Engaging the Culture with the Gospel
The age of Christendom is over. Our culture is increasingly hostile to the exclusive claims of the gospel, and a pressing question of the day is, How do we engage the culture with the gospel.Far better thinkers than I have tackled this question. I stand on their shoulders and commend their work to you. [i]
With no pretense of having all the answers, I believe the record of Paul’s evangelistic work in Athens, recorded in Acts 17:16-34, provides three helpful insights:
1. We must be gripped with a passion for the glory of God.
This is seen in verse 16. “Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.”This is amazing. Paul was in Athens, the world’s intellectual and philosophical capital and a city full of art and beauty, but he was not captivated by its magnificence. Instead, he was provoked by the city’s great idolatry.[ii]
Provoked (Gr. paroxyno) is an unusual word, used only here in the New Testament. Our English word paroxysm derives from it. The real clue to its meaning is its common use in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint), where it refers to God’s response to Israel’s idolatry.[iii]
Paul’s heart was so deeply consumed for God’s glory that his spirit was provoked by idolatry, just as God’s heart was provoked by Israel’s idolatry in the Old Testament.
Moved by Charles Simeon’s preaching and David Brainerd’s diaries, young Henry Martyn (1781–1812) became a missionary to Persia. His labor was tireless as he translated the New Testament into three languages.Before he died of a fever on the mission field at the age of 31, Martyn said, “I could not endure existence if Jesus was not glorified; it would be hell to me, if he were to be always . . . dishonored.”[iv]
We will not reach the culture if we love it more deeply than God’s glory. We will rest in our apathy and indifference. There are many good and godly motives for evangelism and missions, but the starting point and highest motive is passion for the fame of God’s name.
John Piper has said it well: “Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man. . . . Worship is the . . . goal of missions.”[v]
2. We must learn the language of the culture.
Culture is “a set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual, and emotional features of society or a social group, which encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyle, ways of living together, value systems, traditions, and beliefs.”[vi]
The gospel addresses all individuals within their cultures because that’s the only kind of individuals there are—“encultured” ones! When the gospel comes into a culture, it has to be contextualized; that is, communicated in a way that makes sense to the culture. Notice how Paul does this.
First, Paul goes to the culture. Verses 17-22 record how Paul shared the gospel in three different spheres: the synagogue, the marketplace, and the Areopagus.[vii]
He went not only to the religious sphere (the synagogue) but also to the public spheres of commerce and learning (the marketplace and Areopagus). So our witness should take us beyond the private religious centers (churches); we’re meant to go public with Jesus.
Second, Paul speaks their language and uses their vocabulary. As D. A. Carson points out, "There is a fascinating choice of vocabulary. It has often been shown that many of the expressions in this address, especially in the early parts, are the sorts of things one who have found in Stoic circles. Yet in every case, Paul tweaks them so that in his context they convey the peculiar emphases he wants to assign them. In other words, the vocabulary is linguistically appropriate to his hearers, but at the level of the sentence and the paragraph, Paul in this report is saying just what he wants to say; he is establishing a biblical worldview."[viii]
Third, Paul begins with their religious context. An interesting exercise is to compare Paul’s message in Acts 17 with his sermon in Acts 13 , where he addressed the synagogue of Pisidian Antioch.Paul’s witness in the Areopagus was significantly different than his witness in the synagogue. It was the same gospel, of course, but it had a different starting point and different points of emphasis.In Acts 13 Paul begins with the Old Testament, rehearses four major epochs of redemptive history, and then builds a case that Jesus is the Messiah. Here, Paul’s starting point is not Scripture but the Athenians’ world, when he sees an altar to an “unknown God.” You can see this 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.”
Fourth, Paul uses their art and literature. Interestingly, there are no direct Scripture quotations in Paul’s sermon.[ix] But in verse 28 there are two direct quotations from Greek poets. The first (“In him we live and move and have our being”) is from Epimenides’ poem Cretica. The second (“For we are indeed his offspring”) is from Phaenomena, written by Aratus, the third century BC Stoic author.It is clear, then, that while Paul did not accommodate the culture, he did communicate in the culture’s language. We must learn to do the same.
3. We must dismantle false worldviews and construct a distinctively Christian worldview in our sharing of the gospel.
A worldview is simply a lens through which someone views the world and interprets life. Whether they realize it or not, everyone has a worldview. Worldviews are formed by answers to certain basic questions:
*Where did I come from? (origins, human nature)
*Why am I here? (meaning, purpose in life)
*What time is it? (history)
*What’s wrong? (evil, suffering)
*What’s the solution? (hope, redemption)
*Where am I going? (future, afterlife)
A person’s answers may range from distinctive Christian theism to pantheistic paganism to atheistic naturalism. One of our tasks in sharing the gospel (especially in a pre- or post-Christian culture) is to dismantle worldviews contrary to Scripture. We must not assume that unbelievers have the conceptual framework for understanding the gospel that most people raised within the church have.
