The Greek word apologia (Greek: ἀπολογία) is the root for the English term “apologetics.” Apologia and its root forms are found in the New Testament (Acts 26:2; Romans 1:20; Philippians 1:7, 16), with 1 Peter 3:15 revealing the mandate imploring Christians to be ready to explain and defend their faith. Throughout Christian history, apologetics became known as the enterprise by which apologists sought to give a reasoned defense of the truth of Christianity. Today, Christian apologetics involves the use of various disciplines to defend the faith, including the biblical, doctrinal, philosophical, historical, literary, and scientific fields.
In more technical terms, apologetics is a branch of Christian theology that seeks to provide rational justification for the truth claims of Christianity.1 For 20 centuries, Christian scholars and leaders have engaged in a fourfold defense of the faith by (1) presenting and clarifying the central truth claims of Christianity, (2) offering clear and compelling positive evidence for accepting Christian truth, (3) answering people’s questions and objections concerning the faith, and (4) providing a penetrating critique and refutation of alternative non-Christian systems of thought.2
This type of apologetic endeavor remains as important today as at any time in Christian history. And it is imperative that believers look to Scripture and church history to instruct them in the performance of this critical task. Fortunately, the apostle Peter—the central preacher in the primitive Christian church—offers such guidance in his first epistle.
Since 1 Peter 3:15 contains the official New Testament order or commission to do apologetics, let’s cite the passage and explore its meaning in some detail.
But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. 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, NIV
Rules of Apologetic Engagement
In Peter’s words, we discover four points that provide a context for apologetic engagement and that honor God and instruct the apologist.
- Courage in Suffering
The backdrop of Peter’s admonition in verse 15 is the topic of suffering (see verses 13–14 and 16–17). In the apostolic age as well as for virtually three centuries following, a defense of the Christian faith would often occur under hostile interrogation (see, for example, Acts 25:16). Since Christianity was an illegal and politically controversial religion in the Roman Empire, the early Christians suffered through periods of great persecution and even martyrdom. Apologetic work in the early church (as today in totalitarian and Islamic-ruled countries) took great moral and physical courage.
- Christ’s Lordship
Peter instructs believers that at the core of their being (Greek: kardia, the “heart”), where people form their most essential beliefs, they should acknowledge the Lordship of Christ. Calling Jesus “Lord” (Greek: Kyrios) in this context is equivalent to referring to him as Yahweh (ruler, king, and God).3 Christians can engage in the apologetic enterprise with the full assurance that Christ is the exclusive, sovereign ruler over all things (Matthew 28:18). Facing suffering, trial, and hostile interrogation with the conviction that Christ is in sovereign control serves to grant the believer peace and confidence.
- A Reasoned Defense
To provide the proper rational justification for the Christian faith and worldview today demands rigorous intellectual preparation. It presupposes an in-depth knowledge of the faith and the ability to answer questions and rebut objections. Peter sets forth the idea that the Christian faith has a rational foundation worth defending. Yet one does not need to be a professional to become an effective apologist.
- Gentleness and Respect
When it comes to rational persuasion, the advocate’s attitude and demeanor often carry as much weight as his or her arguments. People measure the credibility of one’s beliefs often by how they are communicated. Cogent arguments conveyed with an air of arrogance and disrespect will be drained of their apologetic potency. But apologetic responses that reflect a calm, measured approach and tone signify a quality consistent with the conviction that it is God (the Holy Spirit) alone who makes the human heart and mind receptive to the gospel (Acts 16:14; 1 Corinthians 12:3).
The apostle goes on to speak of the importance of joining one’s rational defense with the virtue of moral transparency (“keeping a clear conscience,” verse 16). The effective apologist seeks to integrate the witness of one’s life with one’s words. A reasoned and winsome apologetic case possesses great force in conveying the message that historic Christianity is rational, viable, and true.
Reflections: Your Turn
Which aspect of Peter’s mandate concerning apologetics stands out to you?
- William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994), xi.
- See Kenneth Richard Samples, Without a Doubt: Answering the 20 Toughest Faith Questions(Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004), 255–59.
- F. Bruce, Jesus: Lord and Savior(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1986), 203.