Over the past two days, my wife and I have logged many miles over the cobblestone roads of Rome, Italy. During our time in Rome, we have managed to hit all of the historic sites on our personal list—including the majestic Sistine Chapel that was in progress by Michelangelo when Martin Luther made his historic pilgrimage to Rome over 500 years ago.
Yesterday morning, we began the day at the Colosseum—one of the most famous sites of ancient Rome that still stands today as a piece of history linking modernity to antiquity. The emperors of Rome’s history would buy and sell gladiators much like modern day football teams hire and trade athletes. Sometimes slaves or prisoners would appear in the midst of the Colosseum too—where they would fight wild beasts including lions, tigers, leopards, and even hippopotamuses. What a way to go, right?
Just under a half a mile from the Colosseum is the Mamertine Prison where Paul was held in chains. The ancient dungeon prison had a stone floor, stone walls, and a stone ceiling with one way in and one way out through the small hole above that provided a bit of light to the damp and dark dungeon below. Sometimes as many as 100 prisoners would have been kept in the small dungeon below—and everyone who was placed into that hole received a death sentence.
While being held as a prisoner in the shadow of the Colosseum, Paul would have heard loud thundering cheers from the crowds in the Colosseum numbering between 40k-70k. Much like a loud and vibrant athletic event in modern times complete with competition, drama, and passionate fans—the whole area surrounding the Colosseum would have felt the pulsating cheers.
As Paul sat in the dark dungeon contemplating the fighting of the gladiators—he would have reflected upon his life and ministry of the gospel.
- Five different times Jews whipped him with 39 stripes.
- Three times he was beaten with rods.
- One time he was stoned, dragged out of the city, and forsaken as dead.
- Three times he suffered shipwreck. A night and a day he spend in the deep.
- Perils of waters – Floods or rivers as he journeyed.
- Perils of robbers – those who would rob him as he was on his journey.
- Perils by his own country men – his own people rejected him.
- Perils by the heathen – the lost and unregenerate wicked ones – persecuted.
- Perils in the city – as he would travel to the city to work or buy food.
- Perils in the wilderness – animals or violent people.
- Perils in the sea – as he was shipwrecked and faced storms on the sea.
- Perils among false brethren – those who claimed to be Christians.
Paul had been able to plant many churches on his missionary travels that spanned many countries, cities, and continents. Paul had invested in others and discipled men to carry on the gospel torch. Men like Timothy, Titus, and others were placed in strategic posts where they would oversee churches and make disciples. Yet, at the end of his life, Paul sat in the dungeon cell listening to the ground shaking crowds in the Colosseum and he viewed his ministry of the gospel as a good fight. Rather than a wasted fight or a vain fight—it was a good fight. The cause was worthy and the price of imprisonment, suffering, and martyrdom joyful. In a strange way in the eyes of the world, Paul was at peace to be aligned with Jesus Christ in his suffering.
The scars the gladiator received in his epic battles in the Colosseum could not compare to the deep wounds suffered by Paul in his missionary labors. However, Paul was able to reflect upon his journey of faith as a good fight rather than a wasted pursuit for fame and vain success. Paul longed to preach the gospel in Rome, and he finally was able to do so—only from a dark dungeon. In his final letter recorded in the New Testament before he was taken from the dungeon through the hole and transported to a place in the streets of Rome where executioners cut off his head, the battle scared gospel gladiator penned these final words to Timothy—his young disciple:
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing (2 Timothy 4:7-8).
Most gladiators died by the sword or weapons of other warriors in the Colosseum as a means of entertainment for the people. Paul died in the streets as a condemned criminal. Paul’s death had a great purpose that transcended the entertainment of the Colosseum—and for that reason we remember him to this very day unlike the warriors of the Colosseum.
Yesterday morning we engaged in a new preaching series through the letter of 1 John—one of three letters written by the apostle John who also penned the Gospel of John. Over the next 90 days, we intend to walk through this relatively short letter and examine our own faith and walk with the Lord in the process. As John wrote this letter most likely from Ephesus, his audience would have been the churches in various cities surrounding Ephesus in Asia minor. John desired to edify the body of Christ by causing them to examine themselves to see if they were in the faith and to promote a serious approach to the faith which was under attack and was becoming a bit lazy among the churches.
