© Copyright 2014 by Gretchen Passantino Coburn
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile” (Romans 1:16 NIV).
“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).
Defining the Gospel
The gospel, or “good news,” is the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ on our behalf (1 Corinthians 15:1-5). It is God’s Great Redemption Story – the work of God by the Holy Spirit through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ by which fallen, sinful, broken humanity is reconciled to God and regenerated to become the fulfillment of God’s image in his restored Creation.
The gospel is the reconciliation of humans with God. The working of the gospel is empowered and enacted by God, not humans. While God uses humans to proclaim the gospel, it is God’s power that acts in that gospel to produce repentance and salvation in the recipient of the gospel.
Apologetics, specifically Christian apologetics, is a defense of the truthfulness of Christianity and its truth claims, centered on the reality of the gospel.
The term apologetics comes from the ancient Greek apologia, used in the legal sense as a defendant’s response to the charges against him in a law court. When Socrates was accused of treasonously corrupting the youth of Athens, his speech in his own defense was called his Apologia. The term occurs in the New Testament specifically by the apostle Paul when he defends himself against the charges of heresy lodged by the Jewish leaders to the authorities (Acts 26:2); in another form in Philippians 1:7 (16) for defense of the faith; in a negative form in Romans 1:20 indicating that reprobates’ sins are indefensible; and most popularly known in 1 Peter 3:15 as not merely the “why” of belief, but the reasoned, argued, evidenced defense of the Christian hope.
Christian apologetics may include defenses such as rational arguments for the existence of God, historical arguments for the reality of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, scientific arguments affirming God as creator (intelligent design), philosophical arguments for biblical morality, etc.
The Appropriate Use of Apologetics
When someone testifies to the gospel, and his or her message is challenged, apologetics is the discourse by which those challenges are met. In this context, apologetics has three main purposes: (1) to hold scoffers accountable for their rejection of the gospel; (2) to remove the roadblocks of ignorance and/or misinformation that impede someone’s serious consideration of the gospel; and (3) to strengthen the faith of the believer (not merely giving the believer facts that support his or her faith, but actually nourishing one’s faith life).
Apologetics Exposes Resistance to the Gospel
First, apologetics exposes the scoffer’s rejection of the gospel as a spiritual or life issue, not an intellectual or fact issue. It breaks down the walls of defense that disguise someone’s rejection of God.
Most often, when someone is asked why he or she is not a Christian, some kind of an “ant-belief” apologetic is offered: “Christians are just hypocrites;” “How can I believe in a good God when I see so much evil around me?” “That Jesus stuff is ancient mythology;” “The Bible is full of contradictions;” etc. Some people specifically identify themselves as atheists, agnostics, or skeptics and their objections appear more sophisticated: “The existence of God is unprovable;” “Science has done away with the need for people to believe in God;” “The Big Bang explains everything without need to resort to some Creator explanation;” etc. None of these kinds of objections disprove the existence of God. (They may bring into dispute the nature or character of God, the character of those who believe in Him, or the reliability of the revelation attributed to Him. They do not disprove God’s existence.) In fact there are abundant counter-arguments and positive arguments for the existence of God, the truthfulness of Christian theism, the reality of the Incarnation and Resurrection, and the trustworthiness of the Bible.
