Wednesday, July 25, 2018

‘Proving’ the Bible

Here’s another one of those questions asked by a teen that manages to be relevant to Christians of all ages: “How can I prove the Bible and Christianity to my non-believer friends?”

Wow. That’s a concern that will never go away no matter how old I get.

I’m a bookish person. I love words. For years I had the idea that if I could only find the right ones, I could convince anyone of anything.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve discovered there are many hearts and minds you can’t change with even the most splendid array of well-presented facts and arguments.

Changing Hearts and Minds

For example, the girl you’ve been dating for six months sits you down and tells you she’d like some time apart so she can “figure out where she’s at” and “deal with some personal issues”. You, of course, disagree with her suggested course of action. You thought things were going great, and you’d like them to continue going just the way you thought they were.

In reality, what has usually happened is that your girlfriend has developed feelings for someone else that she’d like to explore, or, worse, is already in the process of exploring. You’re just the last one to know, as is usually the case. If that’s what’s actually happening, all possible techniques of persuasion are destined to fail, whether you try dialectical brilliance (rarely a good idea with women in any case) or a flurry of (what are now bound to be unwanted) romantic come-ons. You may, of course, be able to ‘guilt’ her enough to temporarily slow her down while she figures out a new way to exit the relationship, but the conversation was actually already over before it started.

You just didn’t realize it wasn’t a conversation. It was an announcement. Maybe she didn’t know that either, but it was true all the same.

A Mind Made Up

This is why attempts at persuasion are so often dead-ends: we fail to read the engagement level of the other party correctly. If a person’s mind is already made up, even the most elegant displays of logic or the most dazzling barrage of rhetorical prowess will be water off a duck.

Parents often go through similar things with our children when we attempt to persuade them that one course of action is better than another. In many instances, the child has already made up his/her mind. They know enough to shine you on a little bit, and if they are nice they may even thank you for your (probably unsolicited) advice. Then they’ll head off and do precisely what they had already decided to do.

The key to being able to “prove” anything to anyone is that they have to be open to having their mind changed. This sort of attitude is rarer than it appears.

An Obligation and Privilege

Now, of course, that doesn’t mean witnessing is futile. Frankly, even if it were, we have the words of the Lord Jesus to urge us to “proclaim the gospel to the whole creation,” or, as Paul puts it, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” Bearing witness to Jesus Christ as the only way to God is every Christian’s obligation and privilege. We need to be doing that, and our unbelieving friends are a good place to start. In fact, it would be awfully weird to start on a street corner with people we don’t know when we have not been clear with our friends that we belong to Christ and want them to enjoy the same sort of relationship we do.

But let’s assume the person who’s asking this question knows all that. He or she does not have to be convinced that witnessing is a good thing or that their friends need the Lord in their lives. The question is really about how to witness more effectively.

Further, the rarity of encountering an open mind doesn’t even mean apologetics are futile. When unsaved people are willing to engage, providing them with more evidence for our faith and answering their arguments is a great privilege too. And there is indeed plenty of legitimate evidence for the Christian faith. But it seems to me the person who asked our question is not so much wondering how to provide proofs to people for the Bible, but how to bring conviction.

A Door for Dialogue

In any relationship, once you have communicated the gospel to the best of your current ability, the first part of your job is done, even if it may not feel like it. This can be done very quickly. Peter’s address from Solomon’s Portico in Acts 3 takes a minute and forty-five seconds at normal reading speed. The apostle actually hits the command to repent at the fifty-six second mark. This is the sort of brief, clear presentation of gospel to which our friends and family are entitled if we have come to know the Lord Jesus: Something has changed in my life, here’s what, and here’s how it impacts you. Even the least interested among them should be able to handle a couple of minutes of heartfelt, personal concern. The “proclaiming” comes first.

Beyond that, though, we are dependent on the Holy Spirit to open the door for further dialogue. He is the one who brings conviction concerning sin, righteousness and judgment, and just how he does this in each heart is a mystery. One person comes to Christ because he is overwhelmed with guilt and needs it lifted. Another is convinced intellectually. A third is touched by the gentle manner of the person witnessing and finds herself convinced of the truthfulness of the message by the way it is delivered. A witness is often unaware exactly what it is that draws (or repels) the person with whom the word of God is shared.

To put it in legal terms, the Christian is here to give evidence. Evidence only becomes proof in the minds and hearts of those who hear and accept it.

The Step in Between

Now, the argument may be made, for instance, that in Acts 2, just a chapter earlier, Peter actually went on a good deal longer than in chapter 3, and that he engaged in something like apologetics. And in fact he did. Luke writes:
“And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, ‘Save yourselves from this crooked generation.’ ”
Isn’t that “proving” the Bible?

Good question. Here we have what certainly appears to be a sustained presentation geared to persuade. But check what has just happened before this. Peter makes his original (comparatively brief) argument, and the Holy Spirit begins to work, almost surely through the Old Testament passages Peter quoted with which most in his audience were intimately familiar. The Spirit of God brought these words home to the crowd at Pentecost in a new and powerful way:
“When they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ ”
Here are convicted sinners asking questions, eager for answers. Now they are prepared to give Peter’s proposed solution to their problem a fair evaluation. Their minds are open. Had a significant number in Peter’s audience not been under conviction, it seems unlikely to me that they would have stood still for “many other words” or that Peter would have stayed to utter them.

Fair Evaluation of Evidence

Back to the girlfriend who wants time off. You cannot “prove” the Bible or Christianity to people unless they are already inclined to fairly evaluate the evidence you give them. Jesus gave “many proofs” of his resurrection to his chosen apostles, but these were saved men predisposed to believe him. Apollos “powerfully refuted” the Jews in public, but it is unknown whether any of them believed because of it. (Some were almost certainly saved in Corinth through the ministry of Apollos, we just don’t know whether any of the Jews he powerfully refuted benefited in that that way. It’s also possible that those listening with open minds and hearts responded to his refutations of the arguments of obdurate Jews.)

In any case, a “proof” may stop mouths, as the Lord Jesus did to the Pharisees on many occasions, but there is no evidence it can change hearts. Only the Spirit of God can do that.

What we can do is present the gospel lovingly, model it accurately, pray for those who hear it and be ready and willing to respond to any questions that arise from it to the best of our ability. When we can’t provide an answer, we can at least point those with questions to others who can.

The rest is in the Lord’s hands.

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