Showing the Good God to Pagans: A Review

Thomas Marberry

Dr. Jeffrey L. Cockrell serves as Associate Professor of New Testament at Welch College. He is currently the Program Coordinator both for Theological Studies and for the M.A. program in Theology and Ministry. He has served our denomination in a variety of different capacities, including almost thirty years of experience as a local church pastor.

Paul, Peter, and other early Christian preachers generally proclaimed the gospel to audiences that were Jewish in character, but occasionally they had the opportunity to share the Good News with the worshipers of pagan gods. Paul did so on two occasions in Acts; the first took place in Lystra as recorded in Acts 14:15-17. The second is his famous sermon before the Areopagus in Athens as found in Acts 17:22-32. As Bruce correctly notes, “Probably no ten verses in Acts have formed the text for such an abundance of commentary as has gathered around Paul’s Areopagus speech.”

In this paper, Cockrell argues that Paul’s speech to this well-educated and sophisticated congregation can serve as a model for presenting the Gospel to secular audiences in today’s world. He begins by explaining that Paul was well prepared for this important task. Cockrell writes, “His background was cosmopolitan. He was a citizen of Rome and Tarsus.” While growing up in Tarsus, Paul experienced both Hellenistic rhetoric and Stoic philosophy. When he came to Athens as an adult, Paul was well prepared for the cultured pagan environment that he would encounter there. Yet these experiences did not lead Paul to abandon his Jewish, and later Christian, heritage. He remained true to the monotheistic faith that he had been taught as a child.

Cockrell demonstrates a thorough understanding of the intellectual conditions existing in the city of Athens during the first century. The Areopagus was an important court in the city that had jurisdiction over issues of religion and morality. The term “Areopagus” described both the court and their meeting place on the hill of Ares, the god of war. When the Romans took over the Greek gods, they gave the Roman name “Mars” to this location.

In the conclusion to his paper, Dr. Cockrell outlines several ways in which modern Christians can use this sermon as a model for presenting the gospel today. First, he points out that Paul knew how to adapt his remarks to the audience he was addressing. This does not mean that Paul compromised his message; it does mean that he presented the message in such a way that the Athenians could understand and appreciate it.

Paul introduced his sermon by pointing out several positive aspects of the religious practices of the Athenians. He did not ridicule or belittle them. He followed this instruction by presenting the true God who had created the universe. He presented this God as One whom they could know in a personal way.

It is true that some began to mock him when Paul began to preach about the resurrection, but it is also true that some did believe his message. This essay gives us an excellent understanding of the background behind Paul’s famous sermon. It also offers several helpful suggestions on how we can present the gospel message to our secular world.

On the Need for Theologically Rich Worship Songs

Matthew Pinson

Why talk about songs on a theology blog, one might ask. But a theology blog is the ideal place to talk about the church’s song. That’s because the reason the New Testament gives us for singing in church is primarily about theology.

The New Testament Reason for Singing in Church

As Colossians 3:16 tells us (and as Dr. Jeff Crabtree has ably exegeted it in his journal article in Integrity), the reason we sing to each other in church is primarily to let Christ’s teaching and the teaching of Holy Scripture dwell richly, deeply, copiously in the people of God.

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord (Col. 3:16, nkjv).

The reason for worship songs in the new covenant church is to teach the congregation biblical theology and to admonish (nouthetountes: to counsel, warn, encourage, or exhort) them to live their lives in accord with that theology. This is done as we sing with grace, or thanks, in our hearts, making melody in our hearts to the Lord (Eph. 5:19). I’ve been emphasizing that recently with my class on Christian Worship at Welch College: The content of our worship music should very carefully fulfill this apostolic purpose for singing songs in church.

Form Matters

Of course, the form of our worship music supports this as well. The way we sing ensures that the people’s voices are heard (the “speaking to one another” of Eph. 5:19). It ensures that the teaching and admonishing function of a song is front and center. It ensures that the edification of the body—not the entertainment or private worship experience of individuals—is paramount. It ensures that the musical form unites and doesn’t divide the body. It ensures that God gets all the glory, not musical performers. This is all part of what it means to think theologically about the end, purpose, or telos of New Testament worship, specifically New Testament singing.

