There seems to be a widespread misconception, even within the church, that the ambition of Christian apologists is to argue nonbelievers into submission to the truth of Christianity. I admit that up until a few years ago, I even held a version of this idea myself. I thought that if your arguments were “good enough,” the person they were aimed at would hit their knees in repentance. I believe that this falsehood may be a significant reason why so many churches place very little importance on apologetics education and why many Christians ignore the subject altogether. “It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to convict the heart,” they (rightfully) believe, therefore it isn’t fruitful to try and debate someone into a saving faith.
But that is actually not the mission of the Christian apologist. I’ve learned through my formal studies and through many personal encounters that apologetics is indeed an essential facet of the Great Commission, but in ways that are often not recognized by those outside the discipline, and sometimes not even by those new to the discipline. Here I will outline the more significant duties of the apologist.
1. Demonstrating the historical, philosophical and scientific reasons for believing Christianity to be true. I Peter 3:15-16 commands us to be able to give a defense for our beliefs, and to do so with gentleness and respect. This is a main goal of Christian apologists. The truth of Christianity is not something that must be taken in blind faith, and believers and unbelievers alike need to understand this. I think of Jesus showing his scars to the doubting Thomas. What a beautiful picture! The wonderful benefit of apologetics for the believer is a strengthened faith–one that incorporates our God-given rationality.
2. Demolishing strongholds. II Corinthians 10:3-5 says, ”For although we are walking in the flesh, we do not wage war in a fleshly way, since the weapons of our warfare are not fleshly, but are powerful through God for the demolition of strongholds. We demolish arguments and every high-minded thing that is raised up against the knowledge of God, taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.” Paul eloquently states the mission of every Christian: to tear down the Enemy’s arguments against our faith in the spiritual battle waging around us. Knowledge that can be used to defend and advance truth is a God-given weapon forged for the Kingdom!
3. Promoting Christian values in the public square in an intellectually defensible manner. In our secularized culture, where separation of church and state has become the standard in the legislation that governs our lives, demonstrating the truth of objective morality is essential to protecting human rights and dignity.
4. Removing barriers to faith. Many unbelievers are deceived by the false notion that Christianity has been obliterated by historical and scientific research. The Christian apologist has intellectually defensible arguments to the contrary, and many people have embraced the truth of Christ once these barriers were overcome.
5. Being a unique vessel for the Holy Spirit. William Lane Craig points out that Jesus and the apostles (including Paul) used apologetics techniques in their quest to win souls, and that ”This doesn’t mean they didn’t trust the Holy Spirit to bring people to God. Rather they trusted the Holy Spirit to use their arguments and evidence to bring people to God” (Craig, On Guard). The modern-day Christian can enjoy the immense blessing of being used by the Spirit to draw others to Christ when they equip themselves with the philosophical and evidential arguments for the truth of Christianity.
I submit that not every Christian is specifically called into a ministry of apologetics, but I do believe they should all recognize the value of such knowledge and do (at least) these three things: (1) Equip themselves with the basics and know where to find solid answers, (2) Promote apologetics education within Christian institutions and particularly within their own home, (3) Help promote the ministries of formally-trained apologists.
Apologetics is not about the short-lived, empty triumph that comes from winning an argument; it’s about the eternal triumph of winning–through the power of the Holy Spirit–new brothers and sisters to the Kingdom, for the glory of God. The wonderful side benefit is the fortification of the believer’s faith.