Peter May investigates what it means to preach the Gospel and examines what is meant by dialogue and its value in sharing the Gospel with others.

“The gospel comes alive when it is being tested against needs and against rivals. Christianity grows strong in the open air.” - David Edwards, Tradition and Truth (Hodder and Stoughton, 1989), p.3.

1. Introduction

What does it mean to preach the gospel? Assuming for a moment that Christians could all agree about the message that we are called to communicate, what actually is involved in proclaiming it? How should we do it?

I realize of course that Christians do not always agree about some of the details of the Christian gospel. A healthy reflection will presumably always continue in the church as to what is essential to our message and what can be reformulated or expressed in varying ways. The concern here is rather to explore how we might share that message, without thereby adding to the literature on the proper contents of the gospel.

It is the writer's contention that the method of how we preach the gospel is a much neglected subject. There are of course many advocates of different techniques in communication, but little concern to go back to basics and ask some searching questions about the nature of preaching itself.

What is Preaching?

Most of us have pre-set ideas as to what preaching is. We readily think of our usual exposure to preaching in church, and, if we have reservations about that, we think of our favourite preacher and perhaps the occasion when we ourselves were won to Christian commitment. Of course, if contemporary preaching as it is practised up and down the land was singularly effective in winning people to Christ, we probably would not bother to ask these questions at all. However that is patently not the case. Western Europe has seen a steady decline in Christian allegiance throughout this century, and now in the closing years of the millennium we are being urged to redouble our efforts. 'A Decade of Evangelism' is under way, being initiated by leaders of various denominations.

What then are we to do? Put more effort and more money into the ways we have so often been doing things, which have by and large been met with such little success? A popular student evangelist said recently that he had never known such a barren period in his ministry. He had never found it so difficult to win an audience and never seen so few people ready to make a response of faith in Christ.

He was able to demonstrate from surveys done over the past thirty years that Christian belief in Britain was on a steady and dramatic decline. Questions such as 'Do you believe in God? Do you pray? Do you read the Bible? Do you go to church?' and so on all showed a steep decline in affirmative answers. Whatever has happened to the number of committed Christians in Britain over that period, clearly the number of people who would nominally consider themselves to be Christian has fallen dramatically. Neither does the population at large have much in the way of residual knowledge about the Christian faith. Unlike the situation in America, few people in Britain have attended Sunday School as children and they have learned all too little about Christ in the State schools.

... our task is to be faithful rather than successful, but that does not excuse us from some thoughtful reflection

It is then in this context that we need to ask the questions as to whether we are doing the right things or whether we need to change our approach. If we can be sure we are going about things the right way, so well and good! Our Lord does not promise us success. We may well be greeted with stubborn unbelief. Did he not raise the possibility that upon his return he would not find any faith on earth? (Luke 18:8) Certainly, our task is to be faithful rather than successful, but that does not excuse us from some thoughtful reflection as to what we are doing. Indeed, it is part of the contention here that we are not actually being faithful in some of the assumptions and practices we adopt.

2. Preaching in the New Testament

We need first of all to put to one side our immediate understanding of 'preaching', conditioned by our various experiences of it, and ask what the word essentially means. In the New Testament a variety of words are employed to convey the idea and there are numerous English equivalents given in different translations, such as 'announce', 'publish', 'proclaim', ‘declare', or 'speak boldly'. The idea of preaching in itself does not carry the idea of a formal setting, a large gathering, an utterance from a raised platform, or a monologue.

Christians who take their Bibles seriously will naturally turn to its pages for light in areas of difficulty and confusion. If we want radically to rethink our strategy, then we must turn in particular to the evangelism of the New Testament. We could for instance study the preaching of Jesus, though some would say that his evangelism is necessarily unique. It is easier for us to identify with the situation of the apostles, carrying their message about Christ to an unbelieving world. Our concern then in this current exercise is to see what they did, looking at what was happening rather than analyzing their message. The Acts, as its name implies, is a description of their deeds and is our main account of their preaching method.

Proclaiming Jesus

Consider then the cluster of five verbs used by Luke to describe Paul at work at Thessalonica. He tells us in Acts 17:2-4,that Paul was engaged in reasoning, explaining, proving, proclaiming and persuading. Acts 17 verse 2 tells us that this was typical stuff: “As his custom was ...” This was no novelty. He was not embarking on a new technique because of difficulties he had had earlier. He was adopting his usual approach, and the exercise he was engaged in was that of proclaiming Christ (verse 3).

Being a converted Jew, he first of all sought out the synagogue where he knew he would find a ready audience, and on three successive Sabbaths he reasoned with them”. Now others have drawn attention to this phrase, but it seems to me that it continues to surprise us and we fail to pursue its implications. The Greek word is actually dialegomai which Vine's Dictionary of New Testament Words defines as “To think different things with oneself, to ponder, then to dispute with others”. While the Greek prefix 'di-' means two or twice, 'dia-' as in diaphragm means through or across. It carries the idea of a bridge between two positions. While most translations in English use the word 'reason', it would be more helpful to say that Paul entered into dialogue.

