Friday, November 26, 2010

Strengthening the Faith: Apologetics in Your Home & Church

Strengthening Faith: Apologetics in Your Family & Church – The Church at Cedar Creek

Sunday, November 14, 2010

NOTE: This is the text of a sermon preached two weeks ago at a vibrant, thriving church near Stanford, Kentucky. The desire and intent was to inspire church members to engage in apologetic ministry in their homes and through their church ministries.

I. Introduction

I want to tell you briefly about four friends of mine. Gary grew up in a strong Christian family. His parents had been members of their Methodist 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 entering college, he began to have doubts about some aspects of Christianity. He noticed that some things in the Gospels simply did not add up. Matthew and Luke had quite 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 extermination of entire people groups in the Promised Land? And how can God be both three and one?

Scott grew up in a nominal Christian family. Growing up, his family attended their local Lutheran church off and on. After their divorce, Scott regularly attended a Unitarian Church with his mother. When he was 20, Scott began attending a local Baptist church with his older brother, and soon became a follower of Christ and was baptized. Scott wanted to share Christ with his non-Christian family and friends, but struggled to begin. How could he make any impact upon convinced universalists? Would they listen to him? How could he show them that their belief system was wrong and needed to be adjusted to match God’s truth?

Jill became a Christian in middle school after her widowed mother started going to church and getting involved in fellowships. Jill was baptized during high school and emerged as a vibrant, budding believer. A popular and outgoing young woman, she was surrounded by friends who were involved with other religions. Many of her friends launched objections against Christianity, and challenged Jill to see the truth of their beliefs. Jill wanted her friends to know Christ, but felt pressured and attacked. She often didn’t know how to respond to her friends’ attacks against her faith.

Peter was a minister of small groups and discipleship in a mid-size Church of Christ. He became increasingly concerned that many college-age students were dropping out of church. When he asked them why they had stopped attending, a number of them cited growing doubts about the truth of their faith. Their college professors taught that God is a figment of our imagination, and that man is a product of undirected, random, atheistic evolution. They could not reconcile the faith of their parents with what they were being taught at college. They weren’t about to drop out of college, so they dropped out of church instead.

My four friends have something in common—whether they know it or not, they are all in desperate need of apologetics ministry. In our time together this morning, I desire to do three things. First, I want to briefly define and describe Christian apologetics. Second, I will share why apologetics is both commanded by God and desperately needed in the church today. Finally, I want to encourage each of you to become apologetically-engaged in your family, church, and community. To that end, I will share a few resources to help you get started. Throughout, I hope to show that engaging in apologetics is not merely something that “we are supposed to do;” rather, when we serve God in apologetics, it brings us great joy and fulfillment.

II. 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 (apologia), from which we derive our English words ‘apology’ and ‘apologetics’. The term carries courtroom connotations. 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.”

There are two sides to apologetics. On the one hand, apologetics provides reasons to believe. That is, apologetics sets forth positive reasons that one ought to believe in Christianity. “Why should we believe that Jesus rose from the dead? Let me give you some reasons that I believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” On the other hand, apologetics also provides reasons to not disbelieve. That is, apologetics responds to attacks against Christianity, showing why people—Christian or non-Christian—should not believe objections against Christianity. Thus, when an atheist like Christopher Hitchens argues that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is an evil blight upon the face of the earth which poisons everything, apologetics responds by demonstrating two things: first, atheism has caused more suffering and evil in the 20th century than any other worldview; and second, Christianity has been the wellspring of most things in Western society which even atheists cherish – universal education, modern medicine, modern science and technology, universal human rights, and so forth. So apologetics provides both reasons to believe that Christianity is true, and reasons to reject arguments against Christianity. From my perspective, this is an important, awe-inspiring, and exhilerating task.

Apologetics applies to two types of people—both Christians and non-Christians. First, apologetics provides Christians with questions and doubts with answers to those questions and responses to those doubts. It may not be universal, but I suspect that almost all of us have some type of questions about Christianity. Furthermore, questions and doubts are not inherently a bad thing. Let’s look at a few biblical examples of doubters and questioners.

Who is the famous example of a biblical doubter? Doubting Thomas. Let’s look at John 20, beginning in verse 24.

Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

Notice two essential things. First, Thomas is not rebuked or admonished for not believing the other apostles. Jesus does not say, “Thomas, you naughty boy—you should have believed them!” Instead, Jesus appears, and invites Thomas to replace his doubt with devotion. Second, after seeing the risen Jesus, Thomas issues forth the most clear, most profound, and most explicit confession of Jesus’ divine status that you can find in the New Testament. Perhaps Thomas did not believe in Jesus’ resurrection based solely on the testimony of the other disciples, but when he does see the risen Jesus, he immediately acknowledges the incredible implications—Jesus is both Lord and God.

