Paul Brings Good News to Athens
by Pastor Bob Burridge ©2014
Part 4 — “Responsible to a Holy God” — Acts 17:30
As Paul waited for Silas and Timothy to join him in Athens, he took the opportunity to explain the gospel both to the Jews in the Synagogues, and to the Gentiles in the market place. He was invited to address the philosophers at the Areopagus to explain his teachings. Paul didn’t hesitate, though their interest was obviously just a vain curiosity.
He commented on their deeply religious and superstitious attitudes. Pointing out their monument to an unknowable God, Paul said that God is knowable. He then began to proclaim that truth to these skeptics. He told them that God made all things, and that by his sovereign providence he upholds all things. Therefore, all men are obligated to honor him obediently.
Up to that point Paul’s message was seen by the philosophers as just a different view of the universe on a metaphysical level. Interesting, but not challenging. Then Paul took the next step. Since all are created by and sustained by this Sovereign Creator, all are held accountable before God’s judgment.
In verse 30 Paul begins to explain this moral responsibility to a Holy God.
God holds us morally accountable and will judge all men through Jesus Christ.
Act 17:30, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent,”
God had been patient and long-suffering toward the unbelieving nations. Peter reminds us of the patience of God back in the time of Noah. 1 Peter 3:20, “they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared …”
The Athenians Paul was speaking to had lived in spiritual darkness for a long time. God had been patient. He did not bring his judgment upon them immediately for what they deserved.
In his sovereign plan, God’s endurance of sinners plays a part in demonstrating his wrath, power, justice, and patience. It would be wrong to assume that God’s patience meant he didn’t care. In Romans 9:22 Paul wrote, “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?”
While God withholds his judgment, some by grace are brought to repentance and become redeemed children of God. The rest continue in their sin with no gratitude to God for restraining his wrath. Those left to their own natural disobedience show more clearly how deserved God’s judgment is. This theme was enlarged upon by Paul early in the Book of Romans. Romans 2:4-5 says, “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.”
After the seasons of God’s patience, there comes a time of accountability.
At this point in his address to the Athenians, Paul was narrowing the focus of his message to the main moral issue. Since God made all things for his glory, and the pagans had not lived for his glory, their only hope is that they turn from their sin based upon the only hope possible.
God makes it clear that all need to repent. There are three things we are told to tell unbelievers.
1. All are obligated to obey God as he reveals himself in his word.
2. Since they have not done that, they are to repent for their sins against him.
3. They should trust in the saving work of Jesus Christ for forgiveness of their sins.
Our message to the lost should not appear to rest upon our own authority. It should not be based upon emotional appeals, pure logic, our own experiences or assurances. What we tell the unbeliever should be presented as what God himself has said.
We also know that in their fallen nature no one is able to do any one of these things they are called upon to do. Only when the Holy Spirit applies the benefit of the work of Christ can the lost soul be regenerated. Three basic spiritual faculties are then implanted into that regenerated soul.
1. Repentance – by which he abhors his sin and wants to be rid of it
2. Saving faith – by which he trusts in the redeeming work of Christ
3. Sanctification – by which he begins to grow in true obedience
It’s very important then that we have a good understanding of what repentance is. It’s part of the gospel we are to present to the lost, and it’s part of the ongoing life of every believer. That implanted faculty of repentance should be put to use for God’s glory. The first step is to know the meaning of the words translated as “repent” in the Bible.
Biblical meaning of the word “repent“
In the Old Testament there are two main words translated that way.
1. The primary Hebrew word for “repent” is nakham (נחם).
It comes from an ancient root word which means “to draw a deep breath.” It came to be used to describe the deep emotions that result from calamity. Sometimes it’s a sigh of relief, sometimes of deep sorrow.
Hebrew verbs can be used in different “stems” or grammatical forms. The most common way נחם is used in the Old Testament is “reflexive”, an inward action centered upon the person repenting. This is when someone deeply grieves over something. When nakham is used for something a person does toward someone else, it means to have compassion on them or to console them in their grief. When nakham comes to someone from another person it means “to be consoled” or “to be comforted”.
