Ligonier Conference (II)

After the “pre-conference” ended and we had packed down some dinner, the conference proper was set to begin. Steve Lawson took the stage to honor Dr. Sproul as he will be honored later this year by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association. He spoke of Dr. Sproul’s ministry and shared some personal perspectives based on studying for his PhD under him. He then presented Sproul with a fountain pen as a token of appreciation for Sproul’s long and distinguished career and his faithful defense of the faith.

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John Piper then formally introduced R.C. Sproul who spoke on “The Task of Apologetics” and used Exodus 4 as a jumping off point, though the talk itself was more of a lecture than a sermon. As he usually does, Sproul did not often remain behind the pulpit, but wandered the stage looking the audience members in the eye, he leaned towards them, and he engaged them. He even wrote on a chalkboard that had been placed up on the stage. He is and remains a teacher.

This passage follows immediately after the “burning bush” episode and this was a watershed moment in redemptive history. Significantly, God revealed His name to Moses that would be His name for all generations. He identified Himself simply as “I am who I am.” After this moment God gave a task to Moses and his task was twofold: first, he had to go to the palace of Pharaoh to announce that God had heard the groanings of His people and now demands that Pharaoh let them go. The other task was to address those who were slaves and command the Israelites to defy the power and authority of Pharaoh by leaving the country to go to worship God. These events ended in the exodus.

Moses faced an apologetic task. He is supposed to address both Pharaoh and the people. How would a right-minded Israelite be expected to believe Moses? That is the problem address in Exodus 4. How am I going to convince your people that you have spoken? His apologetic task was to persuade the church (and not the world) of the Word of God.

In this passage Moses is raising the question of apologetics. How can I convince these people of the truth of this mandate and that it has come from God? God does these miracles to authenticate Moses as the agent of His revelation by this sign. This is again for the benefit of the household of faith. God arms Moses with these three signs to prove his case to the people. Sooner or later the people will get the message.

The task of apologetics is not to tell the world that we’re sorry that we’re Christians. We don’t apologize for being believers. Apologetics comes from the Greek meaning simply “to give a reply.” Paul was a classic example of someone who would do this as he did at Mars Hill. Paul replied to the false idolatries of his day, answering the questions and protests that were thrown his way. At the end of the Apostolic Age the early church fathers carried on this task (think of Justin Martyr and his Apologies). The first task was to clarify what was really being proclaimed by the Christian church and to clarify it in light of the false conceptions that were being rumored and spread abroad. The church needed to answer false charges against it. The second task was to engage the pagan intellectuals of the day. In every generation Christians have been called to give an intellectual apology of this sort.

In the sixteenth century and with the Reformation and the rediscovery of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, the Reformers had to answer “what is the nature of saving faith?” This was the question Luther and Calvin felt the need to answer since people thought they were teaching some kind of easy-believism. So what makes up saving faith? There are three elements of saving faith:

1) notae (or notitia) – This has to do with the data or content of the Christian faith. We are not saved by just anything, for there must be a content to our faith. This is linked with preaching in giving a clear presentation of the content of the gospel. The sermons recorded in the book of Acts show that the authors have extracted from the sermons the teachings of Christianity.

2) assensus – This has to do with intellectual assent and has to be differentiated from a profession of faith. With this you are saying that you give intellectual assent of the truth of a proposition. You need to believe that Jesus can save you before you can embrace Him in faith and this is an intellectual assent. This is also not credulity or irrationally believing in the absurd. You cannot believe in something you don’t truly believe. Remember from Scripture that there are no creatures more aware of the assensus than the demons. Satan never wrestles with whether or not God exists.

3) fiducia – This has to do with trust–trusting your eternal soul to Jesus Christ. You are not saved when you give mere intellectual assent but when you are trusting in Christ and loving Him.

Within the Reformed community are different schools of thoughts about the science of apologetics. One thing they all agree on is that apologetics can never get you to step three or fiducia. It can explain the data and give you the rational defense of the truth claims of Christianity and we are to work to persuade men. However, the best arguments we offer, however convincing they may be, can never change the human heart that by nature is hostile towards God and dead to the spiritual things of God. Apologetics can ever explain the sweetness of Christ.

This does not mean we shouldn’t be involved in apologetics. We must do what we can do. We can do “pre-evangelism”–we can clarify the data and give the arguments for the rational consent and then get out of the way as the Holy Spirit works from that point on.

Sproul then turned to John Calvin’s defense of sacred Scripture as an example of apologetics. Calvin distinguished between two categories: proof and persuasion. Proof is objective where you lay out the case and try to give compelling reasons for something. Persuasion is more subjective. Think of King Agrippa and being “almost” persuaded by Paul. You can give an argument that is compelling and gives object proof of a proposition and still have people who are not persuaded by it. By this point the biases are so intense and so strong. In our natural condition we do not want to have God in our thinking. Calvin marshaled a list of objective evidences of the Bible’s being the Word of God and said that these arguments, in and of themselves, were sufficient to prove that the Bible is the Word of God. Objectively they prove the case. But no one will be sufficiently convinced of these evidences until the Holy Spirit pierces the heart and soul of the person and confirms the truth of His Word through the testimony of the Spirit. The Spirit changes the disposition of the soul so we acquiesce into the proofs. We are not, as many say today, to believe despite or against the evidence. The Spirit causes us to bow to and surrender to the evidence that is there, that is objective and compelling. It melts our resistance and overcomes the hardness of our heart.

One of the most important tasks in answering the critics of the Christian faith is not to provide proof and persuasion to the unbeliever. The most valuable role in the task of apologetics is to encourage the saints (think back to Moses and his task as an apologist to his own people). Not everyone is called to be a professional apologist but we are all called to study the things of God and to learn about the hope that is within us,

The most important tasks of the apologist are these: To defend the existence of God and the authority of the Bible. If we can settle these two issues, the rest will fall into place. We need to learn how to respond to the agnosticism and skepticism around us. We need to make the case that the Bible has its origin in God. If we do this, all other arguments are mere footnotes that can be done by exegesis. These two issues need to be defended clearly and cogently in every generation, and especially in our own.

Sproul ended with these words: “This is our task. So get her done!” Significantly, these are exactly the tasks that Sproul has given himself to for all these years.