As Carson notes, "They are not empty hard drives waiting for us to download our Christian files onto them. Rather, they have inevitably developed an array of alternative worldviews. They are hard drives full of many other files that collectively constitute various non-Christian frames of reference."[x]
In other words, before a person can grasp the good news of salvation, there has to be a Christian worldview. The gospel just doesn’t make sense in any other conceptual framework.Before we can construct a Christian worldview, however, we have to deconstruct worldviews which are inimical to the gospel. Paul does this in verses 24-31:
The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said, “For we are indeed his offspring.”Being then God's offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.
Notice how Paul addresses several of these basic worldview questions as he describes:
*God’s nature as the transcendent Creator of all;
*Man’s nature as created in God’s image (“his offspring”);
*A linear view of history (rather than cyclical) with definite beginning and ending points;
*The human problem as ignorance (of God) and divine judgment (for sin);
*The divine solution in Christ’s resurrection from the dead (implying the cross) and repentance from sin.
Criterion for Successful Evangelism
Finally, notice the varied responses Paul received to his message.Some responded in mocking hostility, rejecting Paul’s message (v. 32a). Others were cautious but curious, saying, “We will hear you again about this” (v. 32b). And some became believers: “But some men joined him and believed, among them Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them” (v. 34).
So the criterion for successful evangelism is not in how many people are converted but in our faithfulness to Christ’s message. This was true for Paul and for Jesus, and it will be true for us as well.
Our situation today is not much different than Paul’s in Athens. His was a pre-Christian culture shaped by Greek philosophy and various pagan idolatries. Ours is a post-Christian culture shaped by Darwinian naturalism, religious pluralism, and postmodernism.
Therefore, our task is similar. Gripped with a passion for God’s glory, we must speak our culture’s language to dismantle false worldviews and present Christ’s saving message to others.
As Paul says in another context:
For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ. (2 Cor. 10:3-5)
[i] Without endorsing everything in them, I recommend the following books: Justin Taylor and John Piper, ed. The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007); D. A. Carson, ed. Telling the Truth: Evangelizing Postmoderns (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000); Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004, 2005); David F. Wells, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Grand Rapids, MI.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994); Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York, NY: Dutton, 2008); Mark Driscoll, The Radical Reformission: Reaching Out Without Selling Out (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004); Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1989).
[ii] In his helpful commentary on Acts, John Stott says, “There were innumerable temples, shrines, statues and altars. In the Parthenon stood a huge gold and ivory statue of Athena, ‘whose gleaming spear-point was visible forty miles away.’ Elsewhere there were images of Apollo, the city’s patron, of Jupiter, Venus, Mercury, Bacchus, Neptune, Diana, and Aesculapius. The whole Greek pantheon was there, all the gods of Olympus.” John R. W. Stott, The Spirit, the Church, and the World (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1990) 277.
[iii] See, for example Isaiah 65:2-3: “I spread out my hands all the day to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices; a people who provoke me to my face continually, sacrificing in gardens and making offerings on bricks.”
[iv] Quoted by Stott, 280.
[v] John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Academic, Second Edition, Revised and Expanded, 2003) 17.
[vi] The definition of culture from the United Nations, quoted by R. Albert Mohler Jr., “Preaching with the Culture in View” in Mark Dever, J. Ligon Duncan III, R. Albert Mohler Jr., C. J. Mahaney, Preaching the Cross (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007).
[vii] The Areopagus is literally “the hill (pagos) of Ares (the Greek equivalent of Mars)” or “Mars’ Hill.” “Situated a little north-west of the Acropolis, it was formerly the place where the most venerable judicial court of ancient Greece met. For this reason the name came to be transferred from the place to the court. By Paul’s day, although cases were sometimes heard there, the court had become more a council, with its legal powers diminished. Its members were rather guardians of the city’s religion, morals and education . . .” Stott, 283.
[viii] D. A. Carson, “Athens Revisited,” in D. A. Carson, ed. Telling the Truth: Evangelizing Postmoderns (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000) 392.
[ix] I realize, of course, that Luke is giving us a condensed overview of Paul’s message, not a full transcript! After all, it only takes a couple of minutes to read the sermon.
[x] Carson, 386.