For the sake of the Gospel: Paul’s apologetic speeches

Pulpits-and-Pastors

Apologetics or the defence of the faith plays an important role in the life of the church. We believe and confess a Jesus rooted in history and now reigning in glory. However, no-one can be reasoned into the kingdom anymore than one can be compelled to become a Christian by evidences for Christ’s life, death and resurrection. Like all theologising, apologetics must be done with Christ and him crucified for sinners in view. It is only once a person knows his or her plight due to sin that Christ’s vicarious atonement is believed as vital to salvation. It is this cruciform logic that informed Paul’s apologetic as Rev. Kim Riddlebarger argues:

First and foremost, when we analyze these apologetic speeches in Acts, it is clear that Paul seeks to be all things to all men for the sake of the Gospel, for throughout these encounters with various forms of unbelief, he repeatedly finds common ground with his audience. With those with whom he held the Old Testament in common (Jews and God-fearing Gentiles), he appeals to fulfilled prophecy by setting the Old Testament prophetic expectation side by side with the facts of the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. With pagan Gentiles, on the other hand, Paul begins with general revelation, not by “proving” God’s existence, but simply by proclaiming the God of Israel in language which echoes the Old Testament throughout. We also see the Apostle challenging whatever underlying pagan assumptions were present. But given Paul’s theological core convictions about the nature of human sinfulness, it is clear that in finding “common ground,” he does not in any sense expect to find so-called “neutral” common ground, as though the Apostle could somehow place both himself and his hearers in a “neutral” frame of mind, without any influence upon the discussion by prior intellectual commitments to faith or various forms of unbelief. For the common ground that Paul does find is in every case necessarily based in God’s self-disclosure, either the “Book of Nature” or in the redemptive acts of God associated with special revelation and ordinary history. Throughout Paul’s encounters with unbelief, it is the non-Christian (Jew, God-fearer, or pagan Gentile) who is confronted with the consequences of knowing God through this self-disclosure both in general and special revelation, but who instead inevitably suppresses that knowledge in unrighteousness. Thus Paul not only demonstrates his desire to be all things to all men by finding non-neutral common ground with his hearers, but he is repeatedly able to skillfully adjust his own “proclamation-defense” to each specific audience.

A second point that must be made when looking at these speeches is that Paul began with the proclamation of the Gospel, and once challenged, he was deftly able to give an apologetic by “reasoning” and “proving” from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ, and by challenging the very presuppositions underlying pagan unbelief. As we have seen in two instances (Lystra and Athens), Paul does this by using a form of the argument from contingency-the creation does indeed depend upon a creator. Neither Greek mythology nor Stoic or Epicurean cosmologies can give a satisfactory explanation of the world in which we live. Paul does not attempt to “prove” God’s existence typical of so-called “classical apologetics”; instead he proclaims Christ crucified, and then attempts to refute his opponents, showing the futility of unbelief. Paul places no confidence in the flesh, rather he believes that the proclamation of Christ crucified is the power of God unto salvation. He does not attempt to get his audience “to make a decision for Jesus”; he simply proclaims the truth, and then attacks the unbelieving assumptions of the opposition.

Third, throughout these speeches, it is clear that the supreme apologetic argument for Paul is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. No doubt this is the case, for it was Saul, the great persecutor of the Church, who became Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles. The risen Lord Jesus Christ himself confronted Paul while en route from Jerusalem to Damascus to hunt down and arrest Christians. Paul refers to this life-changing event in his apologetic speeches before the good citizens of Jerusalem (Acts 22:2 ff.) and before king Agrippa (Acts 26:9-18). In Pisidian Antioch, Paul concluded his sermon before the synagogue by declaring, “God raised [Jesus] from the dead, and for many days he was seen by those who had traveled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. They are now his witnesses to our people” (Acts 13:30-31). Just as Peter had done in the Pentecost sermon in Acts 2, here Paul also makes appeal to the prophetic significance of our Lord’s Resurrection. “The fact that God raised him from the dead, never to decay is stated in these words…. ‘You will not yet your Holy One see decay.'” There was not only factual evidence for Christ’s Resurrection, there was theological necessity.

