Most preachers I talk to about apologetics and preaching agree that the two can and should go together, but few have a workable model for developing apologetic sermons. Thus, I developed an approach to preparing apologetic messages that utilizes the acrostic STEPS. Before I share the details of the STEPS model, a word about two types of apologetics: negative and positive. Nash’s definition of the two is helpful:
In negative apologetics, the major objective is producing answers to challenges to religious faith. The proper task of negative apologetics is removing obstacles to belief…. In negative apologetics, the apologist is playing defense. In positive apologetics, the apologist begins to play offense. It is one thing to show (or attempt to show) that assorted arguments against religious faith are weak or unsound; it is a rather different task to offer people reasons why they should believe. The latter is the task of positive apologetics.
Given the difference between negative and positive apologetics, I adapted the STEPS model to address each approach. Here is how STEPS works for negative apologetics.
Specify the Apologetic Challenge
Given the concern in negative apologetics to defend the faith against attacks, the starting point in developing an apologetic sermon outline for negative apologetics is to specify the apologetic challenge the sermon intends to address. The preacher’s goal at this point is to initiate a connection with the audience based on the topic under consideration. While there is not necessarily one “right” way to do this, it may prove useful to quote an opponent of the Christian faith, followed by a question.
Tell the Critic’s Best Argument
Having identified the apologetic challenge, the negative apologetic sermon now includes the best example of an argument in favor of the position stated in the challenge. At this point the preacher must take the time to learn and accurately represent the views of those he is engaging. God is not honored nor are the saints helped when strawmen are built and attacked. Always present the opposing view’s best argument.
Present the Answer to the Apologetic Challenge
At this point the preacher will present what the Bible and other sources say about the apologetic challenge. The focus of the preacher turns from answering the critic to offering reasons to believe the Christian faith despite the apologetic challenge being discussed. When sharing the answer to the apologetic challenge the preacher is helping the hearer understand that the Christian faith is both reasonable and based in divine revelation.
Summarize and Transition to a Related Invitation
It is possible to present the first four parts of the STEPS model within a sermon that is broader than just the apologetics (e.g., a message about foolishness could include a discussion of the fool’s denial of God’s existence). However, if the message is wholly apologetic, then the preacher’s last responsibility is to summarize and offer a gospel invitation relevant to the audience (i.e., if evangelism, then the gospel portion is an invitation to believe and repent, but if discipleship, then the gospel portion is an invitation to trust God more deeply; if both, then both).
And here is how STEPS works for positive apologetics.
Specify the Apologetic Topic
In a positive apologetic message, where the goal is to present a positive case for belief, the preacher begins by specifying the apologetic topic. This approach sets the expectation with the hearer that the sermon will provide reasons to believe. It will help the preacher connect with his audience if, when introducing the apologetic topic, he avoids the language of doubt (though such language may prove helpful with negative apologetics), focusing instead on inviting the hearer into a deeper consideration of the positive case for believing.
Tell the Topic’s Significance
After specifying the topic, the preacher gives the hearers a few key reasons why the topic is important. It will help the preacher to think in terms of doctrine and practice at this point. Help the listener understand the doctrinal significance of the topic, how it relates to overall Christian theology. Likewise, discuss how the topic generally relates to living the Christian life, to the practice of faith.
Explain the Biblical and Rational Basis Concerning the Apologetic Topic
The topic has been presented and its significance considered, so the preacher turns to a presentation of the biblical and rational basis for believing whatever is under consideration. This is the central apologetic content of the message, where the argument in favor of the belief is put forth in clear and compelling terms. While the preacher’s goal is not to harangue his hearers and browbeat them concerning the topic, he should make an impassioned case for “the hope that is in [him]” (1 Pet. 3:15).
Practically Apply the Apologetic Topic for the Hearers
This is where the preacher transitions from apologetic case-making to practical application. How does the apologetic topic relate to the hearers? The emphasis at this point in making apologetic realities fit real life needs.
Summarize and Transition to a Related Invitation
As with the STEPS model applied to negative apologetics, so it is possible for the positive model to be a part of a message dealing with something not exclusively apologetic. If so, there is not necessarily a transition to a related invitation. However, if the positive apologetic message is stand-alone, then the preacher will conclude by summarizing and making a transition appropriate to the topic and audience—unbeliever, believer, or both.
I realize it is probably easier to understand STEPS in an actual sermon. At this point, however, what is most important is the basic structure. In the next two weekly installments I will present actual sermon manuscripts, one for negative apologetics and one for positive apologetics.
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.