In a previous post we looked at Old Testament precedence for God’s defense of his glory. In this post we look at the primary New Testament support for the Christian’s call to defend the faith.
The New Testament’s Primary Instruction on Apologetics—1 Peter 3:15-16
A number of New Testament passages speak directly to the practice of apologetics. Some of these will be developed in greater depth in the lessons to come, so this section will focus exclusively on the locus classicus (the best known or most authoritative passage on the topic) of apologetics in the New Testament.
1 Peter 3:15-16
This is the primary passage in the New Testament laying out the responsibility of every Christian to practice apologetics. 1 Peter is written in the context of suffering and persecution. The audience of the book is a combination of Jewish and Gentile Christians who have been scattered by persecution and are struggling to know how to live in a hostile world. Their former place of inclusion in pagan culture before conversion has been replaced with antagonistic exclusion from society. They have been marginalized as members of society who don’t count, and therefore, could be exploited.
Yet, Peter calls them to live boldly and triumphantly, knowing that the opposition they face has already been doomed by the victorious resurrection of Jesus from the dead. As a result, he calls them to engage those who persecute them. Ultimately no one can harm the Christian, even though temporarily believers can suffer great tribulation (John 16:33). Peter encourages his readers to resist the fear that results from the threats of their persecutors (3:13-14).
Rather than fear, Peter commands them to turn the table on their persecutors when they are questioned about their faith and challenged to explain themselves. He admonishes every believer, not simply pastors or scholars, to prepare themselves for this inevitable event. The apologetic task includes several elements:
- Begin with a settled assurance that Jesus is the Lord (v. 15a)
Peter’s first concern is for the believer’s own heart. The command is a Greek word that is variously translated “sanctify,” “set apart,” or “consider to be holy.” The idea is that the Christian must begin with both a knowledge of his faith and a confidence that it is true. Unless you believe firmly that Jesus is the true King over all the earth, that his Word is true, and that He is what every person needs most, you will not possess the confidence needed to engage unbelievers effectively.
As Peter is writing his epistle, his audience is suffering under the oppressive Roman Empire that declared that Caesar was Lord. Therefore, Peter’s words stand in opposition to the political powers of the day. Regardless of what men may declare concerning their own power, only Jesus is the true Lord.
This personal declaration of the truth of Jesus must be something settled in the believer’s heart. In other words, when the Word of God is fully accepted as the authoritative revelation given from God, Jesus will be held as the one and only Lord.
- Prepare yourself to make a defense of the faith (v. 15b)
After settling Christ’s Lordship in their hearts, Christians are to prepare themselves for challenges to their faith leveled by unbelievers. The word translated “prepared” is used in the context of outfitting a ship for a voyage. Just as a ship’s captain would carefully load a ship with food, water, sails, medicine, and other supplies before a long voyage, so a Christian ought to prepare himself for any number of challenges raised against the faith.
How does a Christian prepare? As mentioned above, the first thing a Christian must do is to learn the Christian faith thoroughly. This means knowing the Scriptures thoroughly and having a firm grasp of Christian theology. Many believers try to defend the faith without knowing what they believe. This results in an ineffective apologetic, which has to continually concede ground to unbelief. Those who are well-schooled in theology, however, find many more resources at their disposal in the apologetic task.
Believers should also know as much as they reasonably can about their conversation partner’s beliefs. This isn’t always possible, but if you are having a second or third discussion about the Christian faith with someone, it is helpful to know at least a little about what that person believes.
Preparation requires an investment of time, effort, and sometimes money. It takes careful thought, reading, studying, and conversations to become an experienced apologist. There are many good books that contribute to the Christian’s preparation, and investing money in them is an important element of being ready when the time comes.
- Defend the faith in a way that encourages conversation (v. 15c)
Peter calls us to prepare so we can “give an answer” or “make a defense.” The Greek word is apologia, from which we get the word “apologetics.” This is a legal term that means to defend a position in a court of law against charges. Many of the objections raised against Christianity are accusations that call for an answer. All Christians should be able to defend the faith against these accusations.
An important truth should be emphasized here: The Christian faith can stand up to any legitimate challenge raised against it. In other words, believers do not need to fear that objections exist for which there is no answer. They do not need to worry that someone may someday discover an objection that Christianity cannot answer. Since the days of the apostles Christians have been faced with challenges and have been developing answers.
