All Things To All People
Bearing the responsibility of taking the message of the Gospel to the culture that God has placed us in is no small or easy matter. But, we are not in as unique or difficult of a situation as we often imagine that we are. Being forced to learn to understand the culture we are living in or the people we are called to preach to is nothing new! Christians have been forced to adapt since Christ first gave the Great Commission. One aspect of the beauty of the Gospel is that its presentation can be shaped to fit the culture that we find ourselves in. That is not to say that we can change the message, but that we must seek to find the place in our own culture where we can meet them and lead them toward Biblical truth. We need to seek to understand something of how our mission field thinks about themselves, God and the world. Then we must begin there in our presentation of the unadulterated truth of the Gospel.
I realize that for some, the above statement sounds like something close to heresy, if not outrightly so. Those who feel that way have, most likely, redefined the Gospel so narrowly that it fits, only into their own (or very few other) cultural dynamic(s). One thing that I have learned by experience, having come into the Church through a more “Fundamentalistic” branch of it, is that we need to be confident enough in the God who saves us, not to rely upon our own abilities or holiness as the means of attaining or maintaining our relationship to Him. We also need to be comfortable in God’s providence and rest in His grace even though it is often beyond our comprehension. When we focus too much on ourselves, we begin to fear the culture and try to physically separate ourselves from it or even worse, we try to impose a Christian model of morality on an unbelieving world, while being angered and threatened by their immoral behavior.
Yet we must also reject the idea that the sinners are the cause of our woes! One missions organization seems to be following this very biblical line of thinking. I recently read on the website, CenterForUSMissions.com this statement that brings it into perspective very well;
“In the first century, the Romans were marching through the streets of Judea. They had their pagan standards. They were involuntarily conscripting Jewish young men into their armies, taking Jewish daughters into wealthy Roman homes to serve as servants and cooks, taking the best of the crops of Judea and they were taking taxes. Jesus never said the problem of first century life was the Romans. He never said that the problem of first century life in Judea was the amoral people ruining the culture. He continually said the problem was that the people of God have failed to act like the people of God. The salt has lost its saltiness. Today we sincerely believe that the problem of the world is those immoral people out there, or those folks who don’t share our political views, or those folks who are ruining our schools, rather than that the people of God are not acting like the people of God.” (Who Are We Trying To Reach, Ken Behnken)
Sin is a matter of the heart and must be dealt with as such. God changes hearts. Our negativity and judgmentalism hardens them. The New Testament writer, James tells his readers;
“But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of His own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures. (James 1:14-18 ESV)
Noting both the origin of sin as the human heart, and the origin of the new birth as the will of God, James goes on next, to say something very interesting to the readers of his letter;
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” (James 1:19-20 ESV)
There will be disagreements that we are involved in (with both, Believers and unbelievers). We need to realize that what we believe to be zeal, if it moves us to wrath is really our own will exalting itself above the will of God. The great Puritan commentator Matthew Henry says of verse 20;
“God needs not the passions of any man; his cause is better served by mildness and meekness than by wrath and fury.” Solomon says, The words of the wise are heard in quiet, more than the cry of him that ruleth among fools, Ecclesiastes 9:17. Dr. Manton here says of some assemblies, “That if we were as swift to hear as we are ready to speak there would be less of wrath, and more of profit, in our meetings. I remember when a Manichee contested with Augustine, and with importunate clamour cried, Hear me! hear me! the father modestly replied, …. Neither let me hear thee, nor do thou hear me, but let us both hear the apostle.” The worst thing we can bring to a religious controversy is anger. This, however it may pretend to be raised by a concern for what is just and right, is not to be trusted. Wrath is a human thing, and the wrath of man stands opposed to the righteousness of God. Those who pretend to serve the cause of God hereby (through exhibiting wrath) show that they are acquainted neither with God or his cause” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible)
What a scathing rebuke of much of what poses as the Christian Faith! The reality of our faith is demonstrated in our ability to love as Christ loved. The Apostle John makes a strong connection here as he writes to the Christians of Ephesus saying;
“In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected (it has reached its goal, accomplished its purpose) with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world.” (1 John 4:9-17 ESV)
John is saying that, when the reality of Christ’s love to us (as demonstrated in the Gospel) is the pattern of our own lives, we can be confident that we have truly received the saving benefits of the Gospel. When we live out of love as He did, we will be confident, so much so, that we will be bold when we stand before the judgment seat of God Almighty!
