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The Gospel in a Godless City


The apostle Paul’s sermon in Athens in Acts 17:22–29 is a masterpiece in Gospel contextualization. It is rhetorically skillful, it is culturally sensitive, and it is biblically faithful. It springs from a place of deep grief for the lostness of its hearers, it leads them to Jesus Christ through a deep exposition of who God is and what He wants with the world, and it does so in language that yields both clarity and goodwill. It is the exemplar of great evangelistic preaching in a world for whom God is, as He was to Paul’s Athenian hearers, “unknown.”

The Western world of today is not so different from first-century Athens. We may not have idle philosophers roaming the marketplace in togas, but like the Athenians, many today don’t know the first thing about the God of the Bible. Our culture is superficially Christian in some ways, but even in circles where religion is revered, it is often far from having a biblical understanding of the world. If we would share the good news of Jesus Christ, we must be prepared to teach others about a God they don’t know and do so with the same precision, sensitivity, and faithfulness that Paul brought to the Athenians.

By turning to Paul’s preaching in Acts 17, we can find a kind of roadmap for how to preach the Gospel in our own age. And we have to begin not simply by parroting Paul’s words but by modeling his heart.

Grief and Faith in the Godless City

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. (Acts 17:16–17)

In verse 16, we follow Paul as he arrives in Athens after a journey of some three hundred miles from Berea. Athens was not originally on his missionary program, but as he waited for Silas and Timothy (vv. 14–15) and moved around the city, Paul’s “spirit was provoked within him.” Luke writes this sentence using a word that, over the centuries, has evolved into the English word paroxysm. It describes a sudden and overwhelming emotional response at the core of Paul’s being. And why? Because the city “was full of idols.”

If we would share the good news of Jesus Christ, we must be prepared to teach others about a God they don’t know and do so with the same precision, sensitivity, and faithfulness that Paul brought to the Athenians.

Paul was distressed because he was committed to the testimony of Scripture that there is one God. He knew the first and second commandments. He knew the testimony of Isaiah: “All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit” (Isa. 44:9). As Paul toured the city, he didn’t snap a few pictures and say, “I’ll need to take these home and show them to my friends!” Instead, he was grieved to find the Athenians in such a state of spiritual confusion and that the glory of the God he loved was being dragged down.

Notice, though, that Paul did not go on a diatribe against the city. He didn’t gather a group together to make banners and chant, “We don’t like idols!” Nor did he suggest reforming the courts or infiltrating the political systems. Instead, we read that “he reasoned,” because he actually believed that the truth of the risen Jesus has “divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Cor. 10:4)—fortresses of godlessness—in individual lives, in families, in communities, in cities, and in nations. Paul’s firm grasp of the truth of the Gospel made him grieve at the lies the Athenians believed, but it also gave him the foundation to respond in faith and not in anger. He knew that the God who called him on the Damascus Road, even though he was “the foremost” of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15), would call others as well.

Next, Acts 17:18–21 describes how some Stoic and Epicurean philosophers took an interest in Paul’s reasoning and brought him to their philosophical gathering on the rock outcropping known as the Areopagus, or Mars Hill. The remainder of the chapter describes Paul’s effort to convince them of the truth.

Proclaiming the “Unknown God” in the Godless City

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.” (Acts 17:22–23)

What a start! Paul began not by attacking the Athenian intelligentsia for their idol worship but by showing them that he had seen their city and considered their ways. He began not by condemning their ignorance of God but by honoring their commitment to religion. Though he was grieved by their idolatry and ignorance, he still honored the virtues the Athenians demonstrated amid their sin.

Paul “reasoned” with the Athenians because he actually believed that the truth of the risen Jesus has “divine power to destroy strongholds.”

In Acts 17:3, Luke has already shown us Paul’s “custom” of reasoning in the synagogues: “explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.’” For the devout Jews who knew the Scriptures and believed in the God of Israel, Paul thought it best to begin with the Scriptures’ promise of a Messiah and a need for atonement.

But with Greeks in Athens, Paul had to preach a God who was—however much or little they understood their own inscription—“unknown.” Before he could condemn idolatry, he had to tell his hearers about the God whom idolatry offends. Before he could condemn their ignorance, he had to help them see that this God is worth knowing. And before he could preach that the Messiah suffered and rose again, he had to preach about their need for a Savior.

In our own culture, with its deep misconceptions about the God of the Bible, we would do well to lay the same foundation that Paul did. He did so in five steps, beginning with the creation.

1) God Is the True God and Creator

“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man.” (Acts 17:24)

Paul began by summarizing a worldview very different from that expressed by his audience. The Epicureans believed in a universe of chance, and the Stoics were committed to a form of blind determinism. In the face of these philosophies, Paul essentially said, “The God I want to tell you about is not a God that can be localized, limited, encapsulated, or enshrined, because He made everything in the world.” It was crucial for the Athenians to understand that God was not like their idols, who were part of the world. No, the God Paul was proclaiming was the maker of the universe, and His creating has important implications for everyone and everything.

2) God Is the Providential Sustainer

“Nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” (Acts 17:25)

Because God is the maker of everything, Paul says, He does not depend on us, but we depend on Him. He not only created life but sustains it. Not only does He deserve credit for beginning our existence, but also, He continues to maintain it. He is not a clockwork God who steps back from a self-sustaining creation. All that exists, Paul says, continues to exist because God wills it so.

