Apologetics is a system of study which teaches you to build a defense of something. Its Greek word (apologia) literally means “to speak in defense of.” We are all natural apologists. Someone asks you why you like Coke and not Pepsi, and you naturally begin to form an argument in defense of your position.
Theologically speaking, apologetics has grown to encompass not only a defense of a system of belief, but it also includes a critical inspection of alternate belief systems. A good apologist can not only tell you why his/her own belief is right, but can also point out flaws in competing beliefs. This is good. Peter himself says that we should be able to, “make a defense to anyone who asks you…” (1 Peter 3:15). Paul warns us to be mindful of and identify false doctrines which are harmful to the church (1 Tim 4).
Nailing Jell-O to a Wall
But when considering the task of apologetics, it is important that we understand the full picture. We live in an age of religious pluralism. Different thoughts, different beliefs, and intolerant tolerants run rampant. The ability to clearly understand the opposition is increasingly difficult as most opponents lack any sort of clear system of belief (outside of Hinduism, Islam, Mormonism…etc). But this should not disappoint us, nor should it confuse us. Millard Erickson points us in the right direction:
“The solution to this confusion is not merely to determine which are false views and attempt to refute them. Authentic merchandise is studied in order to recognize counterfeits. Similarly, correctly understanding the doctrinal teachings of Christianity is the solution to the confusion created by the myriad of claimants to belief.”
Christian doctrine, good theology, is ultimately what defends us against false beliefs. When Dorothy first got to Oz, she didn’t know where she was, she just knew she wasn’t in Kansas anymore. You don’t have to know where you are, but you need to know when you’re not at home.
Biblical Case Studies
The goal of apologetics is not simply to state and defend. It includes statements, and it includes defenses, critiques, and inspection. But the goal of Christian apologetics is not to win the argument, but win the heart. Apologetics can be beneficial to the church as it affirms and bolsters our confidence in scripture. But in terms of those outside the church, apologetics is subset of evangelism. You can crush people’s religious views until you are blue in the face, but if at the final trumpet they don’t believe in Jesus, you really haven’t accomplished anything.
In Revelation 2, Jesus speaks to the church of Ephesus and he commends them for their diligent defense of the faith: “you have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false” (Rev 2:2). They were the doctrinal watchdogs. They were a needed component of church health, but they were incomplete. Jesus rebukes them saying: “But I have this against you, you have abandoned the love you had at first” (Rev 2:3). They knew how to deconstruct the best constructed deconstructivist, but they didn’t know how to love him.
In 1 Timothy, Paul is writing to Timothy and equipping him to prepare the church for steadfastness amid competing doctrines. But note the emphasis of Paul’s teaching: “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim 1:5). The aim of Paul was not dogma, it wasn’t arguments, it wasn’t even church health. The aim of Paul’s charge was love, and love trickles down to all the rest. Our faith in a Christ who loved the unlovable convicts us to apologize the lost with a lovely apologetic.
A Gospel Apologetic
Pay attention to Francis Schaeffer’s thoughts on apologetics, and note where he ends up:
“The final problem is not to prove men wrong but to win them back to Christ. Therefore, the only ultimately successful apologetic is, first, a clear, intellectual statement of what is wrong with the false doctrine, plus a clear, intellectual return to the proper scriptural emphasis, in all its vitality and in its relation to the total Christian Faith, plus a demonstration in the life that this correct and vital scriptural emphasis meets the genuine needs and aspirations of men in a way that Satan’s counterfeit does not.”
You see a gospel centered apologetic is less focused on proving something wrong, or even proving something right. A gospel centered apologetic is focused on proving Christ is better. “Satan’s counterfeits” are nothing compared to the riches of Christ. Where logic may overwhelm the uninformed, only Christ can overwhelm the dead in sin.
J. Andrew Kirk comments on the crucial key to gospel apologetics: “our mission engagement with a secular age is executed in part by showing rationally, spiritually and practically how it is incapable of offering genuine human flourishing or fulfilment.”
A gospel apologetic engages the mind, but pleads with the soul. God’s steadfast love is better than life (Ps 63:3). That’s not hyperbole. It’s gospel truth. While this conclusion is less than pleasing to those who desire an academic debate (which certainly has its place in Christendom), it is pleasing to God who desires a faithful witness. When the desire to be right outweighs the desire to be love, we are probably wrong.
We are not saved by logic, or by reason. We are saved by the work of a better word, the word of Christ ministered through the Spirit, purchased by the cross. When we truly believe that Christ is what satisfies, that Christian living is the good, better, and best of life, then we can truly engage in heartfelt, lovely apologetics.
A Practical Apologetic
The beauty of this approach is that it doesn’t take a Ph.D in philosophy or comparative religions to be effective. If we go back to Peter’s thoughts on defense, we gain a little more clarity: “but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). Two quick notes: 1.) The starting point of Peter’s call for apologetics is worship (honor Christ). 2.) Peter doesn’t ask us to give a defense of textual criticism, or the similarities between Judaism and other Ancient Near-East religions. Peter simply asks us to defend our hope.
Our hope in the gospel is what sustains a good apologetic. Do you know your hope? Is it confident? Do you truley see it as better than “Satan’s counterfeits?” When we know the gospel, we are equipped for apologetics. When the gospel grasps us, the debate leaves the classroom. It goes to coffee shops, baseball games, and your kid’s piano recital. Because you know the gospel, you can identify anti-gospels. We can see when our friends and loved ones are seeking to find something better in something less. And in that moment, we can winsomely present the key to true joy: the gospel of Jesus Christ.