I’m sure many of you have learned the hard way—as I did—that possessing apologetic knowledge and the ability to answer the tough questions are not enough. It’s equally important that we be able to apply this knowledge effectively; that is, be able to engage unbelievers in a way that they will listen, understand, and consider.
In this and the following five blogs, I’ll lay out the "dos" and "don'ts" of good apologetics. On the "do" side are the principles of sound apologetics tactics. On the "don't" side are the pitfalls of poor apologetics--things to avoid. All together they provide the ground rules of effective apologetic evangelism.
I call these principles the “Ten Commandments of Apologetics,” and they were originally published (in fuller detail) in my book, Engaging the Closed Minded; Presenting Your Faith to the Confirmed Unbeliever (Kregel Publications, 1999).
1. Gospel first, apologetics second: Whenever possible try to start a witnessing encounter with the Gospel—which is what unbelievers must ultimately hear in order to be saved. It is wrong to assume that every unbeliever harbors intellectual objections to Christianity. Hence, not every witnessing situation requires an apologetic defense (or offense). If the unbeliever responds to the Gospel, forget apologetics and continue to share the “good news” of Jesus Christ. Confirm the Gospel by sharing your personal testimony, demonstrating the life-transforming power of the Holy Spirit in your own life.
Often, however, you may have to earn the opportunity to share the Gospel. In many encounters with unbelievers, you’ll find yourself responding to challenges or answering questions concerning issues far removed from the Gospel, and the plan of salvation will have to come later. In such cases, apologetics becomes pre-evangelism—a tool to pave the way for a Gospel presentation. But remember that the goal of all apologetics is to lead an unbeliever to Jesus Christ.
2. Stay with the essentials: Most non-Christians know little about the Bible or what Christians believe, and what they think they know is often in error. When sharing the Gospel, avoid theological subjects that will be confusing to unbelievers, such as eschatology or predestination. Likewise, avoid in-house debatable issues, such as speaking in tongues or method of baptism. Similarly (if you can), don’t get hung up on controversial issues, such as the age of the earth. We should never muddy the waters of good evangelism with topics Christian may rightfully disagree on. Of course if the unbeliever raises an issue that he or she is genuinely concerned about, we need to respond appropriately. The apostle Paul gives a good summary of the essentials in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4. In a word, the essentials always revolve around the person and work of Jesus Christ.
3. Remember your goal: The goal of apologetics is to identify and remove obstacles that prevent a person from seriously considering Christianity as a world and life view—and Jesus Christ as personal Savior. The impulse for many new students of apologetics is to rush out and confront everyone you know and challenge their misbeliefs (especially family members or friends who may have tripped you in the past). But keep in mind that apologetics is not an excuse to argue, and we should never force apologetics on someone or create illegitimate reasons to use it. Often a person’s “obstacle” is not intellectual at all. It may have been a bad experience in church or with a hypocritical Christian. It may be an emotional struggle or the loss of a loved one, resulting in anger at God. Whatever the issue is, we respond accordingly. Often Christian love and understanding is all that is needed.(c)
I hope these first three “commandments” are helpful. Next week we’ll look at several more.