Which comes first?

  • Tony Payne
  • 15 August 2016

Man reading a newspaper

Which comes first: apologetics or evangelism?

This might seem a strange question, because it is often not only hard to answer but seemingly unimportant. In a gospel conversation with a friend over coffee, apologetic-style questions and gospel proclamation are often all mixed together. Who can predict or determine which comes first, and why would it matter?

However, the principle of whether apologetics or evangelism comes first does matter, and will affect our practice and activities—especially those we plan in advance, but even those that happen on the run.

I want to suggest that evangelism should be regarded as prior to apologetics, both logically and in the emphasis of our outreach. I have a number of reasons for saying so, but here I want to focus on just one—the nature of the gospel we proclaim.

The gospel is essentially a piece of news. When we ‘evangelize’ we announce that certain momentous events have taken place in history, the meaning and significance of which radically change the state of affairs and require a response from every person.

Evangelism is rather like what Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies did in 1939 when he made the following announcement: “Fellow Australians, it is my melancholy duty to inform you officially, that in consequence of the persistence of Germany in her invasion of Poland, Great Britain has declared war upon her, and that, as a result, Australia is also at war”. Certain momentous events had taken place, the meaning of which meant that the situation for everyone in Australia had radically changed.

The gospel is like that. It’s the announcement that a man has died and risen from the dead, and that this means something now for our world—notably, that God has appointed this dead-and-risen Man (his own Son) as the Lord and Judge and Saviour of all, and that entry into his kingdom via repentance and the forgiveness of sins is now available to people from every nation in the world.

This is what we broadcast, and (like Menzies’s broadcast) it doesn’t need much introduction or preamble, nor very much effort to establish a common interest in the importance or relevance of the message. If this momentous news is true, then it quite obviously changes everything for every person in the world. We all now live in a world ruled by the man who rose from the dead.

Mind you, what was said by Menzies may well have generated questions from his listeners: Is Menzies telling us the truth? If Germany is still invading Poland, why is this prompting Great Britain to declare war? Should Australia be part of this war? And so on.

In much the same way, the news about Jesus will also generate questions: Is it possible or plausible that someone should rise from the dead? Who is the God who has crowned him as Lord and Judge and Saviour? Why is repentance and forgiveness necessary? What does this mean for me? And more, no doubt, besides.

We’ll find ourselves answering all sorts of questions about the announcement. We will do all we can to persuade people that the announcement is indeed true and faithful, that as a result it is hugely significant, and that a response is therefore imperative.

Some of these questions we may anticipate as we make the announcement and explain its meaning. But logically and conceptually and ideally in practice, the apologia (or defence) follows the announcement, and is shaped by the announcement.

If our message was not an announcement of news—if it was something else—then this may not be the case. If our message, for example, was a qualitative claim that Christianity as a religion is beneficial or satisfying, and thus worth believing and following, then a great deal more preparatory and ‘apologetic’ work (if that is the right word) would need to be done. We would need to establish what constituted “beneficial and satisfying” (in terms that resonated with our hearers); we would need to deal with any of Christianity’s beliefs that were radically inconsistent with the beliefs of our hearers (for example, regarding science or sexual ethics); we would need to defend the actual record of Christianity from attacks that it had not, in fact, been beneficial or satisfying; and so on.

The qualitative superiority or desirability of Christianity is something that we would need to argue towards—and (in my observation) an increasing amount of Christian outreach activity has this character.

By contrast, the gospel is something we argue from—that we proclaim as momentous news, and then defend and explain.

Here then is the question that this brief reflection raises: What would be different about our personal and corporate evangelistic activity if we prioritised the gospel announcement, and let apologetics follow along behind?

First published in Vine Journal #3 (April 2016).