Where Good Men Go Wrong
In the world of apologetics we normally think in terms of either Presuppositional Apologetics and Evidential Apologetics. I firmly believe that Presuppositional Apologetics is Scripture’s own apologetic. However, this article is not about Presuppositional or Evidential Apologetics, but about another element of apologetics that is most often entirely overlooked by all who are engaged in apologetics.
Perhaps there is no other text in Scripture that is tortured, twisted, and taken out of context by faithful men as the text of 1 Peter 3:15. What I would like to do in this article is to look at this text afresh in order to help those who love Christ to stop and rethink how God has designed the gospel to spread to the ends of the earth in the midst of much opposition, to the praise of the glory of his grace.
Context, Context, Context!
As Chris Rosebrough always says, “The three rules for sound biblical hermeneutics are: Context, context, context!” Most errors are avoided simply by looking at a text in its proper context. So, let us look at the wider context of the book of 1 Peter before we come to chapter 3 verse 15.
The whole book of 1 Peter is a book written to encourage suffering saints. Even the address of the book is written to “elect exiles.” (1:1) This is a repeated theme throughout the book. In chapter 2 Peter refers to us as “sojourners and exiles.” (2:11) In fact, in 1 Peter our whole identity as Christians is bound up in the fact that we “are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession.” (2:9) We are elected, chosen, and called out of this world to belong to God and to be citizens of another world.
In 1:3-5 we are immediately pointed toward the “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading” inheritance that awaits all true saints. This eternal hope “kept in heaven for you” (1:4) sets the stage for Peter to talk about being “grieved by various trials.” (1:6) He says that our faith must be tested to be proven genuine, and it is tested even as gold is tested by fire. Peter will come back to this theme later in chapter 4 when he writes,
“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” (1 Peter 4:12)
In other words, Peter is written to a suffering, persecuted, oppressed, and marginalized church. It is no wonder that it is hard for us in the west to understand the context of 1 Peter, because for the most part we have enjoyed peace, prosperity, and security for several hundred years in the West. Nevertheless, what Peter has described is always the condition of the true church to some degree. Jesus said,
“Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.” (John 15:20)
We can be fairly certain on the authority of Jesus’ word that whenever the church experiences much prosperity and popularity in the world, there is a mixture of corruption and worldliness in the church. Again, Jesus says,
“Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.” (Luke 6:26)
So, what Peter writes is not an anomaly. Peter is writing about what is normal Christianity. Suffering under various fiery trials is normal for the true Christian, and thus, for the true church.
Suffering for Righteousness Sake
Now, let’s zoom in and look at the text in it’s immediate context beginning with verse 8 through verse 18. (I have put the primary text, verse 15, in bold.) It says:
“Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. For
‘Whoever desires to love life
and see good days,
let him keep his tongue from evil
and his lips from speaking deceit;
let him turn away from evil and do good;
let him seek peace and pursue it.
For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
and his ears are open to their prayer.
But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.’
Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 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, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.”
It is perfectly clear and requires no rigorous or complicated exegesis to see that the context of 1 Peter 3:15 is still in the context of suffering as elect exiles. In verse 9 we are told, “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.” Obviously these Christians are having evil done to them and they are being reviled. Their calling is to do good while others are doing evil to them.
In verse 13 he states as a general principle, “who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?” I say, “a general principal,” because he talks about being reviled, and then he immediately returns to that theme saying, “But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed.” (3:14) So, while doing good should ideally not lead to any harm being done to you, Peter well knows that this is a fallen world which is far from being ideal.
Always Being Prepared to Make a Defense
Now we come more specifically to that most important text in apologetics, 1 Peter 3:15. However, in most Bible translations (such as the ESV) it is made clear that the beginning of verse 15 is not even the beginning of a sentence. So, let us look at verses 14-15.
“But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 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.”
Here is where I think both Presuppositional Apologists and Evidential Apologists both miss it. The Evidential Apologist simply reads,
“always being prepared to make a defense…”
Presuppositional Apologists go a little further back and read,
“but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense…”
This short half of a sentence is usually all we focus on when we talk about apologetics. However, what we really need is to back up to the beginning of the sentence, and to see it in context, and then in so doing the latter half of verse 15 might actually make more sense.
“Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 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…”
When Peter says, “but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy,” it is being contrasted with having fear or being troubled when you “suffer for righteousness’ sake.” (3:14) It is in this very context that we read, “always being prepared to make a defense…”
This is the key phrase because in it we find the Greek word, “apologia.” The Greek word appears 8x in the New Testament, but here it is made most clear that apologetics is the duty of every believer. The word itself means, “the act of making a defense, defense.” (BDAG) Although the word does not occur in Jude, the mandate is made even more clear there where we read,
“Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 1:3)
In Jude, contending for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints is placed on the same level of importance as the gospel, “our common salvation.” Although, perhaps to our surprise, the urgency and priority is given to apologetics in Jude. So, we are not dealing with a secondary or peripheral issue when we talk about apologetics. Nothing less than the gospel of Christ is at stake.
However, this is where we get it wrong. When we ignore the context of 1 Peter 3, we take apologetics out of the hands of ordinary Christians and place it solely in the hands of “elite” Christians and academic scholars. Yet, in it’s proper context, 1 Peter 3:15 is not written in the realm of academic scholarship, but in the realm of ordinary Christians in a suffering church.
A Closer Look
Look again at the text. Peter says to, “always being prepared to make a defense.” Make a defense to who? In what situation? In an organized, public, moderated debate? No. He says, “to anyone.” Every Christian ought to be able to make a defense to anyone. But is this all Peter says? Does he qualify this ‘anyone’? Yes, he emphatically does. He says, “to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” Now that changes things!
In other words, Peter is basically saying, “When you do good to other people as a Christian, and you are reviled by them and suffer for righteousness sake—when that happens—do not be surprised, nor fear, nor be troubled, but rather, in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy so as the demonstrate that your hope is in Christ. Then, when they ask you in the face of such opposition and persecution how is it that you have such a counterintuitive hope? You ought to be ready to give them a reason for the hope that is in you.”
To say that yet another way: Apologetics is not merely an intellectual battle. There is something about the character and conduct of the Christian in the midst of being reviled, persecuted, oppressed, and being treated unjustly that causes the consciences of unbelievers to be stirred and awakened to the reality of the fact that our hope in Christ goes infinitely beyond this world and all that it can offer us. Our suffering becomes a powerful witness which leads to the powerful preaching of Christ and him crucified.
A Modern Example from Nigeria
Let’s take a look at a modern example from Nigeria. It demonstrates well the vast difference between mere intellectual arguments in apologetics, and the unspeakable power of a simple testimony (or defense) of Christ in the face of hostile opposition. This example comes from the January 2011 edition of The Voice of the Martyrs magazine.
“Dr. Paul” had recently joined the Voice of the Martyrs board of directors. He was an orthopedic surgeon practicing in the Midwest. When he went on a missions trip to Nigeria, this is what he saw:
“The roof of the church is gone. You also notice that the sanctuary is made of up plastic chairs because this church was burned out just a few months earlier by the Muslims who had attacked the village. The people were back in their church…worshiping the Lord and doing so in a very exuberant fashion.
After the church service, we had an impromptu medical clinic and looked at some of the injuries. One boy who was about 10 years old wanted to show me why his wrist could only move down. He had what they call a cutlass wound. He got that while he was trying to defend himself against his Muslim attackers. They actually cut the extensor tendons to his wrist, so he has a wrist drop…
One poor woman who was in part of the attack lost several of her fingers. Her hands will never work quite right…this is a common type of injury that has been seen in Nigeria, where swords were used to maim, cripple, and kill. The impact on these people as they try to protect themselves is that their hands hands are injured, and because of the work they do it destroys their ability to make a living…
A 3 or 4 year old girl lost her arm. This is one we don’t have a real good answer for in Nigeria, because even in the United States it is very difficult…
We worshiping in a burned out church called a Dogonahawa. It was in a village of about 2,000 people, predominately Christian; in fact, I think there were only one or two Muslim families in that village, but they mysteriously disappeared the night of the attack. The main path out of the village connects to another sister village about a mile and a half away. The Muslim attackers knew that this would be the means of escape of the people in the village when they came in the middle of the night firing guns and terrorizing people. They were waiting there with nets to capture the women and children and any of the men they could, and then to start their evil butchery.
