1 Peter 3:15 (NIV)
Have you ever met a fellow believer in Christ whose overall character of life and faith was so vibrant that their example seemed to make Christianity even more believable? Not that the person was perfect, for all believers are forgiven sinners who in one way or another still bear the negative effects of a fallen nature. Nevertheless, certain believers—by God’s grace—possess that unique combination of intellectual integrity, commitment to moral duty, and depth of virtue that makes Christianity as a set of beliefs seem all the more true.1
The scripturally mandated enterprise of showing the Christian faith to be a credible belief system is called "apologetics" (derived from 1 Peter 3:15, Gk. apologia,"answer" or defense). In more technical terms, apologetics is a branch of Christian theology that seeks to provide rational justification for the truth-claims of Christianity.2
Throughout twenty 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.3
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.
Rules of Apologetic Engagement
In 1 Peter 3:15 we discover four points that provide a context for apologetic engagement that is both honoring to God and instructive to 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 activity 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 very core of their being (Gk. kardia, the "heart"), where people form their most essential beliefs, they are to acknowledge the Lordship of Christ. Calling Jesus "Lord" (Gk.Kyrios) in this context is equivalent to referring to him as Yahweh (Ruler, King, and God).4 Christians are to engage in the apologetic enterprise with the full assurance that Christ is the exclusive and sovereign ruler over all things (Matthew 28:18). Facing suffering, trial, and hostile interrogation with the conviction that Christ is in sovereign control grants 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 begin preparation.)
Gentleness and Respect: When it comes to rational persuasion, the advocate's attitude and demeanor often carry as much weight as his arguments. The credibility of one’s beliefs is often measured by how they are communicated. Cogent arguments conveyed with an air of arrogance and disrespect are inevitably drained of their apologetic potency. But apologetic responses that reflect a calm and 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,"v. 16). The effective apologist seeks to integrate the witness of one's life with one's words. This "ultimate apologetic" possesses great force in conveying the message that historic Christianity is rational, viable, and true.