Apologetic Evangelism… An Oxymoron?

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
24th August 2012

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Apologetic evangelism is neither apologetics nor evangelism. Since the language of today is apologetic, and certainty is considered arrogance, how then can we evangelise modern, or post-modern, society?

Evangelism is the declaration of the great news of Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is the announcement of God’s victory in his Son; the proclamation of the coming of the age of salvation. It calls upon people to repent and tells them to trust Jesus for their salvation. It assures them of the full, complete forgiveness that Jesus has won for them and the new life that his Spirit brings them.

There is nothing to apologize for in evangelism. It is the most wonderful news that we will ever have to tell anybody. Judgement over, condemnation passed, sins forgiven, new life commenced, eternity awaiting us as we grow in God’s loving grace.

But today the world accuses those who speak with such confidence, of arrogance. They ask: Who can really speak of knowing the truth that will set you free? Isn’t everything just a matter of opinion and everybody’s opinion of equal worth? At best you can suggest that it “may be worth considering” the view that Jesus died for our sins and rose again for our justification.

So our modern evangelist suggests it with apologies – “I know that it is a view that is old fashioned and caused some considerable strife, dividing communities and even families – but it may be worth pondering.” “I know I can’t prove that it is true, that it’s all a matter of opinion, – I am only asking you to ponder the possibility that there may be something in it.” 

If we are going to be so bold as to suggest that people should change their religion, shouldn’t we apologise for all the wrong things that our church has done over the centuries? Shouldn’t we assure people that they are every bit as moral as we are and their views have as much, if not more, good points than ours? Isn’t considering Christianity superior pride?

The Lord Jesus warned us not to be ashamed of either him or the gospel. He said to his disciples: “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38).

And the Apostle Paul declared: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16). Just as he told his colleague Timothy: “Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God” (2 Timothy 1:8).

In the face of boastful Jews and Greeks, Paul was adamant that he was not ashamed of the gospel. Shame did not govern or even affect his decisions in life. He had reason to be ashamed. When he went to Athens he was put down by the philosophers of his day calling him a “babbler” and a “preacher of foreign divinities” and when he explained the resurrection, “some mocked” (Acts 17:18, 32). “Babbler” was an insulting term, referring to the way scavenging birds pick up seeds. It was a way of saying that he was stealing scraps of information and peddling them as his own serious thought or argument. But he knew the righteousness of God that the Gospel revealed – and there was no wavering in his faith that would lead him to be ashamed.

Paul did not apologise for being a Christian but he used apologetics as he preached the gospel.  He rejoiced with the Philippians in both the “defence and confirmation of the gospel” (Phil 1:7). He argued and dialogued with the opponents of the gospel. In Acts, his evangelistic work is described as involving arguing, reasoning and persuading - as for example in Ephesus where “he spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading” in the synagogue and then reasoned daily in the hall of Tyrannus (Acts 19:8f). In his relationship with the Corinthians he speaks of destroying “arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God” and taking “every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).

This was not apologising for dividing the synagogue community or for offending other people’s religion or for calling people callous, greedy and impure (Ephesians 4:19).  Paul’s apologetics was not apologising for the gospel or its effects upon people – there was nothing to apologise about in the gospel. His apologetics were a form of arguing and answering objections as he declared the truth of the gospel, and through this he showed the folly of rejecting it or embracing other views. In this he was no different to his saviour, who made no apology for speaking the offensive truth boldly.

In adopting today’s language of humble uncertainty, we may be denying our own message. For we may be agreeing with the moderns’ arrogance that God is answerable to human reason rather than human reason being answerable to God; and confirming the post-moderns’ irrational relativism that everything is just a matter of opinion and God is answerable to me.

Is speaking with humble apology a genuine attempt at “being all things to all people”, or is it a mask for our embarrassment about the Gospel?

It is not triumphalism, but the truth that Jesus liberates us to live different – and better – lives than we were living when we were in “the domain of darkness”.

Evangelism doesn’t simply speak the truth, it also changes lives and societies;  from worse to better.  It is the “power” of God at work in the world today. No need to apologise for that – just tell people the great news and pray for God’s Spirit to work in them.