Chapter 120

Seven Timeless Principles for Reaching Lost People

How Paul preached to skeptics.

What does it take to be a preacher to pagans, whether of the religious or irreligious variety? My answer is the ancient patterns are still the best for the modern preacher, as long as they come from the Bible. We find a prime example in Paul's sermon to the men of Athens. One of the happy changes to occur in my lifetime has been the rehabilitation of this great discourse in Acts 17 as rightly a model for today's Christian evangelist.

In this three-part series of articles I have pinpointed seven characteristics of preaching, based on Paul's message, that will tell for God in an idolatrous world.

1. Powers of Reasoning

Demolition work, great denials, are the very stuff of New Testament teaching.

Note the verbs Luke uses to describe his hero's preaching. For instance, arriving in Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-4), Paul "reasoned," or "argued," with members of the synagogue on three Sabbaths, "explaining and proving" that Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. So convincing was his proclamation of Jesus as the Christ that some Jews were "persuaded," and joined Paul and Silas, along with many God-fearers as well as "not a few" prominent women. In Acts the Christian converts are often described as the "persuaded"; this is hardly common parlance today.

On leaving Athens, there is no suggestion that the great missionary apostle changed his normal practice.Acts 18:1-4 tells how Paul lodged with fellow tentmakers, plying his trade and presumably paying his way, while he made regular visits to the synagogue, where once again he "reasoned" with the people, seeking to "persuade" Jews and Greeks.Acts 19:8 continues the same story, which extends right through to the end, with Paul in a rented house, still "explaining" and "convincing" all but those whose minds were closed and who would never believe (Acts 28:23-31).

The old suggestions that "failure" in Athens caused Paul to jettison all intellectual skills thereafter, forsaking rational arguments in his preaching, in order simply to placard "Christ and him crucified" before his hearers, has had a long life—understandably perhaps in the light of 1 Corinthians 2:4 ("not with wise and persuasive words"). But it is the subtle and beguiling persuasiveness based on this world's wisdom, which his opponents were later to use with so much numerical success, that Paul always hated (Colossians 2:4).

A majority reading of 1 Corinthians 2:4 inserts "human" before "wisdom," and though this must be accepted as a secondary reading, it exactly makes Paul's point. He would not enforce his proclamation by "the wisdom of the world" (1 Corinthians 1:20), for by this wisdom no one ever came to a knowledge of God. Of this fact a century of liberal and rationalistic theology, and such preaching as it produces, should finally have persuaded all but those whose prejudices are invincible.

So, whether it was this world's wisdom or this world's ways of persuasion as practiced by the Corinthian superstars (2 Corinthians 2:17;2 Corinthians 4:2), Paul renounced them both. Nevertheless, since he knew what it was to fear the Lord, he still sought to persuade people (2 Corinthians 5:11); this was at the heart of his ministry of reconciliation.

What was heard that day at the Areopagus was emphatically not "the wisdom of this age"; the Athenians knew all about that, but this new teaching was different. Reading Paul's words today, however, we cannot miss the relentless logic, the close reasoning, and the irresistible conclusion. If verses Acts 17:22-31 record the structure of Paul's sermon, it is marvelously tight, ordered, and clear. The argument is as follows:

Preaching to pagans today demands similar coherent, discriminating outlines that will lead, by sound reasoning, to the refutation of error and the establishment of the truth. The "therefore" of verse Acts 17:29 is a hammer blow, just because the preceding links in the chain have been so well made. Everyone has been made to think. The fact of Christ can no longer be ignored.

It is not that the language used is sophisticated or complex—the "superior wisdom" of 1 Corinthians 2:1, so loved by the proudly intellectual. Our doctrine of inspiration guarantees that Luke's report accurately mirrors the sort of terminology used. All is straightforward and clear. Luther's maidservants in Wittenberg would have understood every word. It is the conscience that Paul is out to reach—not just the intellect—and plain speaking is necessary in order to reach it (2 Corinthians 4:2b).

In a little book on Pastoral Work, dated 1890 (written by a previous Rector of St. Andrew Undershaft, W. Walsham How), there is a chapter on preaching. It includes the following delightful if unflattering paragraph.

It seems that this is exactly what Paul did when addressing his distinguished audience in Athens.

