Neil Shenvi - Apologetics

Prepared to Give a Reason (Part 4) - Sin and the gospel

This post was originally written on the blog for Summit Church - West Club Campus

Hello fellow West Clubbers,

This is the fourth and last post in a series related to our upcoming class on apologetics. This week, we'll examine the apologetic response to an objection which is probably at the heart of almost all of our rejections of the gospel. This objection arises not only from atheists but from religious people and, if we are honest with ourselves, has tap roots into our own hearts. All the more reason that we should study an apologetic response to it!

Objection 4: I am not a bad person and I don't need salvation.

Janet and Helen are part of a mom's group that meets weekly. While their children are playing, they begin talking about current events. "I'm so glad that people are beginning to think about the world as a global community," says Janet. "With the right schools and hospitals and governments, human beings could finally learn to live at peace with each other." Helen asks "Do you really think that all we need is better education or healthcare?" "Absolutely," says Janet. "None of us is perfect. I'm certainly not. But almost all of us are good deep down inside. We just need to believe in ourselves and strive to be better every day." How should Helen respond?

Of all the apologetic arguments I've mentioned in these posts, I consider this one to be the most important. As I've said before, the goal of apologetics is not to win an argument, but to win the person to Christ. Consequently, we need to be very attuned to the interpersonal aspect of our conversation. While we need to be clear and candid in our statements, we should take care not to be personally offensive. The gospel, and not our conduct, ought to be the offense. Because this argument directly addresses our sinfulness, we should be especially careful in how we use it. One extremely important tool I find helpful here is to always use the first person plural. We in no way want to convey the impression that our message is "you are a sinner and I am not" or "you are an evil person, but I am a Christian." Rather the underlying message needs to always be "we are both sinners; we stand condemned before a holy God; we can be saved through the atoning love of Jesus." As Charles Spurgeon put it, we need to make it clear that we are beggars, trying to tell other beggars where to find bread. Having established those ground rules, the apologetic argument here is quite simple. My contention is two-fold. First, every single on of us is a moral failure. And second, Christianity is the only religion that offers free and complete acceptance to moral failures.

The first contention is that all of us are moral failures. While this assessment might seem extreme and certainly cuts against the grain of popular self-esteem culture, I think it is empirically undeniable. There are two tactics we can use to approach this question. The first is simply to make a list of various ethical systems throughout history and throughout contemporary culture. For instance, we could consider the ethical systems of modern atheistic utilitarian philosophers like Peter Singer, or the ethical systems of the great world religions like Judaism, Islam, Buddhism or Confucianism. Do we measure up to these ethical standards? If we are honest with ourselves, we do not. Whether the standard is filial piety or submission to the will of God or universal compassion, we have failed to live up to it. How much time do we spend caring for the poor? How much respect and honor do we show to our parents? How much of our life is taken up in seeking to live the most moral, ethical, caring life possible? In contrast, how much of our time and money is spent on our own luxuries, our own pleasures, our own concerns? What is our attitude towards those around us? Are we filled with love, good-will, gentleness, and peacefulness? Do we put others' needs above our own? Is our speech sincere, honest, and kind? Is our thought life free from lust, anger, jealousy and vengeance? We may carelessly claim that we keep the Ten Commandments, the Five-Fold path, or the Golden Rule, but any serious self-examination will shatter our confidence and utterly false assertions. This realization is so terrifying that we will do almost anything to avoid it. Yet this is the terrible state into which humanity is fallen and with which -if we are honest with ourselves- we can also identify.

One other argument might prove helpful here. Many people will insist that they are "not all that bad" no matter how you press them to consider their real moral state. If so, another tactic is to ask them what they think is wrong with the world. Point out that we live in a world in which hundreds of thousands of children die of starvation and preventative diseases, in which female babies are thrown into trash cans, in which murder and rape and torture take place every hour of the day. When asked: "What is the wrong with the world?" there are only two responses. We can either insist that we ourselves are not culpable and that everyone else is to blame. Or we can have the humility to answer with G.K. Chesterton "Dear Sirs, I am." Ironically, in acknowledging his own desperate condition, the Christian is the only person who can look on others with genuine empathy and compassion, recognizing that he too is a sinner. In a culture which sees any admission of sin or guilt as unhealthy, the realization that denying our sinfulness can ultimately lead only to self-righteousness or indifference may be the only means to reach people who refuse to take seriously their own moral failure.

If a person is willing to acknowledge their moral failure, the next contention is that only Christianity offers complete acceptance and forgiveness to moral failures. Although this might strike us as an arrogant or exclusive claim, it's important to emphasize that this contention is actually quite value-neutral. In the same way that Islam is the only major religion in which Scripture is revealed in Arabic, Christianity is the only religion that claims that salvation can be obtained only by trusting entirely in the work of Another. Christianity is the only religion that sees our sin as so radical and complete that it requires an external salvation as equally radical and complete. Although I am certainly open to correction, I believe that this point is quite valid. Christianity is unique in its view of both sin and salvation.

If we can establish these two contentions, then the conclusion is quite interesting. From the fact that I am an utter moral failure and the fact that Christianity alone offers complete, free forgiveness to utter moral failures, it follows that I ought to want Christianity to be true. I ought to wish that there were a Savior, even if such a savior does not exist. Indeed, I have at least one friend who theoretically agrees with these two contentions but still thinks that Christianity is simply untrue. In practice, though, I find that when people realize the implications of the argument, they are more likely to go back and deny the first premise: that they are a moral failure. This is where we have to simply trust in the power of the Holy Spirit to bring a conviction of sin. Ultimately, it takes the work of God in a person's life both to admit their need for forgiveness and to show them God's provision for forgiveness in Christ. As apologists and friends, our work is to clearly, winsomely present the gospel and then pray regularly for God to open hearts.

For those who were not able to attend these classes, the handouts are available online here. You can also pressure Pastor Brad to offer this class again sometime during the upcoming year. As always, it's my pleasure to discuss these issues and anyone is more than welcome to email me with questions.

Sincerely, Neil

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Related essays:
If anyone reading this essay has questions about it or about Christianity in general, feel free to e-mail me at Neil -AT- Shenvi.org. I also highly recommend the book The Reason for God by Tim Keller and would be happy to send you a copy for free if you email me your mailing address.

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