I spent last week in an apologetics summer class studying atheism. To prepare, we were required to read a number of atheistic books to become familiar with the most common objections to theism in general and Christianity in particular. As I worked my way through this material over the last couple of months, I became confident that I could handle these objections if given the opportunity. Their arguments are so clearly self-serving and inconsistent that I believed it would be quite simple to take such a skeptic and demonstrate to him the incoherence of his worldview.
At the same time, I wondered what real use there is in dialoguing with an unregenerate person about the problem of evil or contesting the supposed “contradictions” in the Bible. The gospel is the power of God for salvation. Doesn’t it make more sense to just give them the gospel message and walk away, allowing the Holy Spirit to do the rest?
Both of these thoughts – the necessity to defend the faith and the conviction that only the Spirit can persuade a heart – were swirling around in my head on Wednesday afternoon, as the professor had arranged for three people from a local association of atheists to come and speak to the class. All three of the atheists grew up in religious homes, and yet their paths to outspoken atheism couldn’t have been more different.
“Pete” was raised in a Southern Baptist church with a high view of the Bible. However, when he graduated from high school and went to college, he began to notice “contradictions” in the Bible. Unable to reconcile them, he decided Scripture was a human invention, and he eventually rejected the idea of God altogether.
“Dave” grew up in a devout Catholic home. According to him, “Catholics don’t read the Bible,” so the contradictions that plagued Pete were no issue for him. Dave was a lover of Greek mythology and began to read the Bible as just another source of ancient literature. He associated the God of the Bible with the Greek gods and for that reason assumed Him to be fictional as well.
“Jim” not only grew up in church, but he also attended Boyce College (the undergraduate school at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) with the intent to go on to seminary and earn a Masters degree in Biblical counseling. He was a small group leader in one of the most solid churches in Louisville, KY. As he studied theology, he found himself struggling with the doctrine of hell. He could not accept the idea that a God of love would send His creatures to hell for eternity. He turned away from the faith and shortly decided that there was no God at all.
The three of them were well aware of all the arguments for theism as well as the evangelical responses to all of their objections. They understood and yet they didn’t understand. We spent two and a half hours interacting with these folks, and the whole time I had these competing drives in my heart – a strong desire to persuade them of the truth and at the same time the desire to leave them to the work of the Spirit. I was trying to decide which was the more biblical disposition.
But as I processed the encounter later, I realized that those two desires, if rightly held and understood, were not contradictory. They were complimentary drives, both necessary if I am to be faithful to the Word.
Indeed, only the Holy Spirit can convert a sinner. The lost person is dead in his trespasses and sins (Eph 2:1), enslaved to sin (John 8:34), unable to understand the things of the Spirit (1 Cor 2:14), and incapable of submitting to the law of God (Rom 8:7-8). Given the total depravity of man and his inability to will himself to understanding and faith, the strongest powers of human persuasion are woefully inadequate to transfer one lost sinner from the domain of darkness into the kingdom of the beloved Son. The Holy Spirit alone is the one who regenerates (Titus 3:5), who gives life (John 6:63), who removes the veil so that the sinner beholds the glory of the Lord (2 Cor 3:16-18), who gives spiritual understanding (1 Cor2:12), and who imparts saving repentance and faith (Eph 2:8-10). Try as I might, I cannot in my own power persuade someone to come to Christ.
However, I must not allow that conviction to lead me to despair of any participation in the apologetic/evangelistic task. Clearly, the church’s ministry and proclamation of the truth are the means used by the Spirit to turn sinners into saints (Mat28:19-20). Therefore, it is absolutely appropriate to have a strong desire to persuade the lost of the truth of the gospel. So strong was Paul’s desire to see his fellow Jews converted that he was willing to give up his own salvation that they might be joined to Christ (Rom 9:1-3). Acts 18 tells us that it was his custom to “reason” in the synagogues every Sabbath, trying to persuade the Jews and the Greeks. Concerning his time in Ephesus, Acts 19:8 notes that “he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God.”
Further, we have been given an explicit Scriptural mandate in 1 Peter 3:15 to always be prepared to give a defense to anyone who asks for a reason for the hope that is in us. To take a hands-off approach is to disregard a biblical imperative. As our society becomes more and more secularized, it becomes more crucial that the church be able to meet the challenges that come against the validity of Scripture and the exclusivity of Christ.
So, this understanding – that I am to give myself to the task of lovingly spreading the truth and that the Holy Spirit alone can cause a sinner to come to life – calls me to what kind of action? Two things. I should diligently prepare myself to share the gospel and to answer the typical objections to the faith, and I should pray fervently that the Spirit would use me as a vessel and prepare the hearts of those with whom I will have the opportunity to interact. We must pursue these two things with great tenacity. We must love the lost enough to struggle hard against their unbelief, all the while trusting in the power of the Spirit alone to raise them from death to life.
May the Lord give us all more opportunities to speak the gospel to the lost. And when those opportunities come, may we have well-prepared minds, soft hearts, and worn out knees.
Posted by Greg Birdwell