Gospel Centred Apologetics (Part 1)

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It is tempting to think that the phrase “Gospel-centred” has lost something of its value in evangelical circles. Perhaps it made sense to talk about “Gospel-centred” ministries, “Gospel centred” discipleship or even “Gospel-centred” marriages. However, when we come close to endorsing “Gospel centred” diets, we might wonder if a trend hasn’t been taken a little too far. This is a shame because it seems that “Gospel centred apologetics”[1] is a biblical ideal; a concept that would remind evangelists and pastors of their priorities in apologetics.

A Gospel centred apologetic would differ from other approaches in two ways.  First, it would not aim to defend every evangelical distinctive. Evangelicals believe that the historical reliability of the Bible is vitally important, but in apologetics the goal is to defend the central claims of the Gospel rather than every statement of Scripture.1 Peter 3 v15 commands Christians to have a ready defence simply for the Gospel. We are to defend the message that God the Son died for our sins and was raised by His Father; not the belief that Jericho was razed by Joshua.

Apologetics should focus on defending the truths that a person must believe if they are to accept Jesus as Saviour and Lord. These can be outlined quite simply[2] – the universe is God’s creation, but mankind’s rebellion against the Creator has left us morally and spiritually ruined; God’s Son died so that we can be rescued from our plight and he rose again so that we might be part of the New Creation. But we must guard something more than a brief articulation of the Gospel. We must also defend the essential truths that a person must implicitly accept to have a saving faith; a list of truths that no child of God could deny.

This means defending something like Richard Baxter’s and CS Lewis’s “Mere Christianity”; a list of  the doctrines that all Christians hold in common. Of course, salvation is not a matter of passing theological examinations; but surely you cannot deny who God is and be one of his children? There must be certain beliefs which cannot be denied if someone is to accept the Gospel.  We must be willing to accept that God is Triune, for example, and that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human. Apologists must clarify these teachings as best they can, to defend the Gospel from more palatable, but dangerous, heresies.

So when we evangelise we might have to carefully consider the Creeds; and we must always carefully explain the biblical message of Creation, Redemption, Faith, and Reconciliation. These are weighty matters, indeed, for both believers and  unbelievers to think about. Gospel centred apologetics simply asks if it is wise to set time aside for discussing Adam’s navel or Cain’s spouse. The precise timing of Creation seems as irrelevant as the exact time of his return in such conversations. We must avoid unnecessary distractions. Our time is better spent confronting the unbeliever with God’s command to repent and to trust in Jesus. And that brings us to the second distinction of Gospel Centred apologetics.

We should not distinguish apologetics from evangelism. Apologetics is just reasoning with those who do not believe; and this is exactly what Paul does whenever he preaches the Gospel.  Sometimes he reasoned in the Synagogues, using the Scriptures to show that Jesus fulfilled God’s promises to Israel. At other times he defended his Gospel from the charge of irrationality by calling attention to evidence available in the public record. He was even prepared to argue with a mob of idolaters that their sacrifices were irrational !

Paul felt obliged to give a passionate and articulate response to the charge of irrationality. The author of Acts reports several trial scenes to establish that the Apostles were reasonable men of good character. This was simply part and parcel of their mission to spread the Gospel. The Church was commanded to preach, but it was also instructed to persuade. There is a certain machismo to thumping a pulpit and commanding people to “believe or be damned”, but, alas, the New Testament does not allow the Church the luxury of unthinking belief. Whether we are responding to the charges of scepticism or putting unbelief on trial, our orders remain the same: to give a reasoned defence for the hope that is in us.

[1] Timothy Paul Jones has promoted a similar idea recently. http://www.timothypauljones.com/2012/04/06/gospel-centered-apologetics/  Although there are some differences in emphasis, we seem to be in broad agreement about the goal of apologetics.

[2] For a deeper discussion of the essential gospel see http://whatyouthinkmatters.org/papers/article/what-is-the-essential-gospel

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