Apologetics: An Important Spiritual Discipline for Our Times

by Dr. Alex McFarland
Director for Christian Worldview and Apologetics at the Christian Worldview Center of North Greenville University

Christian thinker G. K. Chesterton observed in 1933 that while it is important to win the unsaved to Christianity, leaders must increasingly endeavor to "convert the Christians to Christianity."

Chesterton's remark was a timeless reminder that the church must be ever dedicated in its duty to pass on biblical truth to rising generations.

Today more belief systems than ever are competing for the attention of people. Because of this, I believe it is vital for churches to incorporate apologetics and worldview content into their ministries.

"Worldview" refers to what a person believes. "Apologetics" is all about why one believes the things he believes. Individuals within the church—and those on the outside possibly looking in—need to learn about both.

The Greek word for apologetics appears several times in the Bible. Usually translated as "answer" and "reason," apologia means "a defense." A few of the categories of Christian apologetics include the following: (1) textual apologetics—defending the trustworthiness of the Bible and then presenting the content of what it says; (2) evidence-based apologetics—presenting external data that provide objective confirmation of the Christian faith (such as historical or scientific facts); and (3) philosophical apologetics—exposing the flawed reasoning behind popular arguments against Christianity.

Much has been written about the decades-long erosion of Christianity in America and the West. Cultural and spiritual challengers to Christianity are even causing some church members to ponder how Christianity stacks up against competing beliefs. Statements like "You've-got-your-truth-and-I've-got-mine," or "Jesus was just one of many great spiritual leaders" have become axiomatic in our culture. Knowledge of apologetics helps both Christians and non-Christians understand why the claims of Christianity are to be preferred rather than those of some other belief system.

The rise of secular humanism throughout the world is also a reminder of the need for apologetics. Why not just embrace the atheism insisted on by books like Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion? The answer is multifaceted. But Christianity is to be believed and followed because it is true. In a world of sincerely held opinions, Christianity comes via historical (yet personally relevant) facts.

Protecting Those Who Are Spiritually Vulnerable

A well-circulated YouTube video showed some footage from Africa in which a baby water buffalo was rescued from the mouths of three hungry lions. The people whose camcorder captured this could be heard cheering as one adult water buffalo courageously fought off the lions. The video reminded me that within the world are predators, prey, and protectors.

Believers need to be equipped for the intellectual questions and spiritual challenges that inevitably come. Apologetics content helps by demonstrating that Christianity is credible, reasonable, and relevant.

Some churches seem to shy away from teaching apologetics, possibly assuming that their people will not understand it or that it is a pursuit for just the super intelligent. To such sentiments, I respectfully object! For nearly 20 years I have witnessed people of all ages and economic strata react to apologetics content with enthusiasm and appreciation.

One of the reactions that I often hear (especially from young people) is, "Alex, all of this has helped me see that that Christianity really makes sense." Yes, it does. The best part is that once people get a handle on understanding, explaining, and defending the faith, they are more likely than ever to reach out to their friends. Apologetics encourages (and equips) the saved and is often used by the Holy Spirit to persuade the lost.

All New Testament Occurrences of the Term from Which Is Derived the Word "Apologetics"

The following eight verses from the New Testament all include the Greek word apologia, a legal term that means "to speak in defense of."

Acts 22:1
"Brothers and fathers, listen now to my defense."

Acts 25:16
"I answered them that it's not the Romans' custom to give any man up before the accused confronts the accusers face to face and has an opportunity to give a defense concerning the charges."

1 Corinthians 9:3
"My defense to those who examine me is this."

2 Corinthians 7:11
'For consider how much diligence this very thing—this grieving as God wills—has produced in you: what a desire to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what deep longing, what zeal, what justice! In every way you showed yourselves to be pure in this matter."

Philippians 1:7
"It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because I have you in my heart, and you are all partners with me in grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and establishment of the gospel."

Philippians 1:16
"These do out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel."

2 Timothy 4:16
"At my first defense, no one came to my assistance, but everyone deserted me. May it not be counted against them."

1 Peter 3:15
"But set apart the Messiah as Lord in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you to for a reason for the hope that is in you."

Apologetics in the New Testament

In the verses listed above the word defense implies validation of one's position and explanation and affirmation of something, especially when put under the light of scrutiny. In 1 Peter 3:15 (perhaps the most famous verse associated with the discipline of apologetics), the word that jumps out is defense.

Many translations render the word apologia in this verse as "answer," which is also appropriate. The phrase "for a reason" comes from a different Greek root. Yet still carries the implication of a reasoned, logical approach. As stated in the definition above, apologetics involves the use of evidences and sound reasoning to reach individuals for Christ.

A verse that does not include the word apologia—yet one which definitely deserves notice—is in the book of Jude. Of Jude's 25 brief verses, verse 3 admonishes believers to "contend for the faith." Some translations of Jude 3 may read "defend the faith," or "strive strongly for the faith," or something similar.

The word translated "contend" in English comes from a word that can mean to struggle for something. The Greek word also is the basis for the word agonize. The implication is that with consistency, effectiveness, and absolute dedication, each Christian is to stand up for this precious message, "the faith once delivered to the saints." In introducing apologetics to audiences who may be hearing about it for the first time, I often say, "There was only one apostle Paul, and he was an apologist." A careful reading of the book of Acts makes it hard to miss Paul's skill as an apologist/evangelist.

