The Substance of Success in Apologetics

The call to be an Apologist, or a defender of the faith, is not something reserved for seminarians or pastors, or even in general, the smartest among us. Rather, everyone who is called by the name of Christ possesses the responsibility, the burden, and the privilege of defending the truth of God against any contradiction to it. Indeed, we are each called to “Be diligent to present [ourselves] approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)

Apart from pragmatic considerations with regard to Apologetics which are somewhat misguided (e.g. “Is it helpful?” “Does it work?”), stands the singular consideration of obedience to God. We are called as Christians to “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Cor. 10:5) It could be seen as a corollary of the Great Commission in the sense that, while proclaiming the Gospel with one breath, we tear down objections to it with the next. Furthermore, a proper Theology will determine what we consider either “to work” or not “to work.” The question is, then, what does it mean that our apologetic efforts “work”? Taking it back half a step, what is the question we SHOULD be asking ourselves regarding our motivations for defending the faith? What exactly does “success” in Apologetics require, and what does it look like? Allow me to make a few quick observations beforehand:

  1. Our theology dictates to us that it is God who changes men’s hearts. As Christians, we understand that God in His Holy Sovereignty is superintending everything that comes to pass, including the salvation of men, and that the conversion of men starts and ends by God’s active working in their hearts, and this moving is not dependent in any way upon man’s efforts, whether they be those of the evangelist or of the one being evangelized. (Eze. 36:26, John 3:8)
  2. Christ commissioned His followers to proclaim the truth of the Gospel. At Christ’s ascension, he left them with a duty – a directive, as it were – to convey the message of the Sovereign Creator to all His creatures. (Mat. 28:18-20)
  3. The Apostles, under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, called Christians to destroy untruth. Paul says, “We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, “ all the while, “taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.” (2 Cor. 10:5)

With these principles in mind, we can proceed to determine our motivation for our apologetic efforts.

Apologetics should not be seen as an addition to our Christian life. Christianity is not merely studying the Word for personal enlightenment and living well among our local church family. The command to tear down false ideas should not be seen as optional (would we dare to say that any of the commands of God are optional?). To state it simply, our efforts in apologetics should be a reflection and an outpouring of the life we are called to live as Christians, and is really just another part of it. In every area of our lives, we seek to take captive every thought to Christ. Essentially, we are constantly and consciously whipping our thoughts and worldview in order that they might fall in line with what God has revealed in His Word concerning this world. And since God’s creation includes all that exists, and the truth of the Bible is all-encompassing, we must therefore be mindful of how we view all that exists. This also includes our own reasoning.

When we approach the unbeliever, we do so as Ambassadors. We do so with a definite message. And we do so authoritatively. We do not sit casually beside the unbeliever and seek out a God-shaped hole that may possibly allow the truth of God to fit right in. We do not take their view of the world, and show that God can still “make sense” given what the unbeliever already considers to be true. This is by no means the approach Paul took in his Areopagus address in Acts 17. He took note of their religiosity, and obliterated it with the truth of God. He drew sharp contrasts between the people’s philosophies of god and the Bible’s description of God Himself. He took note of their countless gods, pointed out their ignorance of what they worship, and set God forward, not merely as the “best explanation,” but as the only reason anything existed at all. Furthermore, he presented God as the only reason there can be an explanation for any particular thing, period! Surely at that point none of their various gods were necessary. You might even say he argued in a transcendental manner, describing God as the One in Whom we “live, and move, and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)

It’s important to note that Paul never compromised on his principles, and never suspended his grasp on his own presuppositions. He didn’t stoop to their level of thinking, granting that the way they were going about their knowledge-attaining was valid. He called them to wholesale rejection of their former ways, and to wholesale embrace of the Christian God. There was no seeking of neutral ground upon which ideas and “facts” are free from interpretation. Paul himself wasn’t converted by standing in some neutral plane and then determining God-belief was more desirable to have. If you remember, he was thrown from his horse! And so, it’s not quite as though Paul is contending nature and religiosity point back to God. Rather, he starts with God, and proceeds to expound nature and religiosity.