A mother who had a tremendously bad scar on her neck was wondering if we could revise that for her because it was really thick. In talking with her, she said she was on the escape route and she was caught. They took a cutlass and thought they had cut her head off because of the bleeding. She was unconscious, but she had her baby on her back. When she awake after being unconscious, her baby was cut in pieces…”
Then Dr. Paul gives this profound thought that relates to suffering and apologetics and the spread of the gospel after he had come home and had time to recover:
“You know, I think as I had time to recover from the initial shock, I realized how much I and how much you need these brothers and sisters. Let me clarify how I think about this. We live in a country that is [currently, but probably not for long] very unique in the world today. We read our Bibles, and we go to Sunday school class, and some of us are even involved in outreaches, and we give to missions and we read stories about the heroes of old. When you are going home from work in Nigeria and you are a Christian, it is very possible that you may not come home that night. But it is possible to come home at night even if you are caught, if you are willing to say, ‘Allah is God and Mohammad is his prophet.’
Think about you family at home, and imagine that you are on your way home and you are stopped by a mob of vicious people saying, ‘Repeat after me or die.’ Suddenly I realize our faith may be fairly broad theologically, but it is not all that deep sometimes. These people, they don’t know a lot of answers to Bible stories, and they probably can’t give a good discussion on why Arminianism and Calvinism are right or wrong. But I can tell you that when people step up to them with a gun or a knife, and they are asked, ‘Will you repeat after me?’ and they say, ‘No, Jesus is Lord,’ their theology is very deep…”
Now let that soak in for a moment… The Dr. Paul concludes by saying,
“The thing that struck me about these Christians, besides the depth of their commitment, was—and probably related to their commitment—was their ability to forgive. I am just amazed at their ability, supernaturally I am sure, to forgive their tormentors.
They haven’t given up. They believe that they are going to carry on.”
I believe in the importance of theology and sound doctrine. I believe that a good biblical and intellectually rigorous understanding of Calvinism and Presuppositional Apologetics is healthy. However, you tell me which defense of the faith is going to more impact the lost by convicting them of the absolute truth of the eternal gospel:
A brilliant scholar giving exegetical and logical argumentation from the comfort and security of his seminary, or a simple Christian mom with her baby on her back who will not deny Jesus as Lord and Savior even if they chop off her head and cut her baby into pieces?
The answer is obvious. Jesus said,
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)
Better still, as it relates to our text in 1 Peter 3:15, you tell me which scenario is going to cause an opponent of Christianity to ask you for a reason for the hope that is in you:
That same brilliant scholar giving exegetical and logical argumentation from the comfort and security of his seminary, or survivors from the Nigerian village that were attacked and then willing to forgive the same people who murdered their friends and family on account of their faith?
Again, the answer is obvious. One clearly demonstrates an unseen hope that eventually provokes even the opponent with the hardest heart to ask “for a reason for the hope that is in you.” (1 Peter 3:15) The other merely demonstrates that you have a big head filled with knowledge and arouses no more in a sinners heart than a desire to argue. Having a broad theology is great, but it is no substitute for having a deep theology that has been proven and tested in the fires of affliction.
Just step back and think for a moment. We probably have the best scholarship of any generation in church history. The Puritans were brilliant, but we still have more scholarly tools and resources than they had. Yet, the church languishes and declines. We don’t see many baptisms that are accompanied by a credible profession of faith. Churches aren’t growing, and the ones that are growing are simply by people leaving one church to attend another. It is not growth through evangelism and conversion, or even through churches having a visible presence because they are out in public doing the work of the ministry. So clearly scholarship is not enough.
This is why the New Testament links both apologetics and the spread of the gospel to suffering. It is the clear and undeniable teaching of Scripture.
Causes of the Success of Christianity
Have you ever wondered how Christianity grew and spread in the early church after the apostles all died? I mean, they didn’t even have books, much less the kinds of sophisticated scholarly tools and resources we have at our fingertips. They didn’t even have access to paper like we do to pass out bulk supplies of gospel tracts. Listen to what Philip Schaff wrote in volume 2 of “History Of The Christian Church.” He wrote,
“The chief positive cause of the rapid spread and ultimate triumph of Christianity is to be found in its own absolute intrinsic worth, as the universal religion of salvation, and in the perfect teaching and example of its divine-human Founder, who proves himself to every believing heart a Saviour from sin and a giver of eternal life. Christianity is adapted to all classes, conditions, and relations among men, to all nationalities and races, to all grades of culture, to every soul that longs for redemption from sin, and for holiness of life. Its value could be seen in the truth and self-evidencing power of its doctrines; in the purity and sublimity of its precepts; in its regenerating and sanctifying effects on heart and life; in the elevation of woman and of home life over which she presides; in the amelioration of the condition of the poor and suffering; in the faith, the brotherly love, the beneficence, and the triumphant death of its confessors.
