Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Faith Alone & Grace Alone: What Is the Purpose of Apologetics?

I have recently been reading Martin Luther and have been surprised by the force of his “we can do nothing to save ourselves” arguments; our deeds are incapable of advancing us along the path of righteousness.  Since I do believe this to be true, what place does apologetics (and evangelism in general) have in the redemption of a person?

Luther states in Thesis 18 of The Heidelberg Disputation of 1518 that “man must utterly despair in his own ability” before he can be saved.

Faith is the one attitude of the heart that is the exact opposite of depending on ourselves.  When we come to faith in Christ we essentially say, “I give up! I will no longer depend on myself.[1]

I think the purpose of apologetics (and other forms of evangelism) is to help move people along the path from depending totally on themselves toward that final realization that you are totally incapable of doing anything to save yourself. (Yes, the salvation process cannot happen without the Holy Spirit, but how this works is unknown to me and is not the point of this post.)

Even though we can do nothing on our own to earn our way to God, other people can help to humble us by providing evidence for God and the need for Christ. Signs and evidence – apologetics - have always been part of the salvation process. The Bible says to look to nature as proof that God exists, Jesus provides physical signs as proof that He is the Christ, Paul reasons and argues, the entire book of John is an argument with evidence, and we are commanded in many places to be able to give reasons and answers. I contend that the purpose of these arguments, reasons and signs are to move people along the path to from depending on themself to depending on Jesus for salvation.

To demonstrate the purpose of apologetics, I will use the analogy of a sick person and a doctor. The steps required to move from knowing you are sick to finally getting healed are the same as the steps needed to move from knowing you need a savior to finally being saved. Each step requires some additional knowledge or realization that can be helped along by evidence, reason and arguments.

Healed by a Doctor
Salvation by Jesus
1.     You first have to know you are sick.
1.     You first have to know you need to be saved; God exists and you are separated from Him.
2.     You have to become aware that a doctor exists who can heal you.
2.   You have to know Jesus exists and has provided a way back to God.
3.     You have to realize that you cannot heal yourself.
3.   You have to realize you cannot save yourself; there is no way to earn your way back to God by your efforts.
4.     You have to let the doctor help you.  You have to give up trying to heal yourself and surrender yourself to the doctor.
4.   You have to surrender yourself to Christ; give up trying to save yourself and surrender to Christ.

The first step in salvation is simply knowing that God exists. Until you know there is a standard above yourself, you will never despair of your own ability. Nature, along with the plethora of arguments for existence of God can help with this first step. 

Once you are aware that God exists, you have to know why you need Jesus to restore your relationship with God; you need to know that God and Jesus actually are real.  Arguments for the reliability of the New Testament and the historicity of Jesus can help with this step. 

Because there are many reasons why people won’t put their faith in Christ, the final surrender of yourself to Jesus is the hardest step for apologetics to address.  Our narcissistic society, the presence of evil, and the culture of sex can all be reasons why it is difficult to totally surrender yourself and finally come to the realization that we can claim nothing. Continuing to provide arguments for the God of the Bible and reasoning through the presence of evil can help with this final step.

Until we realize that there is a real standard above ourselves, we will never be humbled enough to realize that we can claim nothing.  Apologetics (along with other forms of evangelism) is necessary to move nonbelievers along the path from no belief to, as Luther would say, total despair in their own ability to save themselves. The arguments and evidence provided by apologetics participates in this humbling process and can help nonbelievers move their trust from themselves to Jesus.

[1]Wane Grudem, Systematic Theology, Zondervan 1994, page 730