2. Demolition skills

During my time in the city of London, I regularly witnessed the demolition of office blocks. Often these enormous buildings were of no great age or had been newly refurbished. But down they came. What the developer paid his millions for was not the building but the site. So it is in preaching to pagans; the ground is already occupied, religious or irreligious opinions firmly in place. We cannot start to build, as Paul demonstrates in the Athenian sermon, without first demolishing the old, well-established structures.

In a different context (2 Corinthians 10:3-5) Paul describes the weapons with which we fight such spiritual battles. They are not the weapons of this world (as discussed in point one), yet they have "divine power to demolish strongholds." So the preacher, in his special work, must of necessity demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God.

How effectively before the men of Athens did Paul set about this work of demolition! Consider as two examples verses Acts 17:24 and Acts 17:25, where the apostle's skills in engaging with his Epicurean and Stoic hearers are frequently commented upon. Far more important, however, is the way in which he subverts everything that Athenian religion stood for, with two great negations.

First (v.Acts 17:24), God does NOT dwell in temples made by human hands. The Greeks had created magnificent structures in honor of their deities, the remains of which modern tourists still see with wonder and admiration. Paul was no wandering tourist, yet he did not deny the costly and beautiful materials, nor the prodigies of imagination and skill that went into these architectural marvels (v.Acts 17:29). It was Athenian thinking, not craftsmanship, that was all wrong; to create deity in our human image was to turn reality upside down.

Far from living in man-made temples as, for instance, did golden Athena in the Parthenon, the Lord of Heaven and Earth created this beautiful world, and everything in it, for human habitation. It is he who builds a home for us.

Secondly (v.Acts 17:25), God is NOT served by human hands, as if he needed sustaining by his creatures. Yet, round the clock, devoted Greek hands performed their worship obligations to their gods and goddesses at innumerable shrines. It seemed that ceremonies would never cease, nor the hunger of the gods for offering ever be satisfied. If religious zeal is in question, the people of Athens could not be faulted. Yet they have no understanding that it is the true God who has given help to them, as to all men everywhere, sustaining them in existence each moment by every breath, and providing for them all things necessary for their enjoyment in the world he has created for them as their present home.

It is a powerful exposition of foundational Bible truths; as such, it destroys finally and for ever the claim of religion to bring us near to God. Nevertheless, God is not far from any of us, as the failure of the Athenian religious search had suggested.

Such demolition work, such great denials, are the very stuff of New Testament teaching. We cannot be Christian teachers of integrity if we accept all the apostles affirmed but refuse to acknowledge what they denied. Positive statements are regularly interpreted by negative ones. In the famous John 14:6, for example, to celebrate 6a yet disregard 6b is to empty Christ's words of their original force, and by implication reject his authority.

"Negative" teaching has a bad press in today's church, yet it is inevitable. For example, in a fallen world where human beings are naturally idolatrous, murderous, and adulterous, the Decalogue is bound to be given in a negative form. We are not to bear false witness, because it is the easiest thing in the world to do.

Just so, sinful men and women naturally think and believe about God that which is erroneous and absurd. Thus the trustworthy teacher must expose and rebuke senseless and false thinking, as Paul did in Athens.

Paul is wonderfully faithful in this unpopular ministry. Do not all men, religious or not, seek to establish their own righteousness? Then Paul must insist that salvation is "NOT of works" (Ephesians 2:9), and "NOT because of righteous things that we have done" (Titus 3:5). Such great denials are an indispensable part of the proclamation of God's free grace in Christ.

Perhaps surprisingly, it is not Paul but John, the Apostle of Love, who is the demolition expert of the New Testament. From the prologue onwards, with its repeated denials (vv.John 1:3), John enforces divine truth. Preachers will gain much from a study of this remarkable characteristic running through the entire Gospel of John (for a preliminary crash course, try John 3:1-36 on the New Birth, or John 6:25-59 on the Bread of Life).

It is here that acceptable, easygoing preaching falls short. It is agreeable to be known as a "positive" preacher; and if, as my thesaurus suggests, this means "clear, definite, direct, precise, unequivocal, and real," we are right to applaud. If "negative" means harsh, sour, ill-natured, unfeeling, and ungracious, who would wish to defend so distasteful a spirit of bitterness? But in the Christian revelation, there is a no as well as a yes. And if Paul on this occasion in Athens had not been the trusty voice of his Master, neither the Athenians nor we would have heard the shocking truth about man-centered religion and its dire consequences.

