This is the text of a sermon preached in St. Albert, Alberta, Canada, just over a month ago.
The Apologetics Matrix – Grace Family Church, St. Albert; July 18, 2010
Two years ago, I left a beloved ministry at Edmonton Chinese Baptist Church to pursue a Ph.D. in Apologetics at Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. I dragged my beautiful wife and three children 3500km across the continent to settle in to a new city and country and go back to school. Why would I do such a crazy thing? We moved in obedience to God’s calling, and in response to a passion and conviction that God had planted within me. This morning I want to share my passion for apologetics with you, in the hopes that God will instill within you a similar passion and desire.
During the course of my message this morning, I am going to share the stories of four individuals with you – Gary, Jill, John, and Peter. These four musketeers have two things in common. First, they are based upon real people that I know, in real churches with real ministries; that is, their situation is not made-up. Second, they all desperately need an apologetic ministry. In this way, the four musketeers are representative of the contemporary North American church, which I argue also stands in great need of apologetic ministry. This morning, I humbly suggest to you that we can all see the need for and purpose of apologetics by surveying a little tool I have developed called the Apologetics Matrix.
A. Introduction: What is Apologetics?
1 Peter 3:15 reads: “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” The word translated “answer” is the Greek απολογια, which carries the connotation of a courtroom. It conveys the idea of providing evidence, building a case, responding to questions, or defending against attack. Thus, many translations translate it as “defense” (NASB, ESV) instead of “answer”. Apologetics, or apologia, is thus the act of giving a defense, providing an answer, for the hope that we have in Jesus Christ. Simply put, “Apologetics is the defense and explanation of the Christian faith.”
We find apologetic encounters and examples throughout the New Testament – for example, Exodus 3-4, Luke 1:1-4, John 20:19-29, John 21:24-25, Acts 9:1-19, 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. Let’s look briefly at one example from Paul’s second missionary journey. When Paul comes to Thessalonica, we read, in Acts 17:2-4:
As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ,” he said. Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women.
Paul’s reasoning ministry, demonstrating to the Jews by their Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ, explaining and proving the truth of the Christian faith, is a biblical example of apologetics. Apologetics, again, is the “defense and explanation of the Christian faith,” and we can better grasp its importance by looking at the Apologetics Matrix.
The Apologetics Matrix is a simple four-cell matrix, with two columns and two rows. The rows of the matrix are governed by the purpose of apologetics. There are two fundamental goals or purposes or types of apologetics ministry. First, offensive apologetics (or positive apologetics) gives people positive reasons why we believe (and why they ought to believe) that Christianity is true. It provides historical, evidential, and logical arguments to support the truth of our faith. Second, defensive apologetics (or negative apologetics) gives people reasons not to disbelieve that Christianity is true. It responds to objections or attacks against our faith by providing historical, evidential, and logical arguments to support the truth of our faith. In a sense, you could see defensive apologetics as clearing away the intellectual brush that obscures the path to faith in Christ. So apologetics can have two different purposes—offensive (positive) and defensive (negative). Apologetics presents reasons to believe, or reasons not to disbelieve.
The columns of the Apologetics Matrix describe the focus or audience of apologetics. Apologetics can be either evangelistic or devotional in focus; that is, our apologetics ministry is oriented either to those who are already Christians, or to those who are not yet Christians.
Combining the purposes of apologetics (offensive and defensive) with the focuses or audiences of apologetics allows us to fill in the four cells of the apologetics matrix. As we fill in each cell, consider two things: first, what are some biblical examples of this type of apologetics ministry; and second, why is this particular type of apologetics ministry necessary today.
