Daniel Strange of Oak Hill College, speaking at the Evangelical Alliance’s “Confidence in the Gospel” initiative, argues that Paul’s Mars Hill speech in Acts 17 is not actually gospel, but the necessary context for understanding the gospel.

In this 10 minute talk, he gives a nice overview of Paul’s attitude, approach, and appeal:

Here is a summary from Dr Strange:

Paul’s speech to the Areopagus (Acts 17) is bad news. It doesn’t talk about God’s love or grace, it talks about judgement. Then, when he does talk about the resurrection, it’s to point to the coming judgement! It doesn’t mention the cross and neither does it mention the name Jesus—only ‘he’ at the very end.

Actually, Paul’s speech is not expounding the gospel, rather it is commending the gospel; drawing attention to its ultimacy and urgency. The point is this: you will not understand the good news of Jesus and his resurrection unless there is a context to it. This is what Paul provides to the Athenians.

Paul’s attitude: He is repulsed by what he sees of this city submerged by idolatry. He is provoked and he is distressed. The whole of Luke / Acts is about the New Exodus and the theme of that is an anti-idol polemic. What we see in Acts 17 is the climax of this and it acts as the discursive framing for Acts 18; the anger toward idolatry frames the gospel message.

Paul’s approach: There is a comparison and collision of worldviews. Paul recognized that in order for the resurrection to be understood he needed to set the context. He introduces who God is, what he is like and the Christian view of history. It’s only in the context of the Christian worldview that the gospel makes sense. Worldview thinking has to be part of gospel proclamation.

Paul’s appeal
: It’s not just a call to repentance; it’s a command to repentance. Again, it’s quite negative; it’s bad news—The Day of the Lord, a day of wrath is coming and the resurrection is used as proof that judgement is coming and that Jesus is the judge. This should be our appeal because idolatry has consequences and we have to take seriously the prospect of an eternity in hell.

But, of course, it’s also good news, because we can turn from these things toward the living God.

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18 thoughts on “Paul Was Preaching Bad News, Not the Gospel, at Mars Hill”

  1. There’s much in Dr Strange’s talk to commend it. Indeed, Paul “introduces who God is, what he is like and the Christian view of history.” Thus the Mars Hill speech is not like the gospel presented in, say, the book of Romans. Acts 17 gives mostly prolegomena to the gospel.

    Strange mentions that Paul didn’t talk about God’s love or grace–that is certainly true–but neither did Peter in Acts 2 when 3000 people were converted (love does not appear in Acts and when grace appears it has to do with believers, not something offered in evangelism). Strange mentions that Paul didn’t talk about the cross–that is certainly true–but if by “the cross” we mean offering a sacrifice for sins to our hearers, then Peter did not do that either. Peter does mention the cross (using the verb) but only to remind his audience (twice!) that they crucified Jesus (bad news). Strange says that Acts 17 does not give a “call to repentance” (it’s not clear what that means) but rather “a command to repentance.” True, it gives a command (17.30). But again, in Acts 2 Peter uses the imperative when he commands the listeners to repent (2.38: μετανοήσατε).
    What makes Acts 17 bad news? It is not bad news because of anything that Strange mentioned but rather because of the lack of reference to forgiveness (forgiveness is mentioned in the evangelistic sermons of Acts 2, 3, 10, and 13 but not in Acts 17.

    1. John says:

      Good point! I suspect, however, that many of the recorded sermons in Acts are synecdochical in nature. Thus, Peter or Paul’s actual words may have included detail that the sermon audience needed to hear, but that the epistle’s audience did not need in order to understand the narrative. So, it is also possible that Paul did preach forgiveness and the gospel at the Areopagus, but that the law is what stuck in the craw of the hearers; hence, Luke emphasizes that.

      1. Kenton says:

        Paul doesn’t mention the Torah at all.

        I think our view of what the gospel message is falls outside of what the New Testament views the gospel as. As someone who is in college ministry, one based out of a Reformed-teaching church, I’ve used this model:

        1) God’s holiness and justice
        2) Man’s sin and just punishment
        3) Christ’s obedient life and substitutionary death
        4) Man’s response of repentance and faith

        The focus of our message is Christ’s merit-obtaining life and propitiatory death, the latter being the pinnacle. However, none of the gospels or any of the epistles have this focus. Their focus is Christ’s atoning suffering/death and his resurrection/ascension, with the resurrection and ascension being the pinnacle. Notice Paul’s explanation to the Corinthians on the gospel, and what is of “first importance”:

        Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you — unless you believed in vain.
        3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

        We usually stop with verse 3, but that’s not what Paul focuses on here. Yes, Christ died for our sins, but Paul spends most of his time on Christ’s resurrection. So what is of most importance is that Christ rose from the dead. Why? As Paul says, the resurrection is the hope upon which we base our freedom from sin and our access to God. If Christ was not risen, the crucifixion accomplishes nothing. In other words, the resurrection is not merely confirmation.