3. Fearlessness

Demolition work of the spiritual variety can never be popular, so it leads us naturally to the third characteristic necessary for preaching to pagans, namely courage. From the start Paul seems to have been a dauntless ambassador for Christ (Acts 9:22-27). Soon afterward, debating with Hellenistic Jews in Jerusalem involved risking his neck (Acts 9:28-29). Throughout Acts the picture is always the same (Acts 13:46;Acts 14:3,Acts 19:8).

As most of us know from experience, speaking out for Christ, especially in hostile situations, is beyond natural resources to sustain for long. We would not be like Peter (Mark 14:31). Or rather, we would be like him after Pentecost (Acts 4:8). According to Acts, it is one of the distinctive ministries of the Holy Spirit to nerve those whose responsibility it is to speak the Word of God (Acts 4:31). Regularly this indispensable enablement is prayed for (Acts 4:29;Ephesians 6:19-20).

The Greek words used, parrhesia and parrhesiazomai are of special interest. The redoubtable Arndt Gingrich has for parrhesia the following: "outspokenness, frankness, plainness of speech, that conceals nothing and passes over nothing," as well as "courage, confidence, boldness, and fearlessness, especially in the presence of persons of high rank." This latter clause is significant, for we are easily overawed by the "wise" of this world, the "influential" and those of "noble birth," few of whom pay any serious attention to the gospel (1 Corinthians 1:26-31). As for parrhesiazomai, A.G. suggests "to speak freely, openly, fearlessly, to express oneself freely." In the contemporary Greek world "free speech" of this order was seen as a presupposition of democracy; it marked a free people, and has been prized ever since by those who enjoy its benefits.

But how quickly, under any sort of tyranny, this freedom disappears! So the courage of those many Christian people who have spoken up for Christ under the tyrants of the past century is deeply impressive to us who live in untroubled places. Ought we not to be thoroughly ashamed of ourselves if, with our heritage of freedom, we fail to speak out because of the petty and contemptible tyranny of political correctness?

What then of the speech before the Athenian Court, as a result of which (according to Longenecker) Paul "might either receive the freedom of the city, or be censored and silenced"? Was the apostle's approach tentative and carefully guarded, full of equivocal statements, avoiding clarity that might offend, obscure rather than open on sensitive issues, in the style of modern ecclesiastical negotiators?

Of course not. Words of conspicuous force were given him. He will tell them of what they do not know. Their religious zeal is entirely misdirected. Their ignorance is culpable. Even their own poets know better. The Judge of the whole world has already been appointed, and his appointment confirmed. The call to all men is going out, and proud Athenians are not excepted. Repentance is heaven's command for them, and that without delay.

If this is typical, no wonder Paul so often landed up in trouble. Similar ministry at any time will hardly avoid hostility, and worse. This is Paul's theme in his last letter to Timothy. Everyone is deserting him; only a few brave and loyal friends are standing with him. Will Timothy, too, be ashamed of him and his preaching? Can he be sufficiently strong so as not to disown his spiritual father? A confident answer for Timothy, as for us, is impossible apart from the Power of God (2 Timothy 1:8) and the grace that is in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 2:1).

4. Persistence in Evangelism

As we have seen, Paul's was an undaunted spirit. However inconvenient the time, however unpropitious the circumstances, he persists in doing the work of an evangelist (2 Timothy 4:5). Who but this man could have turned a defense of his position, before such an audience, into so direct a call for repentance?

Inevitably there would be resistance. But I am reminded of Charles Simeon's first visit to (Great) St. Mary's Cambridge in 1786 to preach before the University. He was then 25 years of age.

The greatest excitement prevailed on this occasion. St. Mary's was crowded with gownsmen; and at first there seemed a disposition to disturb and annoy the preacher, in a manner at that period, unhappily, not unusual. But scarcely had he proceeded more than a few sentences, when the lucid arrangement of his exordium, and his serious and commanding manner, impressed the whole assembly with feelings of deep solemnity, and he was heard to the end with the most respectful and riveted attention. The vast congregation departed in a mood very different from that in which it had assembled; and it was evident, from the remarks which were overheard at going out, and the subdued tone in which they were made, that many were seriously affected, as well as surprised, at what they had heard. Of two young men who had come among the scoffers, one was heard to say to the other: "Well! Simeon is no fool however!" "Fool!" replied his companion, "did you ever hear such a sermon before?"

It would surprise me if on that day long ago in Athens none among Paul's hearers reacted rather as did those undergraduates.

