…the greatest problem for the gospel of Christ today is not the doubt that it is outside the church but the doubt that is inside the church. ~Dallas Willard 1935-2013
When most people who are familiar with it hear the word apologetics, they likely associate it with words like argument, evidence, reason, or defense. But few would think to add gentle or gentleness to the list.
That is because the word apologeticscame to us from the Greek legal system, where one makes one’s defense against the prosecutor’s charges. That is not the ideal context for gentleness. But the apostle Paul and other New Testament writers adapted this term, so that apologetics came to describe Christian attempts to defend or explain the faith to others. And this is how the church has come to use the term.
For example, since the four Gospels were written to make the case for who Jesus was and what he accomplished and taught, their authors are called apologists, as are those today who specialize in defending Christianity against its critics. Since the time of the great debates surrounding the rise of science and rationalism and the corollary attacks on the church’s commitment to the supernatural, apologetics has become increasingly preoccupied with intellectual debates and arguments.
Now, in principle, there is nothing wrong with this. Since apologetics is involved with ideas, intellectual claims, and reasoning, it is fitting for apologists to engage in intellectual debates and arguments. However, as we will see in this book, given we are seeking to do apologetics in the manner of Jesus, what is not fitting is for apologists to engage in debates and arguments with an antagonizing, arrogant spirit. Indeed, the best way to make the intellectual aspects of apologetics more effective is to combine them with a gentle spirit and kind presentation.
When we do the work of apologetics, we do it as disciples of Jesus— and therefore we are to do it in the manner in which he would do it. This means, above all, that we do it to help people, and especially those who want to be helped. That is how all of Jesus’s work is characterized in scripture. Apologetics is a helping ministry.
The picture presented in the context of 1 Peter 3:8-17 is that of disciples who are devoted to promoting what is good, but who are being persecuted for it. Their response, as Jesus had taught them, was to “rejoice and be glad” (Matt. 5:12). This led those looking on to inquire how the disciples could be joyous and hopeful in such circumstances. The question would, of course, be inevitable in an angry, hopeless, and joyless world. So the disciples were charged by Peter: “Be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear” (1 Pet. 3:15–16).
As we give our explanation, our apologetic, as an act of neighbor love with “gentleness and reverence,” Jesus tells us we are to be “as shrewd as serpents” and “as innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16, niv). The serpent’s wisdom, shrewdness, is timeliness based on watchful observation. And doves are innocent in that they are incapable of guile or of misleading anyone. So are we to be. Love of those we deal with will help us to observe them accurately and refrain from manipulating them— at the same time that we intensely long and pray for them to recognize that Jesus Christ is master of the cosmos in which they live.
What does it mean that we are to be characterized by gentleness? To begin with, it means being humble. Love will purge us of any desire merely to win as well as of intellectual self- righteousness and contempt for the opinions and abilities of others. The apologist for Christ is one characterized by “humbleness of mind” (tapeinophrosunen;2 Col. 3:12; Acts 20:19; 1 Pet. 5:5)— a vital New Testament concept that cannot be captured by our word “humility” alone.
So the call to “give an account” is, first, not a call to beat unwilling people into intellectual submission, but to be the servant of those in need, often indeed the servant of those who are in the grip of their own intellectual self- righteousness and pride, usually reinforced by their social surroundings.
Second, we do the work of apologetics as relentless servants of truth. Jesus said that he “came into the world to testify to the truth” ( John 18:37), and he is called “the faithful and true witness” (Rev. 3:14). This is why we give our account with reverence (or fear, kjv). Truth reveals reality, and reality can be described as what we humans run into when we are wrong, a collision in which we always lose.
Being mistaken about life, the things of God, and the human soul is a deadly serious matter. That is why the work of apologetics is so important. So we speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). And we speak with all the clarity and reasonableness we can muster, simultaneously counting on the Spirit of truth ( John 16:13) to accomplish, with what we do, an effect that lies far beyond our natural abilities.
Finding real truth is the point of reference we share with all human beings. No one can live without truth. Though we may disagree about which particular things are true or false, allegiance to truth— whatever the truth may be— permits us to stand alongside every person as honest fellow inquirers. Our attitude is therefore not one of “us and them,” but of “we.” And we are forever here to learn together, not only to teach.
So, if at all possible— sometimes it is not, due to others— we “give our account” in an atmosphere of mutual inquiry animated by generous love. However firm we may be in our convictions, we do not become overbearing, contemptuous, hostile, or defensive. We know that Jesus himself would not do so, because we cannot help people in that way. He had no need of it, nor do we. And in apologetics, as everywhere, he is our model and our master. Our confidence is totally in him. That is the “special place” we give him in our hearts— how we “in [our] hearts sanctify Christ as Lord” (1 Pet. 3:15)— in the crucial ser vice of apologetics.
And that is why our apologetic needs to be characterized by gentleness. Like Jesus, we are reaching out in love in a humble spirit with no coercion. The only way to accomplish that is to present our defense gently, as help offered in love in the manner of Jesus.
But that is not all. The means of our communication needs to be gentle, because gentleness also characterizes the subject of our communication. What we are seeking to defend or explain is Jesus himself, who is a gentle, loving shepherd. If we are not gentle in how we present the good news, how will people encounter the gentle and loving Messiah we want to point to?
And finally, in an age shaped by feuding intellectual commitments and cultural battles over religion, science, truth, and morality, how will we get a hearing by merely insisting that we have truth and reason on our side? Many have made these claims before us. Some in a spirit of aggression, some in fear, and some in arrogance. Our apologetic happens in a context, and that context is strewn with enmity, hostility, abuse, and other opposition, which ultimately contradict the very things our message lifts up. That is why our apologetic has to embody the message and person we want to communicate. Only with “gentleness and reverence” will people be able to see, verify, and be persuaded to respond to what we have to say.
In the rest of this book I will cover many important topics concerned with what it means to defend the faith in the twenty- first century, including the role of the Bible, ethics, philosophy, the history of ideas, and so on. But it will all be wasted unless the allure of gentleness pervades all that we do.