How Should We Then Defend?

Scott Oliphint
I suspect that 2015, from a Christian perspective, will go down in history as one of the darkest and gloomiest years of human history. The cavalier destruction of human life, in the name of religion, is on the rise worldwide. No matter how much we protest that terrorists will not change our way of life, gun sales are rising sharply, as more and more people wonder whether shopping at a mall, or going to a movie, or having a Christmas party, will be the occasion for another random act of violence.

Speaking of a cavalier destruction of human life, in 2015 a series of videos were made public that showed the stolid brutality of the abortion industry. Discussions of the legal harvesting and peddling of dead baby parts, over wine and salad, would make any normal person reel in horror and disgust. But, as we soon discovered, normalcy is at a premium in a climate where ideological heels are so far dug in that they threaten to encroach on the earth's core. To use just one example of such heels, institutions like the one where I am employed, together with such menacing organizations as the "Little Sisters of the Poor," are being forced to provide for baby brutality/bartering to anyone they employ.

In 2015, Ireland and the United States legally "normalized" homosexuality. This normalization was not, as is sometimes said, in the name of tolerance. Instead, it is a normalization that will not tolerate any opposition. In the United States, once the Supreme Court took upon itself the haughty and baseless task of redefining marriage, their ideological entourage used their collective megaphones to ensure that the rest of us would, by force if necessary, engage in perpetual celebration. When five Supreme judges usurped the authority of the Supreme Judge of all the earth and, by festinated fiat, redefined the history of mankind, the opportunity to oppugn without punishment has now perished.

In 2015 in the United States, the process for picking a new president began in earnest. Not only is the process obnoxiously overblown, it provides a never-ending selection of sulfurous soundbites to a salaciously saccharine and spongy constituency. Rallies for would-be presidents show throngs cheering for one whose lies have been exposed and who is under investigation by the FBI, and for yet another whose brainless bigotry, bombast and buffoonery know no limits. And these are only the (as I write) "popular" candidates.

A biblical diagnosis for this moral madness can help give us perspective. At the end of the first chapter of the epistle to the Romans (1:32), the apostle Paul gives us insight into our cultural condition:
Though they know God's righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
This statement comes at the end of an argument that Scripture gives for the universal depravity of mankind. That depravity manifests itself, at various times and in various ways, according the exercise of God's wrath wherein he gives people over (vv. 24, 26 and 28) to the sins that they so earnestly seek. These sins, the apostle warns us, are always committed in the face of the true knowledge of God that all people have.

That true knowledge, verse 32 tells us, includes the universal knowledge of "God's righteous decree," or his righteous requirements. As people continue to spurn the knowledge of God that is continually given to them, and as God continues to display his wrath on such people, they will reach a point where they will not only indulge in their sins, but they will "give approval to those who practice them." In other words, the perverse and perpetual practice of sin becomes a source of cultural celebration. That celebration, in the United States (including, of course, the "honor" bestowed on Bruce Jenner for his "courage,") and elsewhere, was birthed in earnest in 2015. 

John Calvin's comments on Romans 1:32 are as insightful as they are sobering:
...the following appears to me the correctest interpretation,--that men left nothing undone for the purpose of giving unbridled liberty to their sinful propensities; for having taken away all distinction between good and evil, they approved in themselves and in others those things which they knew displeased God, and would be condemned by his righteous judgment. For it is the summit of all evils, when the sinner is so void of shame, that he is pleased with his own vices, and will not bear them to be reproved, and also cherishes them in others by his consent and approbation. ...For he who is ashamed is as yet healable; but when such an impudence is contracted through a sinful habit, that vices, and not virtues, please us, and are approved, there is no more any hope of reformation. Such, then, is the interpretation I give; for I see that the Apostle meant here to condemn something more grievous and more wicked than the very doing of vices: what that is I know not, except we refer to that which is the summit of all wickedness,--that is, when wretched men, having cast away all shame, undertake the patronage of vices in opposition to the righteousness of God [1]
This is an accurate assessment of our current cultural climate.