1. Evangelistic Apologetics
Evangelistic apologetics is oriented towards those who are not yet Christians.
a) Defensive evangelistic apologetics responds to arguments or objections made by non-Christians, in order to clear the brush away, to remove obstacles to them believing in Jesus Christ. I like to call this apologetics to “outspoken opponents”. The first of our four musketeers, Peter led a small group Bible study at a little Baptist church in Saskatchewan. In time, one of the church members began bringing a couple of friends from work. Both of these friends came to Bible study happily and regularly, but they did not believe anything that was taught. When Peter led a study on the parable of the sower in Matthew 13, one of the newcomers asked, “Why should I believe that? I don’t think Jesus even said that. Matthew made that up, and there’s no reason for us to accept it as being true for us today.” The following week, Peter’s Bible study focused on the majesty and glory of God. One of the atheist friends complained: “But how do you even know that God exists? I think we just project God out of our desire for an Almighty power that we can trust and rely upon.” Peter did not know how to respond—he needed to guide his Bible study group into knowledge of God’s truths; but he also desired to minister to the outspoken atheists who had begun attending. Peter needs to engage in defensive evangelistic apologetics—giving non-Christians reasons to not disbelieve. The atheists in his Bible study need, first and foremost, to be given reasons not to disbelieve.
Sadly, when such men and women come to visit our churches, they often find their objections, complaints, or doubts simply ignored. The Bible study leader, Sunday school teacher, youth pastor, or preacher is either unable or unwilling to engage their questions. What is the impression that the atheist then arrives at? “I ask these questions; they don’t answer them. There must not be rational, legitimate responses to the issues that I raise.” Often, atheists become more strongly entrenched in their opposition to the Christian faith by the apparent unwillingness of Christian leaders to thoughtfully respond to substantial intellectual arguments against Christianity. Worse yet, when others (young Christians, those within the church with questions themselves) witness the inability of Christian leaders to respond to these objections, it raises doubts within them as well.
Apologetics for outspoken opponents is even more necessary than ever today due to the strong and outspoken opposition to the Christian faith presented by the dominant cultural worldview, which often insists that Christianity is entirely irrational, lacking supporting evidence or argumentation. Apologetics to the antagonistic atheist explains the reason for the hope that we have. God willing, the Holy Spirit will use our thoughtful responses to turn antagonistic atheists into the next group – seeking skeptics.
b) Offensive evangelistic apologetics presents positive reasons for non-Christians to embrace the truth of the Christian faith. This is apologetics to “seeking skeptics”. Our second musketeer, John was a pastor to youth and young adults in a university town. John had significant contact with non-Christians through a local college ministry that he served with regularly. A number of foreign students seemed to be spiritually seeking and open to the Gospel of Christ, but would not consider Christianity without seeing and hearing compelling reasons to believe that it was true. They wanted to be convinced that Christianity made sense and was rationally defensible before they would dive in. John had always known Christianity to be true; he had not been forced to present a defense for its rationality before. But now he had seekers who asked him how it made sense. John’s students are open to God; but they need to be shown that Christianity is a rational, well-founded faith before they will consider embracing Jesus as Savior and Lord. They need to be given reasons to believe. We see Paul engage in this type of apologetics throughout his ministry. One example is his ‘trial’ before Festus and King Agrippa in Acts 25 and 26. Agrippa is knowledgeable of the Jewish Scriptures and curious about the new Christian Church. Paul concludes his passionate appeal to Agrippa, in 26:23-29:
“The Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles.”
At this point Festus interrupted Paul’s defense. “You are out of your mind, Paul!” he shouted. “Your great learning is driving you insane.”
“I am not insane, most excellent Festus,” Paul replied. “What I am saying is true and reasonable. The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.”
Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”
Paul replied, “Short time or long—I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.”
Paul’s appeal to Agrippa is not just evangelism, it is apologetics. He speaks what is ‘true and reasonable’. He defends the reasonability of his faith to one who is seeking after the truth. 1 Peter 3:15, which we’ve already read together, compels us to “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” Seeking Skeptics will ask us why we believe what we believe; apologetics is providing them with reasons that they too ought to believe as we believe. Then we pray that God will empower our words with His Holy Spirit to bring our apologetic conversation partner to a knowledge of Himself.
