Is your view of people Biblical or humanistic? Lessons from Acts 17.

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Paul’s speech at the Areopagus is likely one of the most studied and debated speeches in the book of Acts. For more detail see a much longer piece: THE AREOPAGUS: A STUDY IN CONTINUITY AND DISCONTINUITY featured in the June, St. Francis Magazine.

Just what kind of people were in Paul’s audience?

  • Are they on the right track and just need a bit of guidance?
  • Were they on the right track and went off the rails?
  • Are they slightly sick and just need some kind of medication?
  • Are they dead in sin and need resurrection power to even hear the Word?

This is more than a theoretical question, as it has a huge influence on mission strategy. Think of Islam, for instance which teaches that Adam and Eve did make a mistake and now through proper guidance can come back to Allah. What is presupposed in Islam then, is that it is within human power to come back to God.

One might picture the fall in Islam as someone who falls into a pit that is less than 2 meters deep and then gets some coaching on how to climb back out.

Now before we get too smug, this view about human ability was debated in the early church, after it was introduced by a monk called Pelagius. Although branded a heretic, the ideas of Pelagius—although toned down a whole lot— exist to this day, and now come out in statements to the effect: “if we make this translation just a bit more Muslim-friendly they will come to the Lord in droves” “if you incarnate the gospel just right then results will be guaranteed;” “those people, much more than some others, are resistant to the gospel;”.

Compare this with a Biblical view, what some might call the Augustinian view which states that humans are dead in their sin, and wholly unable without a change of their nature to come to God. Consider the data.

The unregenerate:

1. Are spiritually dead:  (Eph 2:1) “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins …”

2. Cannot understand or receive spiritual truth:  (1 Cor 2:14) “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. …”

3. Cannot please God: (Rom 8:8) “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God  …”

4. Cannot come to Christ: (John 6:44) “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him…”  “No one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father” (John 6:65)

5. Cannot repent:  “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then may you do good who are accustomed to evil” (Jer. 13:23). “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? Not one” (Job 14:4). “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit” (Mt. 7:18).

6. Are under the power of Satan: (1 John 5:19)   “We know that we are of God, and that the whole world lies in the power of the evil one”

7. Dwell in darkness:  (Ephesians 5:8) “… for you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light”

8. Do not seek God:  (Rom 3:11) “There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God ”

9. Are helpless:  (Rom 8:8) “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly ”

10. Have uncircumcised hearts of stone:  (Ezek 36:26) “Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”

11. Offer sacrifices which are an abomination to God: (Proverbs 15.8)

12. Are hostile towards God: (Rom 8:7) “…because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God”

(Adapted from Brian SchwertleyMan’s Need of Salvation: Total Depravity and Man’s Inability“)

Paul would have seen the unregenerate Epicurean and Stoic philosophers and those in the marketplace as lying dead in a pit 100 meters deep. They did not need good advice, more information, or some coaching. They needed Resurrection. Paul made no excuse for preaching Jesus and the resurrection.

This put Paul in a place of humility. All of his persuasive rhetorical skills, knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures, and knowledge of the Greek culture at Athens were not enough. Only Gospel proclamation in the power of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit working powerfully to bring that Word home would have any effect. It was effective. “Some believed…” (v. 34).

Paul knew that he too had had a heart of stone and had shown open hostility to God in Christ by persecuting Christians. This helped him to show compassion to his fellow human beings. Note the kindness in the words “we ought” (v.29) “men of Athens” (v. 22). There is patience in his presentation as he connects with their thought world…”I carefully observed “(v.23) and takes them methodically and systematically to Jesus, even though he is irritated to the core with their idolatry (v. 16).

Paul knows with a certainty that he is God’s authorized representative. This gives authority to his words…. “this is what I am going to proclaim to you” (v.23).

Paul fears God more than he fears the people in front of him, who had not wasted any time to label him with a slur as a  “babbler”–a wannabee philosopher  (v. 17). Paul does not return the insult but leads his audience from what they can observe in the created order to the fact that they will have to bow their knees in repentance to King Jesus who is going to Judge them.