In some ways, these vices, which have burgeoned into cultural patronage, stem from the same repulsive root. They all steadfastly deny the patently obvious. They have no interest in the facts of the matter; they thrive on ideology alone. They all rest on ideas that autonomously determine when and where a human being is what it is. Terrorism defines a human being in terms of its religion. Outside that religion, human existence must be destroyed. Abortion defines a human being according to its own arbitrary criteria. If whatever is in the womb is unwanted, it can't be human. Or, if it is human, it can't be worthy of life. It, too, must be destroyed. Homosexuality defines the gender of human beings in terms of how one "feels" at a given moment. If a male feels like a female, then a female he is, no matter the anatomy. In every case, there is no obvious reason, no foundation, for the sin, only the flimsy and fickle whims of the one(s) doing the defining. More on this below.

If this deluge of depravity is now the dingy air that we all must breathe, one of the most important questions we can ask is (to quote Francis Schaeffer): how should we then live? There are a number of ways to answer that question and I won't pretend, even if I were able, to answer them all. I do hope, however, in this and some following posts, to reflect on how we might respond apologetically to the current challenges that we daily face. Thus, the Schaefferian question could be paraphrased this way: how should we then defend?

We should begin to answer that question by recognizing that sin and sinners, in their various manifestations, have always been set firmly in opposition to Christian truth and those who propose it. In that sense, our current situation is anything but unique. Sin may don its own unique cultural costume, but when the outer garments are shed, it can be seen to be the same naked iniquity that has been festering since the forbidden fruit was first consumed.

No matter how strong the stench of sin may seem, its goal has always been the same -- to subdue and subvert the truth of God. In 2016, and in every year since its inception, sin will rest with nothing less than sovereign dominion over its subjects. We should not be surprised, then, when that dominion becomes obviously dominant.

But the dominance of sin should never discourage our defense of Christianity. Unlike the truth of God, which alone is able to account for anything and everything in reality, sin itself is utterly irrational. As we said above, it has no reason or foundation for its own existence. G. C. Berkouwer, as he attempts to explain what is meant when sin is  labeled a mysterium iniquitatis, explains it this way:
No matter what the "mysteriousness" of evil, we shall never comprehend the depths of this great riddle. For the riddle of sin is the same as the essence of sin, with its anti-normative character and illegality. It is the same as the senselessness of sin. Therefore, since every "unriddling" of sin implies a discovery of "sense" where no sense can possibly be found, the very notion of an "unriddling" is impossible. One cannot find sense in the senseless and meaning in the meaningless [2]
In other words, there is no reason for sin, other than sin itself. It cannot provide sense and meaning, because it has none. It is a mystery, a riddle, an enigma, and there is no unravelling of its enigmatic character. Instead, its character just is to be enigmatic. Berkouwer points to the text of John 15:25 (among others) where Jesus tells his disciples, "They hated me without a cause." This is a profound statement on the riddle of sin. Sin has no real reason for its purpose and activity, beyond sin itself.

This, it seems, is in part what is behind the notion of sin as a privatio boni, a privation, or lack, of the good. It doesn't mean that sin has no power or persuasive appeal. Rather, it means that sin lacks a foundation, a rationale. Unlike goodness, which has its foundation in God, sin descends from that foundation and finds itself lost in space with nowhere to stand.

As we think about this apologetically, we should be encouraged. What this means for us is that any and every form of sin, in all of its manifestations, is unable to give a rationale for its existence. That doesn't mean, of course, that those who commit to sin's progress won't try to give reasons for their commitment. If Jesus had told the Pharisees that their hatred of them was "without a cause," they would have made a list of "causes" that prompted their hatred, among which would be that he made himself out to be God (cf. John 5:18). The problem, though, was that he is God. So, the "cause" of their sin was actually their opposition to the truth, which itself is sin. Sin's cause can only be sin itself.

When we ask, "how should we then defend?," we recognize that we are called to give a reason in the face of the utterly unreasonable. This should be most encouraging. There is no foundation, or reason, for sin, but every reason to forsake it and turn to Christ. We are called to give hope amidst utter hopelessness. Christians alone, by the grace of God, are able to offer a foundation, a reason, true hope, to people who are enslaved in a celebration of the senseless and the meaningless. One of the ways that we can do this is by thinking about apologetics as persuasion. In the next few posts, we will discuss some of the elements of persuasion, and how such a tactic is consistent with the glorious truth of the gospel, as it is given to us in Scripture.

K. Scott Oliphint is Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. His latest book is Covenantal Apologetics (Crossway, 2013)


[1] John Calvin and John Owen, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), pp. 82-83. My emphases

[2] G.C. Berkouwer, Sin: Studies in Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), p, 134