Gospel Impact and the World’s Approval

Paul did not immerse himself in unbelieving “culture” in order to reach them

Paul had evidently spent some time studying the religion of Athens, and he used that knowledge to present the gospel in the best way possible, but what Paul thought about this religious culture is enlightening. Verse 16 reveals that Paul was “provoked” (parōxyneto) by the culture he saw in Athens. He did not adopt their culture; he did not approve of their culture; he despised it. Furthermore, Paul did not try to garner respect by speaking positively about their beliefs.

 

Christians today seem to assume that the best way to have the greatest gospel impact in the world is to gain the world’s approval and acceptance first. If we can just earn their respect, perhaps they will give us a better hearing.

There is certainly some truth to this: our behavior before the unbelieving world should be respectable so that we don’t ruin the reputation of the Christ and his gospel (Matt 5:16, 1 Peter 3:1-7). This itself has gospel impact.

However, what many Christian mean is more than this; they mean that we need to do what the unbelieving world does, go where they go, engage in the kinds of activities they do, etc. Again, there certainly may be truth to this posture if we’re talking about good things like participating in book clubs, going to baseball games, or establishing relationships at the local market.

But what about in areas where the unbelieving worldview actually dominates? Must we actively engage them on that level, implying to the unbelieving world that their values are actually OK?

What did Paul do in such situations?

Acts 17 records Paul’s attempt to communicate the gospel to the pagan citizens of Athens. His message to them begins in verses 22–23:

So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.

Paul had evidently spent some time studying the religion of Athens, and he used that knowledge to present the gospel in the best way possible, but what Paul thought about this religious culture is enlightening. Verse 16 reveals that Paul was “provoked” (parōxyneto) by the culture he saw in Athens.1 He did not adopt their culture; he did not approve of their culture; he despised it.

Furthermore, Paul did not try to garner respect by speaking positively about their beliefs. In verse 22 when he says that they are “religious,” he is not complimenting them.

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