As 1 Peter 3:15 commands us, Christians are to be “always ready” or “constantly prepared” to defend the Christian faith, and when we take this charge seriously, God can use our arguments to expose the scoffer’s resistance to the Holy Spirit. The scoffer, those influenced by the scoffer, and, of course, those believers who challenge the scoffer can then see clearly that the scoffer is rejecting the truth, not clinging to the truth. Romans 1:18-20 tells us that scoffers “suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”
Many years ago my late husband Bob Passantino and I were asked by a new Christian to persuade her atheist husband to stop mocking her for her faith and to allow her to attend church and other Christian events. The atheist (we’ll name him John for this story) claimed he embraced the truth of atheism and didn’t need the crutch of belief in a myth like his wife. Bob talked to John on the phone and discovered he was an unsophisticated atheist. John was unprepared to appreciate the force of the apologetics Bob and I were prepared to deliver. So Bob sent John a list of books (this was before the Internet) to educate him in his atheism. All of the books were against Christian theism. Bob challenged John to read and learn more sophisticated arguments in preparation for talking with us. In the meantime, John agreed to stop harassing his wife for her faith. A couple of months later we met with John, who was eager to demonstrate his newly acquired anti-God prowess against us. (Evidently he didn’t consider that Bob, the Christian theist, who had prepared the atheist reading list for him, probably had answers to those arguments.) After several hours of discussion, we had answered all of his new arguments, improved some of his arguments but answered the improvements, and given him even more sophisticated arguments which we also successfully answered. Finally, in the wee hours of the morning, John finally gave up his intellectual subterfuge. He said, “You both have every reason to believe what you believe, and I have no reasons to reject belief. But I will never believe in God! I hate God!” That was the crux of the matter: in his deepest heart, he knew God existed but he hated God and would not surrender to him. As far as we know, he never relented in his rejection of God, but it was evident to us, his wife, and himself that his problem was not intellectual, but spiritual. And he never mocked his wife for her faith or interfered with her practice of it. Apologetics holds people accountable for rejecting the gospel.
Apologetics Removes Mistaken Assumptions
When someone’s heart is softened toward the gospel, he or she often becomes distracted or confused because of exposure to false ideas about the truth of God, revelation, salvation, and Jesus Christ. That false information can obscure the truth. Like a “magic eraser” sponge, apologetics can wipe away those false arguments. While there is an abundance of evidence for Christian truth claims, and abundance of evidence against contrary world views, unless someone is aware of those arguments, he or she may fail to seriously consider the call of the gospel. Whether one’s spiritual head is turned by an attractive philosophical argument, a scientific conundrum, or a social fad, such diversions rob potential believers of the truth. The apostle Paul described this kind of spiritual blindness in Acts 17, as he addressed the Greek philosophers of Athens, describing their indiscriminate polytheism as ignorance, and proclaiming to them that he would enlighten them about the truth. He preached Christian theism and the reality of the resurrection, concluding, “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).
My late husband Bob and I once talked in a mainline Protestant church on the dangers of “New Age” beliefs and practices, including pantheism (God is everything and everything is God), psychic readings, reincarnation, etc. Afterward an older gentleman approached us and loudly announced, “I liked your presentation, although with my hearing problems, I missed a lot. I’m glad you brought up reincarnation. I’m fascinated by it and am trying to recover memories from my previous lives.” He seemed completely unaware that we had criticized reincarnation, refuting it from reason, science, and the Bible. We had the opportunity to meet with him in a quieter setting later and spent quite a bit of time listening to why he was so intrigued with reincarnation and explaining its inadequacies to him. By removing the attractiveness of reincarnation and exposing it as a cruel imagination that punishes people in this life for sins they didn’t even know they committed in a previous lifetime, and which gave no assurance that the cycle of rebirth would ever end, we were able to eliminate the man’s attraction to reincarnation. Then when we gave him the assurance of the gospel and the evidence for the resurrection of Christ, he was drawn to firm confidence in immediate salvation and confident hope for eternal life with God instead. Apologetics erases mistaken false ideas and clears the way for the persuasive truth of the gospel.
Apologetics Nourishes the Faith of the Believer
Most Christians know that spiritual nourishment, including food for the mind, is necessary for Christian maturity. Most churches emphasize Bible study and education for successful discipleship. Many pastors exhort their congregations to learn the Word of God. Even though apologetics is sometimes treated as the neglected step-child of Christian education, believers acknowledge that defending the faith against rational attack is an important part of Christian living.
Often overlooked is the essential factor of Christian apologetics for the individual believer’s spiritual health and welfare. It is not sufficient for a Christian to know what he believes and why he believes it merely for the purpose of defending the faith or winning the convert. Apologetics is not merely the “supplement” to the Christian diet. It is the spiritual nutrition boost that can complete the spiritual diet and revive the flagging spirit. Rooted in the saving power of the Holy Spirit, the new Christian life must be nourished not only by worship, fellowship, learning the Bible, and prayer, but also by confirming the faith through apologetics.
