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“For the Sake of the Gospel”—The Apologetic Speeches of the Apostle Paul in the Book of Acts (Part One)


I am willing to acknowledge that the contemporary debate over apologetic methodology between “evidentialists” and “presuppositionalists,” however unpleasant, can be a vital and healthy exercise.  I think it important to have a biblically based and carefully honed apologetic methodology in place before confronting both the learned and not so learned paganism of our age.  In those instances when this is the goal of the evidentialist-presuppositionalist debate, it ought to be greatly encouraged. 

I am perplexed that the parties to this in-house debate spend very little time analyzing the Apostle Paul’s apologetic speeches in the Book of Acts (1).  It is from Luke’s record of the ever-extending reign of the risen and exalted Christ, that we are given a clear picture of how the Apostle Paul sought both to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ and defend the Christian truth claim (2).  Paul does so not only in the synagogues of the major cities of Greece and Asia Minor–before Jews and “God-fearing” Gentile proselytes–but also before civil magistrates as well as in the marketplaces of those Roman and Greek cities where little or nothing was known of the God of Israel and the inspired texts of the Old Testament.  In Paul’s various encounters with Jews and God-fearing Gentiles in cities such as Psidion Antioch (Acts 13:13-52), Thessalonica and Berea (Acts 17:1-15), with superstitious pagans in Lystra (Acts 14:8-19) and sophisticated Epicurean and Stoic philosophers of the Athenian Areopagus (Acts 16:-34), or Gentile rulers such as Felix (Acts 24:10-27); and even a member of Israel’s ruling family, Herod Agrippa (Acts 26:1-32), we get a sense of the Apostle’s approach to confronting divergent forms of unbelief in specific historical contexts.

All Things to All Men For the Sake of the Gospel

As Luke recounts elements of
the apologetic speeches of Paul for us in Acts, it is apparent that Paul is putting into practice his own stated philosophy of ministry, expressed in some detail in his first Letter to the Corinthian Christians:

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.  To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law.  To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law.  To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.  I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings (1 Corinthians 9:19–23).

It is clear from these comments that Paul had thought very carefully about his unique calling as the Apostle to the Gentiles and his role as a loyal son of Israel, who’s heartfelt prayer for his people was “that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.  For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh” Romans 9:2-3).  To win his own Jewish brothers and sisters to Christ, Paul became as “one under the law” (1 Corinthians 9:20), though he was free in Christ.  To the Gentiles who knew not Moses, the law, or Israel’s God, Paul instead become a man subject only to the law of Christ, so that those who were at one time “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world,” might be won to Israel’s Messiah (Ephesians 2:12).

Let us be careful to note that Paul was no mere pragmatist, adopting in chameleon-like fashion, the ideology of whatever group he happened to be facing at any given moment.  Paul was not concerned with demographics or success in the modern American sense of church planting.  He was concerned with being faithful to the commission given him by Jesus Christ.  As Pauline scholarship has pointed out, perhaps it is best that we think of Paul neither exclusively as systematic theologian, nor, on the contrary, as a theological  innovator.   Instead we should view Paul as a man called to be an apostle by Jesus Christ, who in turn applied his core beliefs of an unchanging gospel of free grace to very specific, yet very dynamic situations, which, in turn, became the occasion for a number of the Epistles of Paul which appear in our New Testament canon (3).  Throughout the various apologetic speeches in Acts, we see Paul proclaim one gospel to diverse audiences who stand poles apart from one another in terms of both their respective intellectual and cultural backgrounds and their interpretive “world and life” view.  How does the Apostle bridge this wide intellectual gap?