Know This: Jesus Was God Who Became Man
In a brilliant explosion of intense light, from the very beginning John bursts forth into an array of doctrinal themes including the highest—the deity of Jesus. John writes, “That which was from the beginning” and it sounds much like the way he began his Gospel account (John 1:1-3). If the church in John’s day and if the church in our day will live boldly for Christ, we must have a healthy understanding of his deity. The very moment that we come to the reality that Jesus is not a fictional character in a story book for children or a mere figurine for the Christmas tree, but that he is sovereign God—creator of the entire universe—at that moment we should be brought to a place of humble submission. Jesus is God. That’s the way John begins his letter of encouragement.
John also wanted to emphasize the humanity of Jesus. Not only was he from the beginning, but he was actually a real man in time. Very God of very God took upon himself human flesh as he entered the womb of a young Jewish lady named Mary. Jesus was able to be heard, touched, and visibly seen by the apostles. What was once invisible had now become manifest—and John wanted everyone to understand this unique point. God had become a man without ceasing to be God, yet he became a real man at the same time.
Know This: The Proclamation of the Gospel has a Purpose
John used two different terms that point to the reality of his ambition to make Christ known. He talked about testifying (μαρτυρέω) which means to confirm or attest something on the basis of personal knowledge or belief, bear witness, be a witness. John also said that he was proclaiming (ἀπαγγέλλω) which means to give an account of something or report (back), announce, tell.
The purpose of John’s proclamation was for people to come into fellowship with the church and with God the Father and his Son—Jesus the Christ. John points to the blessing of fellowship (κοινωνία). This word means, “close association involving mutual interests and sharing, association, communion, fellowship, close relationship, marked by intimacy.” True Christian fellowship transcends “hello” in the hallway or a slap on the back on Sunday. As John will unfold more as we continue through his letter, we are called to love one another in the church and that isn’t possible without true fellowship. How is fellowship accomplished? It’s accomplished through the saving grace of God upon a group of sinners who are adopted into the family of God.
In like manner, this saving grace of God enables true fellowship to happen between sinners and holy God. As the sins of people are taken away by Jesus, they are brought out of darkness into the marvelous light of Christ. Sinners are no longer the enemies of God as they are saved by Jesus, and this enables people to have true fellowship with God. What a joy and privilege to know and be known by God.
Know This: The Faith of the Church Brings the Leaders Joy
John’s ultimate joy in life came through connecting people to Jesus Christ. Do you have a greater joy from your job, your material possessions, or other things in your life than testifying and proclaiming the gospel of Jesus? The heartbeat of John and his fellow apostles was centered on connecting people to joy in Jesus! What is your greatest joy and ambition in life?
As we consider the Christian life, God wants us to know some things about him, our salvation, the faith once delivered to the saints, and he likewise wants us to have assurance of our salvation. Christianity should not be superficial and shallow. That’s why John uses at least three different Greek words over 30 times that point to the need to know certain things about God and our faith. Alistair Begg once said,
[We] must understand that Christianity is not served by mindlessness, but by the knowledge of God through the Word of God. Such knowledge engages our minds, stirs our hearts, and transforms our lives. This knowledge is personal. How is it fostered? By listening to what He says (the priority of preaching), by engaging Him in conversation (the emphasis on prayer), by spending time in His company (the need for a devotional life), and by being with others who know Him too (the need for gathered worship). This knowledge is progressive and dynamic, not static. At the end of our journey, we should still be exclaiming with Paul: “I want to know Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:2).
|Guest Article: Lita Cosner. Lita is a specialist in New Testament studies and obtained a B.A. (summa cum laude) in Biblical Studies from Oklahoma Wesleyan University in 2008. She received an M.A. (cum laude) in New Testament from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 2012. Her thesis is titled Jesus the Honorable Broker: A Social-Scientific Exegesis of Matthew 15:21–28. She joined CMI as Information Officer in 2010, and is a prolific contributor to the website, Creation magazine, and the Journal of Creation. You can find more information and articles by Lita at Creation.com.
In modern times, many people try to present the Gospel in ways that will make it seem more attractive to their ‘target audience’. Whether it is the ‘seeker-sensitive’ movement in churches, contextualization in Muslim-dominated countries, or reinterpreting the Bible’s teachings on marriage or creation, people often seem to want to make the Gospel as inoffensive as possible.