Again, the tragedy in much contemporary Christian ministry is that we are ill equipped to provide a rational defense for our faith. Why do we believe that the Bible is the Word of God? How can we be so sure that Jesus believed He was the incarnation of God Almighty? In an intellectual climate that is increasingly relativistic with regards to truth and morality, how do we as Christians know that there is such a thing as truth? How do we know that there is right and wrong? In a culture which increasingly questions or rejects believe in a transcendent God, what reasons do we have for even believing that there is a God who created the universe and everything in it? Seeking Skeptics ask these questions honestly and openly, and often desire to hear a response which they can embrace intellectually. If we fail to provide those answers, we have failed to live up to the apologetic mandate God gives us in Scripture.
2. Devotional Apologetics
Devotional apologetics is directed towards those within the Church. It aims to confirm believers in their faith, to give them assurance that what they believe is really real!
a) Defensive devotional apologetics responds to questions that Christians have. This is apologetics to “besieged brothers”. Many Christians today feel as if their beliefs are ‘under attack’ from friends, teachers, and culture at large. They often hear skeptics insist that belief in Christianity is irrational, that you have to ‘check your brains at the door’ in order to believe in Jesus. For example, Jill became a Christian in junior high school after her single mother started going to church and getting involved in fellowships and Sunday school classes. Jill was baptized during high school and emerged as a vibrant, budding believer. A popular and outgoing young woman, Jill was surrounded by numerous friends who were involved with other religions. Many of her friends launched specific objections against Christianity, and challenged Jill to see the truth of their beliefs. They accused her of believing things that could not be true; for example, Jesus could not be God in the flesh. Jill wanted to see her friends come to know Christ, but felt pressured and attacked. She often didn’t know how to respond to the attacks her friends presented to Christianity. Jill needed to be given reasons not to disbelieve, both for herself, that she would not begin to disbelieve, but also for her friends, that they might stop disbelieving.
Last year, I read a major study that Carol Anway engaged in, studying American women who converted to Islam. Anway writes: “Three of the women, prior to converting to Islam, were hoping to convert their [Muslim] husband to Christianity by agreeing to study Islam if the husband would consider Christianity. One woman started asking questions of ministers and theologians to help her prove the superiority of Christianity to her husband. She said, ‘I wanted it so badly; I cried to several of them to help me and most of them said, “I’m sorry—I don’t know” or “I’ll write to you,” but I never heard from them.’ . . . Nine of the women expressed problems with the belief in Jesus as God, Jesus as the Son of God, or the concept of the Trinity. Five others said they had major questions about Christianity that no one had satisfactorily answered.” These women felt beleaguered and trapped—their partners had questions about their faith, but they had no answers; when they asked for help finding answers, they were left empty-handed. They were besieged, beleaguered brethren, who needed to be given reasons not to begin disbelieving, but no one provided apologetic answers to the attacks that they faced. My brothers, this should not be.
b) Offensive devotional apologetics provides ‘doubting disciples’ with reasons to continue believing. My fourth musketeer, Gary grew up in a strong Christian family. His parents had been members of their Baptist church since they were married. Gary accepted Jesus as his Savior and Lord when he was nine years old, and was active in Sunday School and youth group throughout middle school and high school. However, when Gary was finishing high school and then entering college, he began to have doubts about the truth of Christianity. He noticed that some things in the Gospels did not seem to add up. Matthew and Luke had different genealogies for Jesus. The details surrounding who visited Jesus’ empty tomb were different – how many women were there? Were there angels or men at the tomb? How many of them? He also questioned the character of the God presented in parts of the Old Testament. Why did God hate Esau? How could a loving God order the annihilation and extermination of entire people groups in the Promised Land? And how can God be both three and one? Gary is typical of millions of young Christians throughout North America – they believe in Jesus, but have questions or doubts about their faith. Positive devotional apologetics seeks to demonstrate the truth of the core historical claims of biblical Christianity (e.g. the resurrection of Jesus Christ); or to assert the logical coherence of difficult Christian doctrines like the incarnation, the atonement, and the Trinity. In John 20:19-29, the risen Jesus appears to ‘doubting Thomas’. Thomas had refused to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead until he saw the risen Christ. But it is fascinating to read on, and see what John ends chapter 20 with.
Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
John explains his explicit purpose for writing his Gospel—that people may believe in Jesus Christ. It is a thoroughly apologetic Gospel, intended to help those who might have doubts to continue believing; to help those who are persecuted not to be shaken in their faith; to help those who are seeking but do not yet believe to come to faith; and to shake up antagonistic atheists.
Folks may differ, and I certainly do not claim to have the final word. But in my opinion and experience, devotional apologetics is the most essential and valuable today—confirming Christians in the truth of their faith by responding to doubts and questions that they have. Many Christians, young and old, have deep and serious questions; many of them have significant doubts about elements of the Christian faith.
A friend of mine pastors a little church in rural Georgia. He once asked members of his congregation what kinds of issues they would like him to address in future sermons and Bible studies. They responded with many great questions, the majority of which were apologetically oriented. For example: "How old is the earth?" "What about the Bible and scientific teaching?" "If people believe in Scientology, can they be saved?" "What is the difference between the God Christians worship and the gods of other religions?" "Is God real?" "Is the story of creation a myth?" "Is the Bible really true?" "Many say the Bible has errors in it. Is this true?" "Is Jesus a man? Or is he God?" "My friends tell me that all religions lead to heaven. Is this true?" "If God is a God of love, why would He send people to hell?" "If God is god, why is there evil?" These questions are on the minds of youth, young adults, and often older adults as well. Sadly, often times those questions are ignored or even condemned.
When I pastored in Edmonton, I also served as part-time chaplain at the U of A. I would occasionally talk to kids who had come to parents/pastors with questions or doubts about the Christian faith. Sometimes they were told: “Why do you have to ask these kinds of questions? Christians shouldn’t ask questions like that or having doubts like that!” Or: “You don’t need answers to questions like that. You just need to have faith in Jesus. Don’t ask, just believe.”
When our children or friends or parishioners are asking honest, searching, deep questions about the truthfulness of Christianity, it is not enough for us to say, “don’t ask these questions – just believe!” It is not enough to minimize or deny the validity of the questions. It is our responsibility to engage with the questions, and provide reasonable, thoughtful answers to them. The apologetic mandate of 1 Peter 3:15 does not leave us room to avoid or ignore questions.
What happens when we do not give an answer for the hope we have, when others express doubts or ask tough questions? Numerous surveys and studies show that an alarmingly large proportion of children raised in Christian homes walk away from Christianity as students or young adults. The most recent Lifeway study shows that just over 70% of “Christian teenagers” drop out of church before the age of 25. Why is this happening? There are multiple causes, but a large part is that these kids are asking honest, genuine questions; but oftentimes are not being met with honest, genuine responses.
Kids learn at a very young age whether their parents or pastors are open to them asking questions or raising doubts. If that freedom of curiosity and seeking is not there, they will keep doubts or questions to themselves. And one day, they will slip out the back door of the church. We might not even “see” the warning signs, it might take us totally by surprise. But an atmosphere that stunts, downplays, or ridicules questions or doubts will drive them further away. An active apologetic ministry closes that back door to the church, and ensures that the questions and doubts that people raise are given honest, thoughtful answers.
As Christians, we can not only know that our faith is true, but we can learn to be able to show to others that our faith is true. We can not only defend our faith against attacks and objections, but we can positively set forth reasons for others to believe in Jesus Christ as well. Finally, we can not only present compelling reasons to believe evangelistically to those outside the church; we can also present apologetics devotionally, giving Christians a strong rational foundation on which to build their faith. The stakes are high, and the biblical imperative is clear. Let us love the Lord our God with all our mind, as well as our heart, soul, and strength, by always being prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks us to give the reason for the hope that we have.