To this internal moral and spiritual testimony were added the powerful outward proof of its divine origin in the prophecies and types of the Old Testament, so strikingly fulfilled in the New; and finally, the testimony of the miracles, which, according to the express statements of Quadratus, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, and others, continued in this period to accompany the preaching of missionaries from time to time, for the conversion of the heathen.
Particularly favorable outward circumstances were the extent, order, and unity of the Roman empire, and the prevalence of the Greek language and culture.
In addition to these positive causes, Christianity had a powerful negative advantage in the hopeless condition of the Jewish and heathen world. Since the fearful judgment of the destruction of Jerusalem, Judaism wandered restless and accursed, without national existence. Heathenism outwardly held sway, but was inwardly rotten and in process of inevitable decay. The popular religion and public morality were undermined by a sceptical and materialistic philosophy; Grecian science and art had lost their creative energy; the Roman empire rested only on the power of the sword and of temporal interests; the moral bonds of society were sundered; unbounded avarice and vice of every kind, even by the confession of a Seneca and a Tacitus, reigned in Rome and in the provinces, from the throne to the hovel. Virtuous emperors, like Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius, were the exception, not the rule, and could not prevent the progress of moral decay. Nothing, that classic antiquity in its fairest days had produced, could heal the fatal wounds of the age, or even give transient relief. The only star of hope in the gathering night was the young, the fresh, the dauntless religion of Jesus, fearless of death, strong in faith, glowing with love, and destined to commend itself more and more to all reflecting minds as the only living religion of the present and the future. While the world was continually agitated by wars, and revolutions, and public calamities, while systems of philosophy, and dynasties were rising and passing away, the new religion, in spite of fearful opposition from without and danger from within, was silently and steadily progressing with the irresistible force of truth, and worked itself gradually into the very bone and blood of the race.
‘Christ appeared,’ says the great Augustin, ‘to the men of the decrepit, decaying world, that while all around them was withering away, they might through Him receive new, youthful life.’”
I see at least two profound and powerful things at work here in the early church which were the causes of success in the spread of the gospel.
First, although they did not have a fully systematized understanding of Presuppositional Apologetics, it was still there as a reality. To speak of Christianity’s “own absolute intrinsic worth” and its value being “seen in the truth and self-evidencing power of its doctrines” is the very heart of Presuppositional Apologetics. We need no outside authority or proof of Christianity or the Scriptures because Scripture itself and the truth it proclaims is completely self-attesting.
Second, persevering in the faith in the midst spiritual darkness, decay, and through intense suffering. Truth in the midst of darkness; truth in the midst of danger; truth in the midst of death—this was the apologetic method of the early church. This was how the Christian gospel took root in this fallen world despite all opposition.
Preach the Gospel and Endure Suffering
I am tempted to go through the entire book of 2 Timothy at this point because the whole book has this reoccurring theme in each chapter: Preach the gospel and endure the suffering that will inevitably come from preaching the gospel. That is exactly what the early church did which caused Christianity to take root and spread.
But someone will object, “Yes, but we do not live in a nation that is under persecution, so we shouldn’t make so much of suffering and wrongly pursue persecution.” I answer with the words of the apostle Paul,
“Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”
(2 Timothy 3:12)
Yes, it does say “all” in the Greek—and Scripture cannot be broken. So, if we are not being rejected and persecuted for the faith in some way, shape, or form, it really only leaves us with two options.
First, we are not preaching the true gospel.
Second, don’t desire to live a godly life, and our worldliness lives so contradict the gospel message that the world welcomes us as its own.
Not many Christians I have seen even attempt to preach the gospel to others, and only a very small percentage of that small number actually preach the true gospel. However, for the very few who do actually proclaim the true gospel, I fear we are all too often guilty of being worldly and making void by our lifestyle our own eternal gospel message.
In conclusion, we should remember the words of Jesus. He said,
“If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.” (John 15:20)
At the preaching of the Word, one of two things always happen: They will either repent and believe, or they will reject it and reject us. Yet, there is still a third possibility: They will reject it, persecute us, and as we graciously endure suffering, that will be God’s ordained means to soften their hardened heart to the truth of the gospel so that they actually ask us “for a reason for the hope that is in you.” On that day, we are to be “prepared to make a defense to anyone.” That is biblical apologetics, the kind of apologetics that shines the radiant light of the gospel into a pitch black world for the sake of Christ’s name among all the nations! May God grant us more grace to preach the gospel, live godly lives in an ungodly world, and endure suffering for the sake of Christ!