Paul’s address to the Areopagus is often cited as a model of ‘contextualization’ of the Gospel—presenting it in a way that is especially crafted to the sensibilities of his audience. In a way, this is correct—Paul did consider the sensibilities of his audience. But his specially crafted message challenged their core beliefs, and aimed to correct the critical errors in their thinking. In the process, he succeeded in offending and alienating most of his audience. This is quite a different approach from that of many people today!
The account of Paul’s time in Athens begins with a statement that “his spirit was provoked him as he saw that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16). In Paul’s day, the beautiful statues that many people now admire in museums were actually worshipped in temples as gods and goddesses.
Paul’s response was to go to the local synagogue to teach the Jews and Gentile God-fearers about Jesus the Messiah, as was his normal practice. But he also conversed in the open marketplace, where Greeks would traditionally gather for philosophical conversations and debate. Paul’s letters would show that he was skilled in the sort of structured arguments and rhetorical styles that would be expected in such a place.
But if the structure of Paul’s arguments was familiar to the Athenians, the content certainly wasn’t. Acts says that he was preaching “Jesus and the resurrection” (17:18). The Athenians called him a “preacher of foreign divinities”.
They took him from the informal setting of the marketplace to the formal setting of the Aeropagus—the appropriate place for serious debate where they could judge Paul’s claims. The reason everyone was gathered to hear Paul, Luke tells us, is because “all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new” (17:21). This regional generalization, like “all Cretans are liars” (Titus 1:12), reflects the broader cultural opinion about them. Thucydides said of the Athenians:
No men are better dupes, sooner deceived by novel notions, or slower to follow approved advice. You despise what is familiar, while you are worshippers of every new extravagance. … In a word, you are at the mercy of your own ears, and sit like spectators attending a performance of sophists, but very unlike counselors of a state. 
And commentator F.F. Bruce notes: “The Athenians themselves admitted that their passion for anything new could be carried to excess”. 
That Paul was addressing Epicureans and Stoics is important for understanding why Paul phrased his arguments the way he did. They represented two rival philosophies in Athens in that day. Epicureans were materialists who did not believe in any sort of afterlife. Rather, their highest ideal was found in the combination of tranquility and the absence of pain. They believed that the gods themselves were beings who lived in the empty spaces between the planets, and that their existence was characterized by the Epicurean ideals.
The Stoics, on the other hand, taught self control and determinism—one could not change one’s fate, so the best one could do is refuse to be emotionally influenced by things one has no control over. They believed in a sort of pantheism, and would have denied any meaningful distinction between God and the universe.
Paul was clearly aware of these philosophies, or he would not have been able to formulate such a direct attack on them in his address. It is important to remember that Acts gives us Luke’s summary of Paul’s speech—his actual address to the Areopagus would have been much longer. But Luke gives us the highlights and general structure, and the turns of phrase may be genuinely from Paul.
The unknown god
Paul’s first phrase is generally translated, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious”. But the word translated ‘religious’, δεισιδαίμων (deisidaimōn), could just as easily have a connotation of ‘superstitious’. And as we will see, this translation fits the overall tenor of his address. “By the end of the speech, the Athenians themselves would have little doubt about Paul’s real opinion of their religiosity.” 
Exhibit A of the Athenians’ superstition was their idol worship. The Athenians had gods for every area of life imaginable, but they were completely ignorant of the true God, who could not be represented by an idol and who did not need their temples and sacrifices.
There are several possible explanations for what the altar ‘to the unknown god’ might have been. Some scholars dispute the existence of such an altar, but F.F. Bruce presents a scenario in which it would be likely for such an altar to exist: “When a derelict altar was repaired and the original dedication could not be ascertained, the inscription, “To the (an) unknown god” would have been quite appropriate.”  Another is that the Athenians were covering all their bases with a generic altar to cover any gods they might otherwise inadvertently neglect. Some claim that Paul is saying that they are worshipping the true God in ignorance through this altar, but nothing could be further from the truth. Paul is driving home the point that they are superstitious and ignorant of the true God.
Paul makes his speech even more offensive when he says, “Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you”. He is speaking to the religious, cultural, and intellectual elite, and claiming to know better than they do! This would be particularly galling to the Stoics, who considered it their duty to examine nature because they believed all nature had a ‘divine spark’ in it. Ignorance was something like a ‘cardinal sin’ for them, and that is precisely what Paul is accusing them of. 