Likewise the Apostle Paul says to the Roman Christians, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person–though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die– but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:6-8 ESV) God’s love is given to the undeserving (if not, He would have to keep it to Himself, since we are all undeserving!) If we lack the desire to reach out to those who are not like us, then we refuse God’s command to preach the Gospel to the world that is perishing before our eyes. If we reject the command of God and make excuses to justify our disobedience it is evidence of our own unbelief. Certainly, we do not want to become like the culture to the point where we imitate them in their sins (this should go without saying). When that happens, we lose our opportunity to be a witness.
We cry “Foul!” whenever the unbelieving world rejects and criticizes us. Yet we often treat them the very same way. They are fallen and sinful men who do not know the love of God in Christ nor the power of the Spirit in redemption. Should we be surprised when they act like what they are? Yet we who claim to know and to own the love of God in Jesus Christ and often act like what we claim we are not, when we reject His command to preach the Gospel, to seek the good of the culture and to walk with wisdom toward those who are outside..
When it comes to our presenting of the Gospel, there is a tension which lies between how far we should allow the culture to direct us and how much we should guard ourselves from it. When we look to ourselves too much, we close ourselves off from the mission field that God has placed us in, as demonstrated above. We must continually remind ourselves that this dilemma is not unique to us in the history of the Church. Christ has been with His Church from the beginning and promises to bring it to its appointed end!
One of the first great apologists for the Christian Faith was a man who came from a background of Greek Philosophy and believed that the ancient philosophers where, sort of, proto-Christians, not unlike the ancient Jews. He appealed to the philosophy of the Greeks to defend the Christian Faith, comparing the two of them on many points, and appealing to the emperor to accept Christianity on the the same basis which he accepted the various philosophical schools and pagan religions. Justin writes;
“We have been taught that Christ is the first-born of God, and we have declared above that He is the Word (Logos) of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who lived reasonably are Christians (?!), even though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them; and among the barbarians, Abraham, and Ananias, and Azarias, and Misael, and Elias, and many others whose actions and names we now decline to recount, because we know it would be tedious. So that even they who lived before Christ, and lived without reason, were wicked and hostile to Christ, and slew those who lived reasonably. But who, through the power of the Word, according to the will of God the Father and Lord of all, He was born of a virgin as a man, and was named Jesus, and was crucified, and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, an intelligent man will be able to comprehend from what has been already so largely said” (First Apology of Justin Martyr, Ch XLVI)
Justin certainly is not afraid of the thinking of his culture, apparently too unafraid! His sentiments were opposed by another early defender of the Faith named Turtullian, who saw them as the “seeds of heresy” in the Christian Church as men tried to synthesize them with the true Faith. Tertullian wrote, about a century later;
“These are “the doctrines” of men and “of demons”produced for itching ears of the spirit of this world’s wisdom: this the Lord called “foolishness,” and “chose the foolish things of the world” to confound even philosophy itself. For (philosophy) it is which is the material of the world’s wisdom, the rash interpreter of the nature and the dispensation of God. Indeed heresies are themselves instigated by philosophy. From this source came the aeons, and I known not what infinite forms, and the trinity of man in the system of Valentinus, who was of Plato’s school. From the same source came Marcion’s better god, with all his tranquility; he came of the Stoics. Then, again, the opinion that the soul dies is held by the Epicureans; while the denial of the restoration of the body is taken from the aggregate school of all the philosophers; also, when matter is made equal to God, then you have the teaching of Zeno; and when any doctrine is alleged touching a god of fire, then Heraclitus comes in. The same subject-matter is discussed over and over again by the heretics and the philosophers; the same arguments are involved. Whence comes evil? Why is it permitted? What is the origin of man? and in what way does he come? Besides the question which Valentinus has very lately proposed-Whence comes God? Which he settles with the answer: From enthymesis and ectroma. Unhappy Aristotle! who invented for these men dialectics, the art of building up and pulling down; an art so evasive in its propositions, so far-fetched in its conjectures, so harsh, in its arguments, so productive of contentions-embarrassing even to itself, retracting everything, and really treating of nothing! Whence spring those “fables and endless genealogies,” and “unprofitable questions,” and “words which spread like a cancer? ” From all these, when the apostle would restrain us, he expressly names philosophy as that which he would have us be on our guard against. Writing to the Colossians, he says, “See that no one beguile you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, and contrary to the wisdom of the Holy Ghost.” He had been at Athens, and had in his interviews (with its philosophers) become acquainted with that human wisdom which pretends to know the truth, whilst it only corrupts it, and is itself divided into its own manifold heresies, by the variety of its mutually repugnant sects. What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? what between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from “the porch of Solomon,” who had himself taught that “the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart.” Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief. For this is our palmary faith (i.e., the full measure of our faith), that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides. (Prescription Against Heretics, Ch VII)
Tertullian says many useful things here. Indeed, we should not try to synthesize the Christian Faith with worldly philosophies, we must take it as it is given on the authority of God, or “from Solomon’s Porch” as he puts it. But does this mean that we should ignore or scorn everything that is believed and taught, and throw our hands up and walk away, leaving the heathens and their philosophers to perish eternally? Even Tertullian knew what was taught by the philosophers and was able to defend the Christian Faith and call attention to the source of the errors that were brought in as they tried to synthesize their philosophy with Christianity!