        So when Paul preaches Jesus and the resurrection, he is preaching the gospel. And when he preaches it in the context of judgment, he is preaching the gospel (if not for the simple fact that he is also doing so in the context of salvation by grace through faith). It is for this reason that the emphasis is on Christ’s death AND resurrection, for it is upon this that we have hope.

        By implication, this means that the grounds for our righteousness is not based on Christ’s death and what precedes it, but on Christ’s death and what follows from it. It also should be noted that both the crucifixion and resurrection involve judgment and salvation from wrath.

  2. Britt Treece says:

    Gerald – great layout of this talk and of the preaching in Acts. I would think Strange intends the phrase “bad news” as an opposition to the “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” nonsense that never appears in the Bible but passes off these days as “evangelism.”

    JT – To that, why don’t more ministries promote Way of the Master, Ray Comfort, and Kirk Cameron? Maybe that’s better left to an email response, but from where I sit it seems they have the closest thing to biblical evangelism going, and their method would heartily agree with Paul’s in Acts 17.

    Thanks always!

  3. pduggie says:

    It doesn’t mention God’s Love?

    ” And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.”

    Also, it may be good news to someone who sees the massive injustices of Athenean society and the relation of it to the silly ritualism of idolatry (and injustice and immorality of idolatry: see the herms, and the way it was even conceived that an idol, say, that protected a garden would rape the violator of the garden)

    It may be good news to hear that FINALLY, God is going to justly judge this kind of injustice.

    And the message IS enough for some to welcome Paul and become his followers.

    1. Marie Peterson says:

      I agree with pduggie! Plus, we don’t have Paul’s entire speech.

      You can’t say it lacks elements of the gospel either-

      “in the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel- Romans 2:16

      “Remember that Jesus Christ, of the seed of David, was raised from the dead according to my gospel”- 2 Tim. 2:8

  4. Phil says:

    Are you kidding me? The reason he was at Mars Hill is clear in verse 18; “he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.” That’s the context.

  5. Am I the only who can’t get over the fact that his name is “Dr. Strange”? I mean, yes to all the theology stuff, but really? That’s awesome. I jut WANT him to be right now.

    1. I swear I am not illiterate. I typed that far too quickly to notice the grammatical errors. My apologies to all who had to encounter them.

  6. Nick says:

    “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.””

    There seems to be gospel here:

    1) Jesus will return to judge (make all things right)
    2) Jesus was raised from the dead (this ensures that he will judge)

    Judgment has both positive and negative connotations. The fact that Jesus will do so in righteousness means he will perfectly sort things out. He will fully and finally deal with sin.

    The problem seems to be that Strange has a preconceived notion of what the gospel is and when he doesn’t find that here he says, “not gospel”. But Jesus’ resurrection and coming judgment are gospel even though it does contain some bad news for those who persist in sin. But the resurrection and second coming also hold out the positive promise that Jesus will finally fix this sin-filled world.

    I have a question for you Justin: Does Paul preach the gospel in the following?:

    “[God’s Son] was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

  7. Darrell Bock says:

    Several issues here.

    (1) The contrast gospel versus bad news is not a good one. The gospel assumes bad news and that bad news has to be established for an audience with a non-biblical background.

    (2) Paul only was getting started as he never finished what he was going to say.

    (3) Have to pay attention to his way in through and appeal to an idol, the unknown God. That was an attempt to connect.

    (4) I prefer to call the speech subversive versus bad in terms of thrust. There still is a need to turn to God that Jesus and the resurrection was the answer for–>probably headed to the gospel but did not get there.

    So let’s not make this speech of Paul take sides in our debates.

  8. bill krill says:

    You are so right: context=relevance.