If our heart’s desire is to have an apostolically shaped worship service, one that relies on the pattern of Christ and His inspired apostles and seeks to let the ordinary means of grace that the Spirit has appointed in His all-sufficient Word shine brightly and guide and structure our worship, then we will carefully structure every aspect of our worship music. That will guide us, rather than the whims and trends of a handful of people in the music industry who make multiple millions of dollars from ever-changing worship fads every year.

Theologically Rich Texts

Key to developing the kind of worship services I’m talking about is choosing worship songs with theologically rich texts. And it’s wonderful that we can “sing a new song to the Lord” and still do this. There is now an abundance of material that either presents freshly written songs that have newly written, theologically rich lyrics, or traditional hymns with which we’re now unfamiliar, set to new music.

I was reminded of this recently when my son Matthew reintroduced me to a new song by my friend Nathan Clark George. The song is entitled “Calm Content.” When Matthew played me this song, I said, “I’ve heard this before. Nathan led us in this song in Welch College chapel a few years ago.”

If you are a pastor or music minister who’s interested in new music that features theologically rich lyrics, I encourage you to check out Nathan Clark George. Much of his church music consists of older hymn texts that have been reset to freshly written music that he has composed. Often he will write a new chorus or an additional verse to go with an older hymn text. Sometimes he writes the text himself. (And sometimes he just sings great songs that aren’t really meant for worship, just for fun—for example, his recent “ode to the Carter Family,” Happy with You.)

In “Calm Content,” he takes a wonderful old text from the eighteenth-century hymnwriter William Cowper (most famous for “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood”) and adds a chorus and additional verse. Like most classic hymnody, Cowper’s text is replete with biblical and theological substance. It teaches and admonishes at the same time: Its subject matter is not only doctrinal, but also very practical: learning from the school of Christ to be calmly content in life’s most difficult circumstances.

Resources for New, Theologically Rich Worship Music

I encourage you to check out Nathan Clark George and his friend Gregory Wilbur. They are a part of a growing band of “new hymnodists” who are bringing theologically rich, gospel-drenched song back into the worship life of the evangelical church.

Others include Getty Music, Ligonier Ministries, Indelible Grace Music, Bifrost Arts, Sovereign Grace Music, Stuart Townend Music, Sojourn Music, and many other similar ministries. These ministries are not making money hand-over-fist like the top half-dozen labels that top the CCLI charts. In fact, many of them provide their music free of charge or for a nominal fee. They’re in it for the ministry, and they need your support!

I thank God for this explosion of theologically rich song for the twenty-first-century church, and I pray that it will help evangelical churches recapture their historic desire to use the church’s song for its biblically intend purposes of teaching and admonishing the people of God as they make melody in their hearts to the Lord!

Free Will Baptists at ETS

Jackson Watts

This week the national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society will hold its annual meeting in San Diego, California. The theme is “Christ in the Old Testament.” Seven Free Will Baptists will participate in the program, including five who will share some of their scholarly work. Below is a brief overview of the presenters, paper titles, and sections:

Baptist Studies: Phillip T. Morgan of Welch College will present, “Seventeenth-Century General Baptist Use of the Old Testament.

Pentateuch: Matthew McAffee of Welch College will present, “The Documentary Hypothesis Revisited: An Assessment of the Neo-Documentary Approach.”

Systematic Theology: Matthew Pinson of Welch College will present, “Are Arminians Synergists?”

Ethics: Matthew Steven Bracey of Welch College will present, “Edmund Burke and the Moral Imagination in Christian Ethics.”

New Testament (Luke – Acts): Jeff Cockrell of Welch College will present, “Showing the Good God to Pagans: Paul’s Apologia in Acts 17.”

Additionally, several brethren will moderator various sections:

Jesse Owens of Immanuel FWB and Welch College will moderate a Church History  section focused on Baptist Studies.

Zach Vickery of Tippett’s Chapel FWB will moderate a section on Septuagint Studies.

Jeff Cockrell will moderate a New Testament Section.

Matthew Bracey will moderate a section on 18th – 19th Century Church History.

Matthew McAffee will moderate an OT  Backgrounds section, especially as it relates to Ancient Near Eastern studies.

After the meeting, audio recordings of the presentations will be available to purchase for a small price at www.wordmp3.com.