Here we find one of his classic quotes, “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” There is definitely a call to carefulness here as we try to contrast the words of Paul to the Colossians which are quoted by Tertullian and those of Paul’s own sermon recorded in Acts 17,(which Tertullian makes reference to above) where he speaks to the Philosophers of Athens. In his lectures, Dr Barrs gives us the direction (using the Apostle Paul as our guide) to allow the admission of what the heathens have gotten right, as men made in the image of God, and use it as a bridge to lead them to the revealed truth of Scripture. That means that we need to know what they actually believe and teach or we will never be able to accept what they may get right. One of the biggest problems we have is that much of contemporary and recent Evangelicalism has taught us to reject things before we hear them. We tend to classify or label people without hearing them and reject them on the basis of the category we can most easily insert them into. (i.e., He is a Liberal, He is a Calvinist, He is an unbeliever) simply because someone disagrees with us on one point.) If we truly care for them, we will hear them. We will trust the God who has saved us to keep us as we reach out to them in love to rescue them from the snare of the devil.
This seems like what Justin may have been attempting to do, but he is going farther and claiming that their natural theology counts for them as the Christian Faith! (An unfounded assertion, to be sure.) It is not that unbelievers have an accurate picture of the True God. We know that men have the basic knowledge of God. We have a natural bent to express His image in ourselves yet due to our fallenness, we corrupt and distort that image according to our own lusts. But we must not overlook the Image of God that is expressed in and through every man. Dr. Barrs tells us;
“Our calling as Christians whenever we meet anyone is that our first response, our automatic response, should be to see where each person we meet demonstrates the glory of being created in the image of God. We are to ask ourselves the question that Psalm 8 asks: “What is man”—this man, this woman, this child—“that you are mindful of him?” And our answer is, “[They are] crowned with glory and honor.” They are made in God’s image and our calling is to see that with every individual we ever meet. That should be your first response as you go out from here to work in churches. As you meet unbelievers around you your first impulse should be to observe where this person demonstrates the image of God. Where do they show the dignity, glory, and honor of being made by God in His likeness? Calvin has a lot to say about this in his Institutes, which may surprise some of you who assume that Reformed theology teaches that people are just wretched sinners and totally depraved. Reformed theology does teach total depravity; that is, that every aspect of our humanity is deeply damaged and torn apart by the Fall. But Reformed theology has also always taught that, first of all—fundamentally—people bear the image of God. That is who they are, and Calvin uses the beautiful image that human beings are like ruined statues. We see the ruin, but we also always see the outlines of their former glory of God’s image indelibly imprinted upon them. That is Calvin’s image and it is our calling to always see that, to see that glory of people. (Apologetics And Outreach, Lecture 19)
This is the “point of contact” that we have with all of humanity. It is not a bridge to adjust our theology to, and synthesize it with what they already believe. Rather it is a place where we can begin with the unbeliever, a place where he feels comfortable, and from where, we can lead them in the direction of Biblical truth. Therefore, though we are to guard ourselves from being corrupted by the thinking of our culture, we are unable to avoid all contact with their way of thinking. If we tried, that would be to make ourselves utterly inaccessible to the mission field that God has set us in.
