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Romans 1:28-32 & Acts 14:8-20 by Robert Dean
Also includes Acts 17:17-33
Series:Romans (2010)
Duration:1 hr 1 mins 35 secs

How Paul Communicates the Gospel
Romans 1:28–32, cf., Acts 14:8-20 & Acts 17:17–33
Romans Lesson #016
April 21, 2011
www.deanbibleministries.org

In Romans 1:18ff the apostle Paul gives one of the greatest explanations of the core problem in human history. Men suppress the truth on the one hand and live in a fantasy world on the other hand. There is a suppression of truth, rejection of God; and when God is rejected something moves in and replaces Him. He worships the creature rather than the creator. What are some of the conclusions we can draw from that? We are talking in terms of application of the principles we have seen in Romans 1:18ff, especially in terms of communicating the gospel to those who don’t know it, don’t understand it, or who have not accepted Jesus Christ as Savior.

  1. First of all, what this passage tells us is that all men are inherently religious. Mankind is not inherently secular; mankind is inherently religious. Whether that religion is expressed through a secular religion—and actually secular humanism was recognized by the Supreme Court of the United States as a religion—the belief that there is no God is just as much a religious statement as the belief that there is a God. It is just plain logic. If the statement that there is a God is religious then its opposite must be equally religious. There is no such thing as neutrality, no such thing as an area of life that is not touched by someone’s belief in an ultimate power or reality. So all men are inherently religious. That is, they worship something. Even if all they worship is their own belly they worship something. They worship money, and ideological system, their own lust patterns, an idol made of wood, stone and metal, or they worship some abstract ideology; but they all worship something. But what they worship is something within creation; that is the bent of fallen man.
  2. All men are also in rebellion against God. They are truth suppressors. They are in rebellion against the creator God as defined in the Old Testament. They are in rebellion against the creator God because of sin, and thus they will always default to some substitute god. They create a fantasy; a fantasy reality based on their view of ultimate reality that is not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the creator-God of the Old Testament. All men also know, just as they know that God exists, that they are in violation of God’s standards. At the very core of their being they know this and that is why they are suppressing the truth: because they don’t want to come face to face with the reality that they don’t measure up to the righteous standards of God. And they can’t, no matter what; they never reach perfection.
  3. God created all men with an internal knowledge of His existence. It is known within them, and His external witness of what He has made in the universe is a witness that is sufficient to every human being so that they are without excuse. Every human being, no matter what they may claim, deep down in a dark corner where they have stuffed it, suppressed it, there is the knowledge of God, and it is always peeking out at the most inappropriate time.
  4. The ultimate issue in life was neither intellectual nor educational. It is not IQ; it is not experience; it is a moral decision to reject the knowledge of God. The problem with the unbeliever isn’t that he doesn’t have enough evidence or that it is not rationally presented—because it is; there is more than enough evidence—but he doesn’t want to believe that is the way reality is; he doesn’t want to submit to the authority of God who said: This is the way I have made things; not the way you wanted it. That is essentially what happened with Adam and Eve. They both wanted to redefine reality and say there was nothing wrong with that fruit.
  5. There are some people who have already understood who this creator God is, so the issue in communicating with them is different. When we are communicating with a pagan who is committed to his pagan unbelief then we cannot argue them to the gospel by virtue of reason, experience or mysticism. Those are human systems of knowledge. When we try to do that we are trying to go over to the pagan’s foundation and construct eternity on that foundation of sand.

When there is the unbeliever committed to unbelief on the left and the believer committed to the authority of Scripture on the right the question is: one what basis do we appeal for things such as truth and authority? What is the ultimate truth? Is it experience, reason, intuition and mysticism, or Scripture? What we want to do is look at examples from the Scriptures of how the apostles communicated to unbelievers, and see that they did not violate the foundation of Scriptural authority by setting it aside and appealing to logic or reason or experience as the ultimate determiner of truth; how they were able to assume the authenticity of Scripture, the authority and the veracity of Scripture, and they never compromised it in how they communicated truth to the unbeliever.

Acts 2:14 NASB “But Peter, taking his stand with the eleven, raised his voice and declared to them: ‘Men of Judea and all you who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you and give heed to my words.’” Peter is talking to a group of Jewish men who were called “devout” men in Acts 2:5. When he addresses them it is with the assumption that the common ground between them is the authority of the Scriptures. Many of them were unbelievers but he assumes the veracity and the authority of Scripture and the prophets of Joel and of David in the Psalms, and he doesn’t validate the authority of Scripture. He knows that he has that as common ground with his audience. They already know who God is: the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We see the contrast with Paul in Lystra and later in Athens where his audience had no idea who the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was, or who Jesus was. Paul takes a completely different approach. He also takes a different approach when he is dealing with a Jewish audience that already understands who God is.