One of the key apologetics passages for the truthfulness and historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is in chapter fifteen of the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Most who know apologetics are very familiar with this chapter, which represents an early proclamation of the resurrection dating from between AD 30 and 33, virtually contemporaneous with the event itself. The chapter begins with the strong command of Paul that this gospel of the resurrection has not only saved the Corinthian Christians, but it is that on which they have taken a stand, and it will continue to keep them strong if they hold firmly to the Word: otherwise, they will have believed in vain (1 Corinthians 15:2). How do we “hold firmly” what we’ve been told to believe? By understanding and knowing the strength of the belief. Paul spends the rest of the chapter preaching to the believers the truth of the resurrection and the falsity of its denial. He is not practicing apologetics to non-believers nor primarily equipping believers to combat unbelief outside the church. He is encouraging and nourishing the faith of the believers by proving the resurrection and disproving false beliefs. That is why he ends the chapter by encouraging the believers with the same images with which he opened the chapter – stand firm, let nothing move you, give yourself completely to the Lord’s work, because the reality of the resurrection gives you confidence “that our labor in the Lord is not in vain” (58).
This aspect of apologetics has been sadly neglected even as the last 30 years of American evangelicalism has seen a blossoming of Christian apologetics. Most of our involvement with apologetics has been for the purpose of refuting the opposition, defending the faith, and equipping believers to do likewise. We ought to expand our apologetic commitment and focus more time and attention on the spiritual nourishment apologetics gives believers. To the Jews who believed in Him, he said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31).
My husband Pat became a Christian as a young man, believing the gospel as it was told to him by his boss, a painting contractor who took him on as a young apprentice. Pat respected his employer, attended church with him and his family, was baptized, and learned about the Bible from a dedicated and wise pastor. But as he encountered the trials and temptations common to man, his faith stumbled. He didn’t know how to answer his non-believing family members when they mocked his faith. He didn’t know why, much less how, to resist temptations to sin when the lures around him seemed so much more tangible than something eternal promised after he would die. Always inquisitive, interested in science, an avid reader, he encountered more and more challenges to the simple gospel he had simply embraced. As he began to learn more about why he believed (he didn’t even know the discipline was called apologetics), he discovered his faith stirring with new growth. Solid apologetics in science confirmed his conviction that everything in the universe, from the expanses of space to the tiniest particle, was created by an intelligent designer. Apologetics in philosophy gave him confidence that it made sense to believe in Christian theism. Historical apologetics strengthened his identification with an unbroken line of apostolic testimony of the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Finally, his study of the evidences for the resurrection enabled him to stand firm in his faith, confidently offering the gospel to others with the same promise of resurrection and eternal life that he had received. Pat’s faith is firm, unwavering, confident, and healthy. It’s not all attributable to apologetics, of course, as the Bible gives us a broad range of ways the Holy Spirit strengthens and confirms our faith. But his faith is an example of the kind of strength apologetics “muscle milk” brings to the believer.
Pat is not alone in his experience. After more than 40 years in apologetics, I can testify that for several of my colleagues, apologetics became a life-giving transfusion of spiritual life as they experienced faith-challenging crises in their own lives. I’ve had more than one apologetics friend in the midst of trauma tell me, “If it weren’t for my confidence in the truth of the gospel, I would have abandoned all hope.”
One of the most common scriptures used in apologetics is found in the short New Testament letter of Jude written to Christians in multiple churches of the first century. Jude verse 3 commands the Christians to “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people.”
Apologetics is not the gospel, but it has three crucial purposes: (1) It knocks down the pretense of those who reject the gospel; (2) It erases the misconceptions that distract non-believers from the gospel; and (3) It nourishes the faith of the believer.
Let me conclude with Jude’s advice to the Christians about how to use apologetics: “But you, dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life. Be merciful to those who doubt; save others by snatching them from the fire; to others show mercy, mixed with fear – hating the clothing stained by corrupted flesh” (20-23).