Inter-Faith Dialogue

Now the whole idea of dialogue is unpopular in some Christian circles because it is thought to convey the idea of compromise. The word has usually been employed in terms of 'inter-faith' dialogue, where the impression has sometimes been conveyed that instead of evangelizing those of other faiths, the object has been solely to learn from them, perhaps in an attempt to evolve some new all-embracing system of belief that has taken the best ideas from each participant. Such syncretism has been seen as the antidote to global pluralism, and dialogue as the means of achieving it.

What is so special about inter-faith dialogue? I want to suggest – nothing! All our dialogues are inter-faith. Just because a person doesn't believe in Christ does not mean he does not believe in anything. He may adhere to a well-known identifiable system of beliefs, of which there are a multitude, with new religions being founded every year, up to an estimated 800 since the beginning of this century! He may merely believe in himself, or luck, or a highly personalized concoction of ideas, shaken or stirred according to his own individual taste. If he has any capacity for thought, he cannot believe nothing. We never do dialogue with a blank.

But surely, I hear someone say, the key thing about inter-faith dialogue is the sensitivity and respect for the other person's religion that should characterize our approach. Exactly. It should always be like that in all our dialogues. It is always a good thing if we behave Christianly, and in this particular area we have specific instructions, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. (1 Peter 3:15) We must speak the truth, yet do it in love (Ephesians 4:15).

We never enter into dialogue with systems of belief. Rather we dialogue with individual people who hold certain beliefs that may be shaped by particular systems and assumptions. No two Christians believe identical things entirely. Human nature is far more complicated than that. Similarly no two non-Christians believe identical things if they are given an opportunity to explore the depths of their hopes and aspirations. One of the really exciting things about a group dialogue, say with a dozen English agnostics, is the way that in due course they will take issue with each other, exposing the inadequacy of the assumptions and confidences they embrace.

No, all our dialogues are ‘inter-faith’ and no-one goes into them naked. We carry our convictions, and Christians enter such dialogue with an entirely reasonable prior commitment to truth in general and the embodiment of truth revealed to the world in Christ Jesus in particular. If he is the Truth, then all beliefs must be brought into line with that cornerstone. The sort of dialogue that seeks for compromise and syncretism has no basis in the New Testament or in the real world as we all know it to be. What possible chance is there of evolving some universally acceptable pattern of belief for the world to embrace – one that will appeal to atheists and agnostics, Hindus and Moslems, witches and anarchists, those who believe that Jesus Christ is the only way to God and those who do not? The absurdity of the endeavour is apparent. Mankind is groping around in the dark, and the crucial question is, “Has light from outside shined, and if so where?”

Paul with the Jews

Clearly dialogues aiming at syncretism are a very different kind of inter-faith dialogue from that entered into by Paul with the Jews in their synagogues.

No happy compromise resulted from being in dialogue with Paul. At Thessalonica it caused a riot and Paul had to escape by night (Acts 17:5-10). At Corinth they became abusive (Acts 18:4-6), at Ephesus they became “obstinate and publicly maligned the Way” (Acts 19:9). However, at Berea he found a much warmer response, “for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true”. Many of them came to believe (Acts 17:10-12).

Paul went to the Jews to win them for Christ. They did not always like it then, as many Jews – and not a few prominent Christians – do not like the idea today, but the key point for our observation now is to note, not just that he passionately evangelized the Jews but that he did it by 'dialogue'. (Acts 17:2; 18:4, 19; 19:8).

What is Dialogue?

... at the heart of dialogue is a commitment to listen and understand what the other party is saying, that we might then more accurately address our thoughts to his situation.

What then is the essence of dialogue? Clearly it involves a two-way traffic in the flow of ideas and is in marked contrast to monologue. Nor does it convey the idea that two parties took it in turns to monologue at each other, perhaps with a time-keeper to make sure that no-one spoke for more than their share of the time! No, at the heart of dialogue is a commitment to listen and understand what the other party is saying, that we might then more accurately address our thoughts to his situation. John Stott has described the marks of dialogue as authenticity, humility, integrity and sensitivity.[1] These are to be characteristics of us rather than the process we engage in. In dialogue we stand alongside people to look at the truth together. We do not adopt a confrontational stance, but rather help others with us to be confronted by the truth that stands before us both.

Dialogue then is a process in pursuit of mutual understanding rather than compromise and is concerned to uncover misconceptions, confusions, doubts and dilemmas. This is made plain by the other verbs that Luke employs (Acts 17:2-4).


In Acts 17:3 he records that Paul was engaged in “explaining” his message. He was concerned to make it clear in the face of whatever confusions that might arise. Any teacher knows that the only way to find out whether he has been understood is to listen to his pupil describing what he has learnt. This can be a chastening experience where the teacher clearly has to begin again and put the matter in another way. As he listens to what his pupil is saying, he can begin to identify the problem areas and clarify the points at issue. “It is not what we say that matters, but what they hear.” Only by entering into dialogue can we be sure that our hearers understand what we are saying.