What about Success? How do we know if we have succeeded as an Apologist? Is there a tangible result that directly benefits us, and that we can measure? To answer those, let us look at the varying responses of the people to Paul’s address, while bearing in mind the principles we observed above. Acts 17:32-34a: “Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer, but others said, “We shall hear you again concerning this.” So Paul went out of their midst. But some men joined him and believed…” Here we see three distinct responses to Paul:

  • A. Some began to sneer,
  • B. Others would hear him again sometime, and
  • C. Some men joined him and believed.

Some of the men, upon hearing the truth of God’s Word, remained in their unbelief. In fact it’s quite conceivable that they were further hardened in that unbelief. It’s apparent, in any case, that they were not convinced. Others, having heard of Christ, were curious. This idea was interesting to them. Perhaps there was more to the story that could help them rationalize it, or else God may very well have been working slowly in their hearts. They did not believe immediately, at least. Lastly, some of Paul’s hearers believed and followed after him.

If we were to gauge success according to the men’s responses, we might very well say Paul was a failure with respect to group A. After all, Paul could certainly have presented a better, fuller explanation of the Gospel, couldn’t he? None of us are perfect, not even Paul. However, recall our principle 1), that God is the only one that changes hearts, or else men remain in their unbelief (This principle also precludes any “free will” reason, i.e. that they just didn’t exercise their free will to believe). The same goes with group B. The men did not, at least immediately, believe. But of course God in His sovereignty is at liberty to work as “quickly” or as “gradually” as He wants. And finally, upon observing group C, we are forced to jettison any supposition of dependence of the men’s belief upon the accuracy (or otherwise) of Paul’s message. All three groups were given the same message, and at the same time. So was Paul successful then, or not?

Yes. And this is because he remained faithful to the Word of God at every point in his presentation. He fulfilled and exemplified the role of the Christian as described in part in 2 Corinthians 10:5. He did not step away, for even a second, from the Truth in order to help the men understand. He did not tell them that God was really just a good supplement to their philosophies. He did not bring them to “a god” and then try to bring them over the gap to the Christian God. No, he was successful in that he truly did bring every thought of his into captivity to the truth of God. This is why he was able to tell Timothy that he has “kept the faith.” (2 Tim. 4:7) He held it tightly, and made it a part of him.

So indeed we see that our efforts in apologetics should flow forth from our efforts to live as Christians. And, accordingly, we are to remain constant in prayer and study of the Word. We, as Christians, need to be involved with our brothers and sisters in the local church. As no truth of Christianity should be considered independent of the other truths of Christianity (an appropriate reflection of Christianity’s God), so no effort of Christian practice should be considered independent of other practice. Ministry (as apologetics essentially is) must be accompanied by wise and prayerful study. We have been successful as apologists when we have given the whole counsel of God, boldly, patiently, and accurately, with the glory of God and his Christ as our highest goal.


7 Comments

Patrick Mefford

It does my heart good to see a McFormtist post.

Patrick Hsu

Yea, McFormtist is a beast!

PaulJ

“…this moving is not dependent in any way upon man’s efforts, whether they be those of the evangelist or of the one being evangelized.”

“in any way”? Doesn’t this make apologetics somewhat redundant?

McFormtist

Hey PaulJ, thanks for commenting.

The work of God in men’s hearts, which is not dependent upon men’s efforts, does not make apologetics redundant. This is because, first of all, Apologetics is a matter of obedience to God, according to the verses I cite above, and therefore does not primarily fulfill a purpose already fulfilled. Second, as a corollary to the Great Commission, it can be seen as a vehicle or channel through which God can change men’s hearts. Recall this familiar passage: Romans 10:17 “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” No person becomes a Christian except who hears and understands the Gospel (I know I didn’t articulate this in the post, but since the intended audience is primarily Christians, I considered it understood).

When I say, “is not dependent,” I mean that God’s ability to change a man’s heart is not constrained to some circumstance or condition outside or apart from Himself. There is a logical order in which God Himself did purpose to work, however, and so God will not violate His own purpose. But I choose not to call that “dependency” because it implies such constraint.

Regards,
McFormtist

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