Christians correctly assume that apologetics impacts conversion. That’s why many Christian ministries, organizations, and individuals who are motivated by evangelism take the apologetics enterprise seriously. But just how does apologetics impact conversion? And which apologetics factors contribute to a person’s movement toward salvation in Christ?
As we have stated in this series, in historic Christianity the apologetics enterprise functions as a tool to remove intellectual challenges so a person might seriously consider and embrace the faith. That’s what happened in the historical case of Augustine of Hippo (354–430) in which six specific apologetics-oriented features helped Augustine come to faith in Jesus Christ. Augustine would later attribute all of these elements to God’s sovereign grace powerfully at work in his life. I have proposed that these six factors can be considered a broad apologetic model for how God, through his extraordinary grace, leads people to faith.
Parts 1, 2, and 3 introduced Augustine and his conversion to Christianity and addressed the first three apologetics factors that helped him move toward the faith. Here in the final article I’ll introduce three more factors that removed critical obstacles and made the faith more believable, thus paving the way for Augustine’s acceptance of Christianity.
4. The Existential Reality of Death
Augustine had a close friend who became gravely ill, and during the illness the friend was baptized Catholic. When this friend recovered briefly, he rebuked Augustine for rejecting Christianity. The friend relapsed and died, sending Augustine into a period of intense grief, which he described in his book Confessions (see Book IV). This experience forced Augustine to face the existential reality of death. Death stalks all people.1 It’s the human predicament. Thus, each person must judiciously consider what awaits in the afterlife.
5. Confronting Man’s Sinful Condition
After Augustine had become intellectually convinced of the truth of Christianity, his will to sin remained an obstacle. He was increasingly confronted with his glaring lack of moral integrity and total inability to live up to God’s moral standards revealed in Scripture. Augustine was embarrassed that he had encountered so many people whose moral lives put his immoral life to shame. These were people who couldn’t come close to matching his intellectual brilliance and rhetorical eloquence, but their commitment to living morally upright lives made Augustine truly envious. Augustine’s reflection on sin2 forced him to consider that he needed divine grace.
6. The Study of Scripture
Augustine had once regarded the writings of Scripture as disappointing, but he would change that perception of the definitive text in his ongoing pursuit of truth. Augustine’s previously limited study of Scripture had greatly increased through his interaction with Ambrose. Augustine’s mind was now captive to the Holy Scriptures. He saw that they “are able to make you wise for salvation” (2 Timothy 3:15), and were a source by which God imparts the gift of faith (Romans 10:17). The final step in Augustine’s conversion to the Christian faith entailed believing God’s Word, which offered the peace and salvation he yearned for.
It may not be easy to think about, but discussing death, sin, and Scripture with a non-Christian may be what that person needs. These three elements combined with the three previously discussed (overcoming philosophical and theological challenges as well as encountering the witness of other believers) providentially led Augustine to faith in Jesus Christ.
Apologetics factors undoubtedly impact conversion, and St. Augustine’s story serves as a powerful historical framework for our efforts to engage people with the truth of the gospel today.
Reflections: Your Turn
Of the six apologetics factors that influenced Augustine, which do you think was the most important?
- To read Augustine’s story in his own words, see Saint Augustine, Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin
- For more about St. Augustine’s life and thought, see “Augustine: Theologian of Grace” in Kenneth Richard Samples, Classic Christian Thinkers: An Introduction, chap. 3
- For a comprehensive resource on all things Augustine, see Augustine through the Ages
2. For some of my reflections on sin, see these four articles: The Seven Deadly Sins, Part 1 (of 4); The Seven Deadly Sins, Part 2 (of 4); The Seven Deadly Sins, Part 3 (of 4); The Seven Deadly Sins, Part 4 (of 4)