Christian Apologetics is “the art of offering reasons why Christianity is true.” This prac-tice goes all the way back to the very beginning of our faith. The Apostle Peter exhorted the early church to do apologetics in his first letter to the early church (1 Peter 3:15). Likewise, the Apostle Paul spoke of the Christian responsibility to “destroy arguments” made against the faith (2 Corinthians 10:5). He even asserted that the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is of “first importance” to what we believe (1 Corinthians 15:14-19). It would be an understatement to say that apologetics is important. This is a reality God’s people have recognized from the very beginning and for many centuries ever since.
Yet, despite this solid apologetic foundation, there has recently been a growing suspi-cion against apologetics in Christian circles. Many are now even voicing strong disdain for Christian case-making. These Christians have instead argued for only presenting the gospel to unbelievers. This “gospel-only” alternative has since been promoted as the more biblical ap-proach to evangelism and apologetics, despite the fact that it’s actually a denial of apologetics altogether. What reasons do these gospel-only advocates give for this approach? There are four such reasons:
First, gospel-only advocates argue that since man is totally depraved (the reformed understanding of human nature), only the Holy Spirit can bring about conversion. As the phrase goes, “You can’t argue anyone into the Kingdom” – only the Holy Spirit can do that. Thus, apologetic arguments are futile at best and a distraction from the gospel at worst.
Second, gospel-only advocates argue that using arguments to establish the truthful-ness of Christianity disrespects God’s authority because it puts human reason over and above God’s revealed word (the Bible). Thus, the only God-honoring way to present the gospel is to ask the unbeliever to presuppose the authority of scripture and believe the gospel.
Third, gospel-only advocates argue that the Holy Spirit only uses the gospel itself as the means of convincing someone that Christianity is true. He never uses arguments, a changed life, or the believer’s moral integrity to do that. Only the gospel has the power of God to bring salvation (Romans 1:16).
Fourth, gospel-only advocates argue that presenting anything in addition to the pure, simple gospel is inappropriately adding to the gospel. This demonstrates a disrespect for God’s word, deeming what He has said is sufficient as insufficient.
As thoughtful Christians, we would be wise not to accept or reject such an approach simply on the basis of our personal preferences. We must instead analyze these reasons and see if they re-ally are scriptural and if they really do reflect reality. With that in mind, let’s begin.
First, does the depravity of man and the necessity of the Spirit’s role in salvation preclude logical arguments? Not unless one argues that God always does such work directly. Yet, most reformed theologians agree: God uses means to do His work in the world. He uses people. As Romans 10:14-15 says,
“How, then, can they call on him they have not believed in? And how can they believe without hearing about him? And how can they hear without a preacher? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news” (CSB).
In other words, God uses people to share the gospel. He works through people’s words to bring conversions. That does not necessarily mean that people’s words have the power within them-selves to bring repentance in the heart of the unbeliever. But it does mean those words are the very thing God used to bring a person to the point of conversion. In that sense, those words brought them to salvation. So, even under the reformed view of human nature, because God us-es means, it isn’t true that people can’t be “argued into heaven” because, just like anything else, God can use arguments to bring an unbeliever to salvation. I’ve seen it happen personally. God uses apologetic arguments to bring people to repentance, and this reality does not contradict the reformed understanding of human nature. Thus, the first reason gospel-only advocates give for their approach fails.