The question is often asked as to how adequate this sermon was/is as an exposition of the Christian gospel. "Repentance towards God"—yes—but where is the mention of "faith in our Lord Jesus" (Acts 20:21)? And how do we relate Paul's sermon in Athens to his resolve in Corinth to preach "Christ and him crucified"?

Two possible solutions have commended themselves to me.

  1. If we take Acts 10:42-43 as a standard summary of the gospel, as taught by the Risen Lord himself after his resurrection, we get the following pattern.

    v. 42 The apostolic testimony (New Testament), that points forward to the coming of Jesus as the God-appointed judge of all men.

    v. 43 The prophetic testimony (Old Testament), that points forward to the coming of Jesus as the Savior of the world, so that all who believe in him escape condemnation at his hand. Our refuge from Christ the righteous Judge is found in Christ the crucified Redeemer.

    Logically, then, the "whole Bible" message begins with an announcement of the Last Day, the significance of this for the whole human race, and the name of the one in whose hands our destiny rests.

    The church's doctrine of salvation makes little sense unless the reality is acknowledged of that final revelation of the "wrath of the Lamb" (Revelation 6:15-17). Man's greatest need is a favorable verdict on that day, enjoyed, by God's grace, in this life (Acts 13:38).

    According to this solution Paul was interrupted as he discoursed on "judgment to come," just as, at a later date, Felix stopped him in full flow (Acts 24:25). As, too, did Festus (Acts 26:24).

    The reference to resurrection aroused vigorous objection and scorn, so that further instruction had to wait until later, when those who wanted to hear more could be told of the divine remedy for sin. This was to result in a few serious learners becoming disciples.
  2. Alternatively, if we take Luke 24 to be a standard pattern of how the Resurrection of Christ is to be preached, as in part a vindication of the one who had to suffer (7, 26, 46), then it would be all but unthinkable to preach Christ's resurrection from the dead without having explained the unique significance of that death, from which it pleased God to deliver him. Indeed the intriguing factor in Luke's resurrection chapter (24) is the central place that the sufferings of the Savior occupy. It seems that the best evidence for the fact that Jesus is risen today is that "Christ and him crucified" is being preached to all nations.

    The one inference we should not draw from Paul's Athenian sermon is that the resurrection, without the Cross, was the heart of the earliest gospel preaching. This will not square with the brief summaries of Acts 3:18,Acts 17:3, and Acts 26:23. Nor will it do to ignore the famous "tree" passages (for example,Acts 5:30;Acts 10:39;Acts 13:29) with the background of Deuteronomy 21:22-23 (see Galatians 3:13).

    Paul persisted in preaching the gospel to pagans because he was convinced that it was the power of God for salvation (Rom. 1:16). One of the clearest lessons of Acts is that the Word of God on the lips of his servants is the supreme secret of missionary advance (Acts 6:7;Acts 12:24;Acts 13:49;Acts 19:20).

5. A Heart for God

John Stott, commenting on Acts 17:16, asks whether we can speak as Paul spoke if we do not feel as Paul felt. It is a helpful reminder. Festus was right to acknowledge Paul's great learning (Acts 26:24), but Paul also had a great heart.

At regeneration when we received the spirit of adoption, we were given a renewed heart, from the depth of which we began to cry out "Father, dear Father." Ideally, as Jesus taught, the first desire of our hearts should be that the Father's name be hallowed on earth as in heaven.

What matters is wide sympathies, for then people quickly understand that we are not isolated from the world.

Some years ago, a son of Stanley Baldwin, (a pre-WWII premier,) wrote a book to restore his father's battered reputation—Baldwin had been blamed for complacence in the light of the growing menace of Hitler's military build-up. As I recall it, the title of the book was "My Father—The True Story," which might well be a fitting title for the four Gospels, indeed for the entire New Testament. To tell that story is the great priority for Christian preaching, so that the devil's lies, spread abroad since the beginning of Creation, might be exposed for what they are.

One evidence of a heart for God is a replacement of man-centeredness by God-centeredness in our preaching.

The old advice for a young preacher to "preach about God and about twenty minutes" may produce groans for its frequent repetition, but it will not produce groans in our listeners. There is a deep unrecognized hunger for God, and although the apostles may not have managed the twenty minute limit, they certainly did satisfy that hunger. Consider how the sovereign purposes of God control Peter's Pentecostal Sermon (Acts 2:22). The same is true of Paul's magnificent discourse in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:16ff). It is the same story in Athens, where every single verse from Acts 17:24-31 centers upon God and his relation to his world.