In Thessalonica Paul "reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and showing that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead," and said, "This is the Messiah, whom I am proclaiming to you" (Acts 17:2–3). In his quest to make a presentation of the gospel that was both understandable and persuasive, Paul was explaining and defending his content before the Greek listeners.

The word in verse 3 translated "reasoned" is the word from which stems "dialogue." The word "explaining" means "discussing" or even "disputing." And the word "demonstrating" can also mean "to open up" (something). When a Christian presents, explains, or defends the gospel, his hope is that people will become more favorably inclined to the message, to become open to the reality of Jesus Christ!

This same word for "showing" is found in a few other New Testament passages. In Mark 7 we read of Jesus' healing a man who was both deaf and mute. In verse 34, Jesus prayed for the man, saying, "Be opened!" This same word in Acts 17:3 speaks of Paul "demonstrating." Jesus gave hearing and speech to a destitute man.

To people who may be spiritually destitute, believers are to give a clear "demonstration" (an "opening"). The approach to apologetics should be like that of Paul—something that makes a "clear demonstration" or yields a decisive "opening up."

What Apologetics Is Not

More than a few times I have had someone say to me, "Alex, I don’t apologize for being a Christian!" Moments before speaking at a major denominational seminary recently, one of the school's faculty was escorting me around and said, "I heard them say you are an apologist. What are you apologizing for?"

Since even some pastors and seminary staff are unfamiliar with the subject, let it be stated, apologetics is not about saying "I'm sorry." Actually the words "I'm sorry" are traceable to the Latin phrase "mea culpa." A "mea culpa" is an admission of guilt, as if to say, "I am culpable; I am guilty." And this has absolutely nothing to do with Christian apologetics.

No one need assume that the apologist is somehow waving the white flag of surrender on behalf of Christianity. Apologetics does not mean to say "I'm sorry" for anything about our faith. Quite the opposite! The apologist is showing that we have an authentic message. But we must also make sure that we present ourselves as authentic messengers.

A pastor shared an apologetics-related story with me that nearly broke my heart. I was encouraging this pastor to bring more apologetics and biblical worldview content before his people, and I could tell he was "guarded."

The pastor explained that a two-man apologetics team had come one Sunday night to speak to their youth. During a question-and-answer time, a teen girl innocently asked a question about Jehovah's Witness literature that had been coming to her house.

She said she had been reading their Awake magazine, and to her it seemed to make sense. "What do you guys think?" she asked. The two young men (perhaps well-meaning but misguided) launched into a rapid-fire rebuttal of everything related to the Jehovah's Witnesses. As her youth group friends watched, the speakers did a five-minute "data dump" on the girl, critiquing both the publications and her for having read them.

The pastor grew emotional as he ended the story. He said, "Alex, that teen girl was so embarrassed that she left the room crying. The worst part is that the two apologists seemed to show no concern, and they high-fived each other at the end of their talk." I cringed and assured him that this is not an approach to apologetics one would ever encourage.

Several Things to Avoid as You Cultivate your Apologetics Skills

This story is a reminder that while believers are to use good argumentation, those aspiring to defend the gospel should never be argumentative. There is an old saying, "An argument to be won should never be more important than a person to be loved." The content should at least leave a listener willing to hear more and hopefully be drawn to the Savior.

One's heart should keep pace with the expansion of his intellect. Studying apologetics can enable a person to accumulate important facts and interesting content. One's vocabulary will expand, and soon everyday conversation will include words like epistemology, evidential, and empirical. The challenges for a good apologist are to remain humble and also to rely on the Holy Spirit's empowerment, not on any assumed intellectual prowess.

Apologetics is not a license to treat people abrasively. Hours of apologetics preparation is no substitute for prayer (without prayer, a person may be well read, but spiritually powerless). Apologetics is not a substitute for the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit in the life of unsaved people. (It has been said, "You can't argue someone into heaven." Of course not. But the truths presented to people may be used by the Lord in drawing a person to Himself).

Intellectual prowess should not be confused with (nor substituted for) spiritual maturity. Speaking of the fruit of the Spirit operative in a Christian's life in Galatians 5:23, the verse concludes, "against such things there is no law." This is essentially saying, "You can't argue with that." A skeptic may quibble over some point of content, but when the message is coupled with an authentic and consistently godly life, the witness is hard to refute.

My personal definition of apologetics, fleshed out during these past 20 years of ministry is this:

Apologetics refers to content and methodologies
which may be used by the Holy Spirit
to contribute toward the discipleship and mobilization of believers,
the evangelization of non-believers
so that Jesus Christ is exalted and His Kingdom expanded.

The ultimate goal of the apologist is to glorify God. On this battlefield of ideas, believers are soldiers, fighting to secure hotly contested territories. The souls of people are in the crossfire, and the apologist works to see as many lives as possible brought to salvation in Christ.

If all of this sounds a little lofty or grandiose, be encouraged by the knowledge that one of the most well-known apologetics verses was written by the apostle Peter. First Peter 3:15—quoted by apologists everywhere—was penned not by Paul, the theologian and philosopher, but by plainspoken Peter, the fisherman. Just like Peter, each believer has a role to play. More than ever before, believers must rise to the challenge of Peter's words and equip a generation of believers to "always be ready."
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