The Blessed Pitfalls of Apologetics

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I love apologetics. I love reading essays on the historical reliability of Scripture, the resurrection, etc. I enjoy the intellectual challenge of piecing together a detailed defense of the Christian faith and seeing the look on a person’s face the first time they hear someone explain why our faith makes sense. And I know I am not alone in my love for these things.

Joining me in my love for these discussions (it seems) are many students to whom I have ministered. Even if they have no desire to read through those same essays, they understandably enjoy hearing a logical defense for their faith. Both believing and unbelieving students love asking me questions involving issues of apologetics.

Because of my own inclination toward these discussions, I commonly used apologetic arguments as a springboard in one-on-one meetings with students early on in my ministry. My line of reasoning was quite simple: while my students might not have a desire to dig in to their personal walk with Christ, or personal reasons why they choose not to believe, they will (typically) gladly engage in a conversation about whether or not the Bible is historically accurate, or how one can argue for the existence of God. And if I could engage them on those matters, I thought, surely it was only a matter of time before we could get into matters of the heart. 

If I could get an unbelieving student to admit something along the lines of “the resurrection is a historic event,” then surely that would lead to their own profession of faith in Christ. 

Right? 

But this assumption (while it sounds reasonable) has rarely panned out as I once hoped. Instead, I found the complete opposite. 

Believing students still professed belief, but showed no greater willingness to address the more important personal matters they struggled with. And unbelieving students were still just as unwilling to profess faith in Christ, regardless of how many arguments I won. 

This realization was tremendously frustrating at first. I felt as if I had been, in some way, cheated of the reward of seeing a student’s moment of spiritual enlightenment. And I felt that my frustration was entirely justified. In those moments of frustration, however, I was guilty of falling into several fairly serious pitfalls for any believer. 

I had misplaced my own confidence in man-centered academics instead of Scripture. Even worse, I was leading young believers to fall into a similarly foolish pattern. In all of my concern to demonstrate a confidence in Scripture, I was regularly leaving Scripture out of the conversation. Instead, I looked to historical evidence, philosophical arguments, and anything else I felt would better engage one’s intellect. 

Sadly, this is a tendency I think we find commonly in our culture today. Many believers have been caught in the wake of modernism, and the effects it has had in creating a culture of materialism and pseudo-intellectualism. Many of us have bought into the assumption that everything can and must be empirically proven in order to be believed. And while it can be a good thing to encourage a believer to better understand the history of their faith, and to give a well thought out defense, this intellect-driven pursuit is short-sighted. For when our confidence is limited to only those things that we can effectively argue in a college classroom, our faith is in serious danger when it is inevitably confronted by claims that are simply impossible to empirically prove. 

This is precarious. As Christians, we believe in the miraculous. Indeed, our faith is grounded in miraculous things! And it is those miraculous things that have always (and always will) be viewed by an unbelieving world as terribly suspicious and naïve. 

By focusing on that which could be “reasonably” believed in our modern culture, I was attempting to turn the miraculous into the mundane. And in my determination to present an academically respectable faith, I fear I failed at times to present any faith at all. My confidence was, simply put, far too often placed in textbooks rather than God’s Word.

As I mentioned before, I used to operate under the assumption that by winning an argument over something like the historicity of the resurrection, an unbeliever would be forced to profess faith in Christ. Win the argument = win the soul. But when one considers the strategy of evangelism most commonly found in Scripture, my own strategy revealed itself as utterly ridiculous (even offensive).

Can one find examples of the apostles using “apologetic-like” arguments in the process of arguing their faith? Yes. Paul’s speech at the Areopagus in Acts 17 is one clear example of this strategy. Read through the book of Acts, or letters such as Colossians or I Corinthians, and we see several examples of men like Paul using cultural beliefs common in his own age as a means of arguing the supremacy of Christ. But can one say that this apologetic approach is the primary strategy of the apostles (or of Christ himself)? By no means. 

Again, the Christian faith was built upon claims of the miraculous; claims that were an offense to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks. And that strategy was not something that the apostles just came up with on their own. Rather, it was the strategy sent out by God himself. And when I read the words of Christ in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) or of Paul’s insistence on primarily preaching Christ crucified (I Corinthians 2:2), I believe we are being told that this is the principal strategy we should continue to follow today. By focusing on the miraculous act of a crucified and risen Lord, it was ensured that the Gospel (and not Roman philosophy) would be proclaimed; it was ensured that men’s souls would be saved; and (most importantly), it was ensured that God alone received the glory (I Cor. 1:18-31).

The apostles understood something I was forgetting in my obsession with apologetics. They understood that the Gospel would always be foolishness in the eyes of the unbeliever, and that the only means by which that perceived as folly could be transformed into the genuine power of God, was by a work of God himself. 

My frustration over the refusal of faith on the part of an unbelieving student revealed that I had fallen into the exact pattern of our unbelieving culture: I had focused entirely on the physical, and failed to appreciate the spiritual battle taking place before my eyes. I failed to understand my complete dependence on the Holy Spirit to open the eyes of those unbelieving students, and to grow the faith of my believing students. 

In my frustration, I revealed a confidence too often found in the intelligence of Man, instead of in his Creator. 

As pastors (and parents, and Christian friends) we must seek to use whatever tools God makes available to proclaim the Gospel and to disciple those who are brought under our care. And that, I believe, can and should include popular apologetic arguments. But ultimately we must remember that apologetic arguments neither save nor sanctify souls. For those works, we must continually look entirely to God and find first our confidence in his written Word (including all of the strange and miraculous found therein). 

To learn more about gospel centered youth ministry, check out more articles and podcasts from Rooted’s youth ministry blog.

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