Paul establishes that both the Epicureans and the Stoics are wrong. God is neither the universe nor part of the universe; rather, “God … made the world and everything in it” (Acts 17:24). This would have been hard for the Greeks to grasp. As Polhill explains:
Paul began with the basic premise that runs throughout his speech: God is Creator. He referred to God as the maker of the “world” (kosmos), a term that would be familiar to every Greek. The concept of God as absolute Creator, however, would not be so easy for them to grasp. For them divinity was to be found in the heavens, in nature, in humanity. The idea of a single supreme being who stood over the world, who created all that exists, was totally foreign to them. 
Furthermore, the Epicureans were also wrong about God’s non-intervention in the world. In fact, our existence is dependent on God’s continual provision. Paul’s God is not a deistic god who simply created the universe and left it to its own devices: “God is a personal God who not only creates but also sustains everything he has made. This self-sufficient God daily cares for man and for his great creation in the minutest details. God is the source of life, for he gives breath to all living creatures.”  Paul establishes the immanence and transcendence of the Creator God in a sweeping statement that contradicts as much of the Greeks’ beliefs as possible.
Man and his relationship to God
Having countered their core errors about God, he moves on to their errors about man. Historically, the Athenians belonged to the earliest migration into Greece, and they were also the only Greeks on the mainland who had no tradition of their ancestors’ migration. They prided themselves “on being autochthonous—sprung from the soil of their native Attica”.  Paul counters this unfounded exceptionalism with the biblical message that all humanity is descended from one man, Adam. It is speculative, but Paul may have filled out this part of the discourse with details about how God created mankind and how the nations spread out from Babel. It was important for Paul’s argument for the Athenians to know where they came from.
This also has implications for how he wants the Athenians to understand God. “The God whom Paul proclaimed was no local Jewish cult God, He was the one sovereign Lord of all humankind.” 
Paul goes on to explain God’s reasons for providing for humanity: “that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us …” (Acts 17:27). The reason God ordered everything as He did was to enable one to seek God. The Stoics would have agreed with this in principle, but their philosophy said that God could be understood through observation of nature. But we know from Romans 1 that Paul believed that all such general revelation was only sufficient to condemn people, not to save them. And the grammar here expresses strong doubt that this actually happens. As Polhill notes: “There is no question about God’s providence; there is about humanity’s ability to make the proper response.” 
Witness from Greek poets
Luke told us that the Athenians loved discussing new ideas, but Paul now quotes some very old ideas to support his argument. First, he quotes Epimenides who lived in the 7th–6th century BC, long before either the Epicurean or Stoic philosophy was created: “In him we live and move and have our being”. Epimenides was allegedly referring to the Cretans’ claim that Zeus, the king of the Greek pantheon, was mortal. He countered that Zeus was immortal and even the source of their own life. The only record we have of the context of this quote is from the 9th century commentary on Acts by Isho’dad of Merv:
They fashioned a tomb for you, high and holy one,
Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies. 
But you are not dead; you live and abide forever,
For in you we live and move and have our being. 
The second quotation is from a Stoic poet named Aratus, who was also referring to Zeus. However, in Stoicism, Zeus is not a personal god, rather, Zeus is the supreme ordering principle of the universe:
Let us begin with Zeus. Never, O men, let us leave him unmentioned. All the ways are full of Zeus, and all the market-places of human beings. The sea is full of him, and so are the harbors. In every way we have all to do with Zeus—for we are truly his offspring. 
Paul is not equating Zeus with the true God by quoting these poets. Neither is he saying that one can gain a true understanding of God from the pagan philosophers. He is, however, appropriating their ideas to make his own point.
If we are God’s children, God must be greater than us, not something we can mold with stone or metal. This polemic against idols is very much like what is found in Isaiah when he protests the utter senselessness of worshipping molded things as if they were gods.
A command to repent
Everything Paul has said to this point has been a foundation that was necessary to establish Paul’s position. He had to cut through the Greeks’ false ideas about God and man to get to the point where the Gospel would make sense to them. And he did not pull any punches, but got straight to the point. He said that God formerly overlooked the ‘times of ignorance’—keeping in mind how offensive it would be for Paul to call his audience ignorant. This is similar to Paul’s statement in Lystra that God formerly “allowed all the nations to go their own way” (Acts 14:16). Bruce claims, “It is implied in these places that the coming of Christ marks a fresh start in God’s dealings with the human race.” 
