I recently returned from a trip to Brazil to teach a group of young seminarians the subject of apologetics. The first part of the curriculum is essentially an overview of the various systems of apologetics out there. For those who don’t know about what I am writing, apologetics is essentially the defending and declaring of the Christian faith to a non-Christian world. In many ways it is a subset of evangelism though in many ways it has become a way to gather a following and sell books.
The various schools of thought on this is not important to my article so I will spare you of a description of each. Frankly it can be very boring as you read and interact with many writers who argue their points and then you try to interact with them. The reason for it is simple, there is no basis for the average student to properly interact with the positions. Read that sentence again because it is very important. The men are being introduced to a huge subject and they usually do have sufficient knowledge to have a good, thoughtful opinion, much less a conviction.
The second part of the coursework is then a proposal for a specific type of apologetics that is borne from a sound exegesis of the key biblical texts related to the nature of man, especially due to the presence of sin, the ability of man to make a free decision unaffected by sin, and the nature of the way God converts a soul. These are not merely theological ideas that we should place on a table and all talk about like they are objects picked up off of the seashore. These are biblical statements and they mean something. And again this is where conviction comes into play.
As I taught the second half of the course I watched to see what types of reactions, comments and questions were raised in light of passage after passage being unfolded and laid before them. It is same thing I do when I preach. I labor to unfold the biblical passage before the people and I watch. Especially when it is on a subject over which I know there is dispute. When I say something like, “Notice the way Paul wrote this . . .” I want to see how many look down to examine the text. I can say that for the most part my church is eager to do so, making my job in preaching much easier than other pastors.
But I also see the one who will sit with their arms folded and are unmoved. They are convinced and nothing will change that. With my students in Brazil it was the same thing. I wanted them to raise questions but I wanted those questions to flow from the biblical text. Not some author and certainly not from their own thoughts. And this is where I now make my point of this post.
Convictions exist in every human. But for a Christian those convictions ought to flow from a willful submission to the biblical text. And if it doesn’t then those convictions come from something other that God’s Word. When you learn to submit yourself to the bible then you become a person in a consistent state of change. As you mature and as you learn you realize that certain texts were misunderstood by you. Others become more clear and certain and you see that your first thoughts were good but not as deep and full as they could have been. Regardless, a healthy Christian is one whose first question on anything is, “What does the bible say?”
I remember years ago finishing a sermon and a person came up to me visible angry. He told me that what I was teaching that night was not what the majority of the church believed. I looked at him and asked one question, “Did I properly deal with this passage or not?” He said that I did but that he did not like it nor approve of it. I put my hand on his shoulder and told him that his problem wasn’t with me but with the Lord.
Convictions. Powerful things they are. Just make sure they flow from the Word of God and not anything of this age.
It is now a bit over a week since we entered Brazil. I wanted to give a bit of an update one what is going on and how you can pray. Philemon and I arrived at Sao Paulo in the morning of the 9th. Right when we got off of the plane Philemon received the news that his father had died so grief was his companion. We came with our wives this time and were able to get to Atibaia with no problems. We are staying in a small apartment on the church campus that is sufficient to our needs. That evening we all went to another town called Terra Preta where I taught a bible study to the men on marriage and Kim taught on the attributes of God to the ladies. This is a very small church that is one that PIBA (stands for First Baptist Church of Atibaia in Portuguese) supports. It is a church that they are trying to revive for it was close to dying not that long ago.
The rest of the week was teaching. Philemon is teaching the seminary students the synoptic gospels, John and Acts while I am teaching Apologetical Methodology. It is good to see the men again and Philemon and I both see a definite growth in all of them from last year. Their questions are deeper and more informed and they show a growing maturity. All these men are very busy ministering in a multitude of ways through evangelism, serving in various churches, leading bible studies and such. The seminary is definitely church-based and is actively allowing these men the chance to practice ministry as they learn the Word.
Kim and Linda continue to teach the ladies. I was happy to hear the report from Kim about how her time with the seminary and pastors’ wives went. She was able to give a lot of practical advice and encouragement to them all. Several expressed their appreciation hearing her stories because they too have experienced similar situations. It gave the seminary wives a chance to really begin to understand what they can expect, both good and unpleasant, as their husbands take a church to shepherd. They still have two more sessions to go before they are done.
