Apologetics in Service of the Gospel

It is sometimes said that apologetics is a waste of time because no one comes to Christ through apologetics. You can’t, after all, argue someone into the Kingdom.

Now, it may come as a bit of a shock, but I (being a professor of apologetics) actually agree that no one comes to Christ through apologetics. No one is won to Christ on the basis of apologetics since that’s simply not the basis upon which one is won to Christ. One comes to Christ on the basis of the Gospel and the Gospel alone.

But does that mean apologetics is a waste of time?

Well no, definitely not. Let’s tease out some of the confusions here. But first it may be helpful to define Christian apologetics. Christian apologetics is the discipline of commending and defending the truth claims of Christianity without making assumptions an unbeliever cannot make (e.g., we do not merely cite Scripture in giving the defense).

The first confusion here is thinking of apologetics as merely one way to do evangelism (perhaps for the nerdy few!). I’d like to suggest that apologetics is not merely evangelism to the more cerebral among us. In fact, it is best to understand apologetics as importantly related to evangelism, but a substantively different pursuit.

This is perhaps easiest to see given the different (but, again, related) aims of apologetics and evangelism. Apologetics aims to provide intellectual reasons for assenting to the claims of the Gospel and removing any intellectual roadblocks to faith. Evangelism aims to bring people to faith in Christ as the Holy Spirit works through the sharing of the Gospel.

How are apologetics and evangelism related, then? When it comes to outreach, apologetics is not, in my view, necessary for evangelism, but it is often incredibly helpful. Apologetics is often characterized as pre-evangelism. Sometimes, hearing a straightforward Gospel message is all some people need. Other times, people must journey a long road in order to arrive at a place where they surrender to Christ in faith. On this road, there are often questions of an apologetic nature, some of which can be quite pressing. These questions often act as a kind of intellectual roadblock for faith. And, for many, these questions require a thoughtful answer.

Moreover, by all accounts, our country and culture is trending away from its Christian influences. It seems there are times when people do not even have the basic categories in order to grasp the content of the Gospel, given the lack of a Christian background. More and more, apologetics does the work equivalent to what Bible translators do for an unreached people group. The Bible translator must get the content of the Gospel into the vernacular of the people for an individual to even grasp this content. Could the Holy Spirit miraculously allow the tribesman to understand the Gospel in a foreign language? Absolutely. However, it typically takes the hard work of translation. Likewise, God can bring conviction if He wants, but it often takes the hard work of engaging in apologetic discussion for someone to be able to grasp the content of the Gospel.

But let me stress that we have to get to the Gospel. It is entirely possible to get mired in endless discussions about technical issues and never get to sharing the Gospel. This is a big mistake. It is not our job to argue someone right up to the steps of the Kingdom before we ever share the Gospel. We should be agile enough to move into an apologetics discussion, and as we are able to address someone’s questions, we should move into an evangelistic mode. But perhaps one hits upon another question that seems to stand in front of faith. As we address this question, then we look once again to share the Gospel. And remember, in all of this, it is all about being faithful to Christ.

The second confusion is thinking that if apologetics doesn’t have value for evangelism, then it doesn’t have value at all. Even if, despite what we’ve said above, one concedes that apologetics doesn’t have value for evangelism, it doesn’t follow that there is no value at all.

Don’t get me wrong. This is in no way to lessen the call for evangelism. Anyone who thinks sharing the Gospel is not crucially important for each and every Christian simply doesn’t understand what it is to be a Christian. But that’s not all of what it is to be Christian. An important part of growth and an important part of discipleship is asking the deep and difficult questions and growing in our worldview. When we don’t ask the deep and difficult questions, then our worldview tends to be only thinly Christian. In fact, Jesus commands us to love God with all of who we are, including our minds (Matthew 22:37). What does it mean to love God with our minds? I think we love God with our minds when we embrace an intellectual pursuit of God and the understanding of our faith as an important part of our discipleship.

Part of doing this (though certainly not all of what this means) is thinking about issues of apologetics. So it is not merely getting prepped to hit the streets to answer every question that may come from unbelievers. And it is not suddenly asking questions because some hostile unbeliever is giving us trouble. It is genuinely and honestly asking these questions for ourselves out of curiosity and the desire to know God more fully.

What we should notice is that when we seek God intellectually by asking the deep and difficult questions, we will find ourselves well-equipped to encounter unbelievers when they do ask us those questions. In fact, our answers will likely be much more thoughtful since we have genuinely asked the questions for ourselves.

In sum, apologetics has value (along with our other Christian pursuits) in that it makes for more powerful evangelism and helps us to pursue and love God with our minds.