Paul just argued that God was the Creator and Father of all people. Now he warns that God is also the judge of all people. And He will judge the world through a man—Jesus—whose chosen status was confirmed via the Resurrection. At the end of the discourse, he finally gets back to the key topics that so intrigued the Athenians to begin with—Jesus and the Resurrection.
A message most rejected
There were a variety of reactions to Paul’s message. To most Greeks, the ‘ideal state’ was thought to be a disembodied spiritual existence. They perceived the idea of physical resurrection as impossible, ridiculous, and grotesque. Yet it is a central doctrine, which is why Paul took such a long time to explain and defend it in 1 Corinthians 15. However, this doctrine caused most of his audience to immediately dismiss his claims.
Others said that they would like to hear Paul speak again. Some people would interpret this as positive interest, but we have to remember Luke’s mockery of the Athenians as people who simply wanted to hear new ideas. Christianity is not some lofty philosophy that one can just listen to over and over again—it demands a response.
Only a few people responded in genuine faith. If Paul was contextualizing, he did not do a very good job, because only a few people were interested in hearing more after his first address! Rather, the lesson to learn from Paul’s addresses at Lystra and Athens is that evangelism must start with a correct understanding of the God to whom we must be reconciled.
The reason Paul’s message was so offensive was because it was far removed from and completely opposed to key Greek beliefs about reality. Paul’s offensiveness was necessary and came from undermining the false foundational beliefs the Athenians had about the nature of both God and themselves.
It is easy to see a parallel between Paul’s message and creation evangelism today. It’s often difficult to evangelize people today without telling them some very controversial, even offensive, things about God’s actions in history and their own need to repent from false beliefs, and even false worship. When we share the Gospel, we should expect to be ridiculed by the mainstream culture, because what we are saying runs deeply counter to many things that the culture holds dear.
Therefore, rather than trying to ‘contextualize’ a watered-down message in order to avoid persecution or ridicule, as many do today, one needs to determine what false beliefs people have, and to try to overcome them “with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).
- Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War 2.38.5, tr. Jowett, B., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1881.
- Bruce, The Book of the Acts, p. 332.
- Polhill, J.B., Acts, NAC (Broadman & Holman: Nashville, TN, 2001), p. 371.
- Bruce, The Book of the Acts, pp. 335–336.
- Ibid., 336.
- Polhill, Acts, p. 372.
- Kistemaker, S.J. and Hendriksen, W., Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles, BNTC (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1990), p. 634.
- Bruce, The Book of the Acts, p. 337.
- Polhill, Acts, p. 374.
- Ibid., 375.
- Paul cited this in Titus 1:12.
- Cited in Bruce, The Book of the Acts, p. 339.
- Aratus, cited in Bruce, The Book of the Acts, p. 339.
- Bruce, The Book of the Acts, p. 340.
Many people today are repackaging the gospel into an acceptable product for the culture around us. This often happens through slick ministries led by slick ministers who are dedicated to their methods of helping the gospel overcome the perceived sin of old age. The very word “gospel” has become a marketing phrase rather than a descriptive word meaning good news to fallen sinners.
Staff meetings among pastors, in some ways, have become like corporate board meetings where multi-campus ministries seek to streamline their approach to church much like a corporation rolls out franchises in different cities. Church services have become more like productions instead of worship assemblies for brothers and sisters in Christ to meet corporately with the living God. The authenticity of worship has been lost in our attempt to be cool, hip, and acceptable. Pastors dress more like rock stars rather than ministers of the gospel. Ministry branding and hip dress attire are mandatory as a new church culture seeks to repackage the gospel for a modern society. Everything from mainstream rock concerts on Sunday to small group Bible study over beer on Monday has crept into the church. After all, the gospel needs a makeover – right?
The Gospel is Foolishness to the World
At some point, we must face the sobering truth that the gospel will never be cool (1 Cor. 1:18). We can dress up the gospel in modern clothes and repackage it to an urbane culture, but at the end of the day – it’s still the gospel. It doesn’t matter if ministers grow long beards, dress in hipster attire, drink beer in study groups, and have a cigar lounge on their church campus – the gospel will never be cool and hip to a lost world.