Peter addresses this audience with the assumption that they know the Hebrew Scriptures. He begins with a quotation from Joel related to the messianic kingdom. They already have this as a common understanding. He follows this with a quotation from Psalm 16:8, 9 which deals with the messianic statement of David that the Messiah would go into the grave but His body would not be corrupted. In other words, the Old Testament predicted that the Messiah would be raised from the dead and that He would have victory over death; then Psalm 110:1, that God would raise Him to heaven and He would be seated at the right hand of the Father, and that all authority is then given to Him. So Jesus Christ is represented as the divine authority over creation and there is no compromise on that point in his presentation.

In Acts chapter three we have Peter’s second sermon as recorded in Acts. The context is that he and John have just healed this lame man who sat outside the temple. But how does Peter begin? He doesn’t begin in Genesis chapter one; he begins in Genesis chapter twelve. Acts 3:13 NASB “The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified His servant Jesus, {the one} whom you delivered and disowned in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release Him.” He starts with the common ground of the God of the Old Testament. He is not compromising the Scripture; he is assuming the authority of Scripture, and he doesn’t step out from that foundation. In this sermon he uses messianic references in the Old Testament and appeals to the Hebrew prophets as his authority. His ultimate authority is: This is what God says and this is how it has been fulfilled. We see this in Acts 3:18 NASB “But the things which God announced beforehand by the mouth of all the prophets, that His Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled.” He is not questioning or giving any ground on divine authority. [24] “And likewise, all the prophets who have spoken, from Samuel and {his} successors onward, also announced these days. [25] It is you who are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant which God made with your fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘AND IN YOUR SEED ALL THE FAMILIES OF THE EARTH SHALL BE BLESSED.’” When he gets to the point of the resurrection he says, [26] “For you first, God raised up His Servant and sent Him to bless you by turning every one {of you} from your wicked ways.” The point of this sermon, as with the one before, is on the resurrection of Jesus as the ultimate evidence and validation of who Jesus is as the Messiah. Peter is not appealing to it as an autonomous act of history; he is locating it within a biblical view of history. This is why he goes back in the Acts 2 sermon and the Acts 3 sermon to Abraham and gives a context before he even begins to talk about resurrection. By establishing the Old Testament framework he locates the resurrection within a context of Scripture.

He goes on to talk about the restoration of all things, which is a reference to the messianic kingdom. Then he uses the phrase “times of refreshing” which will come (v. 19), and this, again, emphasizes the messianic kingdom as promised in the Old Testament. So he appeals to the resurrection within the context of Old Testament predictions. It is not an isolated historical event where you are just looking at it within the context of how some apologetics are done in isolation of that Old Testament framework. You can’t understand the resurrection if you don’t understand the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

The next situation is when Peter and John have been arrested and now they address the Sanhedrin. We see the same thing happen. The appeal is made to the Scriptures without compromising their authority and they quote from passages such as Psalm 118:22 (Acts 4:11). Then they conclude with the statement: Acts 4:12 NASB “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” So again, this is locating their explanation and defense of their gospel message on the basis of Old Testament authority.

In Acts chapter seven we have Stephen’s sermon and his challenge to the abuse of authority by the Pharisees. Acts 7:2 NASB “And he said, ‘Hear me, brethren and fathers! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran.’” Where does he start? He is talking to a Jewish audience who believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and that is where he starts in his communication of the gospel. He appeals to the Scripture throughout the entire chapter and he never compromises its authority.

In addressing a Jewish audience Peter and Stephen operate on the common ground of Scripture; they never compromise the authority of Scripture by appealing to reason, logic, or experience of history as if it operates independently of the authority of Scripture. History is what it is because God says it is; facts are what they are, not because they operate autonomously but because they are what God says they are. So they always establish the facts of what they are talking about within the framework of divine revelation and authority.

In Acts chapter eight we have Philip talking to the Ethiopian eunuch who already believes in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. So there is, again, the common ground of Scriptural authority. It is the same with Paul in Acts 9:20 NASB “and immediately he {began} to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’” He starts from a framework of Scripture as his common ground. In Acts chapter ten Peter does the same thing. In all these instances there are individuals who believe in the God of the Old Testament, and the starting point is with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and His work and revelation in the Old Testament.