Evangelism in the Early Church, is the name of one of the books on the syllabus for the Course at Covenant Seminary that the lectures are from. It says this;
“It is clear that the God posited by these Greek philosophers is neither entirely self-consistent nor by any means to be confused with the personal, redeeming Creator God of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Nevertheless the general movement towards some sort of monotheism or monism among the intelligensia of the day (with the exception of the Epicureans and Sceptics) proves an important preaparatio evangelica, and one on which the Christians were not slow to build. Admittedly one early Christian attitude to pagan culture was that of utter rejection. Tertullian is, perhaps, the most extreme example of it. ‘What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ he asked. ‘What concord is the between the Academy and the Church?… ‘
That was certainly one early Christian attitude, It was shared by Titian and many early Christians. But it was impossible to maintain consistently. Greek thought had penetrated the whole ancient world too thoroughly to be exorcised by simply shutting one’s eyes to it. Accordingly, in the New Testament itself we find Paul and other Christian missionaries making use of what is true and useful in paganism; in the second century this procedure was developed with enthusiasm. It was called, ‘spoiling the Egyptians’, and was used with great effect by Justin, etc….” (Pg. 37–38)
Not only should we seek to understand the culture in order to reach them with the Gospel, but we must know our own Faith and where it has been influenced by the culture and strive to maintain that Faith in purity. And we must recognize that parts of the culture that we think we are rejecting, may have tainted our own thinking. It is telling of our own ignorance when we criticize unbelievers, but are infected with their sentiments ourselves! Dr. Barrs spends a pretty significant amount of time speaking of Deism and “New Age” mysticism. Of Deism, he tells us;
“Deism is the religion of the great majority of Americans today, though they would not categorize themselves as Deists. And there is no point in telling people that they are a deist because they would not understand what you meant. The fact is, the overwhelming majority of the people around us still believe in God—well over 90% of them. That is the practical reality. Many people who attend church, who are not genuinely believers redeemed by Christ, are deists. That is the practical reality of where we are. This is true in Protestant churches, especially in liberal Protestant churches. It is true for many Catholic and Orthodox churches. It is true for many people who are Jews and who attend synagogues. They are actually functionally deists without recognizing it.” (Apologetics and Outreach, Lecture 24)
Just as Tertullian would have to consciously distinguish what influence the thought of his Greek culture had on his own thinking, we too need to be conscious of the thinking of the culture we live in and not just imagine that we have not been influenced because we think we have the unvarnished truth because it is the truth that we have.
A Little Respect!
Finally, we must respect the people who are in our culture! Dr. Barrs spends a lot of time in his lectures, exploring the Apostle Paul and his sermons as recorded in the Book of Acts, in the New Testament. Of them, he says;
“…we have been discussing examples from the book of Acts from our three basic messages in Acts 13, 14 and 17. We also looked very briefly at Paul before Agrippa and the way he speaks to King Agrippa with such respect.
We could look at many examples in the Gospels of the same thing where we see Jesus treating people with wonderful dignity. I mentioned earlier Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman recorded for us in John 4. It is a remarkable example of that. As you see Jesus meeting with the Samaritan woman by the well, there are so many things that are striking about that encounter. There are all sorts of reasons why Jesus as a Jew would have found it difficult to meet this woman and treat her with dignity and respect.” (Apologetics and Outreach, Lecture 19)
Dr. Barrs states this very mildly as he speaks of Jesus and the Samaritan Woman in John 4. She is from a culture that has utterly corrupted the Judaism that Jesus and His Disciples are a part of. They have perverted the religion and the culture of Judaism and are looked down on as less than dogs! There is a vitriolic hatred between the races and Jesus completely ignores it and deflects her attempts to bring it up!
“A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” (John 4:7-10 ESV)
Overlooking her culture and her personal life, Jesus allows her to engage Him in a bit of a theological discussion; leading her toward Biblical truth from her own biased position;
“The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.” (John 4:19-26 ESV)
There is great beauty and dignity in the way Jesus treats this great sinner and distorter of true religion. The combination of understanding and respect toward an unbelieving culture is probably best demonstrated in Paul’s address to the Athenians, in Acts 17. But Dr Barrs also brings it out as the Apostle addresses the members of the synagogue in Acts 13 as he draws a comparison between the passages. Here Paul speaks respectfully, according to the order of the synagogue, beginning with what they already know about God and themselves. Then he moves them on from there to the plain truth of the Gospel as expressed in the New Testament.