Dialogue for Paul however was not just limited to the pursuit of clear communication. Luke goes on to describe Paul as “proving” his message (verse 3). This carries the idea that he was substantiating what he said. He was commending his message in terms of its truthfulness and marshalling arguments in support of his case. He was providing evidence. In this case with the Jews, he was doing so from the Old Testament, the authority of which they accepted, to show that Christ was indeed the Messiah. In the context of dialogue, Paul was evidently listening to their doubts and specifically addressing them. In other words he was engaged in argument


Now as some Christians have difficulty with the idea of dialogue, many seem to shrink from argument. It seems to lie ill at ease with the idea of turning the other cheek and being a peacemaker in a turbulent world. But this is to confuse things that differ. G.K. Chesterton wrote that people generally quarrel because they cannot argue, and in that saying highlighted the difference between the two. One does not need to be belligerent to engage in argument. The essence of argument is to try to resolve a conflict in the world of ideas. It has to do with clarity of thought and the delineation of underlying issues. It is an exercise in exposing the truth or fallacy of certain propositions. It may be threatening and disturbing, but it is not in the nature of argument to be rude and aggressive. Arguments don't need to become heated. Bernard Shaw said that the test of a man's breeding is how he behaves in a quarrel. He might have better said 'in an argument', because, when our tempers begin to intrude, we might fairly conclude that we are no longer striving for truth but defending ourselves and our hurt pride. When our arguments are weak we begin to shout the more loudly.

Paul realized then that what he was saying was liable to be disputed, and he was concerned to demonstrate with appropriate argument that what he was saying was sober truth. He was not inviting people to take a leap in the dark. As he replied to Festus who accused him of being out of his mind, “What I am saying is true and reasonable” (Acts 26:25).


If there is any remaining doubt that this was the nature of Paul's evangelism, Luke concludes by telling us (Acts 17:4), not that some of his hearers were converted, but that they were “persuaded”. That may or may not be meant to imply the same thing. It would be quite possible to be persuaded that what Paul was saying was the truth, but not embrace it. After all we are told that even the demons believe – and tremble! However in using that word, it does focus our minds on what Paul was actually trying to do. He was concerned in dialogue to persuade those he was engaged with that the Christian message was true. It was between them and their creator what they did with that truth. Paul knew that he could not make people Christians. His task was to “proclaim” (Acts 17:3) that Jesus was the Christ, and Luke tells us that he did this by dialogue, explanation, argument and persuasion.

Paul at Athens

That proclamation for Paul consisted of these ingredients is plain from many passages of the New Testament In the market place at Athens he was in “dispute” with the philosophers. At the Areopagus he was invited to deliver a monologue, yet it had all the ingredients of dialogue. He had taken pains to learn about their beliefs. He had studied the objects of their worship (Acts 17:22-23), was familiar with their philosophies and able to quote their writers (verse 28).

To appreciate the significance of each sentence of his Athenian address, one would need to refer to a detailed commentary.[2] Paul was speaking very accurately into their situation and presumably drew upon his classical education. To the Epicureans God was remote (cf. verse 28). It was unnecessary to seek him (verse 27) nor did they fear divine judgment (verse 31). They were opposed to superstition and idolatry (verse 29). The Stoics on the other hand stressed the unity of mankind (verse 26) but had a pantheistic view of God (verse 28) and hence his nearness (verse 27). Unlike Plato, they had no view of him as creator (verse 24).

Paul then had ‘listened’ to them carefully and had taken them very seriously. He identified with their beliefs where he could and quoted approvingly both Epimenedes of Crete and the poet Aratus (verse 28). He not only addressed their thinking and built on it but he did not flinch from demonstrating the inadequacy of their ideas (verse 29).

With the Jews he met them in their synagogues, and reasoned with them from their Scriptures. With the pagan philosophers, he met them on their home ground and reasoned with them from their own writings and ideas.

A Mistaken Approach?

Some have tried to wriggle out of the implications of this passage, not least to avoid the hard work which any imitation of his method would demand! They have argued that Paul was unsuccessful at Athens and at Corinth adopted a more 'spiritual' approach. This is quite untenable and leads us into mindless, insensitive evangelism of the worst order.

To start with, Luke has given us a most detailed account of what happened. It is actually the only detailed description of Paul engaging with non-Jews, One would need overwhelming arguments to assert that he recorded this as a demonstration of how not to do evangelism, when he clearly forgot to give us any such warning! There is nothing in the text to imply such a thing.

Neither was he unsuccessful. He had had a fairly rough ride from the Jews in Thessalonica. Now, speaking to Gentiles who knew nothing at all about the promised Christ (verse 18), he actually saw some of them converted as well. Presumably, Luke named Dionysius and Damaris because they became well-known figures in the early church. Indeed, Eusebius records that the first Bishop of Athens was named Dionysius, quite possibly the same man.

Certainly, at Corinth he did not proclaim his message with great eloquence or superior wisdom (1 Corinthians 2:1) and conceded that what he said was foolishness to the Greeks (1 Corinthians 1:23); but he also met a similar response at Athens, where sneering from the philosophers brought his message to an abrupt end (Acts 17:32).