Consider the Old Testament patriarch Job. Job loses everything in rapid succession—possessions, children, and health. In his dialogues with three somewhat sympathetic friends, Job complains bitterly that he has done nothing to deserve his fate. Job questions God’s justice, even doubts God’s goodness. Eventually, God appears to Job, and delivers a stinging verbal assault. Job repents of his doubts and questions. And note God’s affirmation of Job at the end. Job 42:7 – After the Lord had said these things to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” Despite Job’s complaints, questions, and doubts, God affirms that it is Job, and not his three friends, who has spoken rightly of God.

Consider Moses. In Exodus 3, the Lord God appears to Moses in the burning bush, and commissions him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt into the Promised Land. Moses balks several times, and asks how it is that he is to convince the Israelites, not to mention the Egyptians, that God Almighty has really appointed him to this task. Exodus 4:1 - Moses answered, “What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you’?”

Then the Lord said to him, “What is that in your hand?”

“A staff,” he replied.

The Lord said, “Throw it on the ground.”

Moses threw it on the ground and it became a snake, and he ran from it. Then the Lord said to him, “Reach out your hand and take it by the tail.” So Moses reached out and took hold of the snake and it turned back into a staff in his hand. “This,” said the Lord, “is so that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has appeared to you.”

As the book of Exodus proceeds, Moses demands that Pharaoh let the Israelite people free. Pharaoh, of course, refuses. God then unleashes a series of ten plagues upon Egypt, intended to establish God’s supremacy over all of the idols and magicians of Egypt. Through Moses and Aaron, God provides evidence of His power, showing that He truly has sent Moses to lead the people out of Egypt. God Himself is providing both the Israelites and the Egyptians with reasons to believe that there is only one God, the Lord, and that He is all-powerful. This is Old Testament apologetics, directed towards both believers and unbelievers.

III. The Biblical Mandate for Apologetics

Why is apologetics important today? I want to share with two reasons why apologetics is necessary in the church today. First, God commands us to engage in apologetics. Second, contemporary ministry requires active and effective apologetics.

First, then, the biblical mandate for apologetics. We’ve already looked at two examples of apologetics in Exodus and John. But the Bible is filled with apologetic encounters and ministry. I want to share just a few with you.

Consider the opening to Luke’s Gospel. Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to be to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

Why does Luke write his gospel? So that his readers may know the certainty of the things they have been taught. In other words, Luke is giving them reasons to believe. How does Luke go about it? By carefully investigating what Jesus said and did; by recording his life, ministry, death, and resurrection. And he claims to have done so using the testimony carried by eyewitnesses of those events. Luke is very careful to insist that he is providing good, historical reasons for us to believe that Jesus truly did say this, Jesus really did do this, and these things really did happen to Jesus.

Briefly, consider the letter of 1 John. It opens: That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. Note again the emphasis on eyewitness testimony – we have heard, seen, touched what we’re writing about.

Toward the end of the letter, in 5:13, John writes: I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. Heretical tendencies had already arisen in the early Christian communities, and John writes to those who believe, but have some questions or doubts, in order to assure them of the truth of their faith.

Paul emphasizes the same theme in his letters—there are others who try to pervert or alter the faith, but Paul confirms the truth of the apostolic witness. Galatians 1:6-8 – I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!

You have believed in the Gospel message, the good news that Christ Jesus came to save sinners; now stand firm in that Gospel, rejecting the false gospel preached by false apostles and others who seek to change the message of Jesus Christ to suit their own purposes.

One last example, this time of active personal apologetic ministry in the life of Paul. 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.

Why does Paul have to reason with the Jews in the synagogue? Why does he have to explain and prove that Jesus had to suffer for our sins and rise from the dead? Because the Jews would not have immediately and easily accepted the message. “How can that be, Paul?” “Doesn’t Deuteronomy 21 proclaim that any man who dies hung on a tree is accursed by God?” “Isn’t the Messiah of God going to be a victorious, conquering king?” 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. He responds to the questions and doubts that the people have, giving them reasons to believe and follow Jesus Christ. If you read on in Acts 17, you find Paul doing the same thing again when he comes to Athens—this time reasoning with both Jews, according to their scriptures, and Greeks, according to their philosophy. Again, remember that in 1 Peter 3:15, Peter commands believers to “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” Apologetics is the “defense and explanation of the Christian faith,” and we see active apologetics ministry throughout the early church, from Luke to John to Paul.

IV. The Ministry Mandate for Apologetics

From my perspective, it is enough to know that God commands believers to be involved in apologetics, and that we see examples of apologetics throughout Scripture. But as we observe and reflect on the situation of the contemporary church in North America, I think we can see how desperately we need to engage in apologetics today.