This word most commonly describes a deep grief over something, an inner sighing or gasping in sorrow. When it relates to our sins, it means understanding the offense our thoughts or actions have caused. It’s not the word for “regret“. It’s not sorrow for the consequences of doing wrong. It’s grief over the thing itself. If “regret” was meant, it would be said differently.
This word is sometimes used of God, saying that he repented in some way. Translations often confuse us by the English words used. Genesis 6:6-7 is a prime example.
The New King James Version says, “And the LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. So the LORD said, ‘I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth, both man and beast, creeping thing and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.’ But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD.” (The ESV translates it similarly.)
The old King James Version translates verse 7, “And the LORD said, ‘I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them.’ ”
Those who wrongly think of repentance as regret, have a problem with this passage. It obviously can’t mean that God regretted something he had made or done. God never makes errors of judgment, nor does he make plans he later regrets. He never commits wrongs to grieve over, nor wishes to change his eternal decrees. None of these make any sense regarding God as he reveals himself to us in the Bible. The Bible directly rules out this interpretation. In Numbers 23:19 it says, “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” (ESV). Both the KJV and NKJV say, “… that He should repent …” The word translated “change his mind” or “repent” is nakham.
If we remember that the meaning of the word is not regret, the problem goes away. God is often said to be deeply offended by the wickedness of sin in his creatures. The word nakham has to do with that deep sigh of sorrow over the sinful rebellion of God’s creatures.
These passages show us that the sin and wickedness of God’s creatures produce in the Lord what we humans would best understand as deep sadness.
Though God decreed to allow sin to enter the human race, and though he uses even our evils to advance his plan, he is offended by immorality in those he made. It is hard for us mere creatures to comprehend that difference, The two concepts of allowing and using evil for a purpose, and at the same time being morally offended by evil, are not opposites. We know from Scripture that these are facts about the Nature of God.
The context must show us who is doing the repenting, and over what circumstances. Only then can we know what kind of deep sorrow is being described.
2. The second Hebrew word used for “repent” in the Old Testament is suv (שׁוּב ).
This word is not used in the sense of repentance very often. However, it is a very common word meaning to turn, turn back, or return. Most of is uses are of literal changes of direction of travelers and of similar things in motion. In the few times where it is used in the sense of repentance it has to do with the change in some course of action, or change of attitude.
When we see the word “repent” in the Old Testament, we need to know which Hebrew word it represents. One would be speaking of the deep sadness in a person’s heart over something. The other would have to do with a turning around of some action or attitude.
In the New Testament there are a few related Greek words translated as “repent”.
The most common Greek word for “repent” is metanoein (μετανοειν). The same word can be used for the noun “repentance” in the form metanoia (μετανοια). Another Greek term is metamelomai (μεταμέλομαι). The ancient Greek roots of these word mean a change of mind. The Greeks saw intellectual changes as being their most important concern. However, the human mind contains not only knowledge, but also the emotions and our ability to make choices.
When God’s people translated the Hebrew Old Testament in to Greek in Jesus’ time, these Greek words were the closest they could find in that language.
The change of mind the Bible talked about relating to our sins was not just intellectual, nor was it just regret. It was the deep state of sorrow in the convicted conscience when God makes us aware of how offensive our sins are to him.
When God regenerates someone who has been without Christ, his renewed moral understanding deeply humbles him in grief and repentance. This is the challenge Paul was making to the philosophers on the Areopagus.
When a believer is brought face to face with his sin he is deeply humbled in grief and repentance. David’s response to Nathan in Psalm 51 is a good example.
The Bible says a lot more about repentance, than just what word studies tell us. A very good summary of the Biblical teaching is found in the answer to Westminster Shorter Catechism question 87 which says, “Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavour after, new obedience.”
Repentance is a saving grace.
For the unredeemed to respond with true grief over his sin, a change must first take place in his depraved heart. Until he is regenerated by grace, having had the guilt of his sin paid for by Jesus Christ, he will not appreciate how much his sin offends God. He will only see it as it effects himself. Paul was calling the Arthenians to repentance unto life.
The nature of Repentance unto life is seen in three kinds of changes.
God implants the faculty of repentance into someone when he regenerates them. This produces changes that take place in the person’s soul.