How do you see the people in front of you? Do your methods reflect a humanistic view of people with inherent human ability like that of Pelagius and Islam, or do they reflect the Biblical view?

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About Author

John Span has worked with his family in West Africa among an unreached 'Fulani' people group for the last ten years. His mentors have challenged him to think theologically, especially in the area of missions to Muslims and he desires to inspire others to do the same. In the last year he has been a frequent contributor to the St. Francis Magazine.

11 Comments

  1. John’s simple exposition, while not covering everything, delineated clearly the critical issues. I think I know what Carl is trying to say about biases but the fact is the Scripture cuts across biases. I regret that John did not hammer the point- for the IM people- that in v. 18 Paul was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. He said it but apparently needed to say it several times. Where is the bias?

    Some wanted to know more about Jesus and the Resurrection, not about cultural accommodation. And in v. 32-34 we see that some mocked while others believed. Obviously, we don’t have all of Paul’s teaching/preaching in Athens but the verses we have are clear. It is not about adjusting to another religion.

    Another note to Carl who says that doctrine was something that “Jesus himself spent little time on.” To the contrary, his teaching is the doctrine. The Greek word for doctrine is rare in the NT. The word for teaching is often translated as doctrine. See Young’s or other concordances for teaching. Most references to teaching in the NT are about the doctrine. Let’s keep going to the Word. It will become clear where we are on point or off.

  2. Carl. I responded to your post of June 2, 2010. There it was stated: “Each of us desire……… No one would say…………We all want to be accurate…….”. From those statements, all which seemed to encapsulate “good intentions” I responded. [I did notice in your present response that you used the words “we all want” …”we want good doctrine…” “none of us are.”] I wonder if theological categories observed in the course of church history, like skewed emphases or error have any room here?

    Oh yes, your statement about God or human-centered views did remind me of a very helpful summary piece called “Two Views of Evangelism” by Wil Metzger. Have you read it? The link is: http://www.the-highway.com/2views_Metzger.html This piece challenges one to verify if their presuppositions are Biblical. I do agree with you that each person comes to the table with presuppositions. Whether a person is open to having them scrutinized by the Spirit of truth working through the Word is another question. Rule of thumb: Scripture rarely tells us what we want to hear, but what we need to hear.

    Curious as to the “good questions” that you say the quotes raised. Personally I see them as examples of dangerous theological error, and two in particular deny the Biblical texts furnished in the article. They presuppose, as Islam itself does, that there is a native goodness to Islam. Sorry. No nice guy talk here. They are in error and I make no excuse for “contending for the faith.” I would rather contend for the faith to see the unity of truth, than the sham harmony of error.

    I trust that you read the piece in the Founder’s Journal? From there, I am sure that you observed that the effects of Finney’s wrong thinking still cripple evangelicalism—nice attitudes notwithstanding. Finney detested the “cannot” doctrines of the historical church with respect to human ability. He made Scripture tell him what he wanted it to say. (Nettleton who was mentioned in the article was charged with being doctrinaire and old fashioned, and a whole lot less than soothing, but in some localities as high as 90% of those who found the Lord in his ministry stayed faithful even 20 years later. Compare this with the “new and improved methods” of Finney under whose ministry some observers estimate an attrition rate of 90% after 6 months.) Doctrine matters—eternally.
    As before: Paul to Timothy “Watch your life and doctrine closely”(1 Tim 4:16)

  3. John, not sure which things you’re responding to that I said. But your comments do raise some good questions. It would be fun to do some biblical research on what matters more – right “thinking” or right “doing.” Or maybe we could juxtapose “right doctrine” against “right attitudes.”

    Of course, we all want to be thinking “rightly.” And we want good doctrine. None of us are thinking that we’re preaching heresy. But I wonder if attitudes and actions are more important then having your doctrines all in a row – something that Jesus himself spent little time on.