Paul labored to make this point known to the church at Corinth. The church at Corinth was a church that seemed to have all of the potential in the world, for whatever that’s worth. In their sophisticated city filled with potential they discovered the deep holes of depravity, division, and perverted worship. One of the great problems that fueled the heart of Corinth’s problems was a single road that led approximately 65 miles into the city of Athens. In Athens, the wisdom of the world was transcendent. Philosophies ruled the day. It has been said that there were as many philosophies as philosophers.
Historical records reveal that there were at least 50 dominant philosophies that were operating in the ancient Roman empire – all devoted to a multiplicity of different false gods. Athens was the home of the Areopagus which served as the zenith of Greek wisdom and ideas, the pinnacle of Greek philosophical debate, and the think tank of the Greek culture. These philosophic views made their way down the trade route straight into the city of Corinth.
It was within that particular context that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians to the church in this wicked and dark city. He encouraged them to cling to the message of the cross – no matter how foolish it may have seemed. Paul didn’t encourage the church to become trendy, hip, or cool in order to make the gospel acceptable. Paul said the following:
For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom,  but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles,  but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1 Cor. 1:22-25).
Notice that Paul didn’t encourage the church at Corinth to appeal to the Greeks by making the gospel seem wise. Likewise, Paul didn’t encourage the church at Corinth to reach the Jews by removing the offense of the gospel. Instead he solidified the mission of the church at Corinth as a gospel ministry with gospel ministers who preach the good news that seemed like utter foolishness. If Paul never sought to make the gospel cool, why are so many people today fixated on this ministry venture?
Gospel People are Fools
Jesus promised us that we would be hated and despised as fools for following Him (Matt. 10:22). What person in their right mind would follow after a man who was hated and crucified on a Roman cross for claiming to be one with God? Only a fool would do something like that – right? That’s why after Peter and John were beaten and threatened by the religious establishment, they replied, “for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard (Acts 4:20).”
As we explore the early church in the book of Acts, we don’t see them majoring on set designs, hipster clothing, and church branding to get the gospel to the ends of the world. The early Christians were very much under submission to Christ’s rule and their lives exemplified holiness – not rebellion. We don’t see the need for the early church to use antinomianism to carry the torchlight of the gospel onward. Instead, we see people who were faithful to the gospel – even to the point of death – in order to get the gospel to the ends of the world.
It’s offensive to God when we sit and try to think up ways to make the gospel cool. God’s gospel will never be cool. The moment that we finally think the gospel is cool will be the moment we’ve replaced the gospel of God with another gospel. The bloody gospel will never be acceptable to a sophisticated culture of sin loving people. We can dress up in certain clothes, learn to talk with a certain swagger, install tattoo parlors and cigar lounges on our church campuses – but God haters will never be impressed with our gospel. They may compliment our tattoos and smoke our cigars, but they will never like our gospel. If you’re known for what you smoke and what you drink rather than the gospel you embrace, that’s a problem.
People who love the esteem of man will never embrace the ridicule of Jesus’ cross. If our ministries teach people to love the praise and respect of man, our churches will become a Sunday production rather than an assembly of blood washed sinners who are willing to live out Luke 9:23. The gospel will always be a scandal to a lost world, and those of us who follow Christ will be scandalous people. Success in ministry is not achieved by the cool factor of appearance or production. Success in ministry is based on a firm commitment to the gospel of Christ and a willingness to become a fool for Jesus. Please stop trying to give Jesus a makeover.
Many people have images of this angry monk named Luther making his way to the castle door in Wittenberg on October 31st 1517 to nail the 95 Theses as an open rebuke and challenge to the Roman Catholic Church. That’s not exactly how it all happened. The wheels were starting to turn in the mind of Luther regarding the problems of the Roman Catholic Church, but if you read his 95 Theses, you will not see the five solas of the Reformation mentioned. In Luther’s mind, the Roman Catholic Church needed to be fixed, but he wasn’t opposed to everything.