Christ and Him Crucified

There are several things that must be pointed out about Paul’s basic theological core convictions, so clearly and energetically expressed in his letters to the churches, and that also repeatedly surface in the varied apologetic speeches described in Acts.  The first thing that we need to consider is that Paul clearly thought in eschatological terms, seeing the course of human history as the unfolding of two successive ages–a present “evil age” (Galatians 1:4) and an “age to come” in which Jesus Christ himself rules (Ephesians 1:21).  This is the lens through which Paul sees much of the wickedness and unbelief of his own age (4).  For Paul, this present age is characterized as the dominion of death which has befallen us under the headship of Adam (Romans 5:12-19).  It is an age of a “worldly wisdom” that does not understand the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 2:6-8).  “This age” is characterized by speculative philosophy (1 Corinthians 1:20), and is an age in which the arch-enemy of God, Satan, rules by default, having blinded the minds of men to the truth of the things of God (2 Corinthians 4:4).  To be identified with “this age” is to be tragically bound to death and the things of this world, things destined to perish.
The “age to come,” on the other hand, is an age of eternal life in Christ, the second Adam (Romans 5:12-19; 1 Corinthians 15:50 ff.), in which mere flesh and blood are transformed by resurrection life.  The age to come is an age in which the eternal has swallowed up the temporal in the eschatological victory of Jesus Christ and the consummation of all things (1 Timothy 6:19; 2 Timothy 4:18).  It is an age characterized by the wisdom of God, revealed in the person and work of his son.
Opposition to Paul’s preaching arises directly from the “wisdom” of the citizens of this age, and such opposition cannot rise any higher than the innate idolatry of the human heart.  What men and women learn of God through general revelation can only condemn them, leaving all without excuse before God’s righteous tribunal, since what they do know of God is sinfully suppressed in unrighteousness, having exchanged the truth of God for a lie (Romans 1:19-25).  Apart from the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, the citizens of “this age” suffer from ignorance of God, the futility of being unable to think God’s thoughts after him, a darkened understanding of revealed things, a profound hardness of heart, and are,  according to Paul, “alienated from God” (Ephesians 4:17-18).  Paul would grant little quarter, I think, to those sentimental American Evangelicals who see the consequences of sin in purely moral categories.  Sin not only makes us “bad,” it renders us incapable of coming to faith apart from prior grace and spiritual illumination.  Human sinfulness renders us unwilling to believe what we know to be true about God and to trust in the saving actions of his son as our only hope of heaven.  Above all else, our sin places us under God’s just condemnation.  We are blind, because fallen in Adam, we would rather gouge out our own spiritual eyes, than bow our knees and confess “Jesus Christ is Lord.”  For Paul, sin has grave intellectual ramifications, which are fundamentally and essentially related to our moral depravity.

With this in mind, we now can make sense of a second major category in Paul’s theological core, “the theology of the cross.”  We see this in Paul’s repeated comments about the gospel being “the power of God” unto salvation for all who believe (Romans 1:16; 1 Corinthians 1:18).  As the wisdom, not of men, but of God (1 Corinthians 1:21), what appeared to be foolishness to Gentiles and a stumbling block to Jews–both citizens of “this age”–the cross displays the very epitome of the wisdom of the “age to come.”  Says Paul, “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentile.”  For “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”  Indeed, “ Christ Jesus . . . became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” (1 Corinthians 1:23-30).  This is why Paul can say to the erring Galatians–many of whom had returned to the works-righteousness principle of this “present evil age” (Galatians 2:16)–that it was the apostle’s desire to never boast, “except in the cross of Christ” (Galatians 6:14).  The way to combat the unbelief of the “present evil age” is to confront it head-on, with the truth of the gospel in which the power of God and the wisdom of God are evident in the saving work of Jesus Christ in his death, burial and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)—Paul’s theology of the cross.

 This has profound significance for any defense of the Christian faith.  Paul’s theology of the cross is central to all his thinking.  The cross is the basis for his proclamation of Christ crucified to Jew and Gentile.  It also colors all of the historic encounters we find between Paul and unbelievers in the Book of Acts.  While desiring to be “all things to all men,” Paul has one gospel to proclaim, whether it be to “Jews and God-fearers” of the synagogues, the superstitious pagans of Lystra, or the learned pagans of Athens.  It is Paul’s theology of the cross which turns these encounters with unbelief into what may be called a pattern of “proclamation—defense.”  There is a profound sense in which we cannot understand any of these Lukan reports apart from the content of Paul’s preaching, which, in Luke’s account, is always prior to the defense.  This means that Paul’s apologetic will not be grounded in natural theology or the so-called “classical proofs” for God’s existence.  Paul’s apologetic will be firmly grounded both in general revelation through that which God has created, and in the redemptive acts of God in Christ which are, therefore, necessarily grounded in ordinary history.  Since redemptive-history involves the saving acts of God in time and space, redemptive-history is necessarily grounded in events which did or did not occur, a point made clear by Geerhardus Vos (5).

End of Part One

Part Two


(1).  Cornelius Van Til’s little booklet Paul at Athens, (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1978) is a notable exception.  K. Scott Olpihant’s The Battle Belongs to the Lord (Phillipsburg: P & R, 2003), 143 ff), also addresses Acts 17, but in a rather superficial way.  Two of the books by the major parties to this debate make little, if any, mention of these speeches:  R. C. Sproul, John Gerstner and Arthur Lindsley, Classical Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984); and John M. Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1994).  It would seem to me that the apostolic pattern of proclamation-apologia would be a major issue of contention.  Instead the apologetic speeches are barely given mention.

(2).  According to John Calvin, the theme of Acts is “the beginning of the reign of Christ, and, as it were, the renewal of the world is being depicted here.”  See John Calvin, The Acts of the Apostles, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1979), 17.

(3).   I am thinking of the “contingency-coherence” model set out by J. Christiaan Beker, in Paul the Apostle (Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1980), especially pages 23-36. 

(4).   Anders Nygren, Commentary on Romans (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1949), 20 ff.

(5).  Geerhardus Vos, “The Idea of Biblical Theology,” in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, ed., Richard Gaffin (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1980), 18-19.

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