“…but they went on from Perga and came to Antioch in Pisidia. And on the Sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down. After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent a message to them, saying, “Brothers, if you have any word of encouragement for the people, say it.” So Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand said: “Men of Israel and you who fear God, listen. The God of this people Israel chose our fathers and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with uplifted arm he led them out of it. And for about forty years he put up with them in the wilderness. And after destroying seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance. All this took about 450 years. And after that he gave them judges until Samuel the prophet. Then they asked for a king, and God gave them Saul the son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, for forty years. And when he had removed him, he raised up David to be their king, of whom he testified and said, ‘I have found in David the son of Jesse a man after my heart, who will do all my will.’ Of this man’s offspring God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised. Before his coming, John had proclaimed a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. And as John was finishing his course, he said, ‘What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but behold, after me one is coming, the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie.’ “Brothers, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God, to us has been sent the message of this salvation. For those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers, because they did not recognize him nor understand the utterances of the prophets, which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled them by condemning him. And though they found in him no guilt worthy of death, they asked Pilate to have him executed. And when they had carried out all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead, and for many days he appeared to those who had come up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people. And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm, “‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you.’ And as for the fact that he raised him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, he has spoken in this way, “‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David.’ Therefore he says also in another psalm, “‘You will not let your Holy One see corruption.’ For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption, but he whom God raised up did not see corruption. Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.” (Acts 13:14-39 ESV)
Dr. Barrs comments on this passage saying;
“What is being described here is the custom in that day when visitors came to synagogues; the elders of the synagogue would invite them to speak. The teaching was not done simply by the chief ruler of the synagogue or even by the elders; the teaching could be done by any of the men in the synagogue who were qualified and competent to do so. And so when visitors came, they would be courteously asked, as on this occasion, if they would like to say something. And, of course, it gave Paul a wonderful opportunity to preach the Gospel, which is what he does.” (Apologetics and Outreach, Lecture 18)
It was easy for Paul to understand the Jews. He was one of them. He began with what they knew about God and then led them through Israel’s history to its culmination in Jesus Christ. That worked great for these Jews as Gods removed their stony hearts and gave them hearts of flesh. This was the truth that penetrated, by the power of the Spirit (See verses 43-44)! It would be a lot of useless information for the Greeks however. So as Paul speaks to them, a few chapters later, he does exactly the same thing, only he uses a different background for the information, a background that they can understand and relate to.
“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. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”–because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new. 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. 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.” (Acts 17:16-31 ESV)
Dr. Barrs points out here;
“That is a very different message from the message that is given in the synagogue. First think about the language. You see that the language and the content are very different from the message in the synagogue. There are no references to the Old Testament. It is not that this message is not biblical; it is completely biblical. In some ways you can read this message and it is like an exposition of the first chapters of Genesis. No, it is a completely biblical message about who God is and who we are as human persons made in His likeness. It is about idolatry, God’s rule over the nations, His sovereignty, and other things like that. It is a completely biblical message, but the language is very different from the synagogue message. There are no references to the Old Testament. Paul does not quote the Old Testament, though as I said, in one sense, it is a thoroughly Old Testament message in terms of its content even though he does not quote it. He is not quoting the Prophets, Psalms and the Law. It would have served no purpose, of course, because the pagans were completely unfamiliar with it. They would not have known what he was quoting, and they did not regard it as having authority. So he makes no reference to the Old Testament. He makes no reference to the promises in the Old Testament of the Messiah. That language would have been particularly difficult for them to understand. He would have had to explain all about that: The term, “Messiah,” means “anointed.” God anointed His kings, His prophets, and His priests, and He promised He would send an anointed one, a Prophet, Priest, and King to come and deliver His people. He does not refer to those promises in the way that he did in the synagogue. The heart of his message in the synagogue is how Christ fulfilled the promises of the Messiah in the Old Testament. There are also no references, except for the resurrection at the end, to the details of recent events in Palestine in terms of the life and ministry of John the Baptist or the life and ministry of Jesus. This is because, again, these people were unfamiliar with that. It was not that Paul was not prepared to talk about those things. That is not the point I am making at all; but he has this opportunity; he is called before the Areopagus.” (Apologetics and Outreach, Lecture 18)
Though these sermons are very different, they are preached through the same methodology. 1) Know your audience, 2) Know what they understand about God, self and the world and 3) Respectfully lead them to an accurate knowledge using terms they can grasp and concepts they can identify with which are bathed in biblical truth! So we land somewhere between Justin and Tertullian; somewhere between the mindset of much of the Evangelical Church of our day that embraces the culture and adjusts the Gospel to remove the offense, and the “Fundamentalistic” idea that we follow the “Old Time Religion” and attempt to force the unbelieving world to conform to our understanding of Christian sub-culture.