3) God Is the Sovereign of History and Peoples

“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, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.” (Acts 17:26–27)

God continually sustains the world He created, and He is also in charge of it. He has directed the course of history and the very bounds of geography to testify to Himself. Perhaps Paul even told the Athenians something like what He later wrote to the church in Rome: “What can be known about God is plain” to humankind, “because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:19–20). God wants to be known, and He has made it possible to know Him.

4) God Is the Loving Father

“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.’” (Acts 17:27–28)

The truth is, Paul said, that the God who made us, sustains us, and overrules us is far more accessible than we realize. We are not swept up in a tide of randomness, as the Epicureans believed, nor are we cogs in a machine of fate, as the Stoics claimed. We are rather creatures made to know and love our Creator. This God is so close to us, in fact, that it is appropriate in some sense to call Him the Father of all men and women. This fatherhood of the Creator over His creation is different from the particular adoption of believers by grace that Paul writes of elsewhere, but it is nonetheless true that there is a “God who so loved the world…” (John 3:16, emphasis added). Yet as Paul would go on to point out, that love is not without obstacles.

5) God Is the Righteous Judge

“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 17:29–31)

Finally, having laid the groundwork by testifying to the fact that God is the Creator, the Sustainer, the Sovereign, and the Father of humankind and all creation, Paul turned to what we often think of first when we hear the word Gospel. Here, for the first time, he let the hammer drop on the idolatry and ignorance that so grieved him. The Athenians might have been able to follow along with him so far, saying, “Well, it’s an interesting concept, a creator God”—but now Paul brought them to the point of decision: This God is the judge of all the earth, and He has issued a call to all people everywhere to repent and believe, or else face judgment. And the key to understanding and being transformed by the Gospel, Paul said, is understanding and believing in the Messiah, whom God raised from the dead.

Proclaiming the God We Know in Our Godless Cities

Two millennia later, our world’s greatest need is the same as that of the Athenians and their neighbors. The streets of our cities are filled with shrines to ourselves, to materialism, to sex, to entertainment, to politics, and to countless other “gods.” The idols of our day are not represented primarily in the Buddha whose tummy you can rub on the restaurant counter or in the mantras some chant while practicing their yoga routines but in the worship of self. The issue is that so many fool themselves into thinking they are their own gods. But God tolerates no rivals. Until someone is prepared to get off his feeble throne, bow before the living God, and see Jesus enthroned in His rightful position, then the effects of religion and the passing fancies of culture will leave him cold and empty. Christians, like Paul, should be grieved by this.

But also as with Paul, grief can and should spur on faithful thoughts, words, and actions. The apostle responded to the Athenian context by seeking to understand their circumstances and worldview and addressing them on those terms. His sermon on Mars Hill, then, is not a template for every Gospel conversation we have; it was crafted especially for his first-century hearers. But it certainly helps us imagine what it looks like to share the good news of Jesus in a world where God is unknown. We, too, need to understand what our friends and neighbors believe, and we, too, need to declare who this God is whom we worship before we can warn of His intent to judge sin and before we can proclaim His mercies in Jesus Christ.

Until someone is prepared to get off his feeble throne, bow before the living God, and see Jesus enthroned in His rightful position, then the effects of religion and the passing fancies of culture will leave him cold and empty.

In broad strokes, if we were to imagine a kind of twenty-first-century version of Paul’s message on the Aeropaus, it might look something like this:

Friends and neighbors, I can see that you care a lot about doing right and being a good person. It’s encouraging to see you so concerned about finding your purpose in this world! Maybe you believe that you are the one who gets to define that purpose—but can I ask you a question? If you’re honest, wouldn’t you say that that burden, that responsibility, sometimes feels impossibly hard to bear? Don’t you get the sense that there’s something more worthwhile than finding and pursuing your personal purpose?

In fact, the Bible tells us that the same God who created the universe in all its grandeur and beauty created your life. He is also sustaining you—whether or not you realize it—through all of the seemingly random circumstances of this world. What’s more, this creator God wants you to know Him so much that He has ordered the world and the course of history in such a way as to make it possible for you to know Him. You are His child because He made you, and He is actually not far from you. The only thing that keeps you away from Him is the disobedience and unbelief that is as much a part of our rebellious human nature, yours and mine, as breathing.

You need to know that this God who made you and sustains you is also the judge of right and wrong. One day, He will judge the world and everyone in it with perfect justice. If that sounds intimidating, that’s reasonable! But here’s the good part: two thousand years ago, God sent His Son, Jesus, born as man, to live a perfect life and to die a criminal’s death on a Roman cross, paying the penalty for sin—then He raised Jesus from the dead to give us the promise of eternal life in Him. And the amazing thing is that if you repent of your sin and believe that Jesus died and rose for you, He will forgive you, He will invite you into His family, and He will show you your true purpose, for all eternity.

Of course, no script will ever quite fit the bill. Paul knew, as we must know, how to speak in words his listeners would understand, addressing the great longings that they shared. For that, we don’t need a prescriptive playbook or step-by-step instructions. The main thing we need is simply the Holy Spirit within us, stirring us to see people as Paul, and Jesus, saw them—with compassion, as “sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36; Mark 6:34)—and to present God’s love accordingly.

God has given us the responsibility to share His Gospel with a world that doesn’t know Him. Once we have done so clearly, sensitively, and faithfully, we can trust, as Paul did, that the Shepherd’s call will not fail to draw after Him those who are His own (John 10:27). Will we fulfill our part and make God known?

This article was adapted from the sermons “City of Idols — Part One” and “City of Idols — Part Two” by Alistair Begg.

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