Neither is there anything in the text to say that he subsequently changed his approach. When it says in Acts 18:5, that “he devoted himself exclusively to the word” this is not to imply that he stopped reading Greek literature. Rather it implies that he got on with preaching full time and no longer had to worry about tent-making since Silas and Timothy had now joined him! (Acts 18:3-5)

The only other details we have of an account of Paul addressing non-Jews is his appeal to a farming community at Lystra (Acts 14:15-17). Here he adopted a similar methodology. The creator of heaven and earth “has not left himself without testimony: he has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” He started where they were and began to argue on the basis of their knowledge of God.

Consider how Paul continued at Ephesus. There was another wealthy, pluralist, sophisticated, pagan society. Paul started as usual at the synagogue. He spoke boldly there for three months arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God” (Acts 19.8). When he was forced to leave, he took the disciples with him “and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. This went on for two years, so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord.”

Before Agrippa, Paul again presented his evidence and the king replied, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” (Acts 26:28). He clearly understood what Paul was trying to do.

Good to the last, our final picture of Paul is in his rented apartment in Rome. “From morning till evening he explained and declared to them the kingdom of God and tried to convince them about Jesus from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets. Some were convinced by what he said, but others would not believe.” “For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Acts 28:23, 24, 30, 31)

For the apostle Paul, the call to preach was the call to persuade. Perhaps more important than the sum of the passages we have considered is Paul's own statement in a key chapter about his ministry which he summarized in just those terms: “Knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade men.” (2 Corinthians 5:11)

For the apostle Paul, the call to preach was the call to persuade.

We could go on and look at the methods employed by other apostles, of Peter appealing to the evidence of witnesses, of Philip in dialogue with the Ethiopian, of Stephen pressing the Sanhedrin so hard with the truth that they murdered him. Neither should it escape our notice that the Gospel narratives are full of accounts of Jesus in dialogue – with enquirers such as Nicodemus (John 3), the Samaritan woman (John 4), a rich young materialist (Matthew 19:16), his host at a dinner party (Luke 7:36), his opponents (Mark 12:13), and a doubter called Thomas (John 20:24). Again and again he responded to a question with a further question, pursuing the point at issue only as far as the individual wished to take it.

Preaching then, both for Christ and his apostles, involved dialogue, explanation, evidence, argument and persuasion. They believed that what they were saying was true, and they committed themselves to the task of persuading others that it was true also.

3. Contending for the Faith Today

Two Views of Apologetics

Nearly twenty years ago, a small but significant gathering took place in London under the chairmanship of Dr. John Stott. A dozen or more nationally known evangelists engaged in university missions came together to discuss how they saw their work and to consider the nature of their task. A number of papers were given and discussed by the group. As I recall, I was one of two students invited to see fair play.

Two papers in particular have stayed in my mind, or at least what to me was their central thrust. The first was given by David Watson, the second by Professor Donald Mackay. (In human terms it is tragic for the cause of Christ that such gifted communicators suffered such untimely deaths. How greatly they are missed and how good it would be if they were able to join in with this discussion. However, without a high view of the sovereign purposes of God, the gospel task to which they committed themselves would be a nightmare. God evidently had his reasons.)

The meeting was not recorded, neither to my knowledge was either paper published. I am therefore dependent on my own fallible memory for these statements. However, they were etched firmly on my mind at the time and I do not think I have strayed far from the essence of what they said.

An Evangelist

Let us begin with the key statement of David Watson. He said “A man who is won by an argument is at the mercy of a better argument.”[3]

The implications take a little thought. It was discussed by the group after his talk and I personally pressed him on the matter afterwards. To clarify his approach he added that he saw his task as not to win an argument but to bring people into a personal encounter with God.

The obvious retort I suppose would be to say that a person won by an experience is at the mercy of a better experience, but I didn't think quickly enough to make the point! However I do believe that that view of evangelism was crucial for David and sheds a great deal of light on his ministry.

Firstly, David's evangelistic books and his preaching were liberally illustrated with pithy quotations from contemporary secularists giving an atmosphere of apologetics, but actually lacking sustained and carefully reasoned argument. By his own confession, he did not take argument seriously.

Secondly, his popular and highly influential book I Believe in Evangelism gives no treatment to the place of argument and apologetics, except to warn readers of the dangers of 'red herrings'.[4] David was a brilliant communicator and the clarity with which he explained the gospel was unsurpassed. But he didn't really believe in the value of arguing it.

Thirdly, I think this reveals why in subsequent years he increasingly preferred to engage in 'Celebration Evangelism' where the gospel proclamation took place in the context of an atmosphere of Christian worship to facilitate the 'encounter'. By so doing he restricted his ministry to those on the fringes of Christian belief who were prepared to attend such a religious activity, and avoided those of a more sceptical disposition.

