September 25, 2023
“But 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; yet do it with gentleness and respect.”
1 Peter 3:15
This brief verse provides a broad mandate for Christian apologetics, an essential feature of our Christian witness. The word “defense” is the Greek word apologia, from which the word apologetics is derived. Many scholarly manuals on apologetics have been written, defending the Christian faith against all sorts of intellectual challenges throughout the church’s history. This may give the unfortunate impression that apologetics is largely academic, conducted by experts skilled in various arguments, concerning matters too difficult for most Christians. However, Peter issues this imperative “to make a defense” to the entire church. Apologetics is not the exclusive domain of Christian intellectuals. Apologetics is the responsibility of the whole church, which must “always” be prepared to make a defense to “anyone” who asks for a reason for the hope that is in you. Arguably, preparing the church for such an apologetic is all the more important in our cultural context where Christian beliefs and behaviors seem increasingly strange, as they were in Peter’s day.
Apologetics is a broad responsibility, but we also learn from this verse that it has a clear focus. Those who are not Christians may ask all sorts of questions, some sincere and others meant to misdirect. Wisdom is required to navigate these to arrive at the focal point of Christian apologetics, Christ himself. In apologetic encounters, the core issue concerns Christ’s person and work: that he is Lord and that he is the reason for our hope, as Peter says in this verse. Our apologetic, therefore, must be Christ-centered. Regardless of the many directions a conversation may go, a Christian apologetic must ultimately arrive at Christ’s person and work, the conclusive proof of God’s faithfulness as he directs the course of history to fulfill his promises.
How are we to prepare for such an apologetic? Peter tells us. The preparation is deeply personal. An effective apologetic doesn’t begin with studied answers or arguments but with the commitment of our own hearts. We must “honor Christ the Lord as holy.” Scripture elsewhere describes him as both Creator and Redeemer, that “in everything he might be preeminent” (Col 1:18). A Christ-centered apologetic begins with convictions concerning Christ’s preeminence, which should be evident in how we conduct our lives, lived in and for him. Christ is Lord. And Christ is also the reason for our hope. You must know yourself as “ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers . . . with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:18-19), leading you to “rejoice with a joy that is inexpressible” (1 Peter 1:8). Preparation for a Christ-centered apologetic must address the heart and not merely the head, because the commitment of our hearts becomes evident in our lives, which in turn provoke the apologetic encounters Peter describes (1 Peter 3:16; cf. 2:12; 4:4).
But how are we to practice the apologetic that Peter commends? The personal commitments that undergird our apologetic provide direction. Once again, we must remember that in apologetic encounters, the core issue concerns Christ’s person and work: that he is Lord and that he is the reason for our hope. A Christ-centered apologetic will “reason” about these matters, presenting the claims of Christ as Lord and Savior in answer to questions. But our apologetic must also press these claims as a challenge to unbelief. If, in our hearts, we honor Christ the Lord as holy, what substitutes take his place in the hearts of the unbelievers we reason with? Our apologetic should challenge their idols as they are set in contrast to Christ the Lord. Likewise, as we present the reason for our hope, we must challenge what reasons unbelievers have for hope, for meaning and purpose in their lives, apart from Christ who is Creator and Redeemer.
Lastly, Peter describes the manner in which a Christian apologetic is to be conducted: “with gentleness and respect.” These traits exhibit the grace that we ourselves have received as those who “were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph 2:3). Also, such traits demonstrate that the argument is not with us so much as it is with Christ. As we make our defense, we must not become defensive. The weight of the apologetic appeal does not depend on the force of the apologist’s personality or ability to argue. The persuasive weight of a Christ-centered apologetic must be Christ himself and his claims as Lord and Savior. We must never forget whom we are reasoning with: sinners, as we are. And we must never forget what we are reasoning about: the reconciling grace of God in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Rob Edwards is Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology and Dean of Students at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Previously, Rob served as the RUF campus minister at the University of Georgia and as the organizing pastor of Mercy Presbyterian Church in Forest, VA.