I’ve been preaching for over thirty years. I’ve preached a lot of sermons in that time, and most were directed to believers. I consider preaching to be my primary means of equipping disciples. It’s not that I don’t engage in other activities to aid the flock—I also counsel and mentor and provide general pastoral care. However, preaching is my main disciple-making practice. Apologetics has a role in this, but I confess that I have not always appreciated its importance nor have I (until recently) carefully considered why apologetic preaching as discipleship is fundamental to my calling as a preacher. Yet, in God’s kindness He has broadened my vision for preaching, and here are few of the things I am learning about the rationale for apologetic preaching as discipleship.
Apologetic Preaching as Discipleship Helps Remove Obstacles to Christian Growth
Growing, active Christians will inevitably experience doubts about the content of their faith or the surety of their relationship with the Lord as they grow and are tested. To paraphrase Luther, the Christian cannot keep all doubts away any more than a man can control the birds that fly around the trees in his yard. Also, if Christians are engaging their culture and sharing their faith, they will eventually encounter someone who is hostile to the faith and armed with one or more substantive arguments.
When Christians experience these challenges, apologetic preaching for discipleship can help address the doubts and provide answers to challenges to the faith. Sometimes, as Habermas explains, doubt is intellectual, sometimes it is emotional, and sometimes is it a matter of refusing to believe out of rebellion. Regardless of its source, apologetics through preaching can help the Christian move past doubt to faith and obedience. Apologetics is like a coin with two-sides: one side focuses on those who are not yet Christians, and the other side focuses on those who already believe. Both are legitimate roles for apologetics, and when a pastor knows this and takes seriously his responsibility to preach sermons that include apologetics, he helps his congregation grow in spiritual maturity.
Apologetic Preaching as Discipleship Aids in Teaching the “How” of Apologetics
Like it or not, a preacher’s congregation will learn how to do certain things by the way the preacher does them. For instance, how a preacher regularly explains the gospel at the time of invitation will have a pedagogical effect on the congregation over time, and they will likely explain the gospel in terms similar to their preacher. This is not necessarily a problem if the preacher is careful of his method and cognizant that he is teaching by doing, especially in the pulpit. The upside to this phenomenon is that when it comes to apologetic preaching as discipleship, a preacher can both equip the saints with apologetic content and with apologetic presentation skills.
While the congregation may not acquire the precision and polish of their pastor, they can learn the basics from his delivery method. This is, in part, how Augustine taught his mentees to preach and teach during his years of ministry as pastor and bishop in North Africa. Smither explains that, “the daily disciplines of prayer, scriptural study, and reading, as well as regular interaction with Augustine’s teaching, prepared many monks for a possible future in church ministry.” Smither also reports that much of Augustine’s apologetic material (e.g., against the Donatists, against Pelagius, against the Manicheans) was developed and presented in the context of training his mentees. Thus, Augustine provides an excellent example of how what is said in a sermon or teaching conveys both content and method to the hearers. Apologetic preaching for discipleship is one of the means to convey such content and methods to the people of God.
Apologetic Preaching as Discipleship Serves as a Means to Guarding the Flock
When pastors commit to apologetic preaching as discipleship, whether for a specific series of messages or as an ongoing practice in all messages, they are helping maintain the right and left limits of orthodoxy within the congregation. This aspect of apologetic preaching is sometimes easily overlooked, yet faithful and regular apologetics in the pulpit sets a certain tone in the congregation, making clear that false teaching and attacks on the faith will be addressed, and biblical orthodoxy will be maintained in the spirit of speaking the truth in love for the sake of edifying and protecting the body. Though this practice cannot guarantee false teaching will never find a place among the brethren, it is true that through regular preaching that explains and defends the Christian message, a congregation can and will gravitate toward consistent orthodoxy. Taylor offers historical support for this in his exploration of the role of apologetics in the first three centuries of the church, explaining that through the use of apologetics the early church stood firm against encroaching heresy by offering “justification for belief in and commendation of Christianity.” When faced with attempts by heretics to alter “one or more aspects of the deity, death, and resurrection reports as they related to Jesus,” these early apologists helped “establish the credibility of Christianity.” Likewise, when pastors commit to apologetic preaching today they help believers live within a hostile culture without sacrificing their distinctive beliefs. Perhaps one of the greatest though underutilized weapons in the preacher’s arsenal when it comes to doctrinal purity is the practice of regular apologetic preaching for discipleship.
Apologetic preaching as discipleship has much to commend itself to preachers, as does apologetic preaching as evangelism. What about the type of arguments used in apologetic preaching? In the next installment in this series we will consider why abductive argumentation is well-suited to apologetic preaching.
T. J. shares a passion for the moral argument(s) and brings much to his new post. He is, in his own words, a “mere Christian with genuine fascination and awe for the breadth and depth of God’s gracious kingdom.” He became a Christian in 1978, and began pastoral ministry in 1984. He has worked as a youth pastor, senior pastor, church planter, church-based seminary professor, a chaplain assistant in the Army, and a chaplain in the Army National Guard. A southern Illinois native, T. J. is a graduate of Southern Illinois University-Carbondale with a BA in Political Science; Liberty University with an MAR in Church Ministries, an MDiv in Chaplaincy, and a ThM in Theology; Luther Rice College and Seminary with an MA in Apologetics; and Piedmont International University with a DMin in Pastoral Counseling. He is currently writing his dissertation on crisis leadership in the epistle of Jude for the PhD in Leadership at Piedmont, as well as pursuing a PhD in Theology and Apologetics at Liberty, hoping to write his dissertation on some aspect of the intersection of moral apologetics and the pastorate. He is the author of several books, including God Help Us: Encouragement for Evangelism, and Thinking of Worship: A Liturgical Miscellany, as well as journal articles on liturgics, pastoral counseling, homiletics, and apologetics. He and his wife have five children. T. J.’s preaching may be heard at www.sermonaudio.com/fellowshipinchrist.