Fourthly, given a sense of the flow and evolution of ideas with time, it explains his interest latterly in 'Signs and Wonders' evangelism, which also is liable to take place in the context of Christian worship. By giving a low priority to arguing the truth of the gospel, a vacuum is created in the area of persuasion. How then does the listener know that what the evangelist is saying is true? He might understand what he is saying but why should he believe him? The answer lies in the miracles he is performing. The deeds become the argument. A major problem then arises if the miracles are not as wonderful as they appear. The 'argument' then turns out at best to be insubstantial and at worst a flagrant deception, but I have addressed that subject elsewhere.[5] Suffice it to say, that after extensive enquiries over twenty years – and I have many contacts around the world through the Christian Medical Fellowship – and in the face of so many claims of miraculous healing, I have been unable to document a single case that is directly comparable with the cases described in the Gospel narratives, of complete, instantaneous recovery of physical diseases which continue to this day to be incurable conditions (such as congenital blindness or the straightening of a ‘withered hand’). I have to conclude therefore that, if such miracles are happening today, they must be very rare.[6] This is not to say that God does not answer our prayers! It does, I believe, throw light on the respect he gives to the created natural order in the way he answers our prayers. He does not appear to be tampering with the nature of the world he has set in place.

An Apologist

Let us now look at the very different approach of Donald MacKay. If anyone took over the mantle of apologist from Arthur Rendle Short, then surely it was Professor MacKay. As far as I can see, they had a very similar view of their own contributions, and, unlike David Watson, I suspect that neither of them would readily have seen his role as being an evangelist. Donald MacKay's key statement from that conference was to my mind that he saw his task as “clearing away the undergrowth” that hindered people from coming to Christ. By this he meant the intellectual undergrowth of the doubts, difficulties and misconceptions that stood in their way.[7] Rendle Short expressed himself in similar terms, “We are not concerned to argue that natural science, archaeology or any other branch of learning proves the facts of the Christian religion, but rather that they do not necessarily disprove them.”[8]

I suspect that each would have been happy with the other's statement. They both saw themselves as apologists in the traditional sense of defending the faith rather than as evangelists. They generally were happy to leave the proclaiming of the gospel to others.

David Watson and Donald MacKay illustrate, I believe, the two main views as to the place and importance of argument in Christian preaching held by the majority of Christians today. The trouble is, and this is my main contention, that neither of them sits squarely with the New Testament picture that we have been considering.

While the New Testament speaks of the gift of evangelist it nowhere speaks of a different animal called an 'apologist'. We tend to see the evangelist's role in terms of simple explanation and leave persuasion, to the extent that we believe in it, to the apologists.

This came out in a recent discussion with an evangelist. He was asked if he ever used role-play in training Christians to do evangelism. He replied that he had often used it to teach Christians how they could lead others to put their faith in Christ. It was pointed out to him that most of the non-Christians around us are not asking that question. They are not wanting to know how they might become Christians, but did want to know whether, and in what sense, Christianity was true.

Whom are We Trying to Reach?

It seems that most contemporary evangelists see their role as addressing not only seekers but those who are already on the brink of the Kingdom and need help in making and understanding an act of Christian commitment. No wonder they are finding the present time difficult! The majority of the population of Britain is substantially ignorant about Christ and is certainly not lying awake at night wondering whether or not to become Christian.

A recent prayer published in the Christian press was dedicated to the Decade of Evangelism. It prayed that we might take the gospel to those who were seeking after Christ. Well, quite so, but what of those who have never given the matter a moment's thought, including those who are totally ignorant about Christ? I doubt if Paul would have stayed so long in Ephesus, if he had seen his role as merely to counsel enquirers. There really weren't that many of them!

David Watson excelled in clear gospel explanations. Donald MacKay committed himself to the task of Christian persuasion. However, the apostle Paul, I would argue, never divided his work like that. He would no more have reduced evangelism to simple gospel explanation than he would have merely engaged in persuasion. He was concerned not only that his hearers should understand him but also that they should be convinced that what he was saying was true.

After a 'dialogue supper party' that had lasted two hours during which the truth and implications of the gospel were discussed vigorously, my host thanked me warmly and said that he would now look for an opportunity to take his guests to hear the gospel 'preached'. What did he think I had been doing all evening?

The consensus of contemporary Christian thinking on the matter seems to be to espouse a diminished view of evangelism with a false view of apologetics. A false dichotomy exists between the two and to my mind the fallacy is exposed by a consideration of the place of dialogue.

A Diminished View of Evangelism

Most contemporary evangelists never seem to consider that 'dialogue' might be the most authentic and effective way of sharing the gospel. They are utterly hooked on the idea of monologue, standing six feet above contradiction. From that position they never hear what their audience is thinking. If their bland assertions are dismissed within the opening minutes of their oration, they neither know it nor are in any position to do anything about it! They don't grapple with their hearers' difficulties or even seem to believe that they should do. They are protected on their pedestals from the very real difficulties that so many moderns have with the prospect of embracing Christian belief.

A False View of Apologetics

But if modern evangelists have lost sight of their apologetic task, the apologists have often under-rated their role. They do this in two ways.

Firstly, there is a tendency to see intellectual difficulties as being the primary reserve of the intelligentsia. They are the people who have genuine intellectual difficulties, often brought on by their particular field of studies, to which the apologist must give his attention.

