Sunday, March 14, 2010

Why Religion Doesn’t Work

A sermon based on Acts 17:16-34. Written by Dr. Terry W. Dorsett and preached at:
Bible Central Church, Enosburg Falls, VT on February 28, 2010
New Covenant Baptist Church, Burlington, VT on March 7, 2010
Faith Community Church, Barre, VT on March 14, 2010

Verse 16 - While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, his spirit was troubled within him when he saw that the city was full of idols.
  • Athens was considered the center of culture during the New Testament era.
  • Athens was known for its sculpture, literature, oratory skills and pursuit of philosophy.
  • The city had many statues of pagan gods and awe inspiring temples to those gods.
  • Many people considered Athens the most religious city in the world at that time.
  • Paul had traveled on ahead of the rest of his team and was waiting for them in Athens.
  • Paul was troubled when he saw how much energy, effort and money the people of Athens dedicated to false religions and gods.
  • Paul was troubled because all that religion had still not helped people find peace in their daily lives or peace with God.
  • The reason it did not work was because religion is a human attempt to reach up to God through various rituals and activities.
  • Religious rituals will never be enough to meet the deepest needs of our souls.
  • We must come to the end of religious ritual and instead realize that God has reached down to us and desires a personal relationship with us.
  • That personal relationship between God and people is deeper and bigger than just religious rituals and activities. It is something that flows from deep within us and changes us.
  • Without that personal relationship with God, religion is empty and meaningless.
Verse 17 - So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and with those who worshiped God, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.
  • Paul first tried to reason with those who seemed most likely to believe in Jesus.
  • But Paul also went beyond whom he thought might be interested in Jesus and spoke to anyone in the marketplace who would listen.
  • In our own lives we should definitely be talking to religious people about the Bible and what God is doing in our lives. But we must also share our faith with people outside the church as we encounter them in our daily lives.
  • A recent study tells us the 70% of Americans would LIKE to have a conversation about faith with a friend or relative. People actually WANT to talk about spirituality with a friend.
Verse 18 - Then also, some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers argued with him.
  • Paul got into an intense discussion with the Epicureans and Stoics. While 70% of Americans may be interested in talking about faith with someone, the other 30% may decide to argue with you about faith.
  • Epicureans believed that pleasure was the main point of life and the best pleasure was to be free from pain and superstitious fears.
  • Basically, they said that if it felt good, do it and don't worry what God, the church, the Bible, or anyone else said or thought about your behavior.
  • Theologically they did not deny the existence of God, but felt that if there was a God, He no longer took interest in the lives of mere humans.
  • Their strength was that they had a lot of fun and were fun to be around. Life was one big party.
  • Their weakness was that they had no real purpose in life other than pleasure. If they were not constantly finding things to do that brought them pleasure, they became depressed and anxious.
  • Far too many people in our modern world think they must be constantly entertained. If they do not have constant entertainment, they get bored and depressed.
  • While there is nothing wrong with fun and entertainment, at some point we have to go to work, do the dishes, wash the laundry, go to school, etc. If we want to get anywhere in life, then life cannot be one long party.
  • The Stoics believed in living in harmony with nature.
  • They also believed in the ability of people to rationally think through any question or problem and come to the right conclusion.
  • Theologically, Stoics were pantheistic, meaning that they thought God was a world soul that inhabited every creature.
  • Their strength was that their followers were expected to be very moral and have a high sense of duty to the world.
  • Their weakness was that when a person could not figure life out intellectually, they recommended suicide as an honorable means of escape. And many of them took that way out!
  • Even today there are people who think they are smart enough to figure everything out and when a problem comes along that is so overwhelming that they can't figure it out, they don't know what to do. Often they just give up and quit. They should be turning to the Lord and looking for supernatural assistance when "natural" answers no longer work. 
Verse 19 - They took him and brought him to the Areopagus, and said, "May we learn about this new teaching you're speaking of?
  • The Epicureans and Stoics took him from the marketplace to the Areopagus and asked him to speak to the crowd about faith.
  • The Areopagus was just north of the main city.
  • People would spend the entire day there just discussing philosophy and ideas. They had lots of ideas but no real solutions. Hanging out at the Areopagus and talking all day was a way to feel intelligent and important without actually having to do much.
Verse 22 - Then Paul stood in the middle of the Areopagus and said: "Men of Athens! I see that you are extremely religious in every respect.
  • Paul stood in the middle of the people and spoke to them.
  • He was not hiding inside the church. He took the Gospel outside the church to the people.
  • Paul recognized that religion was important to them so he started the conversation with religion. If sports, or politics, or the economy had been important to them, he would have started with that.
  • We need to recognize what is important to people we witness to and start the conversation at that point, even if we disagree with it.
Verse 23 - For as I was passing through and observing the objects of your worship, I even found an altar on which was inscribed: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD Therefore, what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.

