Part Five: When and How Do We use Apologetics in Evangelism?
In witnessing opportunities, our goal is to share the Gospel, but often unbelievers are unwilling to seriously consider it. When this happens, they usually respond in one of three ways. They may brush us off and simply not want to discuss it; they have no interest in spiritual things. There is little we can do here except to keep these people in prayer and to continue to maintain a relationship, so they can observe us living a consistent Christian life. The time may come when God will stir up their lives and an opportunity to share the Gospel will arise. This was the topic of the first three articles in this series.
The non-Christians’ second response to Gospel is to claim that they are “right” with God in the sense that He will welcome them into heaven because they are fairly decent people, at least when compared to “really bad” people. In other words, they think of salvation as the result of good behavior. These people usually fall into two categories: (1) they believe in God in a generic sense but have no particular affiliation with any religion, or (2) they identify with Christianity culturally, because Christianity has been the dominant religion in America, and most people have had some exposure to it. In either case, our response is to help them realize they are sinners who need a Savior—we apply “law.” This was the topic of the last several articles. In next few articles, I’ll explore the third approach to evangelism: how and when to apply apologetic tactics.
I ended the last article by pointing out that law can be a stepping-stone to the Gospel. Or it can trigger apologetic questions. Many unbelievers raise “intellectual” challenges to justify not accepting Jesus. In fact in today’s largely post-Christian secular world, many unbelievers will raise intellectual challenges even before we have the chance to share the Gospel. In light of this, I want to suggest that there are situations where we can legitimately apply apologetic tactics even if unbelievers don’t raise an intellectual issues themselves. A classic biblical example of this is found in Acts.
In Acts 17:16-34, Paul is in Athens. While waiting for Silas and Timothy to join him, he was invited to speak to the Greek philosophers before the Areopagus. Paul’s evangelistic strategy was to begin by applying apologetic tactics, which he did in a systematic fashion. First, he established common ground (point of contact) in order to get a fair hearing (v. 22-23). Second, having got their attention, Paul began to describe God in general terms as the Creator who does not inhabit temples made with human hands (v. 24), who gives life to all people, and who is sovereign over all nations of the world (v. 25-26). Paul then points out that even some of their own philosophers understood this, and actually quoted one in verse 28 (as he also did in Titus 1:12). In other words, Paul used non-biblical evidence to confirm biblical truth (apologetics). It was not until after Paul had paved the way with apologetics that he finally shared the gospel in verses 30-31.
So yes, in some situations we can apply apologetics even if an unbeliever doesn’t raise an issue first. In the above scenario, preaching Gospel or applying law without first applying apologetics would have been ineffective with the Greek philosophers. From the little they heard of Paul’s preaching in the market place (v. 17-18), they had already concluded he was an “idle babbler” who was proclaiming “strange deities” Moreover, they had no knowledge of Jesus Christ (v. 18), and as depraved pagans would probably not have responded to law. Paul rightly used apologetic tactics to lay the groundwork for a later presentation of the Gospel in verses 30-31.
Again, it is almost always best to let the unbeliever raise objections. But if the person you are engaging is obviously an atheist, someone immersed in a non-Christian religion, or a vocal skeptic of Christianity, taking the offensive may be a good evangelistic strategy. As it did with Paul, apologetics can help you get a fair hearing for the Gospel by establishing a point of contact from which productive dialogue can begin. (I explain this technique in detail in my book Engaging the Closed Minded.) But always keep in mind that apologetics is not an end in itself (i.e. winning the argument). Ultimately, apologetics is always a tool for evangelism.
There is another offensive apologetic tactic we can use in evangelism, and I believe it’s the best way—at least initially—to begin an apologetic response when critics raises a challenge or ask a skeptic’s question. It’s called the Socratic Method, and I’ll explain it in my next blog article.
* This and the other blog articles in this series are adapted from copyrighted material and may not be reproduced in book or article form, either electronically or in print, without permission. But feel free to link this blog to your own website, personal email list, Facebook friends and groups, or email it to people who may benefit from it. I explore the topic of this present series of articles more fully in my book Engaging the Closed Minded; Presenting Your Faith to the Confirmed Unbeliever (Kregel Publications).