In Acts 18 we read of a man named Apollos. He had an incomplete understanding of the Christian faith. Priscilla and Aquilla, who were more fully acquainted with the truths of the Faith, did not adjust the message to what he knew or shut him down and reject him, they took the time to lead him to the next step in his understanding. We read;“Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him and explained to him the way of God more accurately. And when he wished to cross to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him. When he arrived, he greatly helped those who through grace had believed, for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus.” (Acts 18:24-28 ESV)
Some of us may think, “Of course!” He is teaching about Jesus, that was the right thing for them to do. Yet, if he showed up in many of our churches or in our neighborhood preaching an incomplete Gospel, there would certainly be some who would more likely condemn him at the first hearing and drive him from the faith rather than instruct him and bring him in. This is a major problem with much of American Evangelicalism in the early 21st Century, as I see it;
Much of the modern American church sees itself through the lens of it’s own personal history. It has been jaded by relatively recent events and believes that it’s modified understanding of Christianity is the “True Faith.”
Much of what it believes has been modified by the culture, dating back to the Deism which was present at the inception of our country, the Second Great Awakening, and the influence of Revivalism, it fails to see itself and the culture accurately.
Unwittingly, it embraces distorted views of self, God and His Covenant (our relationship to Him). As I indicated above, if we fail to challenge ourselves on these false assumptions, we will never be ready to challenge our culture on them! The self-centeredness of our religion is often the giveaway to the errors of our belief.
One reaction against that self-centeredness, the Emerging Movement in the church, is trying to correct it, but has largely headed down the path of fully embracing the culture and modifying the message. Their message of the need for community is great, but the sacrifice of truth in order to bring it into focus is actually heretical.
We are called to challenge people with the reality of the God of Heaven and His Gospel! If we fail to grasp it ourselves we will never accomplish our task! In order to follow the Apostle Paul’s lead, we must first understand our own faith in a biblical manner and then seek to understand our culture so that we can approach them and lead them to a biblical understanding of the Christian Faith. This requires, first of all, that we strive to understand the basic truths of the Gospel, and then, that we genuinely CARE about our culture (which is a natural result of our understanding). We cannot approach them as our personal enemies or the enemies of the Gospel. We cannot justify our disobedience to the command to “give an answer” with an unjust denial of our own former status as “enemies of God” (Romans 5:10, Ephesians 2:1-3, Colossians 1:21). God saves His enemies. If He did not, there would be no one for Him to save. The Church’s true enemies are those who distort Christ’s Gospel from within;
“Only let us hold true to what we have attained. Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.” (Philippians 3:16-19 ESV)
Those who are in the Church and are attempting to serve as examples to the Flock, yet pursue “earthly things” (not necessarily “sex, drugs and rock and roll,” but selfish control is indicated here).
Paul’s love for people, for God and for the Gospel is what caused him to write the following words to the Corinthians “I have become all things to all people that by all means I might save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22 ESV) See the context of this verse as evidence to my statements above regarding the reason that we are to love and respect the unsaved in the culture;
“Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision. For I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of my ground for boasting. For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel. For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:13-23 ESV)
The Apostle’s goal was to identify with those which God had given him to preach the Gospel to. It was not to seek to alienate himself from them. So much so, that he was even willing to give up his paycheck in order not to offend them! (That is some serious faith!) This is one area where the culture has limited our acceptance of Gospel truth. We are so “rights oriented” that we cannot conceive of giving up our own rights for the benefit others! Most of us will only attend a church that caters to our own tastes and we “gospelize those tastes and make the tastes of others to be sinful or possibly just immature, carnal and beneath us. We create our own culture and resist any influence from the outside, cutting ourselves off from the mission field we have been placed in because we believe we have the right to our own personal comfort and since we have deemed the tastes of others as sinful or spiritually deficient, we justify our selfishness in the Name of Jesus, all the while blaspheming His name, and “causing it to be blasphemed among the Gentiles.” This was the guilt of Israel in the days of the Apostles as Paul wrote to the Jews in Rome;
“You who make your boast in the law, do you dishonor God through breaking the law? For “You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” (Romans 2:23-24 ESV)
We are often so zealous to guard our man-made, legalistic ideals, and this, almost exclusively because we think God favors us either ultimately or additionally because of them (this is the effect of working the system of works righteousness that comes from the Deism of our culture), that we justify our disobedience to the clear command of Christ in His Great Commission which results from the fact that we will not allow ourselves to be made uncomfortable for Christ and his Gospel, nor for our neighbor who is on the broad path to destruction! In our lack of love, our condescending attitude to the culture, and our refusal to bring the Gospel to the mission field in which the Lord has placed us, we pile our guilt up to heaven and cause the heathens to mock us and our God. Ultimately, it will prove that we do not know Him at all!
