The Christian in Secular Society

 

by John MacArthur, June 5, 2019

By most modern metrics of church growth, Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill could easily be deemed ineffective and unfruitful. Acts 17:34 names only two converts from the gathering he drew in Athens—Dionysius and a woman named Damaris. That small harvest somehow looks less spectacular than the revivals Paul saw in Antioch or Thessalonica.

But Paul had a dramatic effect on the city at the top level. He exposed its highest court to the knowledge of the true God. This event planted a church in Athens and launched Paul’s ministry in nearby Corinth. Paul also opened up more opportunities to preach (“We shall hear you again concerning this”). Although the response of the Areopagus court may not have been as sensational as Paul’s preaching had provoked elsewhere, we can be certain that God’s purposes were accomplished and the Word did not return void. The threefold response of that day—contempt, curiosity, and conversion—is typical whenever and wherever the gospel is faithfully preached.

It was immediately after the Areopagus incident that Paul went to Corinth. Years later, he wrote, “When I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:1–2). Some interpreters believe Paul was renouncing the approach he had employed at the Areopagus. That view undoubtedly reads too much into 1 Corinthians 2. Paul nowhere indicates that he viewed his Athens ministry as a failure. I reject the notion that his sermon at the Areopagus miscarried. From all we are told in Scripture, it was totally consistent with Paul’s approach to ministry everywhere else. Nevertheless, this much is clear from 1 Corinthians 2, as well as the rest of Paul’s pastoral epistles: Paul did not believe the secret to his powerful ministry lay in his ability to quote Greek poets. You don’t see him counseling Timothy or Titus to bone up on secular culture, learn to quote the classics, or study philosophy so they could engage in debates with the intellectual elite. He simply commanded them to preach the Word, in season and out of season—and to be prepared to face the world’s hostility if they were faithful in that task.

Acts chapter 17 proves that while Paul adjusted his style in speaking, he never adapted his message. Most significantly, he never adopted the spirit of his age. In 1984, near the end of his life, Francis Schaeffer observed: “To accommodate to the world spirit about us in our age is the most gross form of worldliness in the proper definition of the world.” [1] Schaeffer added:

Unhappily, today we must say that in general the evangelical establishment has been accommodating to the forms of the world spirit as it finds expression in our day. I would say this with tears—and we must not in any way give up hoping and praying. We must with regret remember that many of those with whom we have a basic disagreement over these issues of accommodation are brothers and sisters in Christ. But in the most basic sense, the evangelical establishment has become deeply worldly. [2]

That is precisely what many today are doing—but what Paul would not do. He never conformed himself—and more importantly he never tried to conform the God he declared—to the tastes and expectations of his audience. He was content—as we must be—to allow the power of the gospel to speak for itself.

(Adapted from Ashamed of the Gospel)

https://www.gty.org/library/blog/B190605

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The Root of Idolatry

by John MacArthur, June 3, 2019

Idolatry is the product of rebellion, not confusion. While hearts and minds darkened by sin can’t find God on their own apart from His Word, the apostle Paul makes it clear that the root of idolatry is man’s rejection of creation’s testimony to its Creator.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures. (Romans 1:18-23)

The sinner’s attempt to suppress the truth about God is foundational to all forms of idolatry and false religion. The unrepentant heart will subscribe to all sorts of farcical notions and obvious lies in the vain hope of shielding itself from the universe’s Creator and Judge.

Paul understood the unbelief that undergirded the plethora of deities in Athens. The closing words of his sermon on Mars’ Hill were a fatal shot at Athenian paganism, “Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man” (Acts 17:29). In other words, if God made us, God Himself must be greater than any man-made image. This is a critical point. It was as if Paul took one enormous philosophical sledgehammer and smashed all their idols. If God is really the sovereign, infinite being even the poets acknowledged He must be, we can’t blasphemously reduce Him to a statue, a shrine, or any other graven image.

And while our culture isn’t dominated by temples, idol worship, and polytheism the way the first-century world was, we are not immune to the threat of idolatry. John Calvin said, “The human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols.” [1] Sinners still excel at erecting idols—today it simply takes place in individual hearts rather than the public square. It could be money, influence, career goals, athletic achievements, high-priced indulgences, or even another person—the vast galaxy of idols that rule in sinners’ hearts today likely dwarfs the gods of the ancient world.

Even Christians can at times succumb to the rebellious tendency to create false gods—or to simply redefine the God of the Bible. Every time the church attempts to define God on its own terms—contrary to His self-revelation in Scripture—it bands together with the idolaters of Mars’ Hill. That’s a particular danger today, when so many in the church want to round off the sharp edges of God’s attributes and reimagine Him as a kindly cosmic grandfather rather than a holy Judge. In that sense, there is very little difference between pretending God is not who He says He is, and worshiping the rocks and trees in a local park.

We need to understand that Paul’s blunt exchange with the philosophers of Athens is far more than a historical account from a distant land. It’s a timely warning about the futility of idolatry, and a call to repent of such foolishness while there is still time.

Paul’s sermon on Mars’ Hill comes to a climax with these urgent words of warning:

Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead. (Acts 17:30–31)

Paul’s direct approach with his unbelieving audience defies a lot of modern conventional wisdom regarding cross-cultural ministry. He didn’t pander to the false beliefs of his audience. He didn’t try to accommodate the Epicureans by promising them a wonderful and pleasure-filled life. And he didn’t attempt to win the Stoics by trying to make the gospel sound as much like their philosophy as possible. He called both groups and all other sinners present to repentance, referring to the golden age of Greek philosophy as “times of ignorance.”

The word “ignorance” comes from the same Greek root as “unknown” in verse twenty-three. And the word “overlooked” comes from a word that means “to not interfere.” It doesn’t mean God disregarded or was indifferent to sinful idolatry. It means He chose not to intervene in judgment by wiping Athens off the face of the earth.

As Paul told them, however, God has appointed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness. The agent of that judgment will be a Man whom He has ordained and given testimony to by raising Him from the dead. We know who that Man is, of course. It is Jesus Christ, to whom God has given all judgment (John 5:22).

But at this point Paul was interrupted, and he evidently never even got to name the name of Christ. “When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer, but others said, ‘We shall hear you again concerning this.’ So Paul went out of their midst” (Acts 17:32–33). The Epicureans did not believe in a resurrection at all, while the Stoics believed in a spiritual resurrection but not the resurrection of the body. Perhaps stung by his call for repentance, they responded by collectively mocking Paul. In fact, as soon as he mentioned the resurrection, the skeptics began to scoff. Evidently some had heard enough to reject Paul’s message without even hearing him out. Others said they would hear more later. So Paul simply went out of their midst.

Not everyone doubted or delayed, however. “Some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them” (Acts 17:34). Enough of the truth had penetrated their hearts so that these people followed Paul to find out more. Obviously, Paul continued his sermon for those who wanted to hear, and some of them were converted. One of the converts was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus court. Another was a woman named Damaris. Since she is given no title, we can assume she was a common woman. So this sermon reached people at both ends of the social spectrum—philosophers and housewives, men and women, intellectuals and ordinary people. This little band of converts joined Paul and became the first Christians in Athens.

That seemingly meager harvest did not discourage Paul, nor did it provoke him to go back to Mars’ Hill and engage in a more culturally-sensitive discourse. As we’ll see next time, Paul had unshakable confidence in the unvarnished message of the gospel and God’s power at work through its faithful proclamation. As he would later write, the gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).

(Adapted from Ashamed of the Gospel)

https://www.gty.org/library/blog/B190603