In a previous post I asked the question, “What does success in apologetics look like?” We read through the Apostle Paul’s encounter with the Athenians at the Areopagus, took note of the content of his message and the way he presented it, as well as his hearers’ responses, and, keeping in mind that the Apostle sets the example for us as apologists, we concluded that success in apologetics does not depend upon people’s response to our message. Success, therefore, is determined by the content of the message itself and the extent to which we reason in line with Biblical truths and principles.
As has been noted, misapprehension of this point often leads to confusion about the role men’s responses *do* play in our apologetic efforts. For, certainly we would consider men’s responses to the Gospel and its defense to be a matter of high importance, and indeed, we seek to persuade men, like the Apostle said in 2 Corinthians 5:11. The Apostle expresses such deep emotion in the first verses of Romans 9 over his fellow countrymen (the Jews) who didn’t believe, to the point of wishing that he himself would have been accursed for their sake. He obviously took the response (negative, in this case) of the Jews to be a very serious thing.
Some people object to God’s sovereign power over salvation by saying that our efforts in apologetics, then, are unnecessary and futile. “[T]he purpose of apologetics is indeed irrelevant to its effect,” as atheist blogger Paul Jenkins puts it. It is reasoned that, unless our efforts have a direct effect upon the hearer, they have no effect at all. God’s sovereignty, to these objectors, means God does absolutely everything in salvation, without consideration for any of the tools He uses to do it. This objection sees God’s sovereignty as resulting in fatalism, and more precisely, the wholesale meaninglessness of our actions. This should sound familiar to Calvinists who routinely answer the Arminian objection to God’s sovereignty. And like all objections to the Scriptures, the root in this objection is sinful suppression and autonomy, and a refusal to let the Bible speak on its own terms.
The problem with the objection is that the entirety of what the Bible says regarding God’s sovereignty isn’t being taken into account. While it is true that everything that takes place is ordained by God, and so in some sense controlled by God, we also see the use of “means” God uses to bring about His purpose. Isaiah 46:10-11 says, “I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say, ‘My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please. From the east I summon a bird of prey; from a far-off land, a man to fulfill my purpose. What I have said, that I will bring about; what I have planned, that I will do.”
Regarding the doctrine of salvation and the practice of apologetics, the Apostle Paul has this to say: “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?…” (Romans 10:14-15) The Apostle is not questioning God’s omnipotence, for if we look back at Romans 9, we see him defending God’s omnipotent sovereignty in salvation even there. The Apostle is pointing out that salvation of God’s people is God’s purpose, and preaching is the means through which God’s people come to faith. To use an analogy, he is lamenting the fact that a lightbulb cannot glow unless its electrical circuit is closed. And this idea is shown in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, chapter one, verse five: “because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” Essentially, “The circuit was not only closed, but power ran through the circuit, effectively lighting the bulb.” A parallel can be seen in Jesus’ concluding words of his parable in Matthew 22:14: “For many are called, but few are chosen. ” (Note, as an aside, the systematic nature of my approach to these issues.)
Now, we may be willing to admit that there is no power in the sound waves coming out of our mouths that causes the sinner to repent. But that isn’t any more than admitting that the electrical circuit itself doesn’t cause the lightbulb to glow. Ultimately it is the electric current. In salvation, it is the Holy Spirit. We are happy to admit we do not confer salvation onto a person, and we are also happy to give God the glory in a sinner’s conversion, as a result. Our message itself to unbelievers composes the circuit through which the Spirit sovereignly either flows, or doesn’t flow. We are only responsible for “closing the circuit,” as it were.