Hope Has a Hearing
A Brief Sketch of Apologetics
Have you ever been sharing your faith, and someone starts asking questions about the truth of our message? When you answer those questions, you are doing apologetics. Sometimes you will hear of a political pundit being an apologist for some idea or some politician. But, for our purposes, apologetics refers to giving answers to challenges or questions that people ask about Christianity. Those questions can range from genuine interest to mockery. Even though apologetics can be made to sound complicated, we all do it when answering such questions.
Apologetics is answering questions people have about the truth of Christianity.
Apologetics can be very simple, or it can be studied in detail. Apologetics can be used to strengthen the faith of believers. (Acts 18:27-8) But primarily, engaging in apologetics is in response to an unbeliever’s questions. The main passage that most refer to concerning apologetics is First Peter 3:14-16
14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 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; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.
The word “defense” is the word from which we get apologetics. In the Greek it is apologia. (The “g” is hard, not a “j” sound.) We do get the word apology from this but that is a secondary meaning. An apology in Greek usually refers to the defense in a court case, as in “the defense rests.” You will see Paul using the word this way when he is on trial in Acts 24:10 “And when the governor had nodded to him to speak, Paul replied: ‘Knowing that for many years you have been a judge over this nation, I cheerfully make my defense.’” (see also: 22:1, 25:8, 26:1)
Peter is using apologia more generally meaning to give an explanation or an answer to a question someone has asked, as in “defending one’s position.” The context of First Peter appears to refer to a situation where there is persecution or conflict. But apologetics can also occur in more friendly discussions. On one hand, apologetics is the question-and-answer aspect of the evangelism. This can involve very thoroughly reasoned explanations of the answer “defending the faith.” (Jude 1:3) On the other hand, it can be proactive, encouraging someone to consider the truth of Christ. Paul does this in Acts 17:2-3. “And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.’” (ESV, emphasis added.)
Apologetics begins and ends with Jesus, both logically and in our attitude.
Peter also gives us some keys to doing apologetics well. First, he tells us to set apart Christ in our hearts. Here, Peter alludes to Isaiah 8:12-13 and indicates that Jesus is the Lord or Yahweh. What it means here is that our apologetics should begin and end with Jesus as the revelation of God, not some general idea of a God. Along with this, the Scriptures provide all the answers and arguments we need. Some who practice apologetics like to try to show the truth of Scripture by appealing to general ideas of truth outside of Scripture. Not only is this unnecessary, it is less effective, and may in the end be counterproductive.
Also, Peter tells us the attitude we are to have when we do apologetics. He says that we are to do it with gentleness and respect. This is significant because of the context of persecution. Even when those asking the questions are being very harsh or disrespectful we are to maintain an attitude of gentleness and respect. Apologetics is not a debate with winners and losers and the competitive attitude associated with that. It is a persuasive attempt that, by God’s grace, will bring someone to faith and repentance. (Acts17:4)
Let’s take a closer look at these two words. Respect teaches us that even though others are disrespectful we are to show respect to them. There are two reasons for this. The first is that they are made in the image of God and we are not to disrespect other humans who are made in the image of God. (James 1:9) Interestingly, maintaining a respectful attitude adds to the persuasion of what we are saying. It maintains what we’re saying as important. It also shows a contrast to the attitude of those asking questions that may have an impact on their conscience. When trying to persuade someone our attitude can be just as persuasive as our argument.
The second word, gentleness, is very interesting. Jesus describes himself with its root in Matthew 11:9. The word is connected to the fruits of the Spirit. (Galatians 5:23) Paul seems to use the idea often in the context of argument and debate. (2 Corinthians 10:1; 2 Timothy 2:25) It is the opposite of the competitive and arrogant attitude that most people take when they are in an argument or debate. The sinful nature thinks that a strong attitude makes our case better. The Bible refutes that. (2 Timothy 2:23-26) One of my favorite apologetics teachers, Cornelius Van Til, used to like to say, “strong in substance, gentle in manner.” That is, the substance of the truth should be the strength of our argument while our attitude should be gentle and loving. Truth does not need an attitude.
Apologetics is part of evangelism.
Apologetics is the other side of the coin, or for those my age, the flip side of evangelism. They go together. Some see apologetics as what you do before evangelism. In this approach, Christians need to get people to believe God exists and then you can share the gospel. Peter seems to indicate that apologetics happens during witnessing. Notice that Peter envisions a situation where the believer is being asked about the hope that they have. This does not mean that we must wait for someone to ask before we engage them. But it does challenge us to ask ourselves if people see hope in us to the extent that they want to ask us about our faith. Hope is a rare commodity and usually does not go unnoticed. Peter probably has in mind situations where believers under persecution are maintaining joy and hope. Many stories about martyrs illustrate this.
Answering the questions asked.
Maintaining gentleness and respect can also help us hear the question rather than think we have the answer. I was asked one time, while witnessing, about evil in the world. I arrogantly thought, “I got this.” I launched into a lengthy philosophical discussion. Then I found out that the woman’s brother had died in Viet Nam. I apologized for my insensitivity and re-oriented our discussion to the cross and God’s solution to suffering and the woman was overcome with tears at God’s mercy. Good apologetics never gets too far from Jesus.
Unbelievers can raise questions about all sorts of things. There are also common questions that arise, and these can be defined and studied. It used to be that the most common question regarded the goodness of God and evil in the world. For many unbelievers, this seems to be an irrefutable challenge. Today the more prominent question seems to be how can Christians say that they have the only way to heaven? Peter seems to indicate that another question is, “How can you maintain joy amid such difficulty, isn’t this just pie in the sky thinking?” We do not have space to answer these questions in this blog. But hopefully, we will be able to do so in the future. Be assured, the Bible anticipates and addresses these questions.
Those who are wise win souls, not arguments.
In the meantime, remember that whenever you are witnessing, and someone asks you a question about Christianity and you give an answer, you are doing apologetics. Like any skill, we can all improve. My encouragement right now is to remember to set apart Christ in your heart and ask and answer questions with gentleness and respect rather than try to “win” an argument. We should desire to win people, not debates.
Brad Swygard received his two best gifts while at WTSU, his salvation and his wife, Jeanette. They have been married 31 years and have three grown children, Sarah, Joel, and John. Brad has been in the gospel ministry for 27 years, most recently as Senior Pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Dewey, Oklahoma for the last seventeen years. He graduated from WT in 1985. He received his Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary in 1990. He has started a window washing business in Amarillo while pursuing his Ph.D. in Biblical Studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City. He has been a church planter and a school principal, as well as coaching a High school speech and debate team for sixteen years. Brad likes to spend time with his wife, ride trains, hunt, fish, and train his bird dogs.