Friday, April 24, 2015

Apologetics Don’t Save

I recently read female apologist Nancy Pearcey’s testimony in Christianity Today. It spoke to my barefooted, California-raised soul. After a crisis of faith that led her to walk away from Christianity, Pearcey ended up in L’Abri, Switzerland. There she found:

….an enclave of culturally savvy Christian hippies who understood the questions she was asking and were doing the hard work of finding answers. They identified her worldview as relativism, pointed out its logical flaws, and discussed Jackson Pollock paintings and epistemology over candlelit dinners. In the shadow of the Swiss Alps, Pearcey became open again to the intellectual tenability of faith. Within two years, she had given her life to Christ.

I love those Christians. They took time to tackle Pearcey’s doubts. But it wasn’t the worldview discussions or Pollock paintings that saved her. I imagine she would agree with Tim Keller that this form of apologetics cleared a path to the gospel. The believers she met helped sweep away the clutter so that she could see the cross.

Pearcey’s story reminds me of the importance of Christian apologetics. My time in the Gospels reminds me that apologetics has its limits:

“But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”

If I take some time to look over all the things Peter witnessed in flesh and blood, Jesus’ statement seems incredible:
Peter was called personally by Jesus (4:18-20). He saw him teach, heal, and grow in fame (4:23-25). He had a front row seat during the Sermon on the Mount (5:1-7:27) He saw Jesus cleanse a leper (8:1-4), commend the centurion’s faith (8:1-13), and heal his own mother-in-law (8:14-17). Peter witnessed Jesus fulfilling prophecy from Isaiah (8:17), calming a storm (8:23-27), casting out a legion of demons (8:28-34), and healing a paralytic man of his infirmity and sins. He saw crowds of people come to faith (9:1-8). He watched Jesus show love to tax collectors (9:9-13) and he heard the parables straight from his mouth. He was even given power to cast out demons and heal the sick (10:1-9). If anyone could credit his salvation to experience and proof, it was Peter.
But Jesus says that it wasn’t what Peter witnessed or experienced that saved him. It was God. There were others who saw the same things yet remained in disbelief (Jn. 12:37). Consider the Pharisees. In John 8, they accuse Jesus of illogic and demand more proof: You are bearing witness about yourself; your testimony is not true (v. 13). Instead of listing his miracles or bringing up John the Baptist, Jesus says: Even if I do bear witness about myself, my testimony is true for I know where I came from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going. You judge according to the flesh… (v. 14, 15).

Jesus does not satisfy them with the answers they want: My judgment is true for it is not I alone who judge but I and the Father (v. 15, 16). When we examine the skeptic’s questions, historical research, and scientific data, we must remember that, according to Jesus, the way to determine truth is to listen to God: If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth (v. 31, 32).
Apologists love to bring up the Bereans. And rightly so! They with great eagerness examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true (Acts 17:11). But where did they of such noble character go to find truth? Did they double-check Paul’s message with the sages or logisticians of the day? No. They poured over Scripture.

I’ve fought against believing that I have faith because God gave it to me. It seems circular. Why do you believe in God? Because of God. True salvation must be more complex than that. Shouldn’t I get some of my toughest questions answered first? Maybe once I can name five supports for the resurrection, I can commit to faith. But, no. That is not my testimony. When I explain my salvation, I have to steal John Piper’s description: The Bible tells me what happened to me, not my memory and not my experience. What happened to me is, I was raised from the dead.

This is where it began. With new life. Life that only God could breathe into me (Eph. 2:1-10, Col. 2:13). In that moment I was given the Holy Spirit who now daily breathes life into the Word so that I see God’s character, evidence of Christ’s deity, proof of my fallen nature, and future hope. My dad reminds his congregation: Where unbelief is the problem, and faith is the solution, where does faith come from? Not from doing apologetics research. “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17).

Though at times I envy all that Peter witnessed, I must recognize that Peter’s experiences are mine through the Word. His eye-witness accounts, along with the rest of Scripture, is the broom that clears away my doubts and leads me to the cross. This is the broom I must share with the lost.

“Apologetics is driven by love,” says Pearcey. “You have to love people enough to listen to their questions and do the hard work of finding answers for them.”

What a humble and, quite frankly, beautiful attitude. I want to have coffee with Pearcey and introduce her to all my unbelieving friends. With her, I want to help clear away excuses, listen to the hard questions, and love those who are drenched in doubt. But I must remember this: apologetics don’t save anyone. God saves. Again, I reference wisdom from my dad: You simply cannot suspend faith in order to find the truth. To do so is sin. And though truth can be analyzed, discussed, and debated, Jesus consistently points us to God. And God points us to His Word. So that’s where I’ll be, though Pharisees jeer and doubters mock. It will offend the stubborn heart, but to those who believe, it will be the scent of new life (2 Cor. 2:15, 16).
Lord, I am not trying to make my way to Your height,
for my understanding is in no way equal to that,
but I do desire to understand a little of Your truth
which my heart already believes and loves.
I do not seek to understand so that I can believe,
but I believe so that I may understand;
and what is more,
I believe that unless I do believe,
I shall not understand.

--Anselm of Canterbury

Written by Rachel Watson

Article also published on The Aquila Report


  1. Wouldn't it be wise before you say that apologetics can't save people or has limits that you define what apologetics is?

    Of course apologetics doesn't save - God does! But isn't it fair to say that it was a tool used by God to reach Nancy? And isn't it fair to say that God can use whatever tool He wants reach people?

    I hope this recent blog we wrote will help you understand how the definition of apologetics will help provide understanding to your article.

    Lord bless

  2. Apologetics can definitely be a tool used by God. We should always be ready to present a reason for the hope that is within us. I think I clarified this here: "I imagine she would agree with Tim Keller that this form of apologetics cleared a path to the gospel. The believers she met helped sweep away the clutter so that she could see the cross.

    Pearcey’s story reminds me of the importance of Christian apologetics. My time in the Gospels reminds me that apologetics has its limits."

    Saying that something is limited is not the same as saying it has no value.

    Hope that clarification helps! I appreciate the feedback. Grace be with you.