There’s an endemic neglect of apologetics in my context. Most people I have talked with about it haven’t even heard the word “apologetics.” That wouldn’t be terribly important, if I wasn’t also sure that it’s because the concept and practice of apologetics wasn’t heard of, either. Apologetics is the name for this thing, it’s in the literature, and so if that word is unfamiliar to people, then it’s likely the concept is, too.
As I’ve continued to wonder and think over the dearth of apologetics, I have an idea that it is partly due to what Christians think about unbelief.
Where is it? We Christians, we have this funny thing. We pretend like unbelief is out there, somewhere. So beyond the horizon, in fact, that we don’t even get ourselves ready to challenge it with the Word of God.
Unbelief is a problem. Unbelief is not good. Unbelief = bad. If it exists, it needs to be fought with Scripture.
Is there unbelief, somewhere? That’s a rhetorical question. Until that changes, apologetics will remain mandatory. Apologetics is not an option.
Where is unbelief? I think it’s helpful to think of unbelief in three spheres.
In the Christian
Those of us who have been united to Christ still struggle with unbelief. Amen? We still have unbelief. True, the power of sin over us has been broken. Yet, we are not perfect. We still await total redemption, when Christ will restore us and all things.
Until then, we wrestle with unbelief. We suffer from a bad case of Gospel-amnesia. We uncritically absorb anti-Christian presuppositions. There’s always the chance of being taken captive by philosophy based on human tradition, and not based on Christ. As we grow in maturity, we continue to uncover unChristian beliefs. Or we fall back on old patterns of thinking. We are prone to wander.
We have an unbelief problem. It’s one of those things that we don’t want to do, yet do. As Paul wrote about in Romans 7.
Unbelief is not only a problem that exists in unbelievers. It’s also a problem for believers. Sin remains, though we are no longer slaves to it. My favorite way of expressing it is: “unbelief is no respecter of persons.” As Joseph Torres masterfully put it,
Finally, apologetics is also application of Scripture to unbelief. Unbelief is no respecter of persons. Both Christians and non-Christians wrestle with doubt and suspicion. A biblical apologetic targets unbelief wherever it may be found, strengthening the faith of Christians and calling unbelievers to repentance and faith in Christ.
—Joseph Torres, Introduction to Apologetics: A Justification of Christian Belief by John Frame (edited by Joseph E. Torres, 2nd edition)
I never get tired of that explanation. The fact is, unbelief is not merely an unbeliever’s problem. It’s also ours. And far too often, for far too long, we have pretended otherwise. “Don’t ask questions, just believe.” “Don’t overthink it.” “We don’t have to know too much.” “Don’t bother with all these intellectual issues. Just have faith.” We look away and pretend like the elephant of unbelief isn’t in the room. Not only is the elephant in the room, he’s sitting on your head.
This is nothing less than a lack of vigilance. A lack of faithfulness to Christ. If we are not even self-aware enough to recognize the problem, then how can we ever hope to be strengthened and corrected by Scripture? If there’s no problem, there’s no need for correction, is there?
Truly, if we are self-conscious at all, our hearts bear witness with that man in the gospel of Mark,
I do believe! Help my unbelief.
Is that not our state?
Are you challenging your unbelief with the Word of God? What are your doubts and suspicions? Even deeper: are you self-conscious of what you believe? Are your most fundamental convictions based on Scripture? Is your worldview securely founded on the rock—the Word of Christ? Or is your worldview sitting on the unsure sand of autonomous reason—unbelief?
Are you having your unbelief challenged by the Word through the personal reading of the Scriptures, but especially by the Word preached on the Lord’s Day? Are you in relationships where there is Gospel-centered conversation? Are you in fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ who are able to tell God’s Word to you in love? When unbelief is found in you, will there be an application of Scripture from you and others?
In the Household of God
Unbelief is a problem for your brothers and sisters in the Lord. Within the family of faith, there is still unbelief. Unless they are unlike you and I, they still have the same struggle.
Apologetics is not just for unbelievers. That we have already established. Continuing that line of thought, apologetics is not only for you, it is also for your family in Christ. It’s for the rest of the body. You are not merely to be able to apply, and have applied, the Word of God to your unbelief, but you are also to be able to apply Scripture to their unbelief. You are to be able to apply the Word of God to the indwelling unbelief of your fellow believers.
As previously mentioned, we’ve pretended like it’s not a problem, and have been putting bandaids on amputees. We give superficial treatment to serious wounds. When Christians have serious, honest questions, or doubts and suspicions, how have we responded? “Don’t ask, just believe.” “Just have faith.” “You don’t need theology, just love Jesus.” “We want to focus on relationships, not intellectual things.”
This is a lack of love and compassion, and respect, for human beings made in the image of God. There’s no gentleness or respect if there are no answers. On the mere level of humanity, it is cruel not to apply the effectual Word of God to people’s doubts, struggles, suspicions, and questions. But there’s another level. These are Christians. These are people who have been bought, not by mere precious metals or stones, but by the precious blood of Christ. These are the sheep that Jesus died for. Does not the church need the Word, as newborn infants need milk to survive? Have we not been commanded to let the Word dwell richly in us? Are we not required to lovingly speak the truth to one another? Shouldn’t we care for one another? Can we honestly say that we love our brother or sister if we won’t even apply Scripture to their unbelief; answering their honest questions and listening to their serious doubts?
Frankly, I don’t know what’s going on in the pulpit and in fellowship if the Word of Christ is not being applied to unbelief that lingers.
The believer must learn apologetics for his or her own spiritual well-being, as well as for becoming an agent of reform for the untrained Christian.
