Acts 17:33 So Paul departed from among them.
This passage comes at the end of Paul’s address to the Athenians at the Areopagus. After his sermon to them, specifically preaching of the resurrection of the dead, a concept foreign and ridiculous to Greek philosophy and religion, we read that some mocked Paul and some said, “We will hear you again on this matter.” What was Paul’s reaction? He left.
Why didn’t he continue debating or arguing? Why didn’t he “take every thought captive”? Why didn’t he “give a defense”?
There are several examples of Paul doing just that, after all. Acts 18:4 tells us that Paul reasoned daily in the synagogue, persuading Jews to accept Christ. There are several similar passages in Acts. Jesus reasoned with the Pharisees and Sadducees. Several of Paul’s letters are essentially disputes regarding proper theology.
But all of those passages relate interactions with people within the covenant community regarding proper doctrine. When dealing with unbelievers, as in Acts 17, we see an entirely different approach. He simply announces the gospel and leaves, dealing only with those who accept the message. He doesn’t try to convince anyone of anything.
The Biblical teaching on salvation is that it is the Holy Spirit that prepares the heart of the hearer. And in fact, this is the approach we see Paul taking here. He simply pronounces the gospel, and those who have been prepared by the Spirit believe. Some mock him; some wish to debate further. But he shows no interest in either one of these groups. The only group that interests him are those that accept the word of God.
Consider also the Philippian jailer. What is it that convinces him? Not debates or discussions with Paul and Silas. No, it is the witness of their own lives. They sing hymns in the jail, rejoicing in God even while they are in stocks after being beaten. The earthquake comes and breaks their bonds. The jailer is sure that the prisoners have escaped, and prepares to kill himself. But Paul tells him not to hurt himself because they are all still there. Recognizing clearly that these men have something he doesn’t, he asks them, “What must I do to be saved?” Paul’s answer? Believe. The Holy Spirit has prepared this man, and provided all the evidence needed- the miracle, the sanctified lives of other Christians, and the internal, mysterious preparation. All that is needed for Paul is to wait for the opportunity and present the gospel, and the man is converted.
This corresponds to my own experience as well. I have studied many different arguments and evidences for the truth of Christianity. I have examined the presuppositional approach as well as the classical and evidential approach. But none of these have ever played much of a role in the conversions that I have seen and been involved with. In each case, a person was prepared by the Holy Spirit in different ways to hear the truth, and then the Holy Spirit created an opportunity for them to hear that truth. There were often questions that needed to be resolved, but essentially a person heard the truth and believed it. No debate, no proof, no evidence was really necessary. The Holy Spirit provided all the evidence needed, not me.
These arguments and evidences are not without value. They strengthen the faith of those already believing. They shore us up against the attacks of the world. But even here there is a risk. If the strength of my faith is built on evidences or rational arguments, there are always better arguments. There are always other facts calling into question the evidences. Our own faith is going to be strengthened ultimately the same way we got that faith- by the witness of the Holy Spirit.
So Paul, completely consistent with his teaching on the preeminence of the Spirit of God in salvation, and the need for a man to be regenerated before he will ever understand or accept the truth of the gospel, simply announces the truth of the gospel to a pagan world. Most don’t believe, and true to their philosopher roots wish to ridicule his belief (skeptical philosophy) or engage in debate to ascertain its truth (Platonic, Stoic or Epicurean). But some believe. These are the ones Paul cares about. With them he will argue, persuade, convince. With them, he will go to great pains to strive for true doctrine, true understanding. For the rest of them, he just leaves.
What a comfort! This shows us we don’t need to master all the perfect arguments for Christianity, be up on all the latest scientific or archaeological discoveries, engage in all the latest philosophical developments. These things aren’t entirely without value. But they don’t bring the sinner to Christ. The witness of the Spirit brings sinners to Christ- the witness of the Spirit in the Scriptures, in the lives of believers, in the heart of the lost sheep. The Spirit provides all the apologetic needed. We just witness, just proclaim the truth. The Lord brings the harvest.