  9. E.C. Hock says:

    I fear Daniel Strange is demanding a precision to the text that reflects a packaged assumption he brings to the text rather than understanding how Luke will often summarize events to explain the text. That is, we can assume certain thigns took palce based on precedent, and not on Luke having to spell it out every time. If Paul did not preach the gospel, than how do we explain the conclusion Luke gives in verse 34, “where some men joined him and believed.” Believed in what? If the gospel was never preached as Strange proposes, then Paul allows a pretty shoddy basis of cheap grace in becoming a disciple? Earlier, the Some Athenians wanted to know Paul’s “new teaching” (19). Are we then to assume that Paul took that invitation to preach only judgement, but not say anything about the alternative? No, as it says just before, he preached Jesus and the resurrection” (18). Can we not presume that since the gospel is Jesus as Lord (exalted) that the gospel would have been presented? He then speaks for them to “repent” which we can safely assume means he wants them to respond righty as well as consciously to the good news, not merely to give a response to change out of the fear to escape perdition. That would make one think Paul merely used the law to convict, rather than the gospel to persuade unto life (as he does in other scenarios as in the synagogue). But this is the kind of short-hand Luke usee. What is by now left out can, in turn, be assumed to still be part of the full delivery. He wants them to think about “the divine being” correctly, which will immediately lead us safely to conclude that the revelation of God, now made known in Jesus – incarnate, dead, buried and raised, and as Lord – is how he helps them to think about the divine. If Strange would say that the text literally does not say that, and love is not explicit, then he has imported a strained view of literalism to the text that we see neither Luke or Paul (or Peter) using. This is not how one goes about “rightly dividing” the word of God.

  10. Phil says:

    From the summary by Dr Strange:

    Paul’s speech to the Areopagus (Acts 17) is bad news. It doesn’t talk about God’s love or grace, it talks about judgement. Then, when he does talk about the resurrection, it’s to point to the coming judgement! It doesn’t mention the cross and neither does it mention the name Jesus—only ‘he’ at the very end.

    From the prelude to Pauls speech in Acts 17 (ESV):

    18 Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”-BECAUSE HE WAS PREACHING JESUS AND THE RESURRECTION.

    19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting?

    So clearly, the speech is only a part of a larger conversation, and any conversation about the Gospel can be dissected into parts that do not specifically mention Jesus or the resurrection, but that does not mean those were left unaddressed or that they were not already very much a part of the context and content in the exchange.

    Perhaps Dr Strange is just pointing out that this particular excerpt (the speech) was lacking the buzzwords that he expects in a Gospel presentation. Perhaps he is merely drawing attention to the part of the conversation that didn’t explicitly detail the Gospel and telling us that it didn’t. I wonder though.

  11. Kenton says:

    I’m no expert, but could it be that his view of what the gospel comprises is too narrow, rather than his view of Paul’s sermon? Is that even possible? As has been stated, Paul has been talking about “Jesus and the resurrection”. Note that it doesn’t say “Jesus and the crucifixion”. Indeed, as in all of Acts, the apostles only lightly touch upon the crucifixion (something that permeates Luke). Why is this the case? Paul’s words are certainly in keeping with the book itself, but it falls outside of the Reformed understanding of the gospel, which generally is Christ appeasing God’s wrath by taking it upon himself in place of sinners, and offering to them the merits of his perfect obedience (his justifying righteousness) on the basis of their faith in his finished work. If this is the gospel, Paul and Acts fail to deliver. Is the gospel absent, then?

    I don’t think so. Rather, Jesus and the resurrection are just as much the gospel (if not more so) that Jesus and the crucifixion. And this isn’t because the resurrection merely points backwards to his death. Rather, it is the message of the resurrection that proclaims Christ’s identity and eternal significance, not merely as sacrifice, but ultimately as Lord. And because Christ is the resurrected Lord, he comes in judgment and salvation. The gospel includes both, for it is not, ultimately, about sinners at all. It’s about God, specifically what he both has done and will do through Jesus. And what he will do pertains to sinners. This is why Paul can say in Romans that the gospel is both the power of salvation and the instrument of judgment, for in one breath it tells of the Messiah who died and rose again to be Lord of the living and of the dead, so that he might bring salvation to some and judgment to others, and so be the Son of God who brings God’s eternal purposes to their appointed conclusion, and so bringing maximum glory to the sovereign and holy Creator.

    But as far as the gospel being good news, the good news doesn’t come at the crucifixion, but the resurrection. Hence, “he is risen” and “he will come again” are the clarion calls of the gospel. He died and rose to redeem God’s people, who by their sins had forfeited their lives. But he also died and rose to judge sinners who yet refuse to come to God for redemption. The gospel does both by announcing that Jesus is Lord.

    1. Bruce Russell says:

      Kenton:

      You nailed it here:

      “The Gospel does not oome at the crucifixion, but at the resurrection.”

      The Good News is counterpoint to the Bad News. The bad news is that all of God’s covenantal arrangements with men had failed. The crucifixion resolves all of God’s curses upon disobedient humanity. The resurrection indicates that God is free to bless the faithful with Eternal Life. That is good news.

      Bruce

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Justin Taylor


Justin Taylor is senior vice president and publisher for books at Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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