pitiable Son are also egalitarians. It’s common to point to the connection between the egalitarian/complementarian debate, hermeneutics, and the doctrine of Scripture. It’s also common to connect this debate to how one formulates the doctrine of the Trinity. But we should also stop to observe what implications egalitarianism might have for one’s theory of the atonement. I do not believe there is a necessary connection here, just as I don’t believe there is a necessary connection between one’s position on women in the church and how one formulates the doctrine of the Trinity. Still, as with this latter comparison, there’s a likely connection to be made.

Correlation does not necessitate causation, and many egalitarians affirm penal substitution. Yet even for those who do, it’s the tendencies of egalitarian thinking that worry me, and it’s their theological children for whom I’m concerned. It’s willful human beings that are doing the theologizing, not will-less robots. And if your theologizing is bent on silencing the slightest peep of hierarchy or authority in the church, in the home, and in the Godhead itself, then something about penal substitution is eventually going to get stuck in your craw.

The take-away lesson here: take note of this potential connection between our culture’s aversion to hierarchy and the inarguably hierarchical aspects of penal substitution. It will help us to recognize one more way that pastors and Christians will be tempted to present a partial gospel. Also, expect to hear more and more gross caricatures of penal substitution from egalitarians.

Being relevant is good so far as it goes. But it may be that evangelism in the twenty-first century is just a lot harder than evangelism in the mid-twentieth century and before. This is not a Reformed resignation to divine sovereignty for the sake of justifying passivity in evangelism. It’s just the opposite. It’s a plea to use the right tool—the whole gospel of penal substitution—because the enemy’s deceits are subtler than ever.

All this for lunch and a ham sandwich. Thanks, Bruce.


1. Mark Driscoll, Confessions of a Reformission Rev. (Zondervan, 2006), 23-25.

2. Tim Keller, Post-Everythings.

3. Between man and God, the hierarchy is total: ontological, ethical, and functional. Between divine Father and divine Son, the hierarchy is neither ethical nor ontological; it is merely functional. That is, it concerns the roles they occupy in relation to one another in creation and redemption, as well as (I believe) in relation to one another in eternity past, i.e. the “Father” was always the “Father.” Egalitarians restrict the functional hierarchy subsisting between Father and Son to creation and redemption. Extending it to eternity past, they argue, makes the hierarchy ontological.

Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan (@JonathanLeeman) edits the 9Marks series of books as well as the 9Marks Journal. He is also the author of several books on the church. Since his call to ministry, Jonathan has earned a master of divinity from Southern Seminary and a Ph.D. in Ecclesiology from the University of Wales. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Cheverly, Maryland, where he is an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church.

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