The Apostle Paul addressed the Colossians Believers on their relationship to the surrounding culture in this way;
“Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison– that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak. Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. (Colossians 4:2-6 ESV)
This is the standard of the conduct of a Christian as it relates to those who are “outside.” Paul has spent two chapters explaining the Gospel to them and exalting Christ in His deity. Then he tells them of their responsibility to live in light of that Gospel in chapter three and here in chapter four. The greatest lesson that I take away from this is that we need to be thoroughly inundated with Gospel truth at the outset. Much of the warning which the Apostle has for the Colossians Believers is, not to have their faith or their thinking corrupted by the thinking of their culture or the false teachers that have crept into the church. Only when we begin with a strong faith and full conviction of the reality of the Gospel, will we have the confidence to engage the culture. Yet, the command to “walk in wisdom” is not a fearful retreat from the culture as is taught by some, but an awareness of our conduct so that by our own acts we do not become a stumbling block to them in their conversion.
The notes of the Geneva Bible echo the things I have been discussing as it comments on Colossians 4:5, saying;
“In all parts of our life, we ought to have good consideration even of those who are outside of the Church.
Advisedly and cautiously.
Seek occasion to win them, even though you lose something of your own by it. ”
I have spoken of being careful not to be corrupted by the culture, of taking the time to get to know what they think, of treating them with love and respect. Of the necessity of all of this as we strive to take the Gospel to the people that God has put in our paths! As John Calvin comments on Colossians 4:5, “walk with wisdom toward outsiders” he tells us this;
There are three reasons: first, “lest any stumblingblock be put in, the way of the blind,” (Leviticus 19:14,) for nothing is more ready to occur, than that unbelievers are driven from bad to worse through our imprudence, and their minds are wounded, so that they hold religion more and more in abhorrence. Secondly, it is lest any occasion may be given for detracting from the honor of the gospel, and thus the name of Christ be exposed to derision, persons be rendered more hostile, and disturbances and persecutions be stirred up. Lastly, it is, lest, while we are mingled together, in partaking of food, and on other occasions, we be defiled by their pollutions, and by little and little become profane.
To the same effect, also, is what follows, redeeming the time, that is, because intercourse with them is dangerous. For in Ephesians 5:16, he assigns the reason, because the days are evil. “Amidst so great a corruption as prevails in the world we must seize opportunities of doing good, and we must struggle against impediments.” The more, therefore, that our path is blocked up with occasions of offense, so much the more carefully must we take heed lest our feet should stumble, or we should stop short through indolence (laziness or idleness). (Calvin’s Commentaries On The Whole Bible)
Our witness to the world is hard work! But it must be a labor of love. It must be a consistent and constant labor. It must be done diligently and with purpose or it will never be accomplished. While some may attack this methodology as being “man-centered” we can turn to the Apostle himself as our example and even Jesus, as mentioned above, as He ministered to the “woman at the well” in John 4. It really comes down to the questions of the reality of our love and the balance required to maintain our purity (both doctrinally and morally) while not avoiding our responsibility to reach out to the mission field in which the Lord has placed us. The Christian Faith is, in many ways, a faith held in tension. When we try to eliminate that tension, we usually end up in some kind of error.