The reality is that any person who has enough intelligence to grasp the simple truths of the gospel will almost inevitably ask questions. It often comes as a surprise to discover that the simple man actually asks the same questions as the academic, often using identical words, such as 'Why does God allow suffering?'. Certainly, they will cope with, and indeed require, answers at different levels of sophistication. But let there be no doubt that the same issue is being raised and presents a problem for both.

Seven Basic Questions

In his best-selling book How To Give Away Your Faith, Paul Little – another great Christian communicator whose life was cut short – itemized the seven most popular questions he had been asked in his evangelistic work.[9] They were:

1. Is Christ the only way to God?
2. Isn't the Bible full of errors?
3. How can miracles be possible?
4. Isn't Christian experience only psychological?
5. What about those who have never heard the gospel?
6. Why do the innocent suffer?
7. Won't a good moral life get me to heaven?

Of course they may be expressed in many different ways. For instance, the question about miracles highlights the whole of Donald MacKay country – the interface of science and belief.

The reason that the simple and the sophisticated both ask the same questions has to do with the nature of the gospel, and they are not so dissimilar from the questions of any purchaser concerning his purchase. “Is it true what you claim for it? What are the implications of having it? Do I need it?” All the basic questions ultimately break down to questions of truth (1-4), implications (5, 6) and relevance (7). They will be asked in measure by anyone considering the claims of the gospel.

In terms of general subject matter, they cover:

1. The uniqueness of Christianity among the world's religions.
2. The reliability of the historical data about Christ.
3. The relationship of religious truth to the known world of science.
4. The nature of truth and faith.
5. The justice of God.
6. The love of God.
7. The holiness of God.

This brings us to the second way in which the apologist is liable to under-rate his role. It has to do with his perception of his task. Traditionally, apologetics has been seen as the science of defending the faith.

Defence or Attack?

The word 'apologia' occurs eight times in the New Testament. Meaning 'defence' it is mostly used in the sense of a person's defence before his accusers, eg. Paul making his defence before the mob in Jerusalem in Acts 22:1. Similar uses are found in Acts 25:16, 1 Corinthians 9:3, 2 Corinthians 7:11, and 2 Timothy 4:16.

It is actually only used three times in reference to the gospel itself. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul twice refers to the defence of the gospel (Philippians 1:7,16) and in 1 Peter 3:15 all Christians are exhorted to “Always be prepared to make a defence to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you.”

It is on these three references that the science of apologetics is based. We are called to defend the gospel when it is under attack. Unfortunately the very word 'apology' carries a confusion of meanings, and the resultant impression is of a reluctant science that is only brought into play in the face of a particularly vigorous attack. In cricketing terms; it is all about the straight bat, played off the back foot in defence against a fast ball aimed directly at the stumps. It is sometimes necessary, but it rarely scores runs.

Consider the descriptions of Paul at work, “trying to convince”, “arguing persuasively”, “proving”, “disputing”, “reasoning”. This is a very different picture. The cricketing Paul is playing his shots! His weight is on his front foot and he is looking for gaps in the 'covers'.

This more positive and aggressive side is actually implied in Philippians 1:7 where Paul writes not only of 'apologia' but the defence and confirmation of the gospel.

The reason the New Testament never talks about apologists is that they had no separate role. Persuasion was part of what it meant to “do the work of an evangelist”

He is seen in the New Testament as taking the argument to the unbelievers. He not only sought them out in the synagogue but engaged in dialogue in the market place with whoever was there (Acts 17:17). He is not waiting for honest seekers to find him. Rather he is disturbing folk who were quite happy believing other things until he arrived. He was taking the initiative, putting the gospel on their agenda and then contending for it vigorously.

Paul's sermon to the Athenian philosophers was not a defence of his position so much as a devastating attack upon theirs. He was concerned with “the pulling down of strongholds and every lofty idea raised up against the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10:5). This is what we might call pre-evangelism. He was concerned initially not to proclaim his message but to show the total inadequacy of their own beliefs. Their religious ideas were mutually incompatible. On the one hand their poets said that “We are his offspring” but then they worshipped gods of gold, silver and stone! How could warm, personal humanity be the offspring of cold, impersonal matter? It was absurd. With a marked lack of subtlety, he went on, “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30).

Argument was not just employed by Paul in assaulting their intellectual fortresses in pre-evangelistic forays, for he goes on to describe his evangelism as “bringing every thought captive in obedience to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).

An Integrated Approach

Paul would no more have considered engaging in evangelism without persuasion than he would have engaged in persuasion without explanation. The evangelism of Paul was all of a piece. The reason the New Testament never talks about apologists is that they had no separate role. Persuasion was part of what it meant to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:5)


The gospel is described by Paul as “the word of truth” (Colossians 1:5). It is all about events focusing around the death and resurrection of Jesus which the apostles claimed really happened in history (1 John 1:1-2). In contrast, we are told to have nothing to do with myths and fables (1 Timothy 4:7). It follows from this that because the gospel is about objective truths it is both discussable and able to be communicated verbally. Truth is to be established and falsehood refuted.

