In my last post, we looked at some of the biblical directives related to evangelism and apologetics. Today, we are going to look at how evangelism and apologetics relate to each other theologically, beginning with some definitions.
Broad agreement exists as to the definition of evangelism. Simply put, evangelism is the act of sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, whether privately or publicly, with individuals who are lost and in need of salvation. Apologetics, however, is more difficult to define. What constitutes a defense of the Gospel? Does apologetics involve only giving direct evidences for the truth of God’s word? Or does apologetics also encompass efforts to carefully critique the worldviews of nonbelieving inquirers, so as to lay the groundwork for demonstrating the epistemic, logical, and practical superiority of biblical Christianity?
For our purposes here, we will assume a fairly comprehensive outlook on apologetics, with the apologetic task involving both the defense of Christianity’s truth claims, as well as the confrontation of the errant truth claims made by non-Christian worldviews. Together, we will look at three widely agreed-upon and interrelated aspects of apologetics as set forth by prominent apologists: apologetics as proof, as defense, and as offense.* In doing so, we will see that each of these three aspects is connected, to some extent, with evangelism.
First, apologetics functions to provide proof for Christianity, that is, to provide a rational basis for the truth claims of the biblical worldview. Apologetic arguments were used to this end by Christ Himself, as well as the apostles (see John 14:11; 20:24–31; 1 Corinthians 15:1–11). The applications of this aspect of apologetics for evangelism are twofold: (1) In engaging with nonbelievers, this aspect of apologetics is what serves to link evangelism with the theological and historical reality of the Gospel; it aims to show nonbelievers the truth of what the Bible says about the life and message of Jesus Christ. (2) For the Christian, this aspect of apologetics may serve to bolster his or her confidence in witnessing to the Gospel of Christ. Apologist William Lane Craig writes,
Knowing why you believe as well as what you believe will make you more confident in sharing your faith with others.William Lane Craig, On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2010), 18–19.
Second, apologetics functions as a defense of specific truth claims of the Christian faith, in providing answers or rebuttals to the objections of unbelief. In this role, apologetics is a tool that can be used to “disarm opposition by laying to rest specious objections, misconceptions, and inaccuracies,” as well as to help “remove obstacles in the way of further inquiry” harbored by someone who has honest doubts.** It is rather easy to see how this aspect of apologetics relates to evangelism. Frequently, efforts to witness on a personal level to the truth of the Gospel meet with objections. Apologetics can be used to engage with and respond to these objections, and so seek to remove intellectual (and sometimes emotional) barriers to faith, thereby paving the way for a clearer presentation of the Gospel.
Third, apologetics functions in an offensive role, working to gently expose and critique the utter foolishness of unbelieving thought (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18–2:16; 3:18–23). In this role, Christian apologetics may challenge the truth claims of un-Christian worldviews. Used this way, apologetics is the proverbial wrecking ball that helps level the edifice of an errant worldview—in the hopes of later establishing a Christian worldview through the work of evangelism and discipleship under the divine superintendence of the Holy Spirit. On a practical level, thoughtful, pointed, well-crafted questions may function to provoke nonbelievers to carefully consider their worldviews, with the end goal of helping them to see the logical and theological superiority of Christianity and the Gospel.***
Looking at these three aspects of apologetics individually and considering how each relates to evangelism helps us to better understand how the two tasks are interconnected as a whole. Evangelism and apologetics often go hand-in-hand, but not always. For instance, we have seen that apologetics is helpful to Christians as well as to nonbelievers, in that it serves to impart confidence concerning the truth of the faith. As such, apologetics does not exist solely in subordination to the evangelistic task; it serves a purpose even outside of witnessing to the Gospel. Evangelism, similarly, does not always operate in conjunction with apologetics. In some situations, the Gospel message may be communicated more effectively when accompanied by a defense of its content; but in other circumstances, there is no need to offer a formal defense when sharing the Gospel.
That said, while apologetics and evangelism are not one and the same, they do have considerable overlap. Evangelism and apologetics commonly work together in bringing people to embrace the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In the next entry in this series, we will look at some practical aspects of how apologetics may be used in witnessing to the Gospel.
*This threefold arrangement is set forth by John M. Frame in his work Apologetics to the Glory of God: An Introduction (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1994), 2–3; but it is also acknowledged by many other apologists, including Kenneth D. Boa and Robert M. Bowman Jr., who in Faith Has Its Reasons: An Integrative Approach to Defending Christianity, 2nd ed. (Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster, 2006) use it to help frame their discussion of different approaches to the discipline of apologetics throughout the history of the Christian church.
**See Robert L. Reymond, The Justification of Knowledge: An Introductory Study in Christian Apologetic Methodology (1976; reprint, San Jose, CA: Pacific Institute for Religious Studies, 1998), 3. The objections that the discipline of apologetics might seek to answer may vary widely, essentially covering all dimensions of biblical truth claims relevant to theology, history, science, sociology, etc. However, as it concerns evangelism, the objections which apologetics will seek to answer center on the core content of the Gospel message: the historicity of Jesus Christ, the deity of Jesus Christ, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
***On the usefulness of such questions in guiding a conversation toward witnessing opportunities, see Jay Lucas, Ask Them Why: How to Help Unbelievers Find the Truth (Schaumburg, IL: Regular Baptist Press, 2007), especially pages 23–27.