Pillar Journal

The Basic Definition of Accommodation in Evangelism

In defining accommodation, we want to consider three significant matters: first, its basic meaning; second, its reflection of God’s character; and third, how it can be applied in our experience.

In defining accommodation, we want to consider three significant matters: first, its basic meaning; second, its reflection of God’s character; and third, how it can be applied in our experience.

First, the basic meaning of accommodation is difficult both to perceive and practice, for (1) our natural inclination is to make others conform to our own wishes, and (2) it is not always easy to discern what is essential and what is expendable in our conduct or conversation, and in our presentation of the gospel in evangelism. We cannot begin to understand accommodation in evangelism—or in faithfully and relevantly preaching the gospel—without having our minds immersed in the history and theology of God’s dealings with the fallen sons and daughters of Adam, and having our lives informed and transformed by Christ’s example and the example of Paul as a follower of Christ.

This history and theology of redemption reveals that salvation has always been a matter of God coming down to mankind, not mankind lifting themselves up to Him. In the aftermath of Adam’s first transgression, it was God who came to our first parents, as a voice “walking in the garden in the cool of the day” and a “presence,” but one from whom they fled. God initiates contact, makes inquiry for sin, and passes judgment upon the sinners, but also promises salvation to sinners in very human terms. In a war to the death, the serpent would do all in his power to defeat the Savior of the world, but this “seed of the woman” will crush the serpent’s head. Much the same can be said of God’s covenant dealings with Noah, Abraham, the children of Israel, and the house of David. In each case, it is God who comes down or “condescends” to mankind, meeting us on our own level, speaking to us in our own language.

The greatest instance of divine condescension or accommodation is the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, God coming down to us and dwelling among us as “bone of our bone, and flesh of our flesh.” The gospel itself is addressed to mankind, couched in terms of our own need and condition as sinners. Citing the words of Moses, Paul writes to the Romans, “Say not in thine heart, who shall ascend into heaven? (that is, to bring Christ down from above:), or, who shall descend into the deep? (that is, to bring up Christ again from the dead). But what saith it? The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach” (Rom. 10:6–8). In every way, God’s grace is His love and mercy seeking us, finding us, and saving us, and not the other way around.

Accommodation in evangelism, therefore, is ultimately not about us but about God. The principles we apply in communicating the gospel relevantly and faithfully should be rooted in God’s gracious condescension to mankind, and especially, in the incarnation, life, and ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ. Accommodation means that we use our freedom not to assert our rights or to maintain our preferences (whether personal, cultural, or traditional), but to serve. It means we present the gospel message faithfully and understandably; it combines faithfulness to the truth and relevance to our hearers without compromising either. In this work of evangelism, the heralding of the good news, the gospel worker must always think about removing obstacles to the message in our gospel presentations and in our character and practices.

Second, the whole idea of accommodating our presentation of the gospel message is rooted in God’s character and God’s works of providence and redemption. Accommodation is about God’s movement toward us and involvement with us despite our fallenness and sinfulness. God’s accommodation is captured in these words: “Turn thou unto me, and have mercy upon me” (Ps. 25:16). Rather than avert or turn away His face, God has turned to us in Christ, and in mercy He promises to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. “If God be for us, who can be against us? (Rom. 8:31). For John Calvin, this aspect of God’s character makes truth comprehensible to His weak creation. Calvin responded to people who faulted the Bible for using anthropomorphic language to refer to God (statements that ascribe to God a mouth, ears, eyes, hands, arms, and feet). Even though God’s nature is immeasurable, incomprehensible, and spiritual, “as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in a measure to “lisp” in speaking to us…. Such forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as to accommodate the knowledge of him to our slight capacity. To do this he must descend far beneath his loftiness.”1John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1960), 1.13.1. Italics mine.

How can God communicate Himself to us, when He is incomprehensible? Calvin tells us that He is willing to use “baby talk.” He accommodates His truth to our weak capacity by using forms of communication that we can understand. He brings His truth from the top shelf to the bottom shelf to put it within our reach. We saw it at Mount Sinai when the people of Israel begged that God not speak to them directly, but to speak only through Moses. God granted this request, but also promised to send them a Prophet like Moses (Deut. 18:16–19). All of the prophets God sent to Israel throughout its history were meant to keep His truth on the bottom shelf, so people could understand His truth, His covenant love, and His judgments (Acts 3:24–25). These prophets all pointed to the one Prophet to come, Jesus, whom God sent to bless us by turning every one of us from our iniquities (Acts 3:26).

Accommodation has always been about God, for in sending Jesus, God took on human flesh. He became a servant and lived among us. The Lord of the covenant became the Servant of the covenant. He walked in obedience to His own law. Accommodation reached perfection in Immanuel. He took His people’s sins to the cross. But what looked like the end was the start of something new God was doing: the Father raised His Son by the Spirit; He who accommodated Himself to take the lowest place was exalted to the highest place.

Our risen Lord now commissions us, who are but vessels of weakness and imperfection, to proclaim a perfect gospel. God has accommodated His message to us from beginning to end. How much more should we embody accommodation in our character and in our communication? To be faithful to the gospel truth and understandable to our hearers, we are being nothing more than “imitators of God” (Eph. 5:1).

Third, how can this truth of accommodation by applied to our practical experience? Our experience must also be included in our understanding of accommodation. The gospel is not only a promise that we proclaim; that promise had been fulfilled in us as the heirs of salvation. Accommodating the gospel message begins with the heartfelt acknowledgement that we only love God because He first loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. And then God calls us to be transformed experientially and comprehensively in our character by Jesus’s example.

Do you know the heights and depths of the love God has shown you by working in eternity, in history, and then in your own life to bring you into an understanding and experience of the great gospel message? Then we can discuss what it means to “be made all things to all people, in order to save some.”

Excerpt from
Volume 13, Number 2 • July 2021
Becoming All Things to All: Implications for Accommodation in Evangelism
By Joel Beeke