Evangelism First, Apologetics Second

By Scott Keith

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I’ve been lucky enough to have been trained under two of the greatest living Lutheran apologists, Dr. Rod Rosenbladt and Dr. John Warwick Montgomery. I’ve even had some tutoring from others along the way. Shaun C. Henson of Oxford University has done some interesting work with the idea of the universality of religious experience, which he shared with me while I was there. I have, in my own time as an apologist, made use of all of the tricks that these fine men have placed in my bag throughout the years.

One phrase has always stuck with me the most. Dr. Montgomery always taught us that apologetics is a species of evangelism and that evangelism comes first, and apologetics second. But, when I was young and newly trained, I was always looking for a fight. I––like so many other young men I’ve known over the years––wanted to see blood on the floor. I could think of nothing better than defeating my enemy, the pagan, and watching him cower in the face of my apologetic prowess.

No matter what it took––moral argument, evidential argument, classical arguments for the existence of God, I’d hit and hit and hit, until they just couldn’t take it anymore. And then, when I could see that they were on the ropes, I’d give them the flying right hook of Pascal’s Wager just for good measure. Then, like Rocky at the end of Rocky IV, I’d call out my victory over the giant that is paganism.

As I look back on the apologetic bouts of my youth, I rarely remember doing any real evangelism along the way. That is, I don’t recall doing what Rod and John always told me to do; evangelize first, and then defend the message of the Gospel if needed.

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I think my assumption was that my opponents knew the Gospel. My poor assumptions did what assumptions always do; make an Ass out of U and Me! Even if my opponents thought they knew the Gospel, why did I assume that they did? Most people I know don’t understand the Gospel to be the message of God’s free grace for sinners on account of the redemption won in the person and work of Christ. Most think the Gospel is Law; if you are good enough, follow God’s word enough, and then God will justify you.

Furthermore, why did I see these people as opponents? Maybe because I am, at times, a bit cantankerous. Or maybe, because though I was told to evangelize first, I heard win at all cost because the stakes are high. The stakes are high! After all, life everlasting is on the line. Those who are outside of the faith are not our opponents, they are sinners in need of saving, just as we are.

Somewhere along the way, I started to soften. I met Jim Nestingen, who taught me, or reminded me, of something that I had always believed, but never completely absorbed. That is, that it is the proclamation of the Gospel that brings sinners to Christ and that the Gospel needs to be our focus, not the defense of it.

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Trying to defend the Gospel before proclaiming the Gospel is somewhat akin to having faith in faith itself (fides in se). If Christians are going to defend something, usually the faith once passed down, they first have to establish what that faith is. This is what Paul does in 1 Corinthians 15:1-6 when he defines the Gospel:

“That Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.”

Then along came “E”. I’ve mentioned before here, that Joy and I have a friend who asked us to catechize his soon to be wife; we’ll call her “E”. When our friend approached us, he told me that she needed someone good in apologetics because she had many objections to the faith. He claimed that he had tried on some occasions, but that it was just not working.

So, Joy and I invited them over to dinner. As dinner progressed––I was very quiet––it became clear to me that E felt backed into a corner. That is, she wanted to consider this thing that we call Christianity, but she felt like she was in one of the aforementioned boxing matches. And while I am a pretty good apologetic pugilist, it just did not seem to me like she needed one more punch in the face.

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As dinner came to it’s conclusion, I, as calmly as I could, looked over at E and said: “Jesus Christ has taken all of your sin and shame upon Himself. In Him, you are free! He does not want you to continue to dive down into the cesspool of your sin and shame; His desire is that you trust in Him. In His name, you are forgiven.”

The room went silent. Presently, E asked a seemingly simple question. She asked “why”? My answer was more simple than her question, I think. I replied, “Because He loves you more than anything and wants you as His child. He has claimed you with His blood and wants you to come home.” As the tears fell from everyone’s faces I could see that we were no longer in the boxing ring––two opponents squaring off––we were in my home talking about Jesus’s love for E.

More time has past, and I have answered some apologetic questions along the way. Though, not as many as you would think. You see, what Rod, Dr. Montgomery, and even C. S. Lewis taught me over and over is true; Christianity does look different from the inside than it does from the outside.

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The more E learned about God’s plan of salvation in Christ, beginning with the first promise in the garden all the way to her sitting in my living room, the fewer objections she has had. Not long after that night, we were sitting in my office discussing the Apostle’s Creed and Luther’s explanations. All of a sudden E said to me: “You know, the more we talk about the Gospel, the harder it is for me not to believe. It seems so much easier to believe than not to believe. I believe!” E is a believer! She is a child of God and an heir to the throne! We will be with her one day in paradise!

Evangelism (Gospel) first, apologetics second! Praise be to God in Christ that He has added one more sinner saint to the motley crew He has called to be His family.

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6 thoughts on “Evangelism First, Apologetics Second

  1. Love this bro. Scott (or Dr. Keith). Hits the nail on the head in our polemic society. Old Adam wants to win battles, Christ wants to give us rest.

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  2. Good job and congratulations for sorting it out. I was recently reminded that the enemy we fight stands behind the people God loves and died for – those spiritual drivers that push the wrong way within and without. Apologetics can be the method, but never the substance of what we do. People and problems are always real, always watched over by our Lord and Savior, and always attended by his own dear children.

    Thanks for the post.

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