The Confident Christian
1/20/14 at 10:45 AM 9 Comments

How to do Apologetics like the Apostle Paul

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A veritable sea of competing religions, beliefs, and worldviews.

A vast number of vocal skeptics and antagonistic mockers.

A strong spirit of persecution, marginalization, and governmental hostility.

These are some of the major characteristics of the Apostle Paul’s world that existed over two thousand years ago. I think you would agree with me that they are also (sadly) becoming increasingly representative of our present day where the exclusive claims of Christianity are concerned and reflect how our society treats those who desire to faithfully live and proclaim God’s Word.

However, despite such a climate, we read that even Paul’s enemies complained that his preaching had “upset the world” (Acts 17:6). What was it about Paul’s apologetic and evangelistic approach that caused him to become such a powerful and influential force in his world and what can we learn from it so that we can have the same impact?

Finding Paul’s Apologetic Framework

In Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, we find his apologetic approach and framework articulated as follows: “We give thanks to God always for all of you, making mention of you in our prayers; constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father, knowing, brethren beloved by God, His choice of you; for our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake” (1 Thess. 1:2–5, my emphasis).

In these few verses, the Apostle plainly describes his approach to apologetics. Paul’s gospel came to the people in three distinct ways:

  1. A message that was proclaimed.
  2. A method that relied on the power of the Holy Spirit.
  3. A manner that showcased a changed life and love for those around him.

Paul’s three-pronged apologetic tactic was formed to address humankind’s three dimensions: (1) the rationale dimension; (2) the spiritual dimension; (3) the moral dimension.

After studying Paul’s approach for a number of years, I’ve come to label it Three-Witness Apologetics.[1] Let me walk you through each area and briefly touch on the particulars of what is involved.

The Message of Paul

The first part of Paul’s apologia (defense of the Christian faith) was his message. The interesting thing is that when you make a study of Paul’s preaching in the book of Acts and in his writings, you won’t find explicitly constructed classical proofs for the existence of God or philosophically styled arguments that make the case for Christianity as we often find today.

Instead, the Apostle’s message was basic and not complicated or difficult to ascertain, and was grounded in both space/time history and the Scriptures.[2] It unabashedly proclaimed the existence of God, the dilemma of humankind’s separation from Him, the need to repent, and the work of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.

The Apostle’s message rejected fideism and instead utilized historically evidentiary arguments, with the resurrection of Christ being the primary historical event Paul employed in his effort to move his audience from faith in the ‘seen’ to faith in the unseen. There is little doubt that Paul saw the resurrection as the climactic, historically verifiable God-act that confirms who God is (according to the truth-claims of Jesus) and something that forms the core evidence of the gospel. Therefore, it is capable of serving as the apex of the Christian apologist’s evidentially-based argument.

The Method of Paul

The second component of Paul’s apologetic framework is his method, which relied on the power of the Holy Spirit to work monergistically within the Apostle’s audience to overcome the effects of sin and open their heart to receive the things being spoken of by Paul. The Spirit worked in and through Paul to declare the gospel message, provided empowerment to perform miracles, and used various rhetorical techniques employed by Paul to convince His audience of the truths that were being proclaimed.

Paul believed it was the Holy Spirit alone who could take an unbeliever from the historical evidences that could be verified via human reason, to the unseen spiritual truths that are rejected by fallen humankind.[3] Only the Spirit could open unbelievers’ hearts so that they had the will to believe and only He could given them a new/right affection for God. The Spirit revealed the truth to their minds, sealed it upon their hearts, and in the end testified to the fact that they were indeed God’s children (Rom. 8:16) resulting in a firm knowledge-based belief and willful conviction of the gospel’s truth.

The Manner of Paul

The last part of Paul’s apologetic is his manner. He told the Thessalonians, “you know what kind of men we proved to be among you”. This facet of Paul’s framework incorporated a number of different dimensions. These included the Apostle’s outspoken testimony of his own changed life, his willingness to forsake all and become a bond-servant of Christ, his actions and teaching concerning persecution and adversity that would come through preaching the Gospel, a moral example he set for both unbelievers and believers, and the love he demonstrated to the same.

Paul’s manner included an exemplary life that spoke to both non-Christians and Christians alike. To nonbelievers, Paul exemplified God’s grace. If God could extend love to someone like Saul the Pharisee, then no one need fear that their sin could keep them from the salvation message Paul proclaimed. To believers, Paul mirrored his Master and urged others to follow the living example he set before them so that the authenticity of the message the community of Christians delivered would be validated by what the culture saw in their lives.

Unfortunately, it is this component of the Apostle’s apologetic that is missing most in the Church today.

What to Expect with Paul’s Apologetic

If the success of Paul’s apologetic and evangelistic mission were to be measured by his opposition, his work would be regarded as a catastrophic failure. The book of Acts alone chronicles more than 20 different episodes of rejection and opposition to Paul’s apologetic.[4] Such hostility and dismissal is to be expected, both in Paul’s day and ours, given that many unbelievers see a crucified deliverer as absurd and those in Judaism and Islam see Jesus as a piece of scandalous blasphemy.

Paul faced a rebellious and lost humanity, spiritual adversaries, and distrusting brethren, which no doubt caused the Apostle to despair at times (Phil. 2:17). Ultimately, Paul’s proclamation of the gospel led to his death. Paul was beheaded, tradition asserts, under the persecution of Nero at Aquae Salviae (now Tre Fontane) near the third milestone on the Ostian Way. Constantine built a small basilica in Paul’s honor by A.D. 324, which was discovered in 1835 during excavations preceding the erection of the present basilica. On one of the floors was found PAVLO APOSTOLO MART – “To Paul, apostle and martyr”.

To be sure, had Paul gone to them with his story and been honest about all his rejection and minor victories at the time, most of today’s Christian publishers would have balked at funding a book on his apologetics had they been around in the first century.

And yet… Paul’s message of truth and evidentiary arguments that centered on Christ’s resurrection, his method of reliance on the Holy Spirit to break down the natural rebellion that exists in all of us and receive Christ, and his manner that showcased a changed life and true concern for those he spoke to “upset the world”.

It has the same power to do that today.



[1] For my complete work on the subject, see: http://dspace.nwu.ac.za/handle/10394/4585.

[2] “I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:3–5).

[3] "Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words. But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised" (1 Cor. 2:12-14).

[4] See: Acts 9:23-25, 9:29, 13:8, 13:45, 13:50, 14:2-5, 14:19, 16:19-24, 17:5-32, 18:6-12, 19:9-23, 20:3-19, 21:27-31, 22:18, 23:2-12, 24:1-9, 25:2-24, 26:21, 28:22.

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