Apologetics can both intrigue and intimidate. Some people love to learn how to build strong arguments in favor of their viewpoint and to detect logical fallacies in their opponent’s arguments. Other people fear they will quickly be outwitted by a superior debater. It turns out, however, that Christian apologetics truly is for everybody. The goal, however, is not to win the debate, but to win over the people with whom one is sharing the Christian worldview.
“Apologetics” comes from the Greek word apologia, which is translated as “defense” in 1 Peter 3:15—“in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense [apologia] to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” Descriptively, the Bible tells of St. Paul engaging in “apologetics” when the Jewish leaders accused him of heresy (Acts 19:33; 22:1; 24:10; 25:8, 16; 26:1, 2, 24; Philippians 1:7, 16; 2 Timothy 4:16). Prescriptively, however, on the two occasions that Christ admonished His disciples concerning “apologetics,” He explicitly told them not to prepare in advance but to trust simply in the Holy Spirit to provide them with the right words (Luke 12:11–12; 21:14–15).
So what about Christians today? Should we pursue training in rhetoric, as Saint Paul did, in order to defend Christian doctrine against false teachings? Or, should we simply trust that the Holy Spirit will guide us in what to say when the time comes, as Christ advised His disciples? Both approaches are appropriate, and in fact the 1 Peter passage harmonizes them. Peter advises that we should be “prepared to make a defense,” but the preparation he has in mind is that we “honor Christ the Lord as holy.” To honor Christ is to gladly hear and learn His Word, as Luther taught in his explanation to the Third Commandment. When we meditate on God’s Word, the Holy Spirit strengthens our faith (Romans 10:17) and prepares us for good works (2 Timothy 3:15–16).
Peter also suggests the kind of “defense [apologia]” we should be prepared to give. It is not a water-tight argument designed to make skeptics look like idiots. Rather, Peter urges us to express “the hope” that is in us and to do so “with gentleness and respect.” The occasion Peter has in mind is persecution: “even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake …” (1 Peter 3:14). In the end, we desire for others to share the hope we have in Christ. As Paul explained in the middle of his “apologetics” presentation to King Agrippa, “… I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am—except for these chains” (Acts 26:29).
What lessons can we learn from these examples today?
First, trust in the Holy Spirit, not in your own intellect. Read and listen to Scripture regularly, so you know that God would have you place your hope always in Him. If you are inclined to build a strong case for God’s existence or the fact that life begins at conception from natural law as well, then consider studying science, logic, and other pertinent subjects from a Christian perspective, but do not feel pressured to become an “expert” in these areas if God has not already given you that desire.
Second, listen to others so that you understand them, just as Saint Paul adjusted his preaching throughout the Book of Acts to reach a particular audience. Some people might support abortion because they do not realize a fetus is a living child in the womb; other people may know this full well, but deny it out of a sense of guilt from a previous choice. In the latter case, presenting further evidence for life in the womb will only increase the guilt and anger, driving a wedge between you and the person you with whom you are talking. Worse, it drives a wedge between that person and God. Such a person needs instead to learn of how forgiving Christ is.
Third, express your hope in God in a manner that it can also become their hope in God. Talk about the comfort you receive from God’s Word through your home devotions, through your favorite hymns at church, or through a recent Bible study you attended. Remember that your goal is not for the other person to assent intellectually to a check list of ingredients in your Christian worldview, but rather for the person’s heart to be inclined toward God who alone can supply that person’s deepest needs.
Does this kind of “apologetics” work? Yes, and sometimes dramatically! Both Norma McCorvey (the “Jane Roe” of Roe v. Wade) and Dr. Bernard Nathanson (the “abortion king” who introduced “pro-choice” rhetoric) repented of their sinful association with the culture of death. They became not merely pro-life advocates but—more importantly—forgiven children of God. In McCorvey’s case, a seven-year-old girl drew “Jesus Loves You” pictures that began to melt her heart; in Nathanson’s case, ultrasound images persuaded him that a fetus is a living child and the compassion of pro-life leaders introduced him to the forgiving love of Christ. Whether by coloring a picture or speaking words of compassion, may you, likewise, always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in you.
Ryan C. MacPherson, Ph.D., a member of the LFL speakers bureau, teaches at Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato, Minnesota. He also is the founding president of the Hausvater Project (www.hausvater.org) and the author of “The Culture of Life: Ten Essential Principles for Christian Bioethics.”