Every week, I have an opportunity to minister to people on the streets of Skid Row in Los Angeles. The people I come across are broken, like shards of used wine bottles tossed aside after being used. Drugs, alcohol, and sex have become the gods of this seedy strip where the rich want the land but no one wants the people attached to it.
One of the first lessons I learned was that building relationships with them was paramount to sharing Christ with them, a lesson that I wish other ministries would take to heart before coming. This past Saturday, I witnessed some well-meaning Christians attempt to argue down a drunken woman—all to no avail.
Should I have been shocked? Of course not! Since that day, I have turned over in my heart and mind how to share Christ in an age where many believe that no particular worldview or faith has all the answers or that the Bible is true and reliable. Above all else, I argue for an embodied apologetic that puts flesh and bone on reasons to believe. So how, then, are we to “do” apologetics? What principles can we apply for this 21st century culture that cares a great deal about experience and inclusivity?
Perhaps defining apologetics might help. Apologetics comes from the Greek word apologia and simply means “defense” or “reason.” As Alister McGrath states succinctly, “Apologetics means giving reasons for faith.” The apostle Peter exhorts believers to always be ready “to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet. 3:15). We give reasons for the hope that we have. If we do not get this basic understanding of apologia, then we will turn apologetics into a combat exercise in which we Christians wear white and the lost are “the bad guys”. Adversarial apologetics will only get both parties flustered and the whole thing is a wash.
The aforementioned verse in 1 Peter is a foundational verse for most apologists and well it should be. However, we honestly need to grasp the context of the verse so that we can regain the Christ-centered flavor that the embodied apologetic is supposed to have.
13 Who is there to harm you if you prove zealous for what is good? 14 But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. AND DO NOT FEAR THEIR INTIMIDATION, AND DO NOT BE TROUBLED, 15 but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; 16 and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame (1 Pet. 3:13-17).
I will refer to this verse throughout this paper to underscore the embodied apologetic I believe Christians should walk out in our daily lives.
Demonstration, Then Proclamation
Too often, we Christians can be so busy railing off the twelve infallible proofs that Jesus is God to the lost that we forget to demonstrate who Jesus to them. Jesus did on numerous occasions when He encountered the lost. Take, for example, Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well (John 4). He went out of His way to meet her and even let her ask most of the questions. But as she asked more questions, He revealed more about Himself to her. She was intrigued and drawn in by His treatment of her, especially in light of the fact that Jews and Samaritans did not get along very well. It is not until verse 26 that Jesus even tells her who He is!
But is the Church embodying the gospel to the point that the world is intrigued by who we claim to represent? Who wants to hear us preach the good news when we ourselves do not live it? How can we tell the world God is love when we withhold love from those “wicked” people we’re trying to “minister” to? In walking fulfilling the Law and the Prophets, Jesus captured the spirit of the Law and not just the letter. Just as the Word became flesh for us so too must the Word and Logos (Scripture and Christ) become flesh to a lost people who desperately need to see, taste, touch, and experience the absolute truth of the goodness of a redeeming God. This is the heart of an embodied apologetic.
Issachar, Issachar, Where Art Thou?
If I hear some evangelicals correctly, culture is far too evil and far too rancid to even attempt to understand. In fact, any attempts to engage culture are wrongheaded, misguided attempts to be cool and “relevant”. While becoming a slave to culture is sin, seeking to understand the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, is not. The sons of Issachar were described as “men who understood the times, with knowledge of what Israel should do” (1 Chr. 12:32). These people knew the environment and how to operate in it so that David could gain the kingdom God had swore to him. How much more, then, ought Christians understand the times in which we live so that we can advance the kingdom of God and bring Jesus to the lost?
J.P. Moreland, pastor, apologist, and philosopher, pulls no punches when describing the issues of how we engage culture: “the evangelical community largely speaks to itself in a religiously isolated language game, most of our ministry efforts focus on in-house issues, and we are just not part of public discourse.” Issachars, on the other hand, know the language of the current culture and how to engage that culture, thinking and ministering outside the boxes past generations constructed. An embodied apologetic must grasp and discerns the times and seasons so that we can clearly re-present Christ in word and deed in ways relevant to them.
Everything Jesus did during His earthly ministry was counterculture and relevant, partly because Jesus knew how to connect with the lost the way religious could not. He scared the daylights out of the Pharisees but literally loved the eschatological hell out of broken sinners. Jesus’ mingling with lepers, prostitutes, and tax skimmers might have seem ungodly to the religious hypocrites of His time but relevant to the ones who needed Him the most. If the ways we share Christ and offer reasons for the hope you have in Him are not relevant, then pull out the life support. An apologetic that is not relevant is dead. If we refuse to understand where people are before “defending” your faith, we show how little we actually care about the people we claim to have come for. Where are the new jacks, the Issachars of this generation who care less about being religious to the frozen chosen and more about reaching the lost?
The Power of “Nothing”
I am as big an offender of this principle as anyone else. Too often, especially in the West, we rely too heavily on our intellectual acumen, our slick PowerPoint slides, and the latest apologetic how-tos we learned from our favorite apologist. But however helpful any of these things are, we can never abandon our true power source: God Himself. The pathway to God releasing His power as we share is humility and prayer. We cannot offer one earnest prayer for God to lead us until we have bowed the knee to the understanding that we are finite people who can do nothing apart from Christ (John 15:7). We need God to sit on the thrones of our hearts and minds. What we do not need, however, is for our warped sense of intellectual snobbery taking the place where Christ ought to be.
Mimicking your favorite apologist or apologetic method over and above trusting the Holy Spirit to lead and guide you as you share with nonbelievers is idolatry, pure and simple. God, therefore, has no obligation to bless our exercise in self-indulgent intellectual posturing that lacks both the spirit of Christ and the spirit of humility. It is no wonder that Jesus despised the actions of the Pharisees so much because they were way too enamored of knowing the letter of Scripture yet oblivious to missing the Son of God standing before them. Understanding the truth of God’s Word is an absolute necessity but we can never divorce this from having the right motive and right spirit while doing it. Humility and trust in God can do for you what nothing else can. The power of understanding that nothing in us has the ability to change hearts is the beginning of God showing up and revealing Jesus to the ones we minister to.
An Embodied Apologetic
An embodied apologetic according to Peter demands that we have no fear in standing for what is right. That means we do not “punk and run” from trouble associated with being a follower of Jesus Christ. But we also do not run from those who have questions about the faith. The heart of 1 Pet. 3:13-17 is that we are to offers reasons for the hope we have in Christ. Too often, we seek to defend our “faith.” We get upset that someone believes we are wrong and use Scripture as a weapon against people to prove them wrong. But our being ready to offer reasons for our hope in Christ are an outworking of the lordship of Christ in our hearts. We can only communicate such a hope when the One in whom we have hope is the Lord of our hearts. To sanctify anything is to set it apart as holy. Too often we attempt to speak of that which is not clearly seen in us, doing damage in the process.
The world does not need cute, Christian slogans but living epistles from the hand of the Lord Jesus who not only know the Word of God but also who personify the truth of who Jesus is.