I love the very shape of the Christian life.
Consider the way we start our days in prayer: how it puts us in our place in the universe and in relationship to a holy God; how it readies us for a day of loving our neighbors as ourselves. It prioritizes our works, helping us to attend the weightier matters of life and not get confused about what is heavy and what is light. Family takes its place at the epicenter of the practical exercise of our faith, and thus becomes a rich ground where other relationships can take root and grow because of the forgiveness that is the central imperative in all our dealings with others.
After appreciating the warp and woof of how we nurture our Christianity and it nurtures us, I’m prompted to consider the place of apologetics in this Christian life. How does our defense and explanation of the notion that we have peace with God, afforded us by a foreign righteousness imputed to us, figure in all this? Can’t we just do as the quote oft attributed to St. Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words?”1
As charming as that notion seems, our answer has to be “no.” God has ordained an end, the calling of a peculiar people to Himself, and also ordained the means, the preached word. This is a preaching of propositional sentences regarding the nature of man, of God and of the only means of reconciliation between God and man—the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on Calvary. These are truths that cannot be conveyed by simply living well and waiting for someone to notice and ask, “Hey, what’s the reason for the hope that is in you?”
But affirmations beget denials, and more so with the subject of religion than any other. The Bible says that man is fallen. Yet many believe the famous quote from the inspirational book The Diary of Anne Frank, “In spite of everything I still believe that people are basically good at heart.”2 Either we’re talking about two different things or one of us is wrong. This is certainly not the kind of question that is answered by simply living life as a nice person. It must be met with discourse while we remain nice people.
Christianity is filled with propositions like this that must be explained and defended. Let’s take the central truth of the Christian faith: the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary. In the face of Dan Brown novels, Jesus Seminar Scholars and others claiming that Jesus married Magdalene and moved to France or was buried in a community grave and eaten by dogs, one simply cannot answer the contradiction without opening one’s mouth to preach the Gospel using words.
What of those of us who sin (e.g., all of us)? What if we do the wrong thing? Being a radio apologist I am forced to consider carefully what I do. I am convicted by the occasional helpful criticism that I might be failing sometimes. What do we do with our pseudo-Franciscan epigram then? With such facility the critics of the faith bandy about the word “hypocrite”, and how simple is the step of illogic, which says, “Look, he failed, Christianity is false.”
We recognize, of course, that sin does not render Christianity false, but affirms the Christian anthropology. So we are confronted again with the notion that it is almost always necessary to use words in the proclamation of the Gospel.
Certainly there is value to the aesthetic ‘form’ of the Christian life, but to what extent is a beautiful life evidence of the Gospel? Do not all religious people everywhere pray for their children and strive to live out the moral tenets they have received? Don’t atheists hope for good for those they meet and try to be “good people,” whatever that means, themselves? Of course they do!
The beautiful Christian life is what James calls ‘justification’ of our faith. He says in chapter 2 of his pithy epistle, “Show me your faith without works and I will show you faith by my works,” (all quotes NET unless indicated)3 and my favorite ‘misunderstood’ quote in the Bible, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”4 All of the things that James prescribes in the moral arena in his epistle are evidences of a faith rooted in propositions that the works themselves cannot articulate. They must be proclaimed by the spoken/written word.
In summary, my friends, we must tell everyone we can about the Gospel and also give evidence to everyone of the truth of these things by our love for one another. And when challenged about it (as we have been, are and ever will be) we must “always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks about the hope you possess. Yet do it with courtesy and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15b-16a)
The pseudo-Franciscan epigram is false for the Christian who has an explicit mandate from Jesus Christ to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” (Matt. 28:19) even if its imperative to live a beautiful Christian life is true and is itself a kind of apologetic for the Christian faith. There is simply no substitute for opening your mouth to speak the words God gave us to speak, and we are not living the beautiful Christian life until we do.
1 It is doubtful St. Francis of Assisi actually said this. The nearest one finds to this quote in his writings is in chapter 17 of his “First Rule” which states: “Let no Brother preach contrary to the form and institution of the holy Church, nor without the leave of his Superior. And let the Superior take care that he does not grant this leave indiscreetly. Nevertheless, let all the Brethren preach by their works.” (Francis, of Assisi Saint Francis, Works Of The Seraphic Father St. Francis of Assisi, Translated by A Religious of the Order, (London: R. Washbourne, 1882), 42.
3 The NET Bible® is freely available at www.bible.org/
4 Note the NLT reading of this verse, “So you see, we are made right with God by what we do, not by faith alone,” seems to miss the context of showing our faith by our works, a concept that does not contradict or deny that we are “justified,” in the sense of being “made right with God,” by faith and not by works. So the phrase “made right with God,” corresponding to the first lexical meaning of dikaioutai (present, passive, indicative of dikaioo: to render righteous or such he ought to be) doesn’t fit here. Rather the second lexical meaning (to show, exhibit, evince, one to be righteous, such as he is and wishes himself to be considered) is the one that makes sense in context.