  4. Response to Carl: Part 2
    The consequences of wrong thinking about human ability can be found in the following quotes:
    A. “Islam is partly mistaken, but mostly full of half-completed truth and suppressed truth; it began to build the right kind of house, but it veered off course and never completed it; in many respects Mohammad was indeed a warner, but he lost his way and never understood the truth about Christ.” (Private correspondence)
    B. ‘God has already placed a deep level of respect and honor for Jesus in the hearts of many Muslims.” (Rick Love, Mission Frontiers editorial April 2010–and see a response in the June St. Francis Magazine).
    C. “Nabeel Jabbour, a Navigator leader, believes that Islam as a religion started down the right track but jumped off the rails” (see Position Paper on IM on this website)

    Each of these quotes portrays a view not unlike that of Finney. God forbid that in a few years each of their authors would have to say the same “Ooops” as Finney did.
    History shows that good intentions are not enough. Was it not Paul who said to Timothy “Watch your life and doctrine closely”(1 Tim 4:16).

  5. Response to Carl: Part 1
    To Carl As much as good intentions are honorable, right thinking is more glorifying to God. Charles Finney had good intentions, but his underlying semi-Pelagian theology (which exalts the abilities of spiritually dead corpses in a graveyard to decide for themselves to get up) resulted in a methodology that included the anxious bench to use peer pressure and the tactics of a lawyer persuading the jury for people to “make decisions.” Finney later complained that a huge number of his so called converts had fallen away. Might I refer you to an interesting study which ties the linkage between right teaching and methods, just as Mark observed?. It is called “How Does Doctrine Affect Evangelism?…” http://www.founders.org/FJ33/article1.html

  6. Having been “preaching Jesus and the resurrection,” it was because he was inharmonious that they “took” Paul to the Areopagus to speak further. There, he explicitly called for repentance. IM runs contrary to Scripture, especially pertaining to the potentially inflamatory that effects repentance.

  7. “Love Not The World”

    “For the WHOLE world(not just a portion) is under the control of the evil one”…….(I John 5:19)

    “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world will pass away, and the lust thereof: but he that does the will of The Only True GOD will abide for ever.”(IJohn2:15-17)

    “If you were of the world, the world would love it’s own: but because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said unto you, the servant is not greater than his Master. If they have persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept My saying, they will keep yours also.” (John15:19-20)

    “Where do wars and fighting among you come from? Do they not come of your lusts that war in your members? You lust, and have not: you kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: you fight and war yet you have not, because you ask not. You ask, and receive not, because you ask amiss, that you may consume it upon your lusts. You adulterers and adulteresses, don’t you know that friendship with the world is to be at enmity with The Only True GOD? Therefore whoever will be a friend of the world is the enemy of The Only True GOD.” (James 4:1-4)

    “The world cannot hate you; but the world hates Me, because I testify that the works of this world are evil.” (John 7:7)” and “The Messiah gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of The Only True God, Our Father.”(Gal 1:4)

    The Messiah testified: “If the world hates you know that it hated Me before it hated you.”(John 5:18) Truly, Truly, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abides alone: but if it die it brings forth much fruit. He that loves his life in this world shall lose it; and he that hates his life in this world shall have it unto life eternal.” (John 12:24-25)

    John testified: “Marvel not, my brethren, if the world hates you.” (I John 3:13) ” James testified, “Whoever would be a friend of this world is the enemy of GOD”(James4:4)

    The “earth and it’s life forms” are The Creation of The ONE and Only True GOD, Father of ALL! The “worldly” systems are the creation of, and under the dominion of “the god of this world”, he who is “the father of lies”, he who “has blinded the minds of those who believe not The Messiah”! All the nations of this world are under the dominion of, and serve, the “god of this world” for he provides the fuel that feeds mankind’s “imag”ination. And sadly, mankind’s “imag”ination is destroying Creation(air, water, land vegetation, creatures) and perverting that which is Spirit(Truth, Light, Life, Faith, Love, Peace,, All that is Truly Good) ;-(

    Once again, the “earth and it’s life forms” are The Creation of The Only True GOD, Father of ALL! The current “worldly” systems are the creation of, and under the dominion of “the god of this world”.