One of our greatest problems in communicating the gospel today is that truth is repeatedly seen in relativist terms. Professor Keith Ward described it as “a central heresy of our culture”.[10] Something is held to be true if it is 'true for me'. It is true only if we perceive it to be true. Whatever is true for me might be quite different from what is true for you. The world in which we live is thereby reduced to our perception of it. Subjectivity rules. The New Age movement for instance is shot through with relativism, and Alternative Medicine does not depend on objective scientific verification but subjective testimonies that 'it works' in the experience of individuals.

The church down the ages has always been prone to worldliness, particularly when it invades us in more subtle ways. That is why Gnosticism had such a devastating effect on the church in the second century. The invasion of relativism into Christian sub-conciousness in the twentieth century has had a disastrous effect in a number of distinct areas.

Christian ethics, not least sexual ones, have repeatedly been swallowed up into situational ethics, so that what is good is ultimately what seems to be good for me. There is no longer an absolute standard of morality.

Christian doctrine has been removed from its objective roots so that the key thing about the resurrection is not that the tomb was actually vacated, but whether Christ has risen in our own subjective experience.

Among some radical theologians a relativist view of truth is an essential requirement for a person even to begin an interfaith dialogue.[11] Paul Knitter concedes however that, in excluding those who make absolute claims from the dialogue, he has made an absolute out of relativism![12]

In evangelism, Christian testimony dominates the stage and the message is consumed by what has happened in an individual's personal experience; the gospel is then commended on a 'you too' basis. The appeal of the gospel is no longer to the generality of fallen mankind, but to individuals who experience particular needs that Christian experience might meet, whether loneliness, illness, sadness or boredom. As a consequence of this, the gospel is only taken to those people whom we imagine might experience some benefit from it and it is delivered in an undiscussable, take-it-or-leave-it way.

On Easter Sunday, a university professor was speaking at a Family Service, which is generally seen to be the sort of Guest Service where outsiders are most likely to dip the toe in the Christian waters. A drama group illustrated the events of that first Easter week-end. They were excellent and the professor sensitively and attractively led the congregation into the doubt and despair that overwhelmed the disciples. Come the resurrection event, it was described clearly and the congregation was invited to join in the Easter Acclamation, “The Lord is Risen: He is risen indeed!”. (It was repeated twice, because the first time was not loud enough!)

There was absolutely no attempt to say why we believe those events to be true or whether they had any objective validity in space-time history. We were then invited to seek help after the service if we had not experienced the risen Christ for ourselves. Such presentations, usually done somewhat less well, were, I imagine, taking place in churches all over the land. It is particularly strange that a professor in a scientific discipline should handle truth in that way, for presumably he never handles truth like that at work, either in his research or in his teaching. His academic life is utterly committed to the concept that truth stands outside and apart from his perception of it. Also for such truth to be useful and communicable, it needs to be verifiable.

4. Conclusions

If the main themes of this essay are correct, what then are the implications?

1) We must get away from the idea that evangelistic preaching should normally be done as monologue. Only as we listen to people can we treat them with integrity and address them appropriately. We must therefore look for ways of doing this. Supper parties, especially with a homogeneous group of guests, are one approach. Home visitation schemes like Michael Wooderson's Good News Down The Street are another.[13] One way or another we must find time and opportunity to engage in talking to people! Many of our churches nowadays have the technology in terms of sound amplification to allow talk-back discussion after a sermon. This could have a vital role in Christian education generally, and is particularly appropriate during an informal 'guest service' for “the defence and confirmation of the gospel”. It would of course necessitate that the preacher knew what he was talking about!

2) We must get away from the idea that dialogue is always to be equated with compromise and syncretism. It wasn't for Paul – and it should not be for us.

3) We never dialogue with systems of belief but always with unpredictable individuals. That is why dialogue is best done person-to-person or in small groups. (However, since the common objections to belief are readily identifiable, dialogue with a large group is not a pointless exercise.)

4) Evangelistic preaching must always be persuasive. We must not settle for mere explanation, however lucid. We must integrate explanation and persuasion. How many contemporary evangelists would be happy to define their work as “arguing persuasively about the Kingdom of God?” (Acts 19:8). Or “bringing every thought captive in obedience to Christ?” (2 Corinthians 10:5).

5) We must address the questions people are asking. The 'Seven Questions' should be regularly addressed by evangelistic 'monologues' when they are appropriate, and Christian people need to be taught how to answer them so that they can give “an answer to everyone who asks” (1 Peter 3:15). There is a major agenda here for Christian education.

We need to realize that at Calvary the battle has already been won, and we are called to reclaim the territory.

6) We must stop reducing the role of argument to defensive apologetics but take the Christian argument to the unbelieving world.

7) We must engage thoughtfully with our culture if we are to be able to speak meaningfully to those who live within it. This has enormous implications for our reading, study and leisure pursuits. A healthy view of Christian truth should greatly stimulate our interests in this world, for it was created by a wise and beneficent creator for our earthly good.

8) We must confront the prevailing relativism of our day, which reduces truth to our perception of it and evangelism to subjective testimony addressed to those with felt needs.

9) If the gospel is a message of truth, we must give people space to consider it, time to learn about it, encouragement to reflect upon it and quietness to respond to it. We must shun techniques and every type of manipulation and pressure. The best midwives are patient!

