Before we ask the ‘why,’ we must understand the ‘what’ and ‘to whom’ of apologetics. What is it? John Frame defines Christian apologetics as that which “seeks to serve God and the church by helping believers to carry out the mandate of 1 Peter 3:15-16. We may define it as the discipline that teaches Christians how to give a reason for their hope.”
The apostle Peter in 1 Peter 3:15-16 says:
15But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear: 16Having a good conscience; that, whereas they speak evil of you, as of evildoers, they may be ashamed that falsely accuse your good conversation in Christ.
Based on this definition, apologetics is seen as an offensive and defensive discipline. As an offensive discipline, the Christian is living a life of one who is set apart to the Lord in this world. Christ has unleashed His people into the world to be “little Christs.” Christians also take a defensive position, making a concentrated and intentional defense of the faith “to every man that asketh you for a reason of the hope that is in you” (3:15). Christians must always be aware that, even though they may not have studied the discipline of apologetics, they are showing the plausibility of Christ and Christianity by their words and actions which radiate what lies in their heart (Matthew 12:33-37).
For Whom is this Study of Apologetics?
Christians wishing to engage in this field must know the audience to which they will engage. Apologetics is for both Christians and non-Christians.
Apologetics is for Christians. “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts” (3:15a). To “sanctify” means to set apart for God’s holy use. Yet, the Scriptures show that Christians are “sojourners and exiles” in this world who are to “abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11). Given all the temptations from within (1 Corinthians 10:12-13) and the philosophies and worldviews assaulting Christians from without (Colossians 2:6-15), Christians need strengthening in the hope the have in Christ.
At some point, Satan will come along to plant a seed of doubt in the believer’s mind, having the Christian wonder if the “reason of the hope” they have is truly reasonable.
- A Buddhist may seem to show how a life of tranquility and meditation will give the Christian the enlightened peace they need to cope with their troublesome situation.
- A Muslim can appear to demonstrate faithfulness by their prayers and pilgrimages to Mecca a life of devotion and strong conviction, giving tangible evidence of God’s approval to their spiritual lives.
- A humanist may seem convincing in the midst of a Christian’s harrowing circumstances in which God appears absent.
- A Darwinist who appears to have “scientific evidence” on his side may seem convincing over and against those who hold to the origin of creation, calling it a myth and a fantasy.
These few examples help clarify the need for Christians to know what the Scripture teaches so as to strengthen the church. Paul warned the Ephesian church to be aware of the schemes of the devil (Ephesians 6:12), and part of the schemes of the devil is to go after our thinking, our worldview. He aims deceive with philosophies and elementary principles by which he may turn eyes away from the person and work of Christ and the “faith once and for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). The area of Christian apologetics aims to help Christians understand what it means for the mind to be given over to the Spirit rather than the flesh or the world (Romans 8:5-8).
Apologetics is for unbelievers. God inspired the Scriptures to show clearly who God is, what He has accomplished in redemptive history, and what He aims to accomplish through His people now. While all people see God’s attributes, giving them no excuse in denying the existence and work of a Creator (Romans 1:18-21), through the Bible God has given us a perspicuous account of His nature, His character, His work—all brought to bear in the centerpiece of the Scriptures, the person of Jesus Christ (Matthew 5:17-18).
The Scriptures serve as a witness to an unbelieving world. As the church lives out God’s will out of loving obedience, the world will see this display. As a result, unbelievers will ask Christians for “a reason for the hope that is within” them. Even in this, they are to respond with “meekness and fear.” Does this mean that Christians are to wither and cower in the face of such questions? Not at all! Meekness means strength under control. ‘Fear’ has to do with reverence before God and before those who may disagree with the conclusions that come from Christian belief.
The apostle Peter informs believers that unbelievers may “speak evil of you, as of evildoers” (3:16). Even though Christians serve a Good God who sent His Good Shepherd to deliver and embody the Good News (i.e., the gospel), an unbelieving world sees the cause of Christ as evil and detrimental to the human race. While many reasons are given by various groups, the last verse of the book of Judges encapsulates this succinctly: “And there was no king in Israel, and everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).
Unbelievers do not simply disagree with the rules and commands of God, they disagree with the notion that we are destitute of any goodness that would commend men to him. Ephesians 2:8-9 clearly shows how people are saved not by what they do, they are saved by what God has accomplished by the gift of grace through Jesus Christ. Jesus began His Sermon on the Mount by saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). Unbelievers may not want to hear of their destitution (even if they are made aware of this “with meekness and fear”), they need to know it but also need to see grace-saved sinners model this with their actions and speech.
The “Why” of Apologetics
After examining the ‘what’ and the ‘to whom’ of apologetics, an examination of the ‘why’ of apologetics must commence. We must examine this because of some who believe that apologetics is unnecessary—and they give pseudo-doctrinal reasons why! Some apologetics skeptics (apolo-skeptics?) have a very high view of the Holy Spirit, with an understanding that the Spirit’s job is to convict and change hearts—something men cannot do. In 1 Corinthians 3:8, “I planted, Apollos watered, but it is God who gives the growth.” Apolo-skeptics rightly assert that no one can change hearts but God, and to work to defend and convince skeptics of Christianity is to take on the Spirit’s role of conversion.
Apologetics advocates would say, “Yes, God causes the growth, but he has given the assignment and the mandate by God to plant and water!” They would remind us that we are to always be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). As an apologetics advocate, Bodie Hodge notes, “While witnessing, remember to be kind and patient. After all, we were each enemies of the gospel ourselves at one point—but Jesus Christ was patient with us and performed the ultimate act of kindness on the cross.” Paul exhorted the Colossian church to “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:6).