    Those who “love this world” all serve “the god of this world”, and have their portion in the processes that are progressively destroying The Creation of The Only True GOD. “And The Only True GOD will destroy them who destroy the earth.” (Rev 11:18c)

    Global warming, polluted air, land and waters, toxic wastes, sexual perversion, evil inventions of destruction, greed, hate, carnal warfare, dis-ease(no-peace),,etc,, are all destructive processes that have their root in “the lust of the eye, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life” all of which fuel the fires of mankind’s “imag”ination ;-(

    Thankfully The Truth Is Alive in those who have been born of The Spirit for “they no longer love this wicked, evil world and it’s things, nor do they love their own lives in this world”. They but seek and desire The Will of GOD, their Father and Creator, as they await their final transformation. “Corruptible to Incorruptible” indeed and Truth! Home, Home at last!

    Now “the ground was cursed(notice that the ground was cursed, not Adam) for Adam’s sake” because he “hearkened unto the woman”.

    Adam listened to a woman rather than obeying The Only True GOD. Yet because of Faithful Noah, The Only True GOD “no longer would curse the ground for man’s sake” because Noah obeyed The Only True GOD rather than a woman! (Genesis8:21-22) And the Faithful today are exhorted to “love not the world, neither the things that are in the world.”

    Be not of those who deny and defy “The One GOD, Father of All”. Be not of those who are destroying Creation(water, air, land, vegetation, creatures) and perverting that which is Spirit(Truth, Light, Life, Love, Peace, Hope, Mercy, Faith, Wisdom, Grace, Faith, Miralces,.etc.) ;-(

    “Set your affections on things above”. Desire Heavenly, eternal things. Be not joined together with those serving ‘time’ in the prison that is this world! Take heed unto The Call of “The Only True GOD” to “Come Out of her, MY people!”

    “Come out” from among those who are destroying Creation and perverting that which is Spirit. Be of those who follow The Messiah on The Way to The Truth of The Life.

    “Come out” of the worldly systems, which are but the product of mankind’s “imag”ination, and especially this world’s systems of theo’ry’logical religion.

    “Pure religion and undefiled before GOD The Father is this, to visit the fatherless(those who know not their Father[Creator]) and widows(those who have not been joined together as One with The Messiah and Our Father) in their affliction and to keep oneself uncontaminated by the world.” (James1:27)

    Simply, all other religion is impure, defiled and of this wicked, evil world.

    “Pure religion and undefiled” is declared to be personal(oneself), not corporate.

    Faith will not create a system of religion!

    Faith is Family, not “religion”, and The Brethren of The Messiah yet seek and desire that which The Messiah sought and desired above all else:

    “Father, not my will, But THY Will Be Done”

    Peace, in spite of the dis-ease(no-peace) that is of this world and it’s systems of religion, for “the WHOLE world(not just a portion) is under the control of the evil one” indeed and Truth……

    Truth IS, a lie is not…….

    Abide in The Truth……. francis

  8. I’ve come back to revisit this site and the posts here several times since my interview. I appreciate the heart and spirit of much of what is written here. Each of us desire to be biblical in our missiology. No one would say they would desire to be human-centered rather than God-centered.

    We all read the scriptures through massive amounts of our own experiences and theological presuppositions. We all want to be accurate, but we bring our biases to the reading table. Acknowledging that…

  9. Thank you so much! I go to a church that believes in Reformed Theology (Total Depravity, etc…), and it is refreshing that someone finally realizes that this theology impacts Missiology. When mission methodologies become about the people, then we have made a graven sin. All mission methodologies need to be about God, the center and beginning and end of all things, including mission strategy. When God is in the right position, and people are in theirs, we can then engage them with the gospel…

  10. Elijah The Saudi on

    It is nice to finally read something as clear as this. For a while i have been reading IM views on Acts 17 with all kinds of methods to harmonize what Paul stated very clearly.

    No matter what the IM followers would want us to believe, Paul in Acts 17 made the “unknown God” known very clearly to his audience without dancing around their sinful nature or watering down the truth.

    Unfortunately, many IM sympathizers make the “unkown truth” of Islam even more unknown by vailing it rather…

  11. You did not pick on a word here and there to construct your theology. This is an example of good biblical missiology. The lessons and principles are drawn from the story and not imposed into the story. Thank you for this good and well thought through work. It is very helpful.

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