Philemon preaches at PIBA this last Sunday in the AM service. He taught out of Romans 8:31-39 and did an excellent job encouraging us all to remember that God is for us and all we need to do is to look to the Cross to remind us. The church received him well. What was very touching was that they announced (without anyone translating for us) that his father had passed away. Then we watched people begin to file forward to give money to Philemon as an expression of sorrow with him. Very humbling and very touching.
I then preached that evening at the small church in Terra Preta. My text was from 1 Peter 1:3-9 and was exhorting them to see that through the resurrection of Jesus we have a living hope that allows us to not merely endure suffering but to rejoices even as we weep. It was a bit of an adventure because my Surface was not charged as I thought and it ran out of power shortly after starting so I was winging it the whole way. Regardless the text was well known to me and the sermon accomplished much. Kim and I find ourselves “connected” to the pastor and his wife (Jeremiah and Anna). They show a genuine love for the people and yet they also have a difficult road to walk. Small churches (25-30) are so vulnerable to the smallest changes. Just consider what would happen in one family left?
How to pray? First, that all four of us would continue to be faithful in our labors. Second, that we can continue to encourage one another as we interact with each other. Third, while here, things in our “real” lives continue and Philemon and I both have several issues we are addressing from afar. Pray that we not become discouraged nor become distracted. Fourth, pray that the students truly absorbs what we are teaching. Fifth, pray that when we travel (we are driving ourselves) at the end of this week we will be wise and there shall be safe travels.
In a nicely written and enjoyable article Tim Keller writes of Blaise Pascal’s advice on the necessary, or at least wise, stages of bringing a person to the way to faith. He writes:
“First, you have to disarm and surprise them. Many people hope Christianity does not make sense on any level. . . . When, however, some presentation of Christian faith—or simply a Christian believer’s character—comes across as well informed, thoughtful, sensible, open-minded, helpful, and generous, then this breaks stereotypes and commands a begrudging respect.”
Next make it attractive, make good men wish [Christianity] were true. . . . We must know our culture—know its hopes—and then show others that only in Christ will their aspirations ever find fulfillment, that only in him will the plot lines of their lives ever have resolution and a happy ending.
If we’ve pointed out such things in an effective way, then some (though surely not all) will say, “If Christianity really can give that, it would be wonderful. Yes, it would be great if it were true. But of course Christianity isn’t. What a shame!”
Keller goes on to conclude with Pascal, “Only then will most people will [sic] sit through any kind of substantial presentation of the evidence and reasons for the truth of Christianity. Now Pascal says to ‘show that it is [true].’ If they have not been brought through stage 1 (being disarmed and surprised by the lives and speech of believers) and stage 2 (seeing the great and attractive promises of God in Christ), their eyes will simply glaze over if you begin talking about ‘the evidence for the resurrection.’”
What you read in that article is a simple, clear representation of rationalistic apologetics—one of three common approaches. This is why he wrote his well-known book Reason for God where he seeks to show the reasonableness of the Christian faith.
I wish to give a simple push-back against what he writes for those who read my blog to consider. What is described here is simply a form of apologetics known as rationalistic apologetical methodology. It is very popular in the Church and people like Keller is one key reason for it. Who doesn’t want to be articulate and gracious in their interactions with non-Christians for the sake of the gospel? I sure do and it is something we encourage at my church.
But there is a key quibble in the article that is easy to miss but helps shows the theological presuppositions that drive this argument of Keller’s. “One then will most people will [sic] sit through any kind of substantial presentation [of the gospel].” This is classic “pre-evangelism” and it argues that before a person can really ever hear or respond to the gospel truths and demands that they must be softened up. This is done through our approach and through how they perceive our lifestyles and choices. We are to make the gospel attractive to them.
So what is the problem? At the core of the rationalists argument is the presumption that people can be softened to the gospel and to Christ through the rationalist’s demeanor and argumentation.
This is fine for those who are Arminian in their theology but it is a blatant contradiction to those who hold to a more Calvinistic position (I used those two terms in their popular sense). And it is here that Keller, and many other fine men and women, go astray in my opinion. As one who holds to a form of presuppositionalistic apologetics I see that the fatal flaws in Keller’s position (rationalism) to be many. Here are some key points:
First, it fails to make the key distinction between truth and facts. Facts are not the same as truth in that it is different qualitatively. Truth is ultimately found not something that is neutral and self-existing. Rather, it is found in Jesus Christ who is defined as “the truth” (John 14:6). Without Jesus Christ one cannot truly know truth, only facts. It is much like apart from Jesus Christ one cannot have true life, for in Him alone is life (Colossians 3:4).
