Acts 17:18, Unbelievers and the apostle Paul’s preaching[1]

Street Preacher

(image courtesy ChristArt)


By Spencer D Gear


I find it distracting when I see the lengths to which some Calvinists will go to try to demonstrate their theologies of unconditional election, limited atonement (particular redemption) and irresistible grace (the ULI of TULIP).

Is the Gospel to be preached to all sinners or only to the elect?

Here is an example where a Calvinist on Christian Forums wrote: ‘He [Paul] didn’t preach to unbelievers. He witnessed to them. Find in Acts where he presented the gospel in the manner that you suggest’.[2]

I was asked by an Arminian, ‘Did Paul preach the gospel to unbelievers?’[3] Let’s go to the book of Acts for one substantive example.

Did Paul preach to unbelievers?

Let’s use Acts 17:16-21 as an example with Paul in Athens and provoked by its idolatry:[4]

16 Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the market-place every day with those who happened to be there. 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? 20 For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” 21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new (ESV, emphasis added).

It’s a BIG stretch of the imagination to say that there were no unbelievers among:

  • people ‘in the market-place every day with those who happened to be there’.
  • ‘Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers’. Were these all Christian philosophical believers that Paul preached to in Athens?
  • Who would address this preacher with the question, ‘What does this babbler wish to say?‘ Are you telling me that a person who heard preaching on Jesus and the resurrection who was a believer would accuse Paul of being a ‘babbler’?
  • I am dumbfounded to think that a born-again, regenerated, atoned-for believer would say: ‘you bring some strange things to our ears’ with preaching on Jesus and the resurrection;
  • all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there’ were all believers???? That’s a stretch.

And I haven’t dealt with Paul’s audience at the Areopagus (Acts 17:22-34). Among Paul’s audience at the Areopagus were those who, ‘when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked’ (Acts 17:32). So these mockers of the resurrection of the dead were all believers, were they?

We could continue with evidence of unbelievers among the audience where Paul preached, as recorded in Acts. When Paul and Silas were in Berea, it states that ‘many of them therefore believed’ (Acts 17:12). So is it saying that believers now believed? That again is stretching my imagination beyond belief.

How would a Calvinist respond?

John Calvin Image

John Calvin (image courtesy

When this Calvinist claimed that Paul did not preach to unbelievers and I supplied this information from Acts 17, how do you think he might respond? He didn’t deal with the content of what I wrote, but asked a further question, ‘Where does it say he preached?’[5] He also stated:

It’s been my understanding that preaching is for believers. It’s the work if (sic) the preacher/teacher. Witnessing is what you do with unbelievers.

I also understand that these terms can be a bit ambiguous. So it won’t be a hill I’m dying on.[6]

The Calvinist’s persistence and dogmatism on Paul not preaching to the unbelievers is exposed by careful exegesis of Acts 17.


Paul did preach to unbelievers!

Therefore, I provided this exegesis:[7]He preached in Athens to unbelievers about Jesus and the resurrection, according to Acts 17:18.

In the portion I quoted from Acts 17:18, it stated: ‘ Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection‘ (ESV).
clip_image002The Greek word translated ‘preacher’ (ESV) is kataggeleus, which is a masculine noun, based on the verb, kataggellw.[8] What is the meaning of kataggellw?

According to Arndt & Gringrich’s Greek lexicon, it means ‘proclaim (solemnly) … the gospel 1 Cor 9:14’. In Acts 4:2; 13:5; 15:36 and 17:13 the meaning is ‘proclaim in the person of Jesus the resurrection from the dead’ (Arndt & Gingrich 1957:410).

It is straining at a gnat to make ‘proclaim’ not mean preaching today as with Billy Graham’s preaching/proclaiming the Gospel. It meant ‘proclaim’ in the Book of Acts, just as it does today.
clip_image002[1]‘Preaching’ (ESV) is the imperfect, middle, indicative verb of euaggelizw. What is the meaning of euaggelizw? It means ‘bring or announce good news … mostly specifically of the divine message of salvation, the Messianic proclamation, the gospel … proclaim, preach’ (Arndt & Gingrich 1957:317). According to the ‘bible’ of Greek dictionaries (lexicons), Arndt & Gingrich, when Paul was in Athens he proclaimed, preached the good news of the Gospel of salvation, according to Acts 17:18.

Therefore, it is incorrect to write that Paul did not preach to unbelievers according to the Book of Acts. The unbelievers knew he was proclaiming / preaching, and claimed he was ‘a preacher of “foreign divinities” – because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection’ (Acts 17:18). It is this Calvinist who is wrong by claiming that Paul did not preach to unbelievers in the Book of Acts. The etymology of the Greek words confounds that understanding.

Works consulted

Arndt, W F & Gingrich, F W 1957. A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature.[9] Chicago: The University of Chicago Press (limited edition licensed to Zondervan Publishing House).


[1]This is my post as OzSpen #410, Christian Forums, General Theology, Soteriology, ‘What did Paul preach to the Corinthians?’ available at: 23 November 2013).

[2]Ibid., Hammster #327,

[3]Ibid., janxharris #364,

[4]Ibid., OzSpen #391,

[5]Ibid., Hammster #395.

[6]Ibid., Hammster #394.

[7]Ibid., OzSpen #410,

[8] I have used ‘w’ to transliterate the omega, to differentiate it from ‘o’, as a transliteration of omicron, as the regular transliteration of omega  is not accepted by the html of Christian Forums website. The usual transliteration of the Greek omega is o with an ellipse, but this translates as ? in my html, hence the use of ‘w’ to transliterate omega.

[9] This is ‘a translation and adaptation of Walter Bauer’s Griechisch-Deutsches Wörtbuch zu den Schriften des Neuen Testaments und der übrigen urchristlichen Literatur’ (4th rev & augmented edn 1952) (Arndt & Gingrich 1957:iii).


Copyright © 2013 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 10 October 2016.