It would take two years before this dedicated monk would finally have, what some refer to as the “tower experience.” It was while studying the Bible in the monastery that Luther finally understood Romans 1:17. Before, Luther’s view of God was that of an angry and judgmental God. He viewed his salvation as coming through self depreciating and accusatory statements of self. If self-love was the sin, the only way to be saved was through self-hatred. Therefore, in Luther’s view, the way to God was by accepting His judgments. Michael Reeves summarizes Luther’s view by writing, “This gloomy idea that the only solution for self-love is self-hatred and self accusation was built upon a frightening view of God. Luther could only see that God was all Judge and no love, his righteousness being all about punishing sinners, his ‘gospel’ just the promise of judgment. Here was a God he could only ever cower before.” 
It was while sitting in his cell and reading the Bible that Romans 1:17 and God’s righteousness came to a soul shaking reality. It was possible to receive forgiveness through the promise of God alone, by faith alone, in Christ alone rather than through the judgments of God. No longer was God a gloomy Judge. The dark clouds of false theology were moved back and for the first time Luther could see the pure rays of gospel light shining upon his face. Luther recalls this moment:
Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteousness God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, ‘As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!’ Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted.
At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, ‘In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.”‘ There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.
This whole scene happened two years after Luther had nailed the 95 Theses to the castle door. What was a spark in 1517 was now a blaze in 1519. Luther would spend his next year writing with a ferocious tenacity. The Reformation was now starting to explode. The verse of the Reformation was Romans 1:17. As you consider the historical significance of October 31st, we can be assured of this fact, Rome has long regretted sending this budding monk to Wittenberg to study the Bible. If the Roman Catholic Church had a desire to control the Bible and keep the truths bottled up in Latin – the language of academia, they would contradict themselves by putting an open Bible in the hands of Martin Luther. They had a desire to see him teach theology and to cure his spiritual anxiety, so they sent him to Wittenberg. God took Romans 1:17 and pierced the bowels of the Roman Catholic Church.
If Luther was “God’s Volcano” as Michael Reeves suggests, it was Romans 1:17 that caused him to erupt. The lava of the Reformation consumed the false salvation practices of the pope and the Roman Catholic Church. Luther made it abundantly clear, God is not for sale. R. C. Sproul concludes, “The Reformation was not merely a Great Awakening; it was the Greatest Awakening to the true Gospel since the Apostolic Age.” 
Romans 1:17 – For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
- Michael Reeves, The Unquenchable Flame, 2009, 46.
- R. C. Sproul and Archie Parrish, The Spirit of Revival, 2000, 17.
Someone once said, “Wolves look good dressed up in wool.” That is a very true statement indeed. Jesus Himself said in Matthew 7:15, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” As we consider the threat of false teachers, what should be the response of a shepherd of one of God’s flocks? Should false teachers be named openly? Is that the proper response or is that sinful?
Some people argue that it’s a slanderous thing to name people openly when calling out heresy. Others suggest that we must tread lightly and be very cautious in these areas. What path is most acceptable in the sight of our Lord? That’s the real question we must consider when we stand in the pulpit with the open Bible. As we consider the challenges of preaching in a world saturated with heresy, we labor for the glory of Christ and the joy of God’s sheep.
Calling Names – The Positive Side
John MacArthur once said, “The teaching of a false prophet cannot withstand scrutiny under the divine light of Scripture.”1 When a pastor stands in the pulpit and shines the light of the gospel upon false teaching and names the names of false teachers, this can be very beneficial to the congregation on several different levels. New Christians can see the dangers that are lurking, even in the most unsuspected places such as the shelves in the “Christian” bookstore. When the names of false teachers are not veiled, the sheep of God’s pasture are able to see the wolves clearly. It provides the children of God an advantage as they watch for their souls and the souls of their own household.
In short, the positives of actually naming names will protect the church from serious doctrinal error. False teachers are depraved morally and entrapped by their commitment to viciously attack and oppose the pure gospel of Christ. More than one church in the pages of history has been assaulted by false teaching. To name the names of false teachers is a responsible thing to do. It may violate the tolerance code of our modern culture, but it protects the church, exalts Christ, guards the gospel, and reveals error.
Calling Names – The Negatives
I recall preaching a message several years ago where I was distinguishing the true gospel from the health, wealth, and prosperity teachings. I decided that I would name names as I illustrated the dangers of that doctrine. When I went down a list of false teachers, I recall a woman abruptly got up from her seat and left the room. She wanted to meet with me the next day in my office and when we talked she explained that she was offended by the fact that I had called a specific person a false teacher. When I provided clear evidence from the Scriptures, she was unwilling to submit. This woman was not a member of our congregation. She had been visiting for several weeks and as a result of this, she never joined our church. When you call names from the pulpit, you do run the risk of growing at a slower pace than some of the more ecumenical congregations.
