A close friend who is a pastor once asked me why I was so into apologetics. He was not against apologetics per se. He just didn’t see the point of doing apologetics, at least when compared to the vital importance of declaring the gospel. Why would we spend our time debating and answering questions, when they only distract from people’s real need?
I agreed that spreading the good news of Jesus Christ is of utmost importance. However, I explained that the question is not whether we do apologetics or proclaim the gospel. The question is instead how apologetics serves the gospel.
Simply put, apologetics clears the path between people and the gospel of Jesus Christ. In apologetics, we remove obstacles of belief and give reason to believe. In that way apologetics gets people to the gospel as we get the gospel to people.
The Definition of Apologetics
In the word apologetics, many people hear apology, as in expressing regret for some wrong we have done. This could be particularly confusing since we are talking about Christian apologetics. Are we implying that we are sorry for being Christians? Of course not!
Ironically, apologetics means sort of the opposite of “apologizing” for something. The word comes from a Greek compound word. The prefix “apo-” indicates separation or deflection of something. The word “logos” is where we get our term “logic.” So, the Greek word apologia paints a picture of something that is being deflected by way of logic. The most common definition of the word apologetics is “a reasoned defense.” (Think Jude 3.)
Apologists are everywhere. Every political position, fan base, and brand loyalty has its apologists. Religions have apologists who defend their faith as the one true religion. There are even nonreligious apologists who defend a secular way of thinking.
But when it comes to us Christians, we take the role of the apologist to another level. For Christians, apologetics is not something we resign to a few experts. As we will see, every Christian is called to be an apologist.
The most foundational–at least the most famous–passage of the Bible for apologetics is 1 Peter 3:15. There, the apostle Peter gives both a direction and a definition for apologetics.
But 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:
The phrase translated into English as “give an answer” is actually one word in Greek. You guessed it: apologia. The command is clear. We are always to be ready with an answer, always ready to do apologetics.
Among a few qualities of what a good answer may look like, Peter zeros in on the main subject—“the hope that is in you.” Christian apologetics is a focused discipline with a singular goal, to declare the hope that we have in Jesus Christ. Jesus commissioned us to go into all the world and preach the gospel. Here, Peter commands us to be ready with an answer when they have questions about it.
The Need for Apologetics
So much as changed in the world since Jesus commissioned us to take the gospel to the world, but our responsibility to do so has not. All Christians have been tasked with preaching the gospel. The only alternative to evangelism, as they say, is disobedience.
The thing is, apologetics has always played a pivotal role in evangelism. Reading through the book of Acts, we see that the apostles were constantly having to defend the message they preached. They called people to repentance and belief, and nearly always while giving reasons why they should.
Christian apologist James Patrick Holding observed, “What we call ‘apologetics’ was, in fact, what the apostolic church would have called ‘evangelism.’” He goes on to explain, “Early missionary preaching testified to the historical realities upon which the Christian faith was grounded and called for repentance on those grounds.”
On the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:22-25), for example, Peter gave a textbook example. He appealed to Jesus’ miracles, especially his resurrection, and his fulfillment of Old Testament prophesies. On the basis of the historical reality of who Jesus is and what he had done, Peter declares the gospel.
In our post-Christian culture, apologetics is as important as it ever has been. It has been a while since people had the same general knowledge of the Bible and ideas about God. There are so many competing ideas about God. There are so many misconceptions about religion in general and Christianity in particular. There are also many legitimate concerns people have about religious belief.
Apologetics professor Travis Dickinson notes,
More and more, apologetics does the work equivalent to what Bible translators do for an unreached people group. The Bible translator must get the content of the Gospel into the vernacular of the people for an individual to even grasp this content. Could the Holy Spirit miraculously allow the tribesman to understand the Gospel in a foreign language? Absolutely. However, it typically takes the hard work of translation. Likewise, God can bring conviction if He wants, but it often takes the hard work of engaging in apologetic discussion for someone to be able to grasp the content of the Gospel.
In our evangelism, we declare what the gospel is, and what people ought to do about it. Yet, people ask why. Why should someone believe in any God, much less the one described in the Bible? Why should someone believe that Jesus of Nazareth was God in the flesh and that he rose from the dead? If God loves us so much, why do so many bad things happen to us? If God went to such great lengths to save us, why did he put us in a situation in which we need saving? These are precisely the questions Peter told to be ready to answer.
Pastor Timothy Keller explains further:
I’ve heard plenty of Christians try to answer the why question by going back to the what. “You have to believe because Jesus is the Son of God.” But that’s answering the why with more what. Increasingly we live in a time when you can’t avoid the why question. Just giving the what (for example, a vivid gospel presentation) worked in the days when the cultural institutions created an environment in which Christianity just felt true or at least honorable. But in a post-Christendom society, in the marketplace of ideas, you have to explain why this is true, or people will just dismiss it.
If the only alternative to evangelism is disobedience, which I believe it is, then the only alternative to apologetics is ineffectiveness.
The Point of Apologetics
While apologetics is vital to evangelism, it is also distinct from evangelism. There are two major objectives in apologetics that contrast from evangelism.
The first major objective is to provide reasons to believe. While evangelism declares what we should believe, apologetics declares why. For example, many people are unaware of the abundance of manuscripts that demonstrates the reliability of the New Testament as a historical document. So, as astounding as much of the New Testament narrative is, we can give people reasons to believe what it says.
The second major objective is to remove reasons to doubt. While evangelism warns of the consequences of not believing, apologetics demonstrates that there are no good reasons to disbelieve. For example, many people have a problem with believing in the miraculous features of Christian belief because they supposedly conflict with modern scientific understanding. Yet, Christian apologists have demonstrated that there is no real conflict between science and faith.
All this is illustrated by one of my favorite metaphors for the relationship between apologetics and evangelism. Apologist Matt Slick gives the illustration of “what apologetics really is.” As he tells it, the gospel is like a garden in the middle of a field. That garden has one gate, which is Jesus. One path takes you right up to the gate. That path is evangelism, leading people to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately, for many people the journey to the garden is difficult. There are many paths that appear to head toward the garden but eventually veer off into some other direction. There are massive rocks and heavy brush obstructing the way. Then, in steps the apologist, pointing people back to the right path and clearing any obstacles ahead. The apologist may not be the gardener, and he is definitely not the gate. In fact, he needs the path, the gate, and the garden every bit as much as the people he helps. Nevertheless, he helps as many as he can along the way.
Apologetics must never be an end in itself. It is easy to get distracted by never-ending debates and peripheral issues. We must remember that apologetics has a goal beyond itself.
Apologetics is the process of getting people to the gospel as soon as possible.
It may be more than that, but it should never be less.
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