Christian apologetics is as old as Christianity itself. While the word apologetics may sound funny, it doesn’t mean to apologize, but rather, “to give an explanation or justification.”
This is where we get our word apologize, the basic meaning to explain we now take to mean expressing contrition. While apologetics is not about being sorry, it is also not about being rash or reckless. For Christians, it just so happens that the humility it takes to be sorry is the same humility it takes to defend our faith in Christ, because our faith begins with the repentance of our sin and the confession of Christ as savior.
When I was growing up, apologetics was taught to me as a serious endeavor, and to this day I do not deny that it is. But when I was an adolescent, my understanding of what it meant to defend the faith was different.
I was often given 1 Peter 3:15 as a fixed reference for the importance of apologetics.
“In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.”
This verse was repeated to me very often, to the point that I had it memorized. But what stands out to me years later is what I had memorized, and what I had not memorized. The quotation, the sentence, as I had it memorized, was not the full sentence. Missing from the passage in this case is the ending, “yet with gentleness/meekness and reverence/fear.”
I later wondered why the passage had so often been repeated to me without that crucial clause. Was it not important to those who taught me? Was their focus more on defending than being gentle? As I looked back, I went through the book of 1 Peter to see the passage in context. The first thing I decided to do was examine the verse itself.
- My first observation is that we are called to make a defense, not to attack. Our efforts to explain and justify our faith are not called to be efforts to go around attacking other people. We will be attacked by others. From the teachings of Jesus we know that we do not attack those who attack us.
- We honor Christ the Lord as Holy, and this is why we are apologetic. Our defense should be done as we enshrine Christ as our king, and honor him as we do it, which means not just honoring his position, but also his character. What is special that we believe in most is a person, not an idea.
- Always be prepared to defend. While we may assume this applies to having an intellectual, even canned response at-the-ready, this preparation is about having a read heart. Setting apart Christ as holy, treating him as special should prepare us to always be willing to defend our faith in him, and even ready to do so in a certain way.
- We give a defense to anyone who asks. Notice that we are to be prepared for when people ask, not to be prepared to go after people who aren’t asking. That is, our defense is in response to questions, whether they be earnest or hostile.
- We give a defense for the reason for the hope that is in us. In this passage the focus is not on just defending this or that specific doctrine, or for an interpretation, but for the hope that is in us. Hope. While this does not mean we should not care about being willing to defend other attributes of our values and beliefs, in the passage the one thing we are to always be prepared to defend is our hope. There is a vulnerability here, and a strength in hope as it is laid bare by those who accuse us.
- It’s not God that we are defending, as if he needed defending, but the hope in us. God himself is not vulnerable to attack. But the hope we have in God is vulnerable within us if we do not maintain and defend it. We are not here to be God’s defenders, but champions of hope in God.
- But with gentleness and reverence. I find it of great importance that these words are preceded by an emphatic “but” (some translations use the similar “yet”). It’s a word most commonly known to contrast two unalike things. It suggests that the audience needed a pivotal reminder that their defense of the hope within them should be gentle toward everyone and reverential about the primary subject.
Elliot’s Commentary continues that our readiness to defend our faith “is not to be marred by any self-exaltation or improper confidence.” Meekness and fear of God prevents our apologetics from becoming too arrogant or bitter. We’re not even defending ourselves, but the hope that is in us, and we do it with a heart for sharing it. It’s not about us, it’s not about proving that we’re right, and it’s not about getting even. It’s also more important to have a ready heart than a ready mind. It should even be better, at times, to humbly respond to a question about our faith with, “I don’t know. Let’s look into it.”
At the core of apologetics is defending the integrity of the life of the Lord. But our primary way of doing so is not through debate or scholarship, but by living out Christ. When someone asks about the faith we live out, whatever their motive, we are to vindicate the reason behind our hope in Christ. We are to be the habitation of Christ. And this in itself is sometimes the best defense of faith.