Our spiritual conversations should reflect God’s character
Explaining reasons to believe doesn’t have to strictly be an intellectual thing. In fact, it shouldn’t be—especially when we’re talking to our skeptical friends, neighbors, and others who see Christianity differently. No, apologetics is way more profound in terms of its role in cultural engagement.
Character plays a key role in this. And it isn’t just about adding memorized apologetic answers to your life. Developing a Christian character needs to be part of our discipleship to Jesus. I can’t tell you how many times the importance of character has come up in my work with other apologists, in my ministry, and in my teaching at William Jessup University. Let me give you just four examples from my work at Dallas Theological Seminary.
The Relationship of Confidence and Character
First, I talked to my friend Sean McDowell about an activity he uses to help Christians think about how we can tend to approach engaging with atheists. We agreed that many times, it seems like your confidence in the faith is linked to your ability to stay respectful in difficult spiritual conversations. Sean said:
One of my favorite things to do at churches, camps, conferences, is this: I show up. People know it’s me, that I’m a Christian professor, but I go into role play and I put on glasses and [play the role of] an atheist…then I open it up for questions from the audience. I respond and I shoot them down…graciously and kindly as an atheist to break their stereotypes of how they think atheists may be. Almost every time I do it…people get frustrated. They get upset. I’ve been called names. I’ve literally had a guy stand up and threaten me! People get angry and you can feel the tension coming over the crowd.
Then I’ll stop, I’ll take the glasses off, and instead of saying, “How do we defend faith?” I’ll say, “Here’s my first question. How did you treat me as your atheist guest?” And the eyes of people, it’s like, “Oh, my goodness. I hated you. I wanted to bash you. I was angry at you.”
And then I’ll say, “Why did people get so defensive? I think it’s because you don’t really know what you believe and why.” When I push back, it shows an insecurity so you lash out with anger and defensiveness.
So, if we want to be able to talk about difficult subjects, we have to have a confidence in terms of what we believe. Then we’re not threatened when people challenge our faith.
Next, I’m reminded of another one of my friends, Mary Jo Sharp. She explained her early experiences of feeling intimidated at the thought of sharing her faith. But now, she says that knowing what you believe and why you believe it can help you avoid that feeling of being flustered, defensive, or angry. I agree. I’m a firm believer that we, as Christian apologists, must reflect the character of God while engaging with people form different backgrounds.
The Blending of Conviction and Compassion
Third, I remember very clearly, John Dickson sharing this image of what he called “part of the genius of Jesus,” which was “flexing two muscles at the same time: The muscle of conviction and the muscle of compassion.” That stuck with me.
There’s also an exchange between John and my mentor, Darrell Bock, that happened later that day that comes to mind as part of this. We need to reflect God’s loving character and his engagement of the world. What do the Scriptures say about how we should engage?
John Dickson: 1 Peter 3:15 says that you’re to give an apologia but do this with prouteitos kai fobos: gentleness and respect. Because you can’t defend this Lord that you set apart in your heart…without gentleness and respect.
Darrell Bock: Colossians 4:5 and 6 goes to the same place: “Let your speech with outsiders always be gracious.” There’s an interesting combination of moral challenge and invitation that’s part of the way the Christian’s supposed to function…conviction and compassion together…you’ve got to have both. It can’t be one or the other or else it will absolutely fail.
Here, the Apostle Paul is emphatic about how grace should characterize a Christian Ambassador at all times. This, along with the demeanor commanded in 1 Peter 3:15-16, should inform the way we go about having spiritual conversations. Because the people we talk to about God, Jesus, and the Bible cannot just be “another notch in your belt.” We don’t get to do that. We have to love them.
The Importance of Listening and Loving
That imagery comes from Nathan Wagnon at Watermark church and it’s another one that’s stuck with me. Nathan’s the only person I know whose job title is “Pastor of Equipping and Apologetics” and he shared that idea while we were talking about the importance of loving people while doing apologetics. He’s the fourth example that comes to mind. He told me:
One of the greatest mistakes that I think a lot of evangelicals make is we think of evangelism as like closing the deal…You start to feel like a used car salesman, ’cause you’re trying to push people towards, ‘Yeah, but do you want to pray this prayer? Do you want to accept Jesus?’ And unfortunately there’s a lot of people who are trying to push toward that because of insecurities in their own lives. Their spiritual life, a lot of times, is deficient. And so they’re trying to fill that void with ministry activism, so that they can raise their hand and go, ‘See how the Lord used me?’ so that they can get this sense of self worth.
And that expresses itself, a lot of times, by people who don’t listen. They’re using the space, when someone else is talking, to formulate in their own minds how they’re gonna respond, instead of actually listening to what the person is saying. And what I would say to that is, ‘We don’t get to do that.’ Jesus has called us to love people. And that looks like treating them with value and worth, because they are valuable, and they do matter to God, who’s deeply loved by God, who deeply matters…we don’t get to just mow over people. We have to love them.
Confidence Leads to Compassion
As apologists, we are keenly aware of our responsibility to give reasons for the hope we have in Christ. But it’s that very hope—along with the confidence that comes with knowing what we believe and why we believe it—that allows us to be compassionate, gentle, and respectful. This is so important for engagement and dialogical apologetics.
Apologetics shouldn’t just be an intellectual pursuit. Our character and our tone must communicate our love for those we challenge with the gospel. And that means approaching apologetics as dialogue—a more relational, holistic, person-centered conversation—rather than an issue-centered debate. May God grant us the grace to reflect God’s character as we engage the culture, make the case for Christianity, and defend the faith.
Recommended resources related to the topic:
Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions by Greg Koukl (Book)
Fearless Faith by Mike Adams, Frank Turek and J. Warner Wallace (Complete DVD Series)
Mikel Del Rosario helps Christians explain their faith with courage and compassion. He is a doctoral student in the New Testament department at Dallas Theological Seminary. Mikel teaches Christian Apologetics and World Religion at William Jessup University. He is the author of Accessible Apologetics and has published over 20 journal articles on apologetics and cultural engagement with his mentor, Dr. Darrell Bock. Mikel holds an M.A. in Christian Apologetics with highest honors from Biola University and a Master of Theology (Th.M) from Dallas Theological Seminary where he serves as Cultural Engagement Manager at the Hendricks Center and a host of the Table Podcast. Visit his Web site at ApologeticsGuy.com.
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