By. Phil Johnson
In Acts 17, Paul preaches to the intellectual aristocracy of Athens. The narrative includes one of the classic examples of New Testament gospel-preaching. It is an especially helpful example of how to confront false religion, secular philosophy, and academic elitism in an evangelistic setting. And it all takes place on the philosophers’ own turf. This is one of the best-known portions of the book of Acts, but it is also one of the most-abused sections in all of Scripture. It has become a favorite passage for those who insist if we’re not finding (or creating) as much common ground as possible between church and culture we are not properly contextualizing the gospel.
Paul blended into the culture,” they say. “He adopted the worldview and conversatinal style of his hearers. He observed their religion, listened to their beliefs, and learned from them before he tried to teach them. He didn’t step on their toes by refuting what they believed. Instead, he took their idea of the unknown god, embraced that, and used it as the starting point for his message about Christ. Paul’s Mars-hill sermon embodies all the major elements of postmodern missional ministry: culture, contextualization, conversation, and charitableness.
In reality, Paul used none of those strategies—at least not in the way they have been defined and packaged by today’s trend-setters.
Paul was bold and plain-spoken. He was counter-cultural, confrontational, confident, and (by Athenian standards) closed-minded. He offended a significant number of Athens’ intellectual elite. He came away from that encounter without winning the admiration of society at large, but with a very small group of choice converts. That is the biblical approach to public ministry. You don’t measure success or failure by how pleased the crowd is at the end of the meeting. A much better barometer is whether the signs of conviction are seen in those who have heard. And sometimes a forceful negative reaction is the result of the gospel’s convicting aspects. In fact, when unbelievers walk away without repenting of sin and embracing Christ, an overtly hostile reaction may be the best indication that the message was delivered clearly and accurately. A round of applause and an outpouring of good feeling from a crowd of appreciative worldlings means they have not heard the gospel at all. We’re tempted to think when people reject the gospel it’s because we have done a poor job of presenting it. Sometimes that may be true, but it’s not necessarily true. The gospel is a serious stumbling-block for most unbelievers, and they will often be offended or become angry when they are presented with it. You simply cannot proclaim the true gospel clearly and faithfully if one of your major goals is for no one ever to be upset by it. We have no right to try to reshape the gospel so that it’s more palatable to worldly tastes. 1
¹ taken from Contextualization? in the December 2012 issue of Pulpit Magazine.