When a Christian is sitting in the pew and he hears the name T.D. Jakes or Joel Osteen called from the pulpit as a false teacher, it could lead him to research their name, ministry, teaching, and perhaps a book they have written. Now, that may not be the case for the majority of the congregation, but what about that inquisitive young Christian that’s merely checking them out? Could calling names be harmful to the Christian who has no exposure to their ministry until their name was called from the pulpit during a sermon designed to expose the health, wealth, and prosperity doctrine?
Calling Names – A Biblical Argument
In 1 Timothy 1:3, Paul instructed Timothy “remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine.” Interestingly, different doctrine is the combination of two Greek words, didaskalia“to teach” and heteros, which means “of a different kind.” The point Paul was making is clear. Don’t allow teachers in Ephesus to deviate from the path of the true gospel.
In Titus 1:11, when referencing false teachers, Paul said to Titus, “They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach.” In other words, one of the biblical qualifications of an elder is one who is able to stop the mouths of heretics. Therefore, one of the basic duties of a pastor is to protect the church from heretics – those who pervert the gospel. In 2 Timothy 3:13, Paul warned Timothy by describing the false teachers as, “evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.”
Several times in Paul’s writings we find that he actually named the names of false teachers.
- In 2 Timothy 1:15, Paul named Phygelus and Hermogenes. These men are thought to have served as elders and had denied the faith.
- In 2 Timothy 4:10, Paul named Demas as a man who had deserted Paul because he loved the world.
- In 2 Timothy 4:14, Paul named Alexander the coppersmith. He was apparently a threat to the church at Ephesus and was an enemy of Paul and the gospel that Paul had labored to preach.
Did Paul’s name calling harm Phygelus and Hermogenes? Sure, it probably led Timothy to go back and report this to the elders in Ephesus and it’s likely that these men would have experienced a damaged reputation as a result. Was this the right call by Paul? What about Demas who had literally deserted Paul as he was in the Mamertine prison awaiting execution? Did the fact that Paul called his name to Timothy harm his character? While this was a personal letter to Timothy, it would have been made known to the wider church community at some point. Could this have damaged Demas? When Paul called out Alexander, the metal worker who had opposed Paul in Ephesus, did that harm his industry?
As we think through the reasoning of Paul’s name calling, we must realize that Paul was not willing to stand aside while the depraved wolves devoured God’s sheep. He was a man of strong conviction and he possessed a pastor’s heart. He wanted to protect the church and he desired to guard the gospel. Two different times in two different letters, Paul commanded Timothy to guard the gospel (1 Timothy 6:20; 2 Timothy 1:14). The preservation of the gospel was at the heart of Paul’s decision to call out specific false teachers and enemies of the cross.
In conclusion, pastors and bloggers should make the aim of their ministry Soli Deo Gloria and the guarding of the true gospel. If a person is proven to be a false teacher by their doctrine, it would be irresponsible to veil them to the Christian community. As ministers of the truth, we have an obligation to guard the good deposit that has been entrusted to our care in order that their message does not spread like a deadly disease (2 Timothy 2:16-17). We must make sure that we use the words “heretic” and “false teacher” in the most careful way as possible. When labeling people we must utilize wisdom and discernment. These labels can damage people and their character. If we error in our judgement, it can leave lasting damage upon the individual. If a person is indeed a false teacher, the label serves them well. May our writing and preaching exalt Christ and shut the mouths of false teachers. However, as we write and as we preach, if we labor to teach the true gospel, it will expose false teaching as a red barn in a green field. We don’t need to be experts on all world religions, but we must seek diligently to know God as we see Him revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
According to J.I. Packer:
The mark of the false prophet or teacher is self-serving unfaithfulness to God and His truth…There are teachers in the church today who never speak of repentance, self-denial, the call to be relatively poor for the Lord’s sake, or any other demanding aspect of discipleship. Naturally they are popular and approved, but for all that, they are false prophets. We will know such people by their fruits.2
Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Josh Buice
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1. John MacArthur, Matthew 1-7, Moody, 1985, 471.
2. J.I. Packer, Your Father Loves You, Harold Shaw Publishers, 1986, 9/19.