In the synagogue in Athens, Paul followed a similar tact, explaining that Jesus had to first suffer and then rise from the dead (Acts 17:3). And while standing before the pagan philosophers of the Areopagus, Paul ends his apologia with the words, God “has given proof of this to all men by raising [Jesus] from the dead.” In another amazing account, Paul spoke of his hope of the resurrection of the dead in the very presence of the assembled Sanhedrin, apparently to provoke an argument between his accusers, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, who disagreed among themselves about the resurrection (Acts 23:6 ff.). Before Felix, Paul does much the same thing, proclaiming his hope in a resurrection, and acknowledging that it was this very hope that has brought him before Felix in the first place (Acts 24:15, 21). Even Felix’s successor, Festus, when conferring with King Agrippa, was forced to concede that Paul was incarcerated because of his proclamation “about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive” (Acts 25:19). And last, when Paul makes his defense before Agrippa, his apologetic appeal is to the hope of the resurrection. Thus Paul asks Agrippa, “Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?” Paul concludes this defense by declaring, “I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen-that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles.” When Festus interrupted Paul and declared to the Apostle, “you are out of your mind,” Paul’s response is significant: “I am not insane, most excellent Festus…. What I am saying is true and reasonable. The king is familiar with these things…. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner.” “King Agrippa,” Paul asks, “do you believe the prophets? I know you do!” To which Agrippa replies, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to become a Christian?” “Short time or long-I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening today may become what I am” (Act 26:21 ff.).

Thus it seems that Paul’s “proclamation-defense” is clearly anchored in the death, burial and especially the resurrection of Jesus Christ, not in the formal proofs of classical apologetics. Neither can we view Paul’s apologetic through the lens of any semi-Pelagian form of evangelical evidential apologetics which sees Christian evidences as merely additional inducements for one to make a “decision” for Jesus. For Paul’s apologetic is perfectly consistent with his theological core and, given human sinfulness and moral depravity typical of this present “evil age,” evidential “facts” by themselves cannot tip the scale from unbelief to faith. For Paul it is the Gospel-the wisdom of the age to come-which is the power of God for the salvation of all who believe, and his use of Christian evidences is to be seen in the context of the content of his proclamation, namely the historical events associated with the dying and rising of Christ. The same man who put no confidence in the flesh, is the man who also “reasoned,” “discoursed,” “persuaded,” and “debated” with his audiences that the content of his preaching was true, because the Lord of Glory rose again from the dead.

(For the entire essay, go here.)

 

Church: a hospital for sinners?

What is your experience of church?  Is it a place where you feel like you can be your sinful self?  Or rather a place where you have to keep up appearances like Mr and Mrs Jones in the pews next door?  A former seminary friend of mine (name dropping alert), Rev. Leon Brown, recently wrote this piece about his experiences at various churches during his Christian sojourn so far:

On numerous occasions I have been told that the church is like a hospital for the sick. The illness is sin; the remedy is Christ. We, therefore, attend church to receive our diagnosis and to gladly hear and embrace its remedy. “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6). Over the years, however, through numerous conversations and limited pastoral experience, I have come to realize that the church – the gathered assembly on the Lord’s Day – sometimes appears like a place for those in perfect health. Illness (i.e., sin) is not allowed.

Theologically we know that is inaccurate. That is why in many Presbyterian and Reformed churches we corporately confess our sins. We acknowledge our offense against a holy and righteous God. We know that our lives do not reflect the perfection that God demands. We, therefore, readily admit our brokenness, or do we really?

As a pastor, I have the privilege to interact with people, both inside my church and outside, about some of the harsh realities of how sin affects us. Lust, coveting, broken marriages, hatred, and dishonesty are all the result of acting on the desires of our sinful hearts. To some degree we all suffer from some of these things, but you can hardly tell that on Sunday mornings. Between 10:30am and noon, some people manage to put on the Christian veneer. The outside looks pearly white while the inside is suffering from a cancerous illness – sin.

Is that acceptable? Asked differently, should we put a smile on our faces for a hour and a half on Sunday mornings when things are truly chaotic in the home? No sooner than we depart the church building, we are met by disobedient children and dueling spouses. Our pornography addiction resurfaces; our anger meets us again; we are back in reality.