1. There is an intellectual change.
This is a change in a person’s understanding. The regenerated mind is made able to see sin in a new way. Before that, sin was only the violation of a rule, or something that can bring unpleasant results if you get caught. But the regenerate heart sees sin as an offense against God. It sees the moral element, and it sees what justice demands.
David’s understanding was changed when the Holy Spirit, through the prophet Nathan, led him to understand the true horrors of his sin. Psalm 51:3-4, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.”
2. There is also an emotional change produced.
When the regenerate heart is given life, and for the first time sees how God has been offended, he responds with deep grief and spiritual pain. But since regeneration also implants a living and saving faith, he also senses the joy that is his over the salvation God provides to the unworthy by grace. David showed that response when brought under conviction by the Holy Spirit in Psalm 51.
3. There is also a volitional change.
This is a change in our desires. The informed and convicted soul of a regenerate person wants God to change him. He is not content to covet and lust as he had done. Enlightened by the Spirit, and set free from the dark bonds of sin, he freely chooses to seek after the ways that please God. David shows this transformation in the same Psalm. In Psalm 51:11-15 David says, “Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit. … O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.”
A. A. Hodge says that repentance unto life is, “a change of mind including evidently a change of thought, feeling and purpose corresponding to our new character as children of God.”
Sadly, there is also a false repentance.
The sorrow of the world is more a regret for the consequences of sin. 2 Corinthians 7:10, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.”
The world sorrows over the inconvenience of sin and the trouble it produces for them. This grief is selfish. It is motivated by self-interest, not for concern about an offense against God. By putting its own interests above the honor of his Creator the lost only adds to his condemnation. He wants to be free from the consequences of sin, not from the guilt of sin.
Godly sorrow sees the evil of sin in its offense against his Creator. The redeemed soul understands that sin is morally wrong, not just that it can produce unpleasant results. The fleeting pleasures of sin lose their appeal when considered in the light of what truly honors God (Hebrews 11:25). He sees the moral weakness of his own soul which he wants changed. He sees his condemnation as just and only removed by the merits of Jesus Christ. As the Apostle Paul learned to cry out; Romans 7:24-25, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! …”
Repentance is an Evangelical Grace.
That means it’s a result of the good news, not the cause of it. We are regenerated by God’s grace alone. That is what implants in us the faculties of repentance and faith, along with the desire and ability to obey.
Non-evangelical religions teach that repentance is one of the things that convince God that we should be his children forever. Since they see repentance as occurring before God changes the heart, they deny our total moral inability. Along with repentance non-evangelicals (or marginal-evangelicals) put faith, good works, or religious practices as things we do to earn eternal life in heaven. That’s exactly the message condemned by the prophets, Jesus, and all the Bible writers. The only merit that earns forgiveness is that which was earned by Jesus in his holy life and death on the cross for his people. Any obedience we have (faith, repentance, or holy living) is the result of God’s amazing grace.
Since it’s an evangelical grace, it must be part of the gospel when we present it. It is God who puts repentance into the hearts of those he draws to Christ.
Romans 2:4, “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?”
2 Timothy 2:24-26 gives us good instructions for personal evangelism, “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.”
Acts 11:18, “When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, ‘Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.’ ”
A. A. Hodge explains, “Every Christian duty is therefore a grace; for without him we can do nothing ( John 15:5). And equally every Christian grace is a duty because the grace is given to us to exercise, and it finds its true results and expression only in the duty.”
God is the offended party when we sin. We all deserve the eternal wrath of his justice. We can be reconciled with God and united in his eternal family because our worthy Savior Jesus Christ fully satisfied that justice by his death on the cross. That is the only way guilt can be justly satisfied and our condemnation removed.
When he redeems us we will respond with inevitable sorrow for our sin and with a joyful embracing of Christ’s salvation. Our redeemed soul will begin the process of fleeing from sin and desiring to be holy out of a profound gratitude toward God.
This was Paul’s aim in this part of his message at the Areopagus in ancient Athens. It must be part of our message too as we bring the gospel to the lost today. Though God has been patient, he is offended by our rebellion against him as our Sovereign Creator. All are challenged to sincerely repent, resting in God’s provision for our salvation alone.
Note: Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.