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Relational Apologetics: “Overcoming Unbelief: A Safe Process for Those Interested in Christian Faith”

May 18, 2011

I. Introduction

Central to the Christian gospel is the idea of faith in Jesus Christ.  Biblically the word “faith” expresses a great deal more than the word currently does in the English language.  For example, while faith is typically translated as “belief” in English, and by belief one means a mental assent to a set of propositions that are said to be true, faith in the New Testament could more aptly be described as an “active trust.”  It entails a complete reorientation of one’s life to the person of Christ, expressed in an intimate and ongoing relationship.  Faith, in the New Testament sense, is a robust trust in Christ that results in a changed life.

Yet, while faith in the Biblical context is certainly more than mere mental assent, it must be acknowledged that such faith certainly is not less than mental assent; it includes the idea of “belief.”  One cannot have an active faith that results in relationship without also mentally assenting to the existence of the God in the first place.[1]  Hebrews 11:6 expresses this idea when we read:  “Without faith, it is impossible to please God, for those that come to Him must believe He exists and that he rewards those who diligently seek Him.”  The writer of Hebrews profoundly expresses what may seem obvious-to believe that God will answer one who seeks Him, one must believe that God exists in the first place.

Thus, if the goal of the Christian gospel is to invite people into an active faith that culminates in an ongoing relationship with God, such people must come to believe certain essential truth statements prior to entering into such a faith.  This immediately presents a problem, for it is not at all clear that one can simply choose certain beliefs over others. Do we ever really choose the beliefs that we do in fact come to hold?  Think about this for a moment, when was the last time that you voluntarily decided to believe something by a sheer act of will?  As I consider my own beliefs from the most basic to the most complex, I can think of none that I actually chose.  Rather, whether as a result of certain experiences, or becoming aware of certain evidence, and so on, I found myself embracing certain beliefs.  In other words, it seems that beliefs are something that happen to us-that we come into-rather than something that we actively choose by an act of the will to believe.

The idea that we “come into” belief, rather than actively choose it, has enormous implications for the way we do evangelism and apologetics.  Though faith in Christ is something we want persons to “choose” to come into (acknowledging that God’s prevenient grace must be at work throughout the process), we must also recognize that these same persons cannot simply “choose” to believe in the essential truths of Christianity.  Rather, other prior choices must be made that will position a seeker or skeptic to be in a place where they can come into belief.  While we may not have any choice about what we actually come to believe, we do have other choices that can place us in an environment where belief may happen.  We also have the choice to examine and reexamine beliefs that we currently hold to determine if they are founded or unfounded.  While belief may happen to us, we need not be at the mercy of unreflective or unfounded beliefs.  Through choices we make, we may become active participants in our belief-forming processes.

Keeping these considerations in mind, the aim of this short essay is to establish a process that might be used in helping a person come to faith.  Let it be supposed that we have a skeptical but seeking friend who is exploring Christianity.  He or she has not yet come to faith, and though he or she is open to Christianity, for various reasons cannot overcome certain beliefs (or lack of belief), and is thus unable to exercise a trusting faith in Christ.  We are not here dealing with the obstinate atheist who has already determined that Christianity is untenable; this process would not be beneficial for such a person.  Rather, we are dealing with a friend (and should not most of our apologetical efforts be in the context of a mutual friendship?) who has become open to the possibility of faith, but believes certain things, and cannot yet believe other needed things in order to place faith in Christ.  What might we do for such a person?  In what follows I hope to give a process that will help lead our skeptical friend through his maze of beliefs by a process of “soul-searching,” followed by a recommendation of helpful Christian thinkers that may help our friend overcome intellectual barriers, and finally suggest that our friend explore a community of faith by attending and participating in the community’s life as a way of experiencing what a life of faith is like.


[1] This statement is not meant to suggest anything about the doctrines of Exclusivism or Inclusivism.  I am simply stating genuine faith in Christ, in the most desirable sense, includes belief.  For what it is worth, I land on the side of Inclusivism.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 25, 2011 2:53

    Jonathan,

    Another good essay. I think your apologetic for seekers is extremely helpful, and could be developed further. Shoot, you may even have a book here! I like the distinction you make in the beginning between helping devout atheists and genuine seekers – indeed, this distinction is something I’ve been thinking about for awhile, and I’ve come to the conclusion that non-Relational apologetics are (almost) worthless if the audience is not open to discussion, i.e. militantly atheistic.

    I’m curious about this statement in light of footnote #1: “Yet, while faith in the Biblical context is certainly more than mere mental assent, it must be acknowledged that such faith certainly is not less than mental assent; it includes the idea of “belief.” One cannot have an active faith that results in relationship without also mentally assenting to the existence of the God in the first place.” Even though you’ve footnoted it (or maybe especially since you’ve footnoted it), I still find this statement somewhat contradictory to an inclusive worldview. I know Inclusivism isn’t the point of this discussion, and after a lot of wrestling, I’ve come to embrace an Inclusive worlview as well, so this isn’t what I’m disagreeing about. But the way I understand Inclusivism, faithful response to the “light which one’s been given” is necessary for relationship with God, and therefore, salvation. However, in order to be inclusive of those who do not profess faith in Christ, faith CANNOT include belief/assent to Christianity. Thus, while faith IS necessary for relationship with God, a right understanding of propositions about God is not necessary. Of course, belief/assent is helpful for a person to grow in their faith, but not necessary. In fact, I would argue that proper beliefs increase a person’s possible enjoyment of God, and are something we should seek to instill in others, hence my appreciation of your essay. For example, I believe a Buddhist can be in a profound relationship with God, responding in faith to the light that (s)he has been given. Yet, that person would not call this faith a “relationship” with the Christian God, and is therefore missing out on an even deeper enjoyment of life. Nevertheless, I would not call that person unfaithful.