In responding to the error of someone else, we need to guard ourselves against going too far in the other direction. If a part of the Church is acting too much like the world, we cannot ignore our responsibilities to love, respect and engage the world because of it. It is not so much our concern what other Christians think of us, but whether we are being faithful to the Scriptures and to the God who commands us through them. If one group in the Church is overdoing it with what they believe is love, in a seeker sensitive atmosphere, we cannot neglect biblical love and still be obedient.
Dr. Barrs tells us;
“God’s Word must come as a challenge to people because coming to faith in Christ requires repentance. It requires turning away from what one has believed (what one has given one’s life to, the sins of one’s heart and life) and turning to Christ. So the Gospel has to come with a challenge. But I want to make a couple of points about that challenge and how you make it. First of all, the challenge itself must always be made with grace. Even when we challenge people, we must be those who are bearing a message of grace. God’s Word is indeed like a two-edged sword. One edge is to wound but the other is to heal. When we challenge someone, the purpose is always for their ultimate healing because we are calling them to respond to the wonderful grace of God in Jesus Christ. So, even the challenge itself must conform to that message of grace. That is the first point. The second is this: when you challenge people, you must always challenge them as someone who is aware that you are a sinner yourself. You can never challenge them from a position of superiority, “Look at you, you idolater, struggling with this idol of money, or freedom, or the pursuit of your own happiness.” You have to come down off your pedestal to level ground, to the same level as the person to whom you are speaking, because you struggle with the same idols and the same sins. You never speak as someone who is not tested and struggling with the same problems and difficulties as those to whom you are speaking. You are going to speak as a sinner who is redeemed by the grace of God, and who, even as you are sharing the challenge of the Gospel, has sin in your heart. “I am a sinner myself. I have an idol factory in my heart.” And that changes the way you speak to people. You can address issues like personal freedom and the pursuit of one’s own happiness and the idolatry of money because you know that you wrestle with the same things and it will change the way you speak. So even the challenge must not come from a position of superiority but must always be tempered by grace and by the knowledge of your own sin. (Apologetics and Outreach, Lecture 24)
So love and respect do not preclude the truth, they flow from it! Like the Apostle, if we love God and His Gospel and the people that He has given us to preach the Gospel to, we will make sure that 1) we know the Gospel that has been given to us. 2) We know the people to whom we are supposed to be preaching, at least on a general level. We have a good idea about what our culture thinks of self, God, and how our relationship to Him works (covenant). 3) We demonstrate a discernible level of love and respect to them as fellow creatures made in the image of God.
This brings to mind what a Jehovah’s Witness once said to me as she was leaving the sidewalk in front of my house. Weeks before, I had gotten a copy of the New World Translation of the Bible and begun to read it in my daily devotions, highlighting the passages that would support a biblical view of Christ, His Deity, the Atonement, and salvation by grace, through faith, etc. When she showed up I spoke to her, and, like the blind hog who finds an acorn once in a while, I led her from what I knew about her beliefs (mostly responding to her own assertions about worshiping God according to who He is rather than who we think He might be) and showed her patiently from her own Bible that what I was saying was supported in her translation of the Scriptures. She was not converted, but her younger acquaintances stood and heard the conversation. At the end, she thanked me for caring enough to treat her with respect and dignity and teach her what I believed, saying that most Evangelicals treated her rudely and chased her away.
I can’t help but wonder how different the political and religious climate would be in our culture if Evangelicals were not so fearful of the cults and the heathen; if we were less threatened by them because we were more familiar with our own Faith; if we were filled with the Love of Jesus Christ and were willing to suffer loss for the salvation of their souls; if we had more confidence in the God who saves us and absolutely none in ourselves. What would our churches look like; What would our culture look like, if the salt was really salty; if our rights were insignificant when we compared them to the souls of men; if Paul’s admonition to the Philippians we true in our lives, here and now?
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.” (Philippians 2:5-16 ESV)
Behnken, Ken. Who Are We Trying To Reach? Irvine, CA: www.Center For US Missions.com, 2003. N. pag. Web. 23 Mar. 2012.
Green, Michael. Evangelism in the Early Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, n.d. Web. 25 Feb. 2012.
Schaff, Phillip. Ante-Nicene Fathers. Vol. 1. N.p.: n.p., 1885. N. pag. 10 vols. Calvin College. Web. 25 Feb. 2012.
Schaff, Phillip. Ante-Nicene Fathers. Vol. 3. N.p.: n.p., 1885. N. pag. 10 vols. Calvin College. Web. 25 Feb. 2012.