January 6, 1991
There will be obstacles in every meaningful endeavor, including our endeavors to share Christ with friends and family. Alistair Begg walks us through some of the common difficulties encountered when telling others about the truth of God’s Word. Despite such challenges, Scripture assures us that while God may use us as instruments to reach others, it is the Holy Spirit who unveils blind eyes to see God’s truth.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Let me preface our time tonight by saying that there’s a sense in which, in our studies in evangelism so far, we might say, “So far, so good,” insofar as we’ve tried our best to look at the whole process of “How do you initiate and develop a conversation with someone who is interested and is prepared to allow one the privilege of sharing the essential elements of what it means to profess faith in Jesus Christ?” However, in the course of witnessing to people in that way, it’s not uncommon—indeed, it is highly common—for us to be confronted by questions that usually fall under a kind of top-ten list.
And we mentioned in our studies previously that when we’re in the process of trying to share our faith with someone—going through, perhaps, a presentation of the gospel that would explain the condition of man and the provision of God—there will be questions that come up in that time. And we said as we went through this that when somebody interrupts and raises a question, it may be well for us, if it is possible to do so graciously, to say, “You know, that’s an important question. Perhaps we can come back to it in just a moment or two, if you’ll allow me to finish saying what I’m saying”—not because we think so much of the way we are saying it but because we recognize that there needs to be cohesion and development in what we’re saying.
We said, then, that when the person was simply raising a question to divert the implications of what was being said from them—in other words, when they were raising a red herring—then, at the end of our presentation, the red herrings don’t reappear. The things that people just were throwing in so as to prevent the gospel being cohesively presented will not come back again, by and large. But the genuine questions, the things that disturb individuals and are matters of deep concern to them, will reappear. And it is therefore very important for us to recognize that that is true and to be prepared to give an answer for people who ask these kind of questions. And genuine questions need to be treated with sympathetic listening and also with convincing answering. That is why it is important for us to do our homework.
What I’ll do in a moment or two tonight, as we’ll probably manage just to make an attempt at one of these questions, is provide merely clues as to how we may go about the business of providing an answer. But before we actually attempt to turn the tables in witnessing in addressing the first question, I want to spend some time saying a number of things about the way in which we approach the difficulties and the concerns that people voice to us. And I’ve made a number of statements here in my notes; I’m just going to look through them briefly.
In seeking to answer the difficult questions which people raise, number one, don’t get offsides. Don’t get offsides. I don’t fully understand American football even yet, but one of the things I’ve been able to amaze my British family with when they’ve ever watched a game with me is that I’ve got to the point where I can pretty well tell when someone goes offsides before they throw that yellow flag. And I feel a tremendous amount of power over the thing. I said, “Offsides!” You know? And then, sure enough, it’s offsides. I don’t know, in basketball, about zone defense and illegal defense. I’ve been trying to work that out. It leaves me; I can’t do it. But I have worked the offsides out—when somebody jumps ahead of the thing or pulls the guy offsides.
Now, in seeking to deal with difficult questions, it is important that an observer would not throw a yellow flag on the way we go about it—namely, that we launch into somebody’s face, providing the answer before they’ve even fully asked the question. If we’re going to be sensitive in dealing with people raising difficult questions, we’ve got to have the patience and courtesy to allow them to complete the question. If we begin to launch in and are drawn offsides, either by our eagerness or whatever else it is, we may encroach upon their space to the degree that they just back off. They’re saying to themselves, “This individual is only hammering it out of a manual or something. He’s not really listening,” or “She’s not really listening to what I’m saying.” So, first of all, then, don’t get drawn offside.
Secondly, don’t drown people in details. Don’t drown people in details. It is more than possible to smother an inquirer with a vast array of information—just absolutely just drowning them with all the stuff we’ve managed to learn. And we think it’s good and it’s important, and we’re thrilled with what we’ve learned, but that we’re just waiting for the first chance to just descend upon them. Don’t do that.