The situation changes after Acts chapter thirteen when Paul and Barnabas are on the first missionary journey. In chapter fourteen Paul addresses the Gentiles in Lystra. The context is that he is going to Greek-speaking people who do not have a framework for the Old Testament. But before he goes anywhere Paul always first goes to a synagogue. The first place he goes to is Iconium, and that is covered in the first three verses. He addressees the synagogue of the Jews and in the synagogue there are both Jews and Gentiles. The Gentiles in the synagogue are God-fearing Greeks who had become proselytes to Judaism and part of the synagogue. As Paul explains the credentials of Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah we are told, verse 1, “…a large number of people believed, both of Jews and of Greeks.” But there were also unbelieving Jews. These were the Jews who were suppressing the truth in unrighteousness and as a result when the truth is given and that God-consciousness is being tweaked they react. There is one of two things that happens when the gospel is proclaimed to people: a) in humility they accept it and believe it; b) if they don’t like it, it doesn’t fit their fantasy world that they have constructed, it is in opposition to it, they react in anger and hostility. The unbelieving Jews here then went out to the Gentiles in the broader context of Iconium and they poison their minds against their brethren; they distort what Paul has said, they twist it so that they can generate opposition from the legal authorities. The multitude becomes further and further divided because these unbelieving Jews are stirring things up, violence breaks out and the unbelievers want to stone Paul and Barnabas.

They head south to Lystra where something important happens as they present the gospel. Acts 14:8 NASB “At Lystra a man was sitting who had no strength in his feet, lame from his mother’s womb, who had never walked. [9] This man was listening to Paul as he spoke, who, when he had fixed his gaze on him and had seen that he had faith to be made well, [10] said with a loud voice, ‘Stand upright on your feet.’ And he leaped up and {began} to walk.’” So we have a miracle that attests to the authority of the apostle Paul and is a validation of their message. What happened when this miracle occurred is that the people who are pagan reinterpret what has just happened. This is what is typical of truth suppression. In truth suppression as soon as something is seen that is biblical it is reinterpreted within a pagan framework. [11] “When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they raised their voice, saying in the Lycaonian language, ‘The gods have become like men and have come down to us.’ [12] And they {began} calling Barnabas, Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker.’” They are identifying them within their pagan religious system.

The paganism of that day is not a lot different from the paganism of today. Any system of thought has to deal with ethics, how we know what we know, and what ultimate reality is. You can’t separate these things. As soon as somebody says this is right or this is wrong we have to ask the question: how do you know you are right? Paul is dealing with people who are thinking with a view of God isn’t a God who is a separate and distinct creator who is radically different from everything in the creation, and He doesn’t share the same essence or being with everything that He has created. So he has to talk about God is a completely separate and distinct way, which is what he does in Acts 14:15 when they start worshipping him NASB “and saying, ‘Men, why are you doing these things? We are also men of the same nature as you, and preach the gospel to you that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, WHO MADE THE HEAVEN AND THE EARTH AND THE SEA AND ALL THAT IS IN THEM.’” These people don’t know what the issue is. It is either to be worshipped like a god and have their message plugged into this same pagan chain of being and they sort of assimilate to the pagan view a little bit—or they will be stoned.

How is that for an option? We could say we are really talking about the same God; it would be very easy to do. In fact, that is how most Christians witness. They talk to an unbeliever and say we are talking about pretty much the same thing. No, you’re not! Don’t give up your ground. As soon as you say we are talking about the same thing you have lost, because you are not talking about the same thing. They are talking about the chain of being; you are talking about a Creator God who is totally other than all of His creation. Paul recognizes there are two kinds of people: either creator worshippers or creature worshippers. He isn’t going to settle for a compromise. 

Paul goes back to Genesis chapter one. Before he can get to the cross or resurrection he has to make sure they understand that they are talking about a different God, the God who created everything. The doctrine of creation isn’t some secondary thing. If we don’t communicate the gospel within the framework of a literal Genesis chapter one creation we are grounding the gospel on a false god, a non-biblical being. Both here and in Acts 17 Paul grounds his gospel, before he ever gets to the cross and resurrection, in the God of Genesis chapter one who creates all things and gives life to all things, and who is the God who can then bring Jesus from the dead and give Him life, raising Him from the dead. Without Genesis chapter one we can’t get to the resurrection and Paul wants to make sure that he identifies what the resurrection truth is and where it comes from before he throws it out there. Otherwise their pagan thought is just going to absorb it and reinterpret as just another oddity in history and put Jesus up with all of the other gods and philosophers of history.

The principle we want to see in Acts 14 is that when Paul is addressing pagans he doesn’t start in Genesis 12. There is no common ground with the Old Testament Scripture. He starts with, without compromising Scripture, the fact that you have to understand who God is before you can understand what is going to be said about sin, salvation and resurrection.