A heart for God, therefore, will also be a heart for lost mankind, and that leads us to the next essential.

6. A Missionary Mindset

The God of the Bible wants all men to be saved (1 Timothy 2:3), and preachers to pagans discover within themselves the same desire. With its repeated emphasis on "all men" (25, 30, 31) Paul's sermon in Athens is very much a missionary sermon.

It may be that this mindset in Paul explains his brief sojourn in Athens. How he made his plans seems to have depended on many circumstances: a night vision (Acts 16:9, Acts 18:9), hindrance from the Spirit (Acts 16:6), or simply a human desire to see how young converts and new churches were getting on (Acts 15:36, Acts 18:23).

But perhaps the commonest reason why Paul moves on to fresh places is because he is compelled to—by opposition. The same is true of the Lord's journeys, where rejection, divinely overruled (particularly in Mark), dictates the pace and direction of advance.

So in God's providence, the early Christians were forcibly thrust out of Jerusalem to begin their outward march to Samaria and the end of the earth.

The Athenian sermon was not without fruit; names of a few converts were well known in later years. But the clear impression is that the message and the messenger were not acceptable to the city's establishment. All was done politely no doubt, since the mob did not control policy in Athens. But one suspects that somewhere in the official files Paul's name was listed as persona non grata. So, on to Corinth (Acts 18:1).

But here too the same principle applies. Verse 6 is of great importance in chapter 18, as a comparison with Acts 13:46 and Acts 28:28 will show. So urgent is the need to reach those who have not heard, that the evangelist is not permitted to remain for long with those who will not listen.

The exercise of a settled pastorate does not remove from us the obligation to seek out the lost sheep. The ninety and nine without cannot be left to perish because we are busy at home feeding with the finest of pasture the remaining little flock. This we all know. But it is possible to err in the opposite direction, spending too much time with those who will never listen. Bashing one's head against a brick wall does not seem to be a pattern for New Testament evangelism. When we reach out to people who spend their time doing nothing but discussing the latest ideas (Acts 17:21), it is probably time to move on.

After all, God's elect are everywhere to be found, as Paul discovered in Corinth (Acts 18:10). They are to be recognized by the fact that they honor the word of the Lord when they hear it (as the fascinating Acts 13:48 makes clear), so that's the place to stay for a while and build up the believers. Rejection by people who don't want the truth is painful of course, and pastors are bound to experience that pain from time to time. But the next move may be very different. It was a dark night when Paul was hustled out of Thessalonica, but the next day was one of the brightest in his experience (Acts 17;10f). Who knows when we might meet some noble souls like the Bereans who are eager for the truth? That's the romance of preaching to pagans.

7. A Wide Culture

This is a tricky one if disheartenment is to be avoided, since few if any of us can hope to be as well equipped in this area as Paul, Hebrew of Hebrews, Roman citizen, master of Greek philosophy and literature.

So let's start by avoiding exaggeration. The preacher to pagans does not have to be a glutton for pagan culture, especially of the present-day variety. An easily neglected apostolic imperative says, "In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults" (1 Corinthians 14:20). In whole areas of modern life it does us no harm, rather the reverse, to be "innocents." Late night television viewing is not necessary for the preacher, anxious to be relevant. We may be better employed in learning from our forefathers and leaving most modern movies off our schedule, especially since in our ministry we recommend a particularly painful kind of spiritual surgery (Mark 9:43-48).

What matters is wide sympathies, and an interest in all things human. In our approach to pagans, the possession of this often makes the difference between success and failure. For then people quickly understand that we are not isolated from the world in which we all live.

So it was not just that Paul could mix it with Epicureans and Stoics, or that he knew their own poets as well, if not better, than they did. It had more to do with his "becoming all things to all men" in order that "by all possible means" some might be saved (1 Corinthians 9:22).

Reprinted from the Proclamation Trust May 2000 Newsletter,Proclamation Trust 2000

Dick Lucas is chairman of trustees of the Proclamation Trust (, an organization based in England devoted to the development of biblical preachers. In 1998 he retired as Rector of St. Helens Church, Bishopsgate, in the heart of the city of London. He had a 37-year ministry there, particularly notable for the lunchtime services for businessmen and the extensive ministry to many young workers and students passing through London. He continues to live in central London, and remains active in ministry through many preaching engagements and conferences.