By Marilyn Stewart
NEW ORLEANS — The need for Christian Apologetics – the clearing of obstacles to faith so that the Gospel can take root – has never been greater. This sobering message greeted attendees of the annual Defend the Faith conference, Jan. 4-8, at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (NOBTS).
“Every age presents unique challenges to the Christian faith,” said Rhyne Putman, assistant professor of theology and culture at NOBTS and Defend the Faith director. “We face moral shifts in our culture, religious pluralism, other competing worldviews, and assaults on religious liberty.”
Sponsored by the NOBTS Institute for Christians Apologetics, the event was attended by more than 200 people. One-third of the registrants were college students from across the nation.
Plenary sessions were streamed via the Internet to insure the event and its message had an even wider reach. One current missionary in East Asia that watched the live-streamed sessions emailed one speaker to thank him for his candid portrayal of the difficulties facing those who engage a non-Christian culture.
Featured among the more than two-dozen speakers were resurrection scholar Gary Habermas; Tom Gilson, author and senior editor of The Stream, a daily national news webpage; Paul Copan, noted author on current apologetic issues; former International Mission Board worker Nik Ripken, and others. Session topics included answering atheists’ objections; science and miracles; foundations of biblical inerrancy; engaging other worldviews; arguments for God’s existence; and more.
Apologetics – from the Greek word ‘apologia,’ meaning “to defend” – addresses questions and objections raised by those outside the faith.
“The NOBTS Institute for Christian Apologetics exists to train as many believers as possible to defend their faith as well as possible,” said Robert Stewart, Institute for Christian Apologetics director. “Missions, evangelism, sound doctrine, and apologetics go hand in hand. Apologetics is an essential ingredient of faithful biblical ministry. NOBTS is all in when it comes to equipping believers to share and defend their faith.”
‘A matchless Gospel’
Douglas Groothuis, professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary, pointed to 1 Peter 3:15 in identifying apologetics as a “tremendous privilege, opportunity and obligation.” Every believer can be prepared to defend the faith, he said.
“We ought to be in public and interpersonally engaging people with the matchless gospel of our Lord,” Groothuis said. “God can accommodate our mistakes. You don’t have to be a master of apologetic method to do apologetics.”
Believers can engage the culture with confidence because the gospel is “objectively true, compellingly rational and appropriate or existentially pertinent to the whole of life,” Groothuis said.
“Take it to the streets,” Groothuis said, urging listeners to use their apologetic skills to lead others to Christ. “We all have opportunity in different spheres of life to be living witnesses, to be living sacrifices for the truth of the gospel.”
Groothuis told of talking to students at a secular university who listened politely as he discussed faith, but whose attention became rapt when he shared of his wife’s struggle with a debilitating illness.
Lament, the honest reflection of suffering before God as in Psalm 13, can be a form of apologetic when it is communicated that the Christian faith provides the best explanation of suffering and “the best tools to ‘suffer well,’” Groothuis said.
Calling on listeners to be prepared always to defend the faith, Groothuis said, “Out-think the world for Christ. Out-suffer the world for our Suffering Servant.”
When Atheists turn to God
Jana Harmon, a C. S. Lewis Institute teaching fellow, told of her interviews of 50 former atheists who came to faith in Christ. Prior to conversion, none perceived Christians as educated people, she said.
“Not a single one,” Harmon reiterated. “[Christians] have a P. R. problem.”
Despite the overwhelming perception of Christians as uneducated, Harmon said most of those interviewed embraced atheism based on emotional reasons rather than intellectual reasons. Harmon pointed to the impact of relationship in an atheist coming to faith.
“Eighty-two percent thought social interaction ‘softened’ them toward Christianity,” Harmon said. “Sometimes, the love of God lived out through His people can turn a soul back to God.”
‘The Most Important Thing’
Robert Stewart pointed to 1 Peter 3:15 and warned listeners that loving apologetics more than Jesus would be idolatry. The “most important thing” for an apologist is sanctifying Christ in one’s heart, Stewart said.
“The only sufficient basis for apologetics is love for Christ as Lord in your heart,” Stewart said. “Love for ministry is not a good enough reason; love for people is not a good enough reason. The only sufficient basis for apologetics is love for Christ as Lord in your heart.”
Only love can win an audience for the Gospel, only a gentle and respectful approach can lead people to Christ, Stewart concluded.