Monday, September 11, 2006

Practical Apologetics

I remember sitting in a Christian evidences class at Harding University with Ed Myers talking about apologetics. After talking about the evidences for the authenticity of the Bible and the existence of God, he concluded with this statement. "Love is the strongest apologetic of all."

His point is well taken. When I reflect on the truth of that statement, I am struck by the fact that I know of no unbeliever who was won mainly by a well-reasoned argument. I only know of two people out of countless others for whom apologetics removed obstacles to their faith. It didn't cause their faith, just removed obstacles to it.

When I was a new Christian, I can remember getting into religious arguments with relatives and friends and doing nothing more than alienating them or turning them off from any further dialogue we might have had. What was my problem? It still hadn't sunk in what the greatest thing was. "The greatest of these is love" (1 Cor 13:7), wrote the Apostle Paul. "Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light" (2 Jn 2:10), said the Apostle John. "By this (love) will all men know that you are my disciples" (John 13:35), said our Lord Jesus Christ. Living in the light means living in love. Living in love is how unbelievers will see the light of God.

I recently read an account of a problem in many ivy-league schools. These were among some of the intellectually brightest in an upcoming generation. Many of these students were poised to become the next policy makers and shape the direction of the country in years to come. Part of their training involved courses in ethics. As with many other classes, many of these students received the highest marks. One of these students recounts the repeated character problems in many of her fellow students. While they could effectively and intelligently discuss ethical dilemmas to the point of teaching classes on the subject, they often had more character flaws than the blue-collar workers that barely had a high school education in the neighborhoods around the school. Sexual impropriety, lying, cheating, and deception were common practice among many of these students. Yet they all had excellent grades in their ethics courses. Many of these would go on to become doctors, lawyers, judges and politicians. Ethics had become nothing more than an interesting intellectual subject. However, it did little to change their life. If anything, it provided a way to dodge the inconsistencies in their life.

The same thing can happen in my spiritual life. I can get advanced degrees in theology and expound its implications from a sound, intellectual vantage point. I can defend the authority and authenticity of the scriptures with a sound academic method. While it is important to have intellectual honesty and soundness, there is much more to the faith than this. Knowing is every bit a relational exercise as it is an intellectual one. When Jesus prayed in John 17:3, he affirmed, "…this is eternal life, that they might know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent." The goal is not for me merely to know scripture, but to know God. The goal is not for me to merely know about God, but to know God. John wrote, "God is Love" (1 Jn 4:8). Since God is love, I am to love (1 Jn 4:7). Knowing God means walking and living in his presence in such a way that his character becomes my character. Since God is love, I am to love. In this way, I walk in the light of God that shines out in my life and draws people to God. To be sure, when others see my godly character, this by itself will not save them. Those who are lost need to hear the Gospel, which has the power of salvation to everyone who believes (Rom 1:16). However, that initial draw to the Gospel comes from seeing the light of God in my life.

Early Christians demonstrated this in their lives. Most were not as intellectually sophisticated as their pagan counterparts. In spite of this fact, Christianity took hold of the world. God worked in the lives of everyone that abandoned themselves to him through a change of character not merely through intellectual arguments. This new freedom to love others without fear of loss made such an impact, that in a short period of time the Gospel had gone out to Rome, Asia, Africa, Britain, and India.

The mighty power of God displayed in the beauty of love could not be contained. Here is a quotation from the pagan emperor Julian that sheds a little light on the outsider's perspective of Christianity.

“Atheism (i.e. Christian faith) has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers, and through care for the burial of the dead. It is a scandal that there is not a single Jew who is a beggar, and that the godless Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help we should render to them.” -Julian 332-63

Pagans referred to Christianity as atheism because they did not worship the pantheon of gods and did not worship an image. Notice how a Roman, with all of his sophistication views the cause for the spread of Christianity. It wasn't through the mighty intellect of all those Christians, but through their simple, yet powerful acts of God's love.

Truly, love is the greatest apologetic. Through it, people experience something of God. These early Christians have left an example and challenge. Pour as much energy into living out the character of God as in intellectual prowess. Perhaps I need to put more energy into the former than the latter. Instead of "How can I win this argument?" the question for me should be, "How can I represent God and his interests to these people?"

None if this is new to me. It likely may not be new to you. I have no problem expounding and explaining the importance of all of this. In years past, I made good comments concerning these issues in some of the Bible classes I was in. As early as my teen years, I did devotionals and sermonettes on them. The same was true of many of my Christian friends. However, like those Ivy League students, we talked more than we walked. We knew our scriptures well. We had been indoctrinated well, but not educated well. The knowledge we had was not the same as the transformation that we were supposed to have had. I wonder if people saw God in us, or merely a religious argument. There lies the challenge.

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