Second, is it true that we must presuppose the truthfulness of the Bible to respect God as our authority properly? This argument is based on a profound misunderstanding of truth and authority. While it is undoubtedly true that God is ontologically authoritative over us (even over what we think makes the most logical sense), that is a different question from epistemo-logically knowing which claim to authority is legitimate. This is an important distinction, so allow me to illustrate it. Imagine you are a high-ranking government official who’s in charge of launching nuclear bombs at other countries at the command of your nation’s president. Now, imagine you receive two letters in the mail, both claiming to be from the true president of your country. One tells you to nuke Russia, while the other tells you not to nuke Russia. How do you decide? Clearly, whichever one is from the real president has authority over you. But how do you know which claim to be your authority is legitimate? Do you randomly pick one letter and “presuppose” that it is from the authentic president? Or do you investigate to see which letter is most likely to be from the real president, based on the evidence? Of these two alternatives, which would be more honoring of the president’s authority? Clearly, the latter option. Yet, this approach is precisely what the gospel-only advocates chide as being disrespectful to God’s au-thority. When the unbeliever is faced with competing worldview assertions, all claiming to be authoritatively true, what form of decision-making would be most honoring to the legitimate authority? Would it not be the form that carefully evaluates the evidence to eliminate the frauds and establish the legitimate authority as the correct one? While it is true that the proper course of action is to submit to whichever authority is authentic, knowing which one that is happens to be a very different issue. In response, gospel-only advocates may assert that God makes the gospel’s authenticity clear to the unbeliever, but this raises the question of means. If God does make the gospel’s legitimacy clear, could He not do so by means of apologetic arguments? To pit God’s work in a person’s heart against one of the means by which He accomplishes that work is a misunderstanding at best and disingenuous at worst. Thus, this second argument for the gospel-only approach fails.
Third, is it true that God only uses the gospel message itself to convince unbelievers of the Christian message? Or, put another way, is it true that the only means God uses to change a person’s heart is the gospel itself? The answer is actually both “yes” and “no,” just in different senses. Consider this: what is the goal of presenting the gospel to someone? While other pur-poses are also in mind, the most foundational of them is to provide the content of the salvation message. No one can believe what they don’t know about. That’s Paul’s whole point in Romans 10 (above). So, in that sense, only the gospel can result in salvation since it is itself the invitation to salvation. But what about apologetics? Christian case-making has an entirely different purpose in mind. While the gospel is meant to provide the content of the salvation message, apologetics is intended to provide the credibility of the salvation message. In other words, apologetics is an attempt to help the unbeliever see that the gospel message comes from the legitimate authority, and isn’t just another counterfeit. No apologist argues that Christian case-making can provide the content only the gospel can; we’re simply arguing that apologetics helps that content go down easier. It’s the sweet coating around the medicine. Given that clarification, is the belief that God only uses the gospel itself to establish both content and credibility biblical? No. First, this belief is not supported anywhere in scripture. Second, scripture implicitly contradicts this belief (1 Cor 5:1, 10:32-33, 14:23, 1 Thess 4:12, Col 4:5-6, 1 Tim 3:7, Matt 5:16, etc.). Thus, for these reasons, this third argument fails.
Fourth, is it true that anything other than the gospel-only approach inappropriately adds to the gospel? If by adding to the gospel, one means communicating extra information, then yes, we are adding to the gospel… but so is the gospel-only advocate every time he says any-thing to the unbeliever besides the gospel message – even a greeting! Yet, if by adding to the gospel, one means distorting or changing the meaning of the gospel message, then no, we are not adding to the gospel. The gospel presented by Christian apologists is the same gospel presented by the gospel-only advocate: that Christ died for our sins and offers salvation to anyone who appropriates his atoning sacrifice by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Thus, this fourth argument fails.
In light of this evaluation, it becomes evident that the rejection (or redefining) of Christian apologetics in favor of a "gospel-only" approach lacks a solid scriptural and logical foundation. While the gospel undoubtedly holds central importance in the Christian faith, dismissing the role of apologetics disregards the various ways through which God interacts with humanity. As demonstrated, the use of logical arguments, when aligned with the gospel message, does not supplant or dilute the gospel's authority but enhances its credibility and accessibility. By understanding the complementary nature of apologetics and the gospel, Christians can engage in a more holistic and effective approach to sharing the faith. In embracing the rich tradition of Christian apologetics and its intrinsic value, we uphold the legacy of the early church, affirming the significance of offering reasoned explanations for the truth of Christianity. As we navigate the complexities of contemporary discussions, let us not forsake the vital role of apologetics in illuminating the path of unbelievers toward understanding and embracing the amazing message of the gospel.