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 surveys mentioned that just over 70% of “Christian teenagers” drop out of church before the age of 25. Why is this happening? There are many things at work, but a lack of apologetics is part of the problem. Honest, genuine answers need honest, genuine responses, and often these youth are not getting such answers.

In 2001, I began serving as the English pastor at Edmonton Chinese Baptist Church, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. In the course of ministry, I got involved in campus ministry, leading Bible studies and serving as a part-time Baptist chaplain at the University of Alberta. I regularly had students drop by my office to talk about spiritual matters. Many of the students I talked with had concerns about morality, sexual ethics, how to discern God’s will for their studies and careers. But over the years, I also encountered dozens of university students with questions and doubts about Christianity. How do we know that we can trust the Bible as God’s Word? Did Jesus really rise from the dead on the 3rd day? My philosopher professor insists that it is a proven fact that God does not exist—why would he say that? My biology professor says that modern evolution has disproved the Bible—is that true? Why is there evil in a world created by a good God? Inevitably, we would spend a considerable amount of time talking about their questions or doubts. Tell me, what is that called—when you talk with someone who has serious questions or doubts about the truth of the Christian faith? Yeah – that’s apologetics. And I’ll tell you what – it is absolutely exhilarating to have a college student come to you with serious questions or doubts about Christianity, and to see their faith restored and strengthened through your conversation with them. As they receive answers to their questions, you can see the Holy Spirit reassure them, re-awaken their love for God, and deepen their faith walk. Just as the angels in heaven rejoice over one sinner who repents, so too do they rejoice over the restoration of those who have been struggling in their faith.

On a few occasions, after engaging in a lengthy apologetic dialogue with a student, I would hear words which chilled me to the bone. “Tawa, thank you so much for talking with me about this. I tried to ask my parents these questions, but they just got mad and said I shouldn’t be having those kinds of questions.” Or: “I asked my pastor about these things, but he just said that Christians are supposed to have faith, not doubt or questions, and that I should just believe and not ask questions about it.”
Those comments break my heart. When our children, neighbors, friends, or co-workers, have legitimate questions about the Christian faith, it is not sufficient to rebuke them for lacking faith. You remember the father who comes to Jesus, begging that He heal his son? Jesus says, “Do you believe I can do this?” The father responds, “Lord, I believe. Help me in my unbelief!” Most of us are like that father—a combination of exuberant faith and lingering doubt. 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 the questions, and provide reasonable, thoughtful answers to them. When the biblical command to be ready to give an answer to those who seek reasons to believe is not fulfilled, the back door of the church becomes well-used. People with unanswered and unresolved doubts just leave.

V. Strengthening Faith: Becoming Apologetically-Equipped

My prayer is that seeing the biblical mandate for apologetics along with the contemporary need for apologetics will awaken within you a desire to fulfill 1 Peter 3:15 in your family and church. My prayer is that you will become always prepared to give an answer to those who ask you the reason for the hope that you have.

Perhaps this sounds like an overwhelming task or responsibility. After all, the questions that people can raise are diverse and difficult. How can we know that Jesus was God in the flesh? How do we know Jesus truly rose from the dead? How do we know we can believe what the Bible says? How do we know the Gospels are historically reliable? How do we even know that God really exists? How can God be both three and one? How can Jesus be both God and man? What is eternal life like? If God is a God of love, why is there a hell? If God loves everyone, why does the Bible say He hated Esau? Why did God command the extermination of peoples in the Old Testament? There are a lot of legitimate and hard questions that people can and will ask. Often, they will come from your own children. When our son Mataeo was three years old, he asked me one night – “Daddy, where does God live?” Now, I challenge you to answer that question in a way that a 3-year-old can comprehend! It’s not easy!

If you are intimidated by the thought of providing answers for such questions, take heart! First, you do not have to have all the answers. You do, however, need to be willing to find the answers to questions that you are asked. You may not be able to give a reasonable response immediately, but you can always promise your friend, co-worker, or child that you’re going to find an answer and get back to them tomorrow, or next week.

Second, you are not on your own. There are numerous apologetics resources publicly available to help you, both to prepare yourself to respond to questions and doubts, and to quickly find answers to specific questions or objections that you face. To that end, I have prepared a hand-out with some suggested books and web-sites that will help you become familiar with apologetic issues and methods.

Finally, as you begin to engage in apologetic conversations, I promise that you will find great joy in the process. Giving a reason for the hope that you have to people who ask is an exhilarating process. Seeing doubts dissipate and questions quelled is exciting! One of my apologetics teachers regularly reminds me: apologetics will only occasionally be the reason that someone becomes a Christian. But apologetics will frequently be the reason that someone remains a Christian.

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