Making Apologetics Personal: A Quick Lesson from John 4

By Sean McDowell Aug. 30, 2017 9:00 a.m. Apologetics

It’s no secret that I love apologetics. I love to read apologetics blogs, study apologetics books, and have apologetics conversations. But there is a constant temptation I have to battle that I believe is common among many apologists: the temptation to simply study apologetics but not put it into practice.

Let me state something clearly up front so I am not misunderstood: Studying apologetics has tremendous value in its own right. After all, learning how to defend the faith can bring both clarity and confidence in God and Scripture. Nevertheless, apologetics does not primarily have an inward focus in the life of the believer. It has an outward focus aimed at graciously answering tough questions that trouble both believers and non-believers in their understanding of God and salvation (e.g., 1 Pet. 3:15; Jude 3).

So, why would someone study apologetics but never put it into use? There are probably a myriad of reasons. But I suspect one reason is that its much easier, and more comfortable, to discuss apologetic matters in the abstract. It is less risky to debate the age of the earth or presuppositionalism with a fellow believer than to discuss the evidence for the resurrection with a non-believer. After all, what is there to lose in an “in-house” discussion? As easy and tempting as this can become, Jesus took another route.

Jesus obviously knew the Scriptures well and was eager to discuss them. But he regularly puts his knowledge into practice. In John 4, for instance, Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well. Wanting to keep religion as an abstract matter, she raises the question as to whether one should worship in Jerusalem or Samaria. Yet Jesus declined to entertain the question merely as a theoretical exercise. He made the issue personal by discussing her five husbands and how God wants her to worship Him in spirit and truth (John 4:24).

My point is not that we should necessarily confront other people in their sin, as Jesus did in John 4. There is a time and place for that, as Scripture teaches (e.g., Matt 18:15-20). Rather, my point is that we apologists must not solely remain in the realm of speculative discussion—we need to “get in the game” and find a way to apply apologetics to life. The greater point of apologetics is not simply to learn the material for its own sake, but for the sake of changing lives. Jesus refused to keep religious issues entirely in the abstract. He made them personal. And so should we.

Pastor Dan Kimball wrote an insightful (and convicting) chapter in Apologetics for a New Generation called “A New Kind of Apologist.” He tells the story of how apologetics played a key role in his conversion to Christianity. As a new Christian, Dan was eager to share his faith, so he quickly began to immerse himself in apologetics. He read books, went to conferences, watched videos, studied debates, and more. But ironically, he noticed a disturbing trend: The more he studied apologetics the less he was really doing apologetics and evangelism. In other words, his study of apologetics actually drove him further away from the practice of it.

Fortunately Dan noticed this trend early in his journey and did a 180. As a pastor, he still studies apologetics, and writes apologetics-related books, but always with an eye for how he can apply it to life and ministry. Like Jesus in his conversation with the woman at the well, Dan refuses to keep apologetics in the theoretical realm. He wants to make it personal. And this is what I try to do as well. How about you?


Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, best-selling author, popular speaker, part-time high school teacher, and the Resident Scholar for Summit Ministries, California. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: You can find the original version of this artical here.



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  • Mark Aug. 30, 2017 at 10:03 AM

    I think in actual fact these constant fears and confessions related to being/doing are simply misguided. They display fears that the complaints of anti-intellectualists might in the end be right. The idea that theoretical pursuits and understanding of a given issue leads to coldness, deadness, and pride. But if you think about it 99% of the claims about it are accusations made of others. Accepting the tenets of the classic anti-intellectualist tropes about theory/application only perpetuate the tendency to judge the work of others and to claim they're not doing their work properly or fully. In fact there's no clear dividing line between theory and application in anything. A little knowledge is dangerous as the saying goes. But this is the neophyte's conceit rather than anything supporting the classic tropes of popular anti-intellectualism.

    None of us has even partial control over how or when our work will be called for or useful. We don't control outcomes. God does. The anti-intellectualist tropes perpetuate harmful myths about our own control of how theoretical understanding can immediately and directly applied at the time and place of our choosing. It doesn't work that way. It requires faith that certain things will matter sooner or later, and trust that the naive anti-intellectualist complaints of others aren't necessarily fair, wise, or represent God's understanding of the matter.

  • Tom Aug. 31, 2017 at 8:58 AM

    I have no doubt what Sean says is true for some, including me at times. But the larger struggle I have is still with other Christians and especially pastors to get them to see the value of the intellectual side of study. I have put my training (MA Biola) to use in the local church and with some non Christians, but it takes lots of perseverance and prayer to sometimes even get a pastor or any staff member to acknowledge an inquiry on the subject. It sometimes feels much easier to retreat into self study than fight the fight to get a hearing from church leaders on why they should consider training their members. Fully 50% of my time is spent doing apologetics for apologetics. No doubt some of that struggle is me, and I have tried many resources and read almost everything (there we go again) on getting apologetics in the local church. Nevertheless, I continue to fight the fight, but some days I get awfully tired, and a good challenging book to get lost in seems very inviting.

  • Sean McDowell Aug. 31, 2017 at 5:43 PM

    I can totally relate. It is easy to get discouraged...and there's certainly huge value in just reading an apologetics book for fun!

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