Paul’s Address to the Ephesian Elders: A Review

Thomas Marberry

Danny Dwyer has been an important part of Free Will Baptist work for many years. He has served as senior pastor for churches in Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, West Virginia, and North Carolina, and taught Pastoral Theology and Biblical Studies at Southeastern Free Will Baptist College for 14 years.

This essay is a theological and pastoral analysis of one of the most well-known passages in the book of Acts, Paul’s address to the elders of the Ephesian church (20:17-38). Dwyer’s objective in his presentation was two-fold. First, he sought to analyze the content of this famous sermon to ensure that it is correctly interpreted. Second, he examined the lessons that modern pastors can learn from this important passage. The balance between interpretation and application which Dwyer maintains in this article is important. Biblical passages must be correctly interpreted; they must also be properly used in preaching and teaching. Preachers and teachers may correctly interpret a Scripture passage and still commit serious errors in applying the teachings of the passage to contemporary situations.

Dwyer argues that modern Christians should give serious attention to the sermons in Acts because they present essential Christian truths and make an important contribution to the progress of thought in the New Testament. He notes that speeches in ancient writings were often used to “embellish the character’s abilities and person.” Such was not the case with the sermons in Acts. The sermons in Acts were much briefer than those found in secular literature. They were also not designed to enhance the reputation of the speaker, but to convey a message.

Paul’s address to the Ephesian elders is one of ten sermons or sermon summaries recorded in Acts.  Dwyer notes that all of the sermons in Acts are brief and should probably be understood as summaries rather than as transcripts. Of these ten sermons, the address to the Ephesian elders is the only one that is addressed to an exclusively Christian audience. It contains none of the missionary or apologetic emphases that are found in the others sermons. Rather, it focuses the hearers’ attention on the responsibilities of pastors and other leaders in Christian communities.

In this sermon, Paul uses himself as an example which the Ephesian elders are to follow. He reminds these leaders that his ministry has been characterized by selflessness and sacrifice. He has not been concerned with the accumulation of wealth, power, or influence. His only concern has been to advance the cause of Christ. As Dwyer explained, “it is clear that Paul took his responsibility to proclaim the Gospel very seriously.” After this examination of his own ministry, Paul then gives a direct and personal challenge to the Ephesian elders. They must first take heed unto themselves and their ministries. They must exercise constant spiritual care and oversight over their flocks. Paul reminds these Christian leaders that they must faithfully preach the Word of God. As they preach the Word, they must be careful to interpret and apply it correctly. Dwyer reminds modern preachers and teachers that they are responsible beings. They are responsible to be the kind of leaders that can bring glory to God here on earth.

Commission Member’s Work Featured at the Gospel Coalition

by Theological Commission

One of our Commission members, Jackson Watts, is also an editor and regular contributor to the Helwys Society Forum. This website is a collaborative effort of several younger Free Will Baptists involved in various ministries. Watts’ most recent article, Reflections on Ph.D. Studies,  was featured in Trevin’s Seven, a weekly post from blogger Trevin Wax at the Gospel Coalition. This post highlights “seven of the best articles” Wax has read in the prior week. This also marks the fourth time a post from the Helwys Society Forum has been commended by Wax.

Watts’ article about his educational experience is timely given the significant number of Free Will Baptists who are either pursuing higher education, or considering it. For example, a recent Welch College survey of graduates in the last five years indicates that just over one-third of respondents have completed or are currently enrolled in graduate programs. Watts’ article gives some practical advice about how to think well about research doctoral work, and how to persevere with the help and support of others.

While the Gospel Coalition is largely the work of Calvinistic authors, Commission Chairman Matt Pinson has also had the opportunity to contribute to the site in the past. Dr. Jeff Robinson’s interview with him was featured in a 2016 post entitled, “Meet a Reformed Arminian.” Pinson has also written posts or reviewed books on three other occasions, all of which can be found here.

Free Will Baptists sometimes receive attention from outside our movement, and perhaps not always for the same reason. Ultimately it is the hope of the Commission that non-Arminians will at least acknowledge the biblical plausibility of our unique theology, and especially see its persuasive and compelling application to many subjects which all evangelical Christians care deeply about, even if they disagree on different aspects of soteriology and ecclesiology.

Preserving and Promoting Free Will Baptist Doctrine