  • The Athenians were so religious that they even had built an altar to what they called an unknown god.
  • Scholars are not clear about the exact purpose of this altar.
  • But what is clear is that the Athenians realized that even with all their religious rituals and pagan idols, they had still not found what they were looking for.
  • They had built an altar to a god they hoped they would one day discover who would be all they were looking for.
  • We live in a world full of religion, but empty of hope.
  • We live in a world full of expanding technology, organized sports, endless entertainment, and historic institutions, yet many people still feel empty and purposeless.
  • People are still searching for something.
Verse 24 - The God who made the world and everything in it —He is Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in shrines made by hands.
  • What people are searching for, without even knowing it, is a Creator who has a purpose for our lives and a plan to help us accomplish that purpose.
  • The God of the Bible is that Creator, and He does have a purpose and plan, both for the universe and for our lives.
  • But we often have a hard time connecting to God in a personal way.
  • The reason it is so hard for us to connect to God is that we like to control things.
  • Controlling things makes us feel secure.
  • Therefore, we want to make God small enough to control.
  • We want to confine God to a building, or an hour on Sunday, or to a certain aspect of life. We want God to be small enough for us to understand or explain or figure out.
  • Paul reminded the Athenians that the Creator God cannot be confined by human limits or intelligence.
  • Such a God is too great to live in a shrine or a temple, no matter how glorious it may be.
  • Such a God will fill the entire universe with His presence and power and will be far too big for us to completely understand or explain.
  • And that powerful God desires a personal relationship with us that is bigger than just religious rituals!
Verses 26-27 - God has determined their appointed times and the boundaries of where they live,
so that they might seek God, and perhaps they might reach out and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us.

  • God has determined certain moments of time and certain aspects in our lives that are designed to help us see our need for Him.
  • God did this because He knew that He was too big for us to figure out on our own, no matter how smart, educated or philosophical we are.
  • God knew we would need help, and so He left sign posts along the way for us to find Him by.
  • Those sign posts can be found in the Bible, in our experiences, in nature, in art, in both the sacred and the secular aspects of life.
Psalm 19:1 – The heavens declare the glory of God and the sky proclaims His handiwork.
  • The heavens themselves tell us that God is great and the sky screams out His existence.
  • An honest person cannot look at the vast array of stars in the clear night sky and truly believe it is all a result of chance.
  • The glory of creation screams out that there must be a Creator.
  • Christians accept that God's existence is declared by nature. But what about non-Christians?
  • Go to to download 20 PAGES of names of scientists who say that "something" created the universe.
  • These are mathematicians, chemists and biologists who say that it is impossible for life to have developed by accident. They are not necessarily saying that this creator is God, but they are saying that creation could not have chemically, mathematically or biologically developed by itself.
Verse 28 - For in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, 'For we are also His offspring.'
  • Creation screams out the existence of God, but so does our own personal experience.
  • Paul asserts that in Christ we live and move and have our very existence. Those of us who are true Christians have experienced the personal nature of the living God in our own lives.
  • Remember what life was like before we found Christ? Was it even real life?
  • Paul says that not only can we discover the existence of God in nature and in our personal experience but that even non-Christian culture claims there is a God.
  • He quotes a famous non-Christian Greek poet who wrote about people being "God's offspring."
  • Paul is not endorsing everything that poet said, but is pointing out that it is built into non-Christians to believe in the divine.
  • Think of all the non-Christians we know who ask us to pray for them when they are having a difficult time. Deep inside they know God exists, even though they may not be following God themselves.
  • Even though our culture wants to keep God in a very small box, they do accept that He should have a "box" to stay in. The fact that our non-Christian culture thinks that God should "have His place" is a subtle acceptance that He exists and there is no denying it.
Verse 30 - Therefore, having overlooked the times of ignorance, God now commands all people everywhere to repent.
  • God, who is merciful, has overlooked our sin for a very long time because we were ignorant of how bad our sins were. Before we became Christians we did wrong things and didn't even realize all of them were wrong.
  • But somewhere along the way, we saw enough of His sign posts for us to realize how messed up life was because of sin. At that point, God called us to repent.
  • Once we begin to feel that calling to repent, we must decide if we will heed that calling or not.
  • When we respond to the calling of God to repent, we make a commitment to turn from our sin and follow God for the rest of our lives. Some people call this being born again. Others refer to it as being saved. Some talk about being converted.
  • It really does not matter what term a person uses to describe the experience, the key is that the person has come to a place in life where they have moved beyond mere religious rituals and found a personal connection with God through faith and commitment to Jesus Christ.
  • We must examine our innermost soul and ask if we have had an experience like this yet.
Verses 32, 34 - . . . some began to ridicule him. But others said, "We will hear you about this again." . . . some men joined him and believed . . .
  • The Athenians responded to Paul's message in three different ways.
  • Some ridiculed him.
  • Some were not yet ready to believe but wanted to hear more.
  • Some believed Paul's message and joined with his cause.
  • These are still the ways that our modern culture responds to the call to repent and believe.
  • Some ridicule Christianity, hating every aspect of it.
  • Some are not yet ready to believe but want to hear more so they can decide later.
  • Some believe God's message and join with our cause to make the world better through Christ.
  • Religious rituals alone are inadequate to meet our deepest needs in life.
  • Only a personal relationship with the Creator God can give us that peace we are looking for.
  • The existence of such a Creator can be found in nature, in culture, in our experiences and in the Bible.
  • God has designed our lives so we can see these evidences of His existence and realize His desire to be personally connected to us.
How will we respond to God's invitation to have a personal relationship with Him?


  1. Good sermon. So many people are trusting in religious rituals but don't really know God in a personal way. Sad.

  2. Reading the notes is not as good as being there but since we didn't wake up in time, it will have to do, sorry we missed it!

  3. Dr. Gerald Roe, Church Planting/Evangelism Professor, North Greenville UniversityMarch 15, 2010 at 10:17 AM

    Excellent work. May I download and use in my Church Planting and Evangelism classes?

  4. Dr. Roe,
    Feel free to use anything you find on my blog to help expand the Kingdom of God. I'd appreciate it if you left my name attached when you share it with others.