Apologetics begins in the hearts of maturing Christians who are even unfamiliar with the term. I think it gets a bum rap from those who see it as merely argumentative—and it can be just that if misused. It is not a defense of the gospel so much as it is an explanation for “the hope that is in you,” to continue the quote of 1 Peter 3:15. If we live as citizens of heaven, fearing God rather than men, we’ll be asked why. What a pity to be caught flat-footed when that question arises.
Apologetics is not merely a matter for professionals or academics but for all believers who “know that [they] have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). If we are going to follow the biblical imperative to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, souls, minds and strength, we will progressively have a better understanding of the “what” and the “why” of our beliefs. That knowledge comes first from the Scriptures, opened to us and applied to our lives by the Holy Spirit. But being ever more ready to “give a defense” will require some things from us.
Curiosity—We will naturally want to know more about the God we love. As we read his written Word, we’ll come across questions—the same questions asked by some who want to know about our faith. I like to write those down as I study a verse or passage. Often a question is answered or expanded in another verse of the Bible. Other questions or unfamiliar words can be addressed by books or online helps, but we won’t even seek the answer if we’re not in God’s Word and if we are not hungry to know more about him. Perhaps the best and most natural kind of apologetics is when someone asks us a question and we can say, “I had that same question, and this is what I came to understand.” It becomes a testimony at that point rather than a debating point.
Diligence—Read through 1 Timothy this week. It won’t take long, and you’ll notice something that struck me the last time I read it. Paul tells Timothy to work hard in his ministry of the Word. He uses metaphors of struggle (“warfare” in 1:19, “fight” in 6:12, “guard” in 6:20), frequent imperative language (“I charge you” in 1:18, “I exhort” in 2:1, “instruct” in 4:6, “reject” in 4:7, and many others), and in one challenging passage tells Timothy to “give attention” to the Word, “do not neglect” his ministry gift, “give yourself entirely,” and “take heed to yourself and to the doctrine.” He later refers to pastors as “laborers.” The point is that following Christ should be something that requires commitment and energy. Although the Bible does set a high standard for pastors, there is no indication that the rest of us are off the hook as far as intense interest and labor for the things of God. Are we as eager to know more of God as we are to learn more about a hobby or favorite recreational activity? Are we seeking God as passionately as we expect our pastors to do? A casually educated person who applies himself to Bible reading, prayer and obedience will surpass in his understanding of God a formally trained person for whom the whole thing is academic.
Intention—I do think 1 Peter 3:15 is referring to curiosity and diligence in our Christian walk for more reasons than just personal edification—edifying though they are. “Ready to give a defense,” indicates that we expect we’ll be asked or challenged. That requires an understanding of God that goes beyond a simple witnessing scheme such as the Romans Road (3:23; 6:23; 5:8; 10:13), though that is a useful scheme. Our best brief explanation of our faith is better as we understand more of what God has told us about himself, man, sin, redemption and eternity. But we learn these things partly with a missionary intent.
Intention also indicates an awareness of context. When Aquila and Priscilla explained the gospel to Apollos, they were telling him the rest of a story he already knew. Peter’s message on Pentecost was likewise to a crowd that knew redemption’s context but needed to know its fulfillment. But Paul had a very different challenge when he spoke to the Greeks on Mars Hill. He started with Romans 1 rather than John 3:16, so to speak. He knew his audience and could explain the gospel appropriately because he was curious himself about these things, diligent in study and intentional in his presentation.
Love—Perhaps this isn’t a motive often enough ascribed to theologians or even evangelists, but all believers are recipients of God’s love and should desire to reflect it toward others. If we see our neighbors as people in chains and bound for a godless eternity, we should care about that as much as someone cared to tell us. And yes, that requires that we learn more about our God and our faith in him so that we can explain it better every time.
Think of apologists as “explainers.” The explanation of the hope within us will be a bit different from person to person, in the same way our testimonies differ. Our story will, or should, gain depth and nuance as we follow Christ and grow in him. We don’t all have to become academics (though thank God some do), but we can all know God better than we did. I believe God will bring people into our lives appropriate to our maturity and preparedness to give an answer/defense/explanation of the hope within us. Our challenge from 1 Peter seems to be to care first about the things of God and then about the people around us who need to hear good news far more than they desire to hear it.