—Greg Bahnsen, Pushing the Antithesis pg. 17
There’s the first two spheres of unbelief, right there. You, and those with you; the individual and the corporate. Inward, outward.
Scripture regularly refers to groups like they are an individual entity. Just think of the ways God’s people is talked about throughout the Bible. This could carry a blog post all it’s own, but I’ll mention that unbelief even exists on that corporate level. An example would be a local church, a congregation, operating on assumptions that are actually based on human autonomy.
The point is, unbelief isn’t only a persistent problem for the Christian individual, it’s also a lingering issue in the church. The believer needs apologetics, and the church as well needs apologetics.
Are you able to help them? Here’s a hard question: do you know God’s Word well enough to be able to help your brothers and sisters follow Jesus? Are you equipped to strengthen the faith of other believers? If one of your siblings in the Lord walked up to you and asked you to help them follow Jesus, to strengthen them in the faith, what would you do? What is your plan? Do you know Scripture to the point where you can discern if the group is operating on unbiblical beliefs?
Are you able to say to a fellow disciple,
Don’t be an unbeliever, but a believer.
If you are unable to, that’s a problem. Repent.
In the World
Notice the area of each sphere is wider than the previous. First, unbelief is a problem for the individual Christian. Second, naturally following from the individual is the body of Christ. Unbelief is within the church. What’s the only area that’s left? Outside the body. The place where all Christians readily admit there being unbelief. The world. Those who are not in Christ, but in Adam. Unbelief is a problem in the world. Hence, they are unbelievers. It’s the unbelieving world (distinguished from believers, who are also in the world).
Notice how the great commission is rendered at the end of Mark’s Gospel: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation.” (16:15)
My favorite rendering of the great commission is at the end of the Gospel of Luke:
He also said to them, “This is what is written: The Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead the third day, and repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.
This is my favorite because the unity between the Gospel and disciple-making is made clear. The Gospel (the message of Christ) is not alone, in isolation. The Gospel is the power of God unto salvation. The Gospel creates a particular people. The people of God, the church, is a necessary consequence of the Gospel. The Gospel results in a corporate body, by God’s design. God the Father ordained a people for his Son, reconciled by his redemptive work, to be called out from the world and made alive by the Spirit. You do not have disciples without the Gospel. And if there are no disciples, I’m questioning whether you have the Gospel. They go together. You cannot separate the Gospel and the church.
As is made clear in the Christ’s commissioning of his disciples in Matthew,
Then Jesus came near and said to them, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Disciple-making is a result of Christ’s lordship. This is not merely his lordship according to his divinity (which he always possessed, from eternity). It is authority that has been given, because of his completed redemptive work. What does that have to do with apologetics?
but honor the Messiah as Lord in your hearts. Always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. However, do this with gentleness and respect, keeping your conscience clear . . .
—1 Peter 3:15-16
Look at that: Lordship. Redemptive Lordship. Christ’s lordship backs our speaking of the Gospel and giving a defense (i.e. disciple-making) in the unbelieving world. Christ’s lordship drives us to apply Scripture to unbelief, calling for repentance and faith in Christ, and to continue to apply it, “teaching everything.”
Unbelief is out in the world. Christians readily admit this. Do we live like we believe it? How many of you are always ready to give a defense to anyone that may ask you? That’s a tall order. How many of us can honestly raise our hand and say, “I am equipped to offer a defense at anytime, to any unbeliever, regardless of their expertise, culture, or level of intelligence.”
Furthermore, the Bible teaches that every Christian should be able to deal with every problem at any time. God expects you to deal with any form of opposition to the Christian faith. The New Testament writers challenge their original audiences—and you—to be defenders of the faith. In the verse that serves as the cornerstone of Christian apologetics, Peter commands: “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15; see also Jude 3). Note that Christians-as-such (not just the philosophically-minded among us!) are commanded “always” to answer “every man.” Sadly, few evangelical students learn this in their home churches.
—Greg Bahnsen, Pushing the Antithesis pg. 17
How many of us, when we do give a defense, consciously set apart Christ as Lord? Meaning, is our defense founded on and guided by Christ’s Word? Is our defense under Christ’s Lordship?
God has ordained that we be the means. Unbelief in the world is to be confronted by God’s Word through God’s people. That much is clear from Luke 24, it is a consequence of Christ’s redemptive work. Our Lord said: “This is what is written: . . . repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations.” That’s God’s plan. The corporate people that Christ has redeemed is a missionary people, an apologetic people.
And the Bible also directs us to defend the faith—not because God would be helpless without us, but because this is one of His ordained means of glorifying Himself and vindicating His truth. . . .
It is God Himself, speaking through Peter’s inspired words [1 Peter 3:15], who calls upon us as believers—each and every one of us—to be prepared to defend the faith in the face of challenges and questions which come from unbelievers—any one of them.
The necessity of apologetics is not a divine necessity: God can surely do His work without us. The necessity of apologetics is a moral necessity: God has chosen to do His work through us and has called us to it. Apologetics is the special talent of some believers, and the interested hobby of others; but it is the God-ordained responsibility of all believers.
—Greg Bahnsen, Always Ready pg. 110
If we are not making disciples, do we even possess the Gospel? If we are not always ready to give a defense to anyone, ready to engage unbelief with God’s Word, are we a disciple of Christ? If we are not confronting unbelief in ourselves, in the household of God, and out in the world, then how can we say we have been transformed by the good news of Jesus Christ? Scripture clearly testifies that the consequence of the Gospel is a specific people, set apart by the truth, commanded to engage unbelief with that truth, whether it be in the body or out.
Let us strive to be ready to apply Scripture to all three spheres of unbelief: in us, in the body of Christ, and out in the world.