While the challenges we encounter may at times be hostile or antagonistic, we should never respond in kind. Peter describes the proper demeanor of the apologist—gentleness and respect. First, when engaged in conversation with an unbeliever, the Christian should speak and act in a way that is humble, approachable, and winsome. The goal is not to argue with or shame the non-Christian, but rather to help him see the light of truth. Gentleness speaks to our tone of voice, our understanding of God’s love for the person, and our refusal to be aggressive or antagonistic.
Second, Peter describes our demeanor with the Greek word phobos, from which we get “phobia,” or fear. This word is also translated “respect.” He never explains this concept further, so it can have one of three possible meanings:
1) Peter could be encouraging believers to fear God when engaging unbelievers. In other words, rather than be overcome by the fear of man, which paralyzes and silences the apologist, we should fear God, which brings boldness.
2) The word could be referring to the fact that apologetic encounters always involve fear. This choice means that when we feel fear we should remind ourselves that this is normal. Fear should be expected, and therefore, should not deter us from continuing the conversation. Rather than running away from the situation, which we naturally do when afraid, Peter could be encouraging us to continue the conversation with the unbeliever, even in the presence of fear.
3) Peter could be using this word in its other sense, to be “respectful.” In a number of passages phobos has the sense of treating someone with dignity or respect (Rom. 13:7; 1 Pet. 2:16, 3:2). It means to remember that the unbeliever is made in the image of God and is loved by God, even while they are estranged from him. Jesus never demeaned anyone in his conversations with them, but rather treated them with kindness and dignity, even while he confronted their unbelief. In John 4, Jesus rejected every reason culture afforded him to treat the woman at the well with disdain. Instead he spoke to her with kindness, offering hope and redemption.
In the same way we must treat even the most antagonistic person with kindness, knowing that they are ultimately opposing God, not us. We do so to break down the barriers of hostility that have been built up against the gospel. Even when we have to engage in firm confrontation of falsehood in a person’s worldview, we do so seeking to draw that person to the beauty and glory of Christ. As the old saying goes, “You draw more flies with honey than with vinegar!”
- Practice regular repentance (v. 16)
The final point Peter makes deals with the Christian’s heart condition and lifestyle. Too many Christians today are trying to defend the Christian faith when their own lives do not in any way demonstrate an attitude of humble repentance concerning their own sin. They are quick to point out the sin of others, but their consciences are guilty with hidden sin, arrogant and self-righteous behavior, and other unconfessed sins.
Peter emphasizes that a Christian with a clear conscience is a powerful apologetic, because his life cannot be impeached by accusations of hypocrisy. Instead, when he is indicted for violating the very life-transforming gospel that he proclaims, and the charges are investigated, he is found innocent. The enemies of the gospel find they have nothing bad to say about the lives of Christians, whom they oppose. So even a believer’s life is a legal defense against objections to the gospel. This is important because many people reject the Christian faith for the very reason that they know professing Christians who are immoral, dishonest, or cruel and judgmental.
By living a humble and repentant life the Christian puts to silence the foolish charges of ignorant people who oppose Christianity for no good reason (1 Pet. 2:15). The believer can share his faith confidently because he has nothing to hide and can invite the unbeliever to examine his life to see that there is no hypocrisy.
It should be clear by now that apologetics has a solid biblical basis. It is rooted in God’s consistent confrontation of man’s sin and unbelief, and his jealous defense of his glory in the face of false belief and idolatry. We defend the Christian faith because the glory of God is at stake. We do so as God’s emissaries, shining the light of the knowledge of the glory of Christ into a world blinded by sin and darkness (2 Cor. 4:3-6)
In addition we ought to settle the matter of Christ’s lordship in our own hearts by having a thorough knowledge of Scripture and sound doctrine. This preparation will enable us to defend the truth and glory of the gospel in the face of challenges raised against it. We do so with a Christ-like demeanor, combined with a life of integrity. This biblical description of apologetics will result in a powerful impact on the world. We will see a renaissance of churches full of evangelists and apologists. The church will once again stand as a shining light piercing the darkness with the good news of the risen Christ (Luke 11:33).