Volume 9, Issue 2: Africanus
While on furlough in 1994/95 my wife and I had the opportunity to counsel a friend and new Christian to stop living with a boyfriend. Unfortunately, when she explained our counsel to a Bible college student of a nearby well-known evangelical seminary, she was advised not to listen to "these missionaries that are always telling people what to do."
Part of the training missionaries get today in Bible schools, Christian colleges and missionary candidate schools is how to appreciate other cultures and religions. Such training is necessary for the missionary to effectively live and work among a people unlike his own. However, after all the emphasis on the virtues of non-western cultures and how missionaries have "destroyed cultures," I wonder if many aren't making the false conclusion that the real task of the missionary is not to throw anything out of heathen culture, but rather to salt heavily with Christian ideas and hope for the best. So much emphasis is made on being sensitive to their culture and not imposing our cultural baggage that I somehow feel we have come to the belief, though not consciously, that one may be received into the church while still completely remaining in his pagan world. No doubt related to this belief is the increasingly unpopular doctrine of the coming wrath of God.
With our eyes off of Scripture and focused on our critics, we are gun-shy and would rather meet "felt needs" and painlessly draw in our converts, as opposed to clearly proclaiming the Gospel and teaching what man's response is to be. I wonder if we really believe that our message is a message of "deliverance from the wrath to come"?
A look at the substance of the Apostle Paul's preaching will show that the two unpopular doctrines mentioned above are very much part of his preaching to the Gentiles. In the book of Acts we have several direct examples. First we have Paul's message in the synagogue at Antioch of Pisidia (Acts 13:16-41). Next, is the message in Lystra to mainly Gentiles (Acts 14:15-17). Lastly, we have Paul's speech to the "Men of Athens" on Mars Hill, also Gentiles (Acts 17:22-31).
Apart from these direct examples, at least five indirect references are made to the substance of his preaching: a description by the "fortune-telling" slave girl (Acts 16:17), Luke's comments about Paul's teaching in the synagogue in Thessalonica (Acts 17:2-3), the comments of the people to the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers who asked about Paul's preaching (Acts 17:18), the words of Demetrius the silversmith (Acts 19:26), and finally an account of its main components given to the Ephesian elders by Paul himself (Acts 20:21).
Some will be quick to notice that the Apostle respected his hearers and tried to win their ears by drawing their attention to beliefs held in common. In his address to the Gentile philosophers at Athens, we see him making an appeal to the past and quoting their literature.
While Paul does appeal to his audience's past knowledge, he only does so in order to sow seed on labored ground. Both eyes on the text will reveal that there is no concealing of the real issue and all that must be involved and no suggestion of compromise or fear of giving offense. All must repent, for judgment is at hand. Both unpopular doctrines are key elements of his preaching. "Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead" (Acts 17:30-31).
Making a break with the past is part of repentance, and in all cases it will require changes in one's culture. Two examples can be seen in Paul's preaching in Lystra and Thessalonica. In Lystra, trying to keep the crowd from sacrificing to them, Paul said: "Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men with the same nature as you, and preach to you that you should turn from these useless things to the living God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and all things that are in them" (Acts 14:15).
In Thessalonica Paul apparently taught the Thessalonians to turn from their old practices. We are told that the Gentiles turned "from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, even Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come" (1 Thess. 1:9-10).
In light of these passages alone it is impossible for us to assume that the Apostle Paul coaxed people into the kingdom, putting up with their unenlightened religious beliefs. Rather, he was clear and uncompromising in his preaching, even though he did not ridicule and put down his hearers or viciously attack their religion (Acts 19:37). He made perfectly clear what his audience had to do and did not minimize the enormous gulf between those who are "in Christ" and those who are not.
In our preaching to pagan cultures (including pagan U.S. culture) we must keep our message in line with God's Word. God commands repentance because the Judge is at the door and there is most certainly a wrath to come. Repentance and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ must involve a change in culture, a "turning from" and a "turning to." In each culture what exactly is turned from will be different, but there will always be a renouncing of the past life and the adopting of the new. It is time that we repent and stop letting our critics govern our preaching!