Monday, November 18, 2013

Four Approaches to Evangelism *

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).

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Four Approaches to Evangelism *

Five of Part Four: How to Help Unbelievers Realize They are Sinners and Need A Savior

In my previous blog article, we examined step one of the two step process of applying “law” in evangelistic or apologetic discussions. The first step was to encourage unbelievers to conclude for themselves that they are not living a life worthy of entering heaven, if it depends on their own moral behavior (“good works”). This includes so-called “cultural Christians,” people who assume they are saved because they identify with Christianity yet show no indication of a transformed life. I suggested that whenever possible you initiate a conversation with a fitting Socratic question, such as, “What in is there in your life that would compel me to believe you are a Christian?” “How good would you have to be in order for God to welcome you into heaven?” “What do you think are God’s requirements for entrance into heaven?” and so on. The idea is that when an unbeliever is challenged to explain and justify why he or she believes they deserve eternal life in heaven with a holy God, they will begin see they can never  measure up to God’s standards after all. At this point,  they may be willing to listen to the Christian perspective on salvation. The second step—and the purpose of this article—is to suggest a way to apply law effectively and justify it from Scripture.

Before we get started, it’s important to understand, as Paul makes abundantly clear in Romans chapter seven, that law saves no one. Its purpose is to show the reality of sin and how it can control our lives. It identifies sin and demands that we seek a remedy. Think of a road sign that tells us when we are speeding and must slow down. Likewise, law is a road sign that tells us when we sin and points the way to God’s solution—the gospel of grace through Jesus Christ. People who seek salvation through self-effort will always fail; they are worse off than they think.

The problem is that unbelievers will not recognize their need for Jesus until they fully understand their own sinfulness and need for a Savior—until they admit they cannot save themselves through good behavior, no matter how hard they try to live a virtuous life. Hence, the importance of adding law to our evangelistic and apologetic arsenal, at least for people who think they are good enough to merit salvation by self-effort. So, let’s consider how to apply law when engaging this variety of people. It’s a four step process. Although you can explain it verbally, it is best to go through the following passages in Scripture. If the person you are engaging is willing, encourage her (or him) to read the passages herself.   

First step: Rom. 3:10-18, 23.  Point out from these passages that everyone is a sinner. No one can live a moral life well enough to justify entrance into heaven. In fact, according to God’s standards, not only can our unexpressed thoughts be sin (Matt. 5:27-28), but not doing the things we know we should be doing is also sin (James 4:17). Who can measure up to that standard through self-effort? A few questions will help unbelievers see this for themselves: 

·         Have you ever lied?
·         Have you ever stolen anything, such as pens or notepads from work?
·         Have you ever looked at a woman (or man) with lust?
·         Have you ever misused God’s name?
·         Have you every coveted, been jealous, or wished difficulty on another person?

All these behaviors are typical of (fallen) human nature. Give an example from your own life to illustrate how you recognized your need for a Savior.

Second step:  Jas. 2:10.  Unbelievers need to understand that sin is not just horrendous deeds like murder, rape, child abuse, and so on. Use this passage to show that committing even one sin is unacceptable to God and causes a person to fall under judgment. Why? Because God is holy and just by nature and cannot ignore sin. Since humans are created in God’s image, He expects us to live according to His ethical standards for the human race. (Knowing, of course, we can’t, which is why He offers us a Savior.) In short, God can tolerate no sin; He would not be holy if He did. Sin must be dealt with.

Third step:  Rom. 6:23a; 2 Thess. 1:9.  These passages show that the penalty for sin is “death,” which is eternal separation from God (spiritual death). This is symbolized in Genesis 3:23-24, when Adam and Eve where cast form the Garden of Eden for disobeying God. They didn’t die physically (although the process began), so the death they were warned about, if they disobeyed God, was spiritual death (Gen. 2:17)—estrangement from God.

Now, don’t start describing hell in “brimstone” terms. The biblical descriptions are often metaphorical anyway and will be confusing to non-Christians (“outer darkness” and “lake of fire” are opposite images of hell). Rather, ask a question that will illustrate what living eternally separated from God will be like. For example: 

·         If this world and life is full of evil and suffering, despair and hopelessness for most of the human race, what do you think hell will be like?

·         Can you image anything worse than living forever separated from all that is good and beautiful, all that is joy and peace; a world where sadness and grief and evil never relent?

Give them a moment to ponder this and respond. Few non-Christians will answer, “Yeah, that sounds pretty good to me!” Most will agree that hell isn’t a place they would want to spend even a moment. This should allow you to ask a follow-up question.
·        Would you rather live eternally in a world where these things are absent; a world where there is no heartbreak, sickness, ugliness, and despair?
·         Would you rather live in a world where suffering, hunger, disease, racism, war, and all the other evils we observe and experience in this life are gone forever?

You see the strategy here? Give the unbeliever time to respond to both scenarios. This is not a hell and brimstone tactic. It’s leading the conversation so that the unbeliever begins to visualize what eternal life in hell will be like—compared to what Jesus Christ offers, which brings up to step four.

Fourth step:  Rom. 6:23b.  Now is the time to press for sharing the Gospel. We can be forgiven for any and all sins through Jesus Christ. We can enjoy the eternal benefits of life with God and His people in a restored new heaven and earth (Rev. 21 and 22). Ask if you can explain how this can happen. If you have your Bible, share a few passages to confirm the message (e.g. Rom. 5:8; 8:1).

Do you see how this works? Law can be a stepping-stone to the Gospel. Of course at this point the unbeliever may bring up apologetic-related issues. If that happens, you may have to switch from law to apologetics before moving to Gospel. This will be the topic of Part Five 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).