10) We must take our gospel to everyone including the contented and complacent, the movers and shakers, as well as the sick and afflicted.

11) We must look for neutral ground, the contemporary equivalent of Paul's School of Tyrannus or the Areopagite Court, rather than expect people to come to us. Our best opportunities will be in the homes of unbelievers. In those circumstances it will not occur to us either to sing hymns or start our meetings in prayer. We must break from the trappings of our sub-culture. Imagine Paul singing hymns at the Areopagus or opening the meeting with Festus and Agrippa in prayer (Acts 26:1)! Yet we invite unbelievers not only to compromise their integrity by joining us in worship, but even on occasion to say the creed at a 'Guest Service' before the sermon is preached! The significant point is this: we can no longer assume our society is nominally Christian. Neither must we restrict our gospel to those who are sympathetic.

12) We must become subversives, committed to pulling down strongholds and every lofty idea raised up against the knowledge of God (2 Corinthians 10:5). We must dig up the ground of consensus thinking that it might become a seed bed in which the gospel might be sown and take root This will often be pre-evangelistic work that involves no God-talk at all. This 'subversive' role flows from our convictions about Christian truth, that it describes the real world in which we all have to live, whether or not we acknowledge its designer-creator. It is part of what it means to be salt in the intellectual world of ideas.

13) We must be sure we only speak the truth. This will drive us back in study, both of theology and ‘apologetics’. It will also make us duly cautious in the claims we make, not least in terms of 'signs and wonders’. We will never commend the gospel by lies, exaggerations, half-truths or wishful thinking.

14) Perhaps most importantly of all we need to ask how much time we are spending with non-Christian friends and whether we are ever welcome guests in their homes. We cannot talk about the gospel unless we are talking to them! Developing friendships should have a high priority on our time and our money. The example of Christ in the pages of the Gospels should be a major inspiration to us in this regard.

Let me conclude. Christians have gone by and large for the soft option. In the face of the prevailing relativism and scepticism of our generation we have quit the field of battle. We have regrouped behind high walls and reduced our offensive to lobbing gospel bombs blindly over the top to scare off the enemy. We have reached a stage where the gulf between us and those we would win for Christ is very large. We have profoundly lost confidence in the credibility of our cause and spend our time singing songs, waving placards, shouting slogans and going on marches with like-minded people to stop us feeling afraid!

We need to realize that at Calvary the battle has already been won, and we are called to reclaim the territory. We cannot lose. We need to engage in hand-to-hand combat. We must meet people where they are, listen to their doubts and difficulties and help them to come to terms with the Lordship of Christ.

Ours is not a physical warfare but spiritual. When Paul described the Christian armour he insisted first of all that truth must be buckled around our waist.

Something fundamental seems to have become unbuckled. Persuasion has been lost from the Christian vocabulary. We have reduced evangelism to unargued statements. Where the idea of argument is still held in respect it is done so within limited fields of reference and divorced from the work of evangelism.

Underlying this shift is a weak view of truth, eroded by relativism, oppressed by secularism and confused by pluralism.

My contention is that all too often we have not taken truth seriously enough and until we do, we will not be in any position to win the modern world for Christ.


[1] John Stott Christian Mission in the Modern World (Falcon, 1975) pp.71f.
[2] Eg. Howard Marshall Acts (Tyndale N.T. Commentaries, IVP, 1980).
[3] See David Watson I Believe in Evangelism (Hodder and Stoughton, 1976) p.94.
[4] Ibid., pp.110, 149.
[5] John Goldingay, (Ed.) Signs, Wonders and Healing (IVP, 1989) pp.75ff. Also Church of England Newspaper 15 and 29 June, 1990, p.7.
[6] Rex Gardner in his influential book, Healing Miracles (DLT, 1986) uses a loose definition of miracle (p.1). I am not persuaded that any of his miracles is comparable with the N.T. phenomena. He anyway agrees with me that instantaneous, complete, physical cures today – given the lack of evidence – must be 'very infrequent'.
[7] Donald Mackay, The Open Mind and other essays (IVP, 1988) pp.155ff.
[8] A Rendle Short Modern Discovery and the Bible (IVF, 4th ed. 1954), p.x.
[9] Paul Little, How To Give Away Your Faith (IVP, 2nd ed., 1989), pp.124f.
[10] Keith Ward, The Turn of the Tide (BBC. 1986) p.144.
[11] See Death or Dialogue (SCM Press); Paul Knitter p.32 and Leonard Swidfer p.106.
[12] Ibid., pp.124ff.
[13] Michael Wooderson, Good News Down The Street (Grove Pastoral Series no. 9, 1983, currently in ninth printing).

© 1990 Peter May
This article was originally published as Grove Booklets On Evangelism No 12 (November 1990), in association with the Christian Medical Fellowship. The content is based on the 1990 Rendle Short Lecture given by Peter May at the National Conference of the CMF.
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Two other articles by Peter May cover the same general topic but in far less depth. See "What is Apologetics?" and "Persuasion – the centre piece of effective evangelism".