A rodeo mentality hinders apologetics. But that is exactly what I had during my battle with skepticism.
When confronting skeptics, I thought there must be an answer so faultless that it would give all opposing arguments whiplash on the takedown. If my brain was sufficiently developed, brute intellectual muscle could hogtie and drag screaming atheists to salvation. The Holy Spirit does need a sidekick, right?
No. He doesn’t. I was missing the whole point of apologetics
The Purpose of Apologetics
Faith is not a product of intellectual strength on the inside or coercive persuasion from the outside. It is a gift from God from start to finish.
Thus the purpose of making a reasoned defense of our beliefs – apologetics – is not to create faith in someone by arguing them to God. Apologetics is not a trump card, a cowboy’s lasso, or a checkmate move. No man comes to the Son unless he is drawn by the Father (John 6:44).
The purpose of apologetics is to present a map that ultimately points the doubter toward Jesus Christ. There are two parts to this purpose…
1. Strengthen Believers in Their Faith
Acts 18:24-28 tells a short story of Apollos. He was eloquent, competent in the Scriptures, and instructed in the way of the Lord. He was an accurate and fervent teacher. When he showed up on the scene in Achaia, “he greatly helped those who through grace had believed, for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus.” That is Christ-centered apologetics in action, a means God uses to channel His grace to believers in need of strength.
2. Present the Gospel to the Unbeliever
In Acts 17:16-34, we find Paul reasoning with the Stoic philosophers. But Paul wasn’t there just to argue endlessly in the name of apologetics. His mission was to present the gospel, and once that was done, he left.
How to Respond to Those Who Reject the Truth
Why did Paul walk away from the stoics who mocked the gospel? Why didn’t he stay to convince them? Because that is not the goal of apologetics. Apologetics can’t convert people to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.
“The heart must be kept tender and pliable; otherwise agnosticism converts to skepticism. In such a case the value of apologetics is voided, for apologetics is aimed at persuading doubters, not at refuting the defiant. He who demands a kind of proof that the nature of the case renders impossible, is determined that no possible evidence shall convince him.”
– The Case for Orthodox Theology, Edward John Carnell
That is not to say that we should just blurt out the gospel and then walk away if no one responds. We are to be gentle and merciful to those who doubt or are blinded to the truth (Jude 22, 2 Timothy 2:23-26), and that might take the form of a long-term discussion with an unbeliever.
Know When to Walk Away
However, when someone is openly hostile to even hearing the truth – which is often evidenced by mockery – apologetics is not the answer. Only the Holy Spirit’s work can enlightened their minds and open their hearts to the truth. It is ok to walk away and seek another opportunity to speak to the truth to a ready heart.
As C.H. Spurgeon put it,
“How many hours in a day ought a man to give to [becoming acquainted with all the phases of modern doubt]? Twenty-five out of the twenty-four would hardly be sufficient…Am I to spend my time in going about to knock his cardhouses over?
“Not I! I have something else to do; and so has every Christian minister. He has real doubts to deal with, which vex true hearts; he has anxieties to relieve in converted souls, and in minds that are pining after the truth and the right; he has these to meet, without everlastingly tilting at windmills, and running all over the country to put down every scarecrow which learned simpletons may set up.”
– The Weaned Child, sermon by CH Spurgeon