To ultimately answer the ‘why,’ one can look at the ‘great’ words of Jesus: the Great Commission and the Great Commandment. First, apologetics is part of the Great Commission. Matthew 28:16-20 contains the final account in this Gospel in regards to Jesus’ aim for his followers:
16Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:16-20).
This account took place soon after Jesus’ resurrection. Given the circus surrounding Jesus’ sentencing and crucifixion, not to mention the brutality of what Jesus endured, many of His followers worshiped him! This was a miracle that made all other miracles pale in comparison! Yet, hanging over verse 17 is this startling phrase: “but some doubted.” Even with Jesus standing before them post-resurrection, some had hearts so hardened that they could not believe He live. Clearly, Jesus intended to show them and all subsequent followers that evangelism and apologetics will go hand-in-hand, even with people who seem to be the closest.
As Jesus began to speak, He did not start with a command, but showed the authority that His Father had bestowed on Him (Matthew 28:18). He then commands that the disciples “go and make disciples”—in other words, the disciples were to reproduce themselves. How?
First, through identification. “. . . baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” This outward sign of baptism demonstrates the inward change of being identified with the Trinity, surrendering their all. To baptize means to immerse. This physical immersion of one’s body into the water is an object lesson of how this individual has been fully immersed into Christ through His death, burial, and resurrection.
Second, through impartation of information. “. . . teaching them . . .” Jesus’ followers have information and content to pass along to others. Jesus showed the disciples that the Christian faith is not merely intuitive but also cognitive. Jude reminded his audience, “Contend earnestly for the faith, once and for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). That article ‘the’ preceding the word ‘faith’ makes clear that the Christian faith is a battery of coherent and perspicuous knowledge.
Third, through the application of the information. “. . . Teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you.” Disciples of Jesus Christ must help others not just learn this knowledge but also apply what they have learned. Having a faith that does not bear fruit is not a Christian faith (John 15:1-8; James 2:14ff).
Greg Bahnsen shows this connection between evangelism and apologetics:
The very reason why Christians are put in the position of giving a reasoned account of the hope that is in them is that not all men have faith. Because there is a world to be evangelized (men who are unconverted), there is the need for the believer to defend his faith: Evangelism naturally brings one into apologetics. This indicates that apologetics is no mere matter of “intellectual jousting”; it is a serious matter of life and death – eternal life and death. The apologist who fails to take account of the evangelistic nature of his argumentation is both cruel and proud. Cruel because he overlooks the deepest need of his opponent and proud because he is more concerned to demonstrate that he is no academic fool that to show how all glory belongs to the gracious God of all truth. Evangelism reminds us of who we are (sinners saved by grace) and what our opponents need (conversion of heart, not simply modified propositions). I believe, therefore, that the evangelistic nature of apologetics shows us the need to follow a presuppositional defense of the faith. In contrast to this approach stand the many systems of neutral autonomous argumentation.
Second, apologetics is part of the Great Commandment. When Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment, he replied:
37And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38This is the great and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40).
Why do we defend the faith? First of all, out of love for God, to whom we have surrendered our all (heart, soul, and mind). In loving God with all we have, we live for Him with all we have, desire others to live for Him by repenting of their sin and trusting in Christ, and we long to make sure their views
We also defend the faith by loving our neighbor as ourselves! Ephesians 4:15 says a marvelous phrase: “… speaking the truth in love.” Christians must strike this balance: we lovingly and respectfully speak the truth. Telling others the truth in a Christ-like manner is the most loving action we can perform. Those listening to us may not see us as loving (see John 15:18ff), and we do know that the gospel of Christ is offensive (1 Corinthians 1:18-21). Yet our attitude should exude the love of Christ that the Holy Spirit pours into the hearts of all believers (Romans 5:5). If someone believes and acts in a way that will end in destruction, we must love that fellow image-bearer as God loves them.
In Stephen Prothero’s book God is Not One, he spends time debunking the notion that many atheists put forth in that “all religions are essentially the same, worshiping the same God in different ways.” He calls this “follow[ing] our fantasies down the rabbit hole of religious unity.” He notes too that world religions do agree in regards to ethics, but not on doctrine, ritual, mythology, experience, or law. Yet, each of these religions seeks to answer four issues which will be helpful in sorting out the high watermarks of the particulars of each worldview presented:
- The problem
- The solution to the problem, which also serves as the religious goal;
- The technique which moves from the problem to the solution
- The exemplar(s) who chart this path from problem to solution.
In aiding the student, I will also implement a paradigm presented by Abdul Saleeb in his lecture on Islam. In this lecture, he outlines four theological issues in which Islam (and I would submit all other religions) differ with Christianity:
- Their view of God
- Their view of man
- Their view of salvation
- Their view of the Bible
These two paradigms intersect somewhat, not only by comparison but also by contrast. For instance, atheists by virtue of their name do not believe in God, and neither do numerous sects of Buddhism. Their view of God will shade how they view humanity’s problem, which affects their view of the solution, etc.
Finally, each chapter will conclude with how we can interact and interject the gospel into conversations which may arise with those who hold to these respective beliefs. Part of the nature of apologetics is not just knowing deviant and variant gospels, but also knowing the true gospel of Christ.
May God bless you in your quest!
Bodie Hodge, The Authority Test, Part 1: The Christian’s Ultimate Authority. Accessed on 21 July 2010, available at http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/aid/v3/n1/the-authority-test [on-line]; Internet.
Greg Bahnsen, Evangelism and Apologetics. Accessed 21 July 2010, available at http://www.cmfnow.com/articles/PA013.htm [on-line]; Internet.
Stephen Prothero, God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 4.
R.C. Sproul and Abdul Saleeb, The Cross and the Crescent (CD) (Sanford, FL: Ligonier Ministries).