Our prayer for apologetics is different than our goal in apologetics. Sometime people conflate the two, which can cause false motives or unnecessary angst. In this segment, I’d like to properly nuance this for those engaged in apologetics.
The prayer for apologetics is that the person we are talking with repent and believe after our gospel conversation. Our prayer is that of Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s:
I do not come into this pulpit hoping that perhaps somebody will of his own free will return to Christ. My hope lies in another quarter. I hope that my Master will lay hold of some of them and say, ‘You are mine, and you shall be mine. I claim you for myself.’ My hope arises from the freeness of grace, and not from the freedom of the will.
The covenantal apologist knows that as he commends the faith and refutes arguments, those in Adam will not be able to come to faith in Christ unless and until the Holy Spirit imparts new life and bestows the gifts of faith and repentance (c.f. Rom 8:14; 2 Cor. 3:6; Titus 3:5; 1 Pet. 1:1-2). “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord,’” writes the apostle Paul, “except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3). Therefore, “the apologist seeks above all to be a channel through whom God’s Spirit can bring repentance and faith.”
Greg Bahnsen sums up what we’ve just said rather well:
Faith precedes knowledgeable understanding… The apologist’s opponent must come to repentant faith if he is to gain understanding and knowledge, and this takes place, not by superior knowledge or clever reasoning on the part of the apologist, but by God’s gracious work in the sinner so that he is enabled to know the truth of the apologist’s faithful testimony and argument (as they are rooted in Christ’s word and are powerful according to Christ’s Spirit).
Despite our best efforts, however, it is the Holy Spirit who saves. As James Sire says, “Our job, then, is to be the best witness to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord that we can be.” But even in our less-than-biblical attempts, people can and do get converted. In the meagerness of our efforts, “The Holy Spirit overcomes our ineptness and uses our rather pithy attempts anyway. This does not excuse us, but it does put us in our place.” Like Sire says, “this does not excuse us.” Our goal in defending Christianity is that we strive for biblical consistency and biblical faithfulness in our conversations with unbelievers, as Van Til taught:
A general evangelical apologetic to a large extent defeats its own purposes. True enough much good may be accomplished, both by an Arminian theology and by a general method of apologetics. In this fact all who love the Lord will rejoice. But how much more good may be accomplished by the grace of God through a more consistently Biblical theology and a more consistent Biblical apologetic. A general evangelical apologetic does not drive the natural man down into a corner with no hope of escape. It does not track him down till he is at bay. It does not destroy his last shelter. His fire is not altogether extinguished… A plea for a vigorous apologetic ought therefore to be a plea for a genuinely reformed apologetic. We may not be clear, indeed as to the full implications of a truly Reformed apologetic. But this fact does not justify us in refusing to point out to those who, with us, love the Christian faith that a generally evangelical apologetic, like Roman Catholic apologetic, is inadequate for any time and especially inadequate for our time.
Many, however, get this idea that the goal of apologetics is to “save sinners.” But this can never be our goal, for if it is, you will leave most apologetic encounters feeling like a failure. Our goal is to be a faithful witness to Christ, to present the gospel well, and to clarify to unbelievers the biblical position. The apologist succeeds if he is faithful to this task, not if a sinner repents. Now, obviously we want sinners to repent and believe, but in terms of the goal of apologetics and evangelism (apologetics is “premeditated evangelism”), we simply desire to be good stewards and heralds of the gospel message.
Scott Oliphint says it well:
But Paul [in Athens] was successful in that he communicated the truth of God. In our defense of Christianity, we are successful to the extent that what we say comports with what God has said in his Word. Our goal in a covenantal apologetic cannot be the conversion of those to whom we speak. That is a goal that we cannot accomplish. It is our prayer, but should not be our goal. Rather, our goal is to communicate, as persuasively as we are able, the truth of God himself, as the truth finds its focus in the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us… This point helps us to understand that our apologetic discussions and dialogs are not about ‘winning’ the argument. We are not called to be intellectually superior or rhetorically better than those to whom we speak. We are not in an intellectual contest when we do apologetics. We are in a spiritual battle in which only the Spirit of Christ can conquer the true enemy.
© copyright J. Brandon Burks
John M. Frame, “A Presuppositionalist’s Response,” in Five Views On Apologetics, ed. Stanley N. Gundry and Steven B. Cowan (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 219.
Greg L. Bahnsen, Always Ready: Directions For Defending the Faith, ed. Robert R. Booth (Nacogdoches, TX: CMP, 1996), 88-89.
James W. Sire, Why Good Arguments Often Fail: Making a More Persuasive Case for Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2006), 17.
As quoted in: John R. Muether, Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman, in American Reformed Biographies (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2008), 115.
K. Scott Oliphint, Covenantal Apologetics: Principles and Practice in Defense of our Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 198.
Ibid., 159. [Brackets mine].