Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Evidence that Demands a Sermon

[This was published many years ago in Christianity Today, when they still cared about apologetics. Maybe it will light an apologetic fire under a few preachers out there, God willing.]

As a young Christian, I had the privilege of hearing [the recently deceased] Dr. Jack MacArthur preach a series on Christianity and the cults. In addition to his expository preaching, Dr. MacArthur, not fearful of controversy, targeted the cults most active in the local area. Some members of these groups even picketed the church services! Since the various cults such as the Hari Krishnas and the Unification Church were active on the campus I attended, these sermons gave me the apologetic assist I needed in order to face the cultic challenges to Christianity with intellectual integrity. The confrontational nature of the preaching also taught me that in order to stand for Christ as the truth, I must stand against counterfeits of that truth.

Despite this instructive experience, my observation in numerous churches over the years is that apologetics is usually not welcome in the evangelical pulpit. The gospel is proclaimed, but seldom defended in such a way as to resolve the doubts of the faithful or answer the objections of the sceptic. Sermons traffic in truths largely unrooted in rational reflection; preachers often deem such cerebral fare either unnecessary or impossible. But despite its rarity in the pulpit (and elsewhere), the rational defense of Christianity as objectively true is both necessary and possible.

It is necessary because the very idea of objective, universal, and absolute truth is eroding in pluralistic America. In What Americans Believe, George Barna reports that only 28 percent of his respondents expressed a strong belief in "absolute truth." Religion is then viewed as just another personal and subjective choice among innumerable other choices facing American individualists. Such relativists need to be convinced that Christianity is more than just a "lifestyle" or a "religious preference," if they are to surrender to Christ as "the way, the truth, and the life" (Jn. 14:6).

In our pluralistic setting sermons should set forth the exclusive claims of Christ as rationally superior, not just dogmatically demanding. This means building a reasonable case for the uniqueness and finality of the Incarnation which can withstand critical questions such as: Are the biblical documents reliable? Is Christ significantly different from other religious figures? Can't the pagan be saved? Aren't miracles fables? Isn't God in everyone? As preacher and apologist Francis Schaeffer taught us, "honest questions deserve honest answers," not a rejection of the questions. We should remember that although Schaeffer is best remembered as an apologist, his apologetic ministry grew out of his desire to pastor and evangelize those immersed in modern culture. May his lesson inspire us to do the same. Relevant preaching demands that the sceptical questions of the day be recognized and responded to in the pulpit.

Besides the practical and contemporary necessity, the Scriptures themselves report people of God contending for "the faith entrusted once for all to the saints" (Jude 3). An apologetic for apologetics is that we find apologetics in the Bible itself, often mingled with preaching (see Acts 17:16-31). The preacher Peter gave us this great apologetic charge: "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason or the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect" (1 Pet. 3:15).

F. F. Bruce's insightful book, The Defense of the Gospel in the New Testament, bears witness to the various strategies required by the early church to defend the faith amidst the task of proclaiming it. He says: "The men and women who commended the gospel in the first century 'had understood the times': the kingdom of God calls loudly for such men and women today."

It is not only necessary, it is also possible for pastors to preach apologetics in the pulpit. Whatever their level of formal training in apologetics, preachers can benefit from studying the relevant books, both ancient and modern, which intellectually advance Christianity. For instance, Blaise Pascal's Pensees is a neglected masterpiece which repays careful study. Pastors who take up apologetics will deepen their own spirituality by growing in their understanding of Christian truth, how it can lose credibility, and how it can be defended afresh by drawing on both ancient and modern resources.

Considering the demands on pastors, no one should require they become apologetic wizards. But given the severity of the need, the apologist G. K. Chesterton's quip should be heeded: "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly." Although his quip may not apply to brain surgery, but feeding the starving with something less than gourmet cuisine is no crime. A pastor need not have a Ph.D. in New Testament studies to give a defense of the New Testament as historically reliable. Nor does one need an advanced degree in philosophy to say something intelligent about the perpetually vexing problem of evil.

The preaching of apologetics has two direct benefits. First, the doubting believers in the congregation (often the most thoughtful people) will find that doubt can be eased, if not resolved, because there are reasons to believe. Many in our congregations are praying, "Lord, I believe, but help my unbelief." Apologetics helps answer that prayer. Great doubts, honestly encountered and mastered, can lead to even greater faith. I know a women who had been grieving over a miscarriage whose doubts about God's goodness were assuaged through learning basic theology and apologetics--in an academic setting. "Now that I understand who God really is" she said, "I can trust him."

Second, the preaching of apologetics will challenge unbelievers with arguments and evidence. Instead of simply hearing about Christianity or being urged to accept it, they will receive rational arguments to support it. In a culture which holds Christianity in intellectual contempt, a good deal of pre-evangelism (apologetics) is required before evangelism will stick. Imagine the surprise of the unbeliever who stumbles into a church on Easter to hear a compelling defense of the resurrection of Jesus as an objective fact of history! Instead of hearing only "He is risen!" he hears, "This is why you should believe he is risen!" Or think of the possibilities of a Christmas sermon that no only explains the meaning of the season but answers common objections that the virgin birth is nothing but a myth.

Arguments alone seldom win a soul to Christ, and God's thoughts transcend ours (Isa. 55:8-9). Nevertheless, God also says "Come let us reason together" (Isa. 1:18). Let us honor the God of truth by supplying the pulpits of the land with a faith reasonably proclaimed.


Tom G said...

When churches avoid apologetics over a long period of time, the unintentional message they convey is this: "It doesn't matter if our message is really true, as long as we keep talking about it as though it is."

Ray said...

Bonus points for the article's mention of Pascal's Pensees.

Douglas Groothuis said...

I wrote On Pascal, you know.