    You describe faith as being a matter of reorientation to Christ, saying “Faith, in the New Testament sense, is a robust trust in Christ that results in a changed life.” In this way, I understand that you are implying that NT faith is not just about trust in Christ, but explicit belief in the historical person of Christ. Of course, if faith is defined this way, then proper beliefs about Christ are indeed essential, and I would agree with everything you’ve said. I guess what I’m saying is that I would define faith more broadly, while still agreeing that it involves reorientation to Christ and trust in Christ as the way to God. But in this sense, I am arguing that a person must trust in the Word (“light”) that God has placed in his/her heart.

    I’m not sure if this is helpful, or if I’m making sense, or if these thoughts even belong in this discussion! I’m having a hard time expressing the tension I see in your argument, so the problem may not be with you, but with me. But in summary, what I understand about you’re argument is this:

    1. Faith (active trust involving proper beliefs and action) is what the Bible calls us to
    2. Belief in propositions about Christ are therefore a necessary part of faith (or are you simply calling people to a belief that God exists? Either way, my point stands)
    3. Therefore, we must call people to a proper belief in Christ (or God)
    4. In order to call people to proper belief, we must get them to examine their presuppositions (AMEN!)

    However, my problem with this line of thinking is with your definition of faith, which would imply that failure to help a person believe properly means that the person cannot have faith at all. Yet, in the footnote, you claim an Inclusive worldview. So in order for your worldview to be coherent, faith cannot be necessary for salvation, which I guess is what I have a problem with, because I believe it is. Thoughts?

    • jonathangroover permalink*
      June 1, 2011 6:04

      Hey Aaron,

      Sorry for the late reply. I think you are pretty much right on with your assessment. My footnote was mainly an attempt to say, regardless of what I’m about to posit in this essay, the Inclusivism/Exclusivism debate is simply to large to try to bring into the discussion. So it was more or less and attempt to avoid that difficult topic. But you’re right, the statement with the footnote does seem to undermine and Inclusive theological view. So I guess my answer would be something like this.

      1. This present essay was an attempt to discuss Christian faith in a western context to those who for the most part are either Christian or irreligious. The seeker in question is someone who cannot put an “active trust” in Christ, because certain beliefs are hindering him or her. Therefore, for this person, coming to right belief would be and important prerequisite to placing saving faith in Christ.

      2. You’re whole statement, “Of course, belief/assent is helpful for a person to grow in their faith, but not necessary. In fact, I would argue that proper beliefs increase a person’s possible enjoyment of God, and are something we should seek to instill in others, hence my appreciation of your essay. For example, I believe a Buddhist can be in a profound relationship with God, responding in faith to the light that (s)he has been given. Yet, that person would not call this faith a “relationship” with the Christian God, and is therefore missing out on an even deeper enjoyment of life. Nevertheless, I would not call that person unfaithful. ” accurately describes how I feel about the Inclusive view.

      I think that evangelism is so important not because without those who don’t hear will be forever condemned, but instead, it accomplishes at least two things. First, we do not know who is being reconciled to God and who is resisting. Preaching the gospel awakens people (or at least has the possibility to do so) who may not realize they are in danger. It has the potential to call sinners to repentance. And Second, its proclaiming the kingdom of God and the king, and inviting people into a glorious relationship. People don’t have to wait to heaven to meet their lover, they can meet him now. In fact, I would argue that is a very important aspect of sharing the gospel–the goal is not heaven, the goal is meeting Christ and entering into an eternal relationship now. Therefore, there very well could be many people in other faiths who have responded inwardly to the revelation they’ve had access to, and have entered into faith, but we would not be aware of it. Of course, they do not have a mental assent (belief) and so faith in this sense, as you mention would be different. It is an unknowing faith, or a unacknowledged faith. So, you may be correct to say that faith, in the biblical sense, need not include belief. This leads me to my third point.

      3. I wonder though, if this “faith” that Inclusivism embraces is not an exception to biblical faith. In other words, is this type of “unacknowledged” faith a concession on the part of God to bring salvation to those who simply do not have access to “the facts” so to speak, and so he meets them where they are at? If this is so, then we might say that mental assent is an aspect of faith that God does desire. He wants us to have right “beliefs” about who he is. He wants light to shine in our “blindness.” The fullest sense of biblical faith wouldinclude belief, for God would have us love him with our hearts, souls, mindsand strength. So maybe I should have said, “biblical faith in its fullest expressionincludes belief.”

      However, in the end, I think you bring to light necessary elements to this important discussion. It just goes to show, our cookie-cutter definitions of biblical words deserve to be looked at again and again so that all of the nuances of the word (or the doctrine) may be fleshed out. Thanks for bring clarification!

      • June 2, 2011 10:14

        Great response. I understand your essay better now. Your second and third point, though brief, have given me a lot to think about. Still waiting for that phone call!

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