When I have apologetic conversations, I often find myself talking about issues that are “out there.” (No, not like UFOs!) The issues at hand are not personal to either myself or the other person. They might be related to science, biblical reliability, or God’s supposed “evil” acts in the Old Testament. Of course, these are good conversations to have, but regardless of who convinces whom, nothing directly related to the person’s soul is affected by the outcome. The issues are “out there” not “in here.” They aren’t personal; they don’t cut to the heart.
Fundamentally, a non-Christian is not a Christian because they do not want to submit to the lordship of Jesus. It’s not just that they deny what they know: that God exists (Romans 1:18-23) and their deeds are evil (Romans 2:15-16). Their adoption of secular philosophies (materialism, scientism, other religions) is an example of intellectual and moral rebellion against God, even in their thinking.
This surfaces in different ways for different people. For one person it may look like a lifestyle of clear evil; for another, self-trust and self-righteousness; and for another, intellectual objections to the Christian faith. When we look deeper, past these individual symptoms, we realize that at the heart of the issue is, in fact, the heart. The problem is “in here;” it’s not “out there.”
The manifestations are different but the sickness is the same. And thankfully, the cure is the same, too.
Since intellectual and moral rebellion flow from a sinful heart, we must address that heart. The gospel is the message about the cure. So at some point we must wisely transition to discussing the other person’s own personal heart and sin. We are not saved by knowing correct historical, scientific, philosophical, or theological facts. Though those are important, they are largely concerned with “out there” issues. A person is saved when they come to a knowledge and conviction of the sin “in here” and, realizing they cannot in any way save themselves, they trust Jesus alone for forgiveness and his righteousness.
The gospel is the “power of God for salvation” (Romans 1:16). We can tear town bad arguments all day long (2 Corinthians 10:4-5), but they will simply be replaced by others, unless the heart is changed.
Am I saying that we just tell people they’re sinners, don’t answer their questions, and call them to repent? Not exactly (though that’s basically what Peter did in Acts 2 and thousands were saved. The same Spirit still works today…). I’m in favor of a both/and approach. Reason with people from the Scriptures, answer questions, and tear down arguments. But we must not fall into the trap of thinking that you can cure the sickness by addressing the symptoms. Try to always tie the “out there” discussion back to the “in here” issue.
Here are two quick examples. A popular question is “Why does God allow so much evil in the world?” And while they’re so many possible responses, one that forms a helpful bridge might be, “What do you think God should do about the evil you commit?” This takes the abstract and makes it personal. You can then easily share just what Jesus did for the evil that is in us.
When we use the teleological argument to show the God designed life for a purpose, this naturally leads to saying that God designed you for a purpose; he designed me for a purpose. Next we can share how we do not live up to that purpose, which is why we need a savior.
Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m all for apologetics! I also know I’ve somewhat oversimplified this issue, too. However, if we have to err on a side, let’s not be slow to get to the only message that is the power of God for a person’s salvation: the gospel. There will always be “out there” issues, but the most important issues are always “in here.”