Holy Spirit apologetics

by Anthony Bradley
Posted on Wednesday, August 31, 2011, at 2:17 pm

I was recently reading John Warwick Montgomery's classic article "Christian Apologetics in the Light of the Lutheran Confessions" and was struck by his emphasis on the fact that only the Holy Spirit can change someone's heart and mind so that one accepts the Gospel. What a relief! It's not the persuasiveness of our speech, the cleverness of our philosophical arguments, or the piling on of historical evidence or data that does the real work. In fact, those are all means that God uses to challenge a person's worldview but ultimately it is the work of Holy Spirit that acts to change the heart. Apologetics, then, must be considered a wholly Trinitarian endeavor.

The interest in apologetics has surged in recent years, but I'm beginning to wonder if many Christians who engage skeptics, antagonists, and those who are apathetic about the claims of Christ see themselves, first and foremost, as a part of the means that God might use to persuade their friends about the Gospel. Warwick observes:

"Salvation is a gift, and is brought home to the heart only by the sovereign work of God the Holy Spirit. . . . [T]he confessional apologist will see himself not as a Holy-Spirit-substitute but as a John the Baptist in the wilderness of a secular age, preparing the way of the Lord, making the paths intellectually straight which lead to the Lamb of God-to the only One who can take away the sins of the world."

Does this mean that Christians should do nothing? Absolutely not! The Holy Spirit normally works through the explaining of the Scriptures to impart belief, so there is a need for His people to do the work of explaining, clarify, and challenging. Montgomery says, "[T]hough only the Holy Spirit can apply Biblical texts in a salvatory way to human hearts, believers can and should employ Scripture to convince unbelievers of the nature and truth of God's message."

Sometimes we forget what the Bible actually teaches on the subject. I have found the following passages to be a helpful orientation in the work of engaging non-Christians in discussions:

"Jesus answered, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit'" (John 3:5-6).

". . . For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person's thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual" (1 Corinthians 2:10-13).

"You know that when you were pagans you were led astray to mute idols, however you were led. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says 'Jesus is accursed!' and no one can say 'Jesus is Lord' except in the Holy Spirit" (1 Corinthians 12:2-3).

What do these passages reveal? They demonstrate that explaining Christianity to those who do not accept its claims is an exercise in prayerfully requesting the presence of the Third Person of the Trinity. This wonderfully takes the pressure off of those who feel incompetent to be apologists with polished arguments or theologically sophisticated answers. The Holy Spirit is more than capable of using our imperfections and limitations to explain Christian truth because ultimately God defends and reveals Himself.

So the next time you are attending a conference on apologetics and there is no emphasis on the necessity of the Holy Spirit, it may simply be a gathering of people who enjoy being quarrelsome and argumentative instead of a group seeking the active work of the God to bring people in loving union with His Son, which might be a waste of your time.

Anthony Bradley

Anthony is associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York and a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.

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