I wonder if in some of our churches there is no place for grieving, mourning, lamenting, suffering, and acknowledging sin in more places than the corporate confession? While I have not conducted an analysis of every Reformed and Presbyterian Church in the US, I know this to be true from my personal experience and in my conversations with other pastors. Sunday mornings are the time to be on your best behavior. You cannot show weakness; you cannot fail. Lest the corporate confession of sin, there is no place for brokenness. There is an imaginary sign above the entrance of the church that says, “This is the place for those in perfect health.”

It troubles me to know this reality exists. This observation caused me to ask a question: “Why?” Why are things like this? I began to pursue my inquiry. Overwhelmingly, and this is not limited to my congregation, when I asked people why their actions depict their lives are in perfect order when I know things are a bit chaotic, the response I received was, “I don’t want to be judged.” They believed there was no room for reasonable transparency in the church. It was expected that one’s children be in perfect order, spouses on the same page, and singles portrayed as if they struggle very little with contentment.

Though I do not believe this is the cause, I wonder how much Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites contribute to this sad reality (i.e., in all things we must be relatively perfect). Most Facebook posts and Twitter feeds that I have read are largely positive. People gladly boast of their witnessing opportunities, the books they are reading, vacations taken, and family reunions. Most people confess very little of the difficulties through which they are going. I see the same thing in many churches.

This is not to suggest that we must air our dirty laundry to everyone in the church, and the world for that matter on Facebook and Twitter, but a certain level of transparency seems healthy. Rosaria Butterfield, in her book The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith, put it this way,

“I think that churches would be places of greater intimacy and growth in Christ if people stopped lying about what we need, what we fear, where we fail, and how we sin” (25).

I could not agree more. I often tell my congregation that is okay to hurt; it is okay to fail; and while it is not okay to sin, it is okay to be transparent about where you sin because there is forgiveness in Jesus Christ.

If there is any merit in my observations, I also wonder how this affects the church’s witness. One of the constant accusations I hear from unbelievers is that the church is full of hypocrites. However we handle that accusation, I wonder if the point behind it is that sometimes people in the church present themselves as perfect. As soon as the Christian veneer is shattered, unbelievers’ image of how Christianity affects one’s life is ruined. They were under the impression that Christianity makes one perfect (not positionally perfect (i.e., righteous) but presently perfect in thought, word, and deed). Therefore, once they realize the untruth to that manifestation of Christianity and that Christians, too, often face the same problems they do, Christians are labeled as hypocrites. In unbelievers’ minds, the mask was removed.

Is there a solution? I am a rookie pastor. I do not have all the answers. I do not think I will have all the answers in the future either. However, I wonder if we need to more fully embrace the doctrine of sanctification? Unlike our justification – a once for all completed act – our sanctification is a process. Sometimes our sanctification may seem to be moving more slowly in our lives, or the lives of others, than we would like; nevertheless, God is at work. He guaranteed it! If we more fully embrace this, perhaps we will more readily understand that the church is like a hospital for the sick. Our illness is sin; Christ is our remedy. We, therefore, do not need to put on the Christian veneer.

We all suffer from the effects of sin. I pray that we, as the body of Christ, can more openly acknowledge our sins, mistakes, and express our sorrow without fear of judgment, without fear of a ruined reputation, without fear of our perfect family image being shattered. It will take time, prayer, a better understanding of grace, forgiveness, and sanctification, and the Spirit’s work. It is possible. I will pray to that end. Will you join me?

Posted February 10, 2014 @ 2:27 PM by Leon Brown

It is our hope and prayer that RCSS be a hospital for wretched sinners, where Christ crucified is truly that balm of everlasting comfort.  So come boldly to God’s throne of grace with us this coming Lord’s Day: come filthy; come failing; come depressed; come anxious; come angry; come hurt; come broken; come doubting; come addicts; come obsessed; come compulsive; come adulterers; come prostitutes; come tax collectors; come diseased; come introverted; come lonely; come divorced; come perverts; come thieves; come gossips; come liars… Come, repent and believe in Jesus – again, or for the first time – and be assured through the ministry of the Word that you stand forgiven and righteous before our heavenly Father.