Apologetics and the Church: Building the faithful and winning the lost

Paul Coulter is a former lecturer in Practical Theology and Missiology at the Belfast Bible College. He is currently on Sabbatical and will soon begin a new post with Living Leadership. Paul is also a member of the Evangelical Alliance UK Council and serves on the board for New Horizon Ministries.


Apologetics is an awful name for a great idea. It sounds like we are apologising for something – desperately trying to convince people to believe – or trying to make other people apologise to us – arrogant people more interested in winning arguments than winning people. So, let me begin defining ‘apologetics’:

Thinking through and sharing a reasoned case for the Christian faith. 

Apologetics is essential for the internal health and external mission of the Church.

Faith has its reasons

Apologetics focuses on concepts like logic, evidence, reason and explanation. That means it has limits.  We don’t enter or grow in God’s kingdom through reason, but by repentance and faith in Christ and the regenerating and transforming work of the Holy Spirit. Not all of our experience of God can be explained through reason, any more than our love for a child or spouse can be dispassionately reasoned out. 

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Reason alone isn’t enough, but that is not to say that it is unimportant. Faith is more than rational, but it is not irrational or even counter-rational. Aspects of faith involve a step beyond reason – that’s always the way when you trust another person – but many steps of faith are supported by reason.  Responding to the gospel takes more than reason, but the gospel itself makes sense.  It is “true and rational” (Acts 26:25).

We all try to reason out all sorts of things. The question is not whether we use reason, but whether we reason well.  Is our thinking guided by the right principles?  Is it consistent with what we know to be true?  Do we allow our conclusions to be constrained by humility, recognising the limitations of our minds?  Apologetics is the discipline of reasoning with Christ at the centre, applying gospel truth to every issue and explaining it to others.

Developing believers in faith

God is rational. He communicates in explanations, arguing His case, convincing us. The pages of Scripture reveal Him doing so time and time again. Of course, He doesn’t explain everything. Sometimes He confounds human musings with awesome revelations of His glory (think of Job) and His ways are ultimately beyond our comprehension (Romans 11:33-36).  We should be glad of that, because God’s glorious wisdom in the cross of Christ is our only hope.

There is, however, a lot that God has communicated and explained. Our minds, in some tiny sense, reflect His image in their ability to reason, understand, and communicate. And our Creator calls us to respond to Him in loving worship with our entire being – hearts, souls, strength and, yes, minds (Luke 10:27).  The call is to an integrated life, with emotions, actions, thoughts and words working together under Christ’s Lordship. Reason can be offered to God and can be a pathway to worship

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Too often people think the pinnacle of worship transcends the realms of reason. Sublime experiences beyond reason can certainly be a blessing, but worship is really completed when we serve God faithfully in every situation and to do that, we need to think through what God desires. When we understand what can be understood, we worship God more fully. Lazy minds dishonour God as much as lazy bodies.   

Growth in faith includes learning how the gospel speaks to every aspect of life, including the life of the mind, and that entails reason. Some of us love abstract logic; others are more instinctive – but each of us must bring our thoughts into obedience to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5).  Our faith is threatened by many uncertainties and doubts about big issues in our culture. Apologetics can help to put these in their place, to discover God’s wisdom. 

Helping to reach the lost

The gospel is the powerful word of God through which He saves people. It needs no defence.  But many people you meet every day cannot (or will not) hear the gospel because barriers, many of them at least partly intellectual, keep them away from it. Apologetics seeks to remove these blockages so people can be confronted with Christ.

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Some people assume that evolution or suffering proves there is no God, furnishing imagined credibility to their lives without God. Some accept the logic of self-protection through the right to personal choice so that God, if He exists, has no greater right than anyone else to infringe their freedom. Many assume the Bible is out of date and irrelevant, perhaps even dangerous. Still others are convinced of a religion or a philosophy without Jesus. The gospel answers each of these objections and many more.

How can we reach such people if we cannot reason with them, helping them see the flaws in their logic and the inconsistencies of their positions? How will they see Christ if their minds eyes are so clouded by false ideas and futile thoughts?  Peter urges us to be ready to give a reasoned explanation for our hope to everyone who asks (1 Peter 3:15). We don’t need to be geniuses to do that, but people are still asking big questions and we should all be ready to listen, to learn and to share what we know of God’s truth. 

If you feel a bit intimidated, like you couldn’t do that, good! You’re starting in the right place.  We don’t need arrogant people who speak as if they never doubt or question anything.  We need humble people, honouring Christ as Lord, with integrity of lifestyle who will gently explain the counter-cultural logic of the cross.

Conclusion – what next?

If this article has inspired you to think about Apologetics, let me suggest some ideas to follow up. You might read a little more on the subject – Alistair McGrath’s Mere Apologetics or the articles on bethinking.org are a good start. You might get some training through organisations like Reasonable Faith Belfast, Reality 316 in Portrush, the C.S. Lewis Institute and or Belfast Bible College Evening Classes. Or you might arrange some training in your church or invite a speaker for an Apologetics talk through niapologetics.com.