Second, it fails to appreciate the fulness of the effects of sin upon the faculties of humanity. We are not merely weakened by sin but rather we are utterly dominated by it in every sense without Jesus Christ. We are slaves to it and as a result we are dead in our sins. We cannot and will not respond to God in a proper manner for we do not have the ability to do so. We walk and live under the power of Satan (see Romans 5:8-10; 6:20a; 8:5-7; Ephesians 2:1-3).
Third, it fails to grasp how apart from the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit mankind is in a state of suppressing the truth rather than considering it carefully and properly. Romans 1:18ff makes this point bluntly and forcefully. The truth of God’s existence is seen clearly in both creation and without our own hearts to the point that we are without excuse. Yet, because of the dominating power of sin, our minds and wills actively suppress it.
So, though I appreciate the article of Keller’s, ultimately it falls short because it implies that if we conduct ourselves in such and such a manner then the person shall somehow break himself free from the constraints that sin has upon him and be able to objectively consider the claims and glory of the gospel. Nothing can be further from the truth. What every Christian must understand is how utterly reliant they are upon the enlivening work of the Holy Spirit to bring an active rebel to a saving faith in Jesus Christ.
UPDATED*** made some editorial changes.
The kings of the earth take their stand And the rulers take counsel together Against the LORD and against His Anointed, saying, “Let us tear their fetters apart And cast away their cords from us!” He who sits in the heavens laughs, The Lord scoffs at them. Then He will speak to them in His anger And terrify them in His fury, saying, “But as for Me, I have installed My King Upon Zion, My holy mountain.” “I will surely tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to Me, ‘You are My Son, Today I have begotten You. ‘Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Your inheritance, And the very ends of the earth as Your possession. ‘You shall break them with a rod of iron, You shall shatter them like earthenware.'” Now therefore, O kings, show discernment; Take warning, O judges of the earth. Worship the LORD with reverence And rejoice with trembling. Do homage to the Son, that He not become angry, and you perish in the way, For His wrath may soon be kindled. How blessed are all who take refuge in Him!
A short Psalm that has helpful observations for the Christian when dealing with a belligerent atheist. I won’t make this a long post that is painful to read, rather, I will try to make some simple points that help guide a Christian in answering someone who is actively antagonistic to the claims of Jesus Christ.
- The hate and the vitriol is simply because there is the perception that God binds them and restricts them and they hate him for it. It is true, He does and they know it. If they follow Jesus they cannot follow their own designs. But they believe that their path brings freedom when all it really does is wrap them tightly in the fetters of rebellion. The funny thing about atheism is that they believe there is no God and yet invest massive quantities of emotion and effort to try to prove it. If he really doesn’t exist then at best they should shake their head in pity to the fool who does, much like we would to the one who believes the moon is made of green cheese.
- God is unimpressed and finds them mock-worthy. He will speak in judgment and until he speaks there is no reason to spend a lot of time trying to defend him. The Christian proclaims a gospel that is foolishness and weakness, therefore we do not stand amazed when it (and we) are called foolish and weak.
- God has established his King (Jesus). He has granted him full authority over all things. Even the atheist is under the dominion of Jesus. But note that in his time he shall express that dominion in a terrifying manner. They shall be broken and shattered.
- Therefore, all who hear come to a point of decision: They fear the Lord and worship him, or they don’t. They worship Jesus as their Lord and their Master or they don’t. One choice brings favor and the other anger.
- The one who chooses Jesus is in an enviable position, for Jesus shall recompense all for whom they love and whom they follow.
Here is a great little offering that is free:
This is a bit of what the authors say about the book:
We wrote this book out of our love for skeptics and respect for the questions they help us ask. We also write as believers who oscillate in real belief in the resurrected Christ. We hope it proves to be an insightful, stirring reflection on the resurrection.
We are giving this book away in the hope that churches will make the eBook or hardcopy available to their people, especially to all their visitors on Easter. We are praying God would use it to spark gospel conversations, equip believers, and help people meet the risen Jesus. Download the entire book for free below (Kindle (.mobi), iBooks (.epub), & PDF).