I was interviewing a group of people in my office a few weeks ago—and I know they wouldn’t mind me saying this, and they’re in Chicago in any case. But I asked a lady a question, and I think I asked a question like “When did your mother leave Missouri?”—or “Mis-or-uh.” And the lady started something like this. She was a very poetic lady. She said, “On the banks of the sparkling river, nestled in between the mountains on the one side and the pine trees on the other…” And her husband, seeing my eyes, put his hand on her arm, and he said, “Darling, the chap asked you, ‘How long has your mother been unwell?’ and you took half an hour to answer that question. He now asked you, ‘When did you leave Missouri?’ and you are quoting poetry to him. Just get to the bottom line, would you?” He wanted to go out to dinner, and he detected that I might like to go home sometime.
But in fairness to the lady, all these details were important to her. They were very important. But they weren’t germane to the essential question. And when somebody asks us a specific question, don’t let’s start with them and drown them under the vast array of information that we’ve managed to cull from wherever.
Thirdly, don’t talk down to people. Don’t talk down to people. We must answer people’s questions prayerfully and humbly, but not condescendingly. Do you ever catch yourself with that tone of voice? It’s kind of like a sort of insensitive schoolteacher—with apologies to schoolteachers. I said an insensitive schoolteacher, not a good schoolteacher. But that condescending tone of voice—as soon as it creeps in, you’ll find people creeping out.
Fourthly, don’t serve up canned goods. Don’t give people pat answers. In the ’60s, the girl Melanie had a song that had the line “[You] put in a nickel and I sing a little song.” And some of us, in our approach to answering difficult questions, we’re just waiting for the nickel to drop, and then ba-boom, it just comes out. It doesn’t bear any resemblance to whether it’s a man, a woman, whether they’re young, whether they’re old, whether they’re a student, whatever it is. And immediately they say, “This is just a pat answer. I could have got this from a telephone answering machine,” they’re saying to themselves. “This individual is not dealing with the difficulty that I’m expressing to him. He is simply rattling off something that he’s been prepared.”
And remember, the cults are geniuses at this. And isn’t that one of the things that is most offensive when they come to our doors? Because they’ve been programmed, tremendously. You can’t get rid of them, you can’t answer them, you can’t do anything with them. It’s not impressive to me at all. The only thing that’s impressive is their willingness to come up the driveway. And they came up my driveway on Christmas Day. Did they come to your house? Can you imagine that? The Jehovah’s Witnesses, who don’t believe that Jesus Christ is the incarnate Son of God, chose Christmas Day as a massive evangelistic campaign. Well, that’s by the way.
Fifthly, don’t shine the light in their face. If you’ve ever been stopped by the police in the evening, they shine that horrible light right in your face. I don’t like that! When we’re answering a difficult question, we have no right to shine the light in the people’s face. We have a responsibility to shine the light on the person’s path, but not to shine it in their face—not in the sense that we make them start back from the approach that we’ve taken to them, but rather that we shine the light of Scripture in such a helpful way that it beckons them on, not that it makes them recoil.
Sixthly, treat the questions seriously, as though the eternal destiny of the questioner hung upon your answer. So when somebody asks a genuine question that demands a sensitive, concise, understandable response, we should treat it with such seriousness, from the perspective that we may be the only person that ever has the chance to answer the question in this moment for this individual. Therefore, we cannot be flip, we cannot be glib, and we dare not be canned—which is a double entendre, but that’s by the way.
Seventhly, do remember that our accurate answers do not save people. Accurate answers don’t save people. Only Jesus saves people. And in light of that, we need to recognize, in all that will follow in this sheet, that prayerfulness and humility matter more than knowing all the answers. I want to say that again: prayerfulness and humility matter more than knowing all the answers.
Some of us, you see, are absolutely paralyzed in sharing our faith because we’re afraid that somebody is going to ask us the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question that we can’t answer. What are we going to do? We’re going to say, “I can’t answer that question. But I know there is an answer to it, and I’m going to find the answer to it, if you’ll give me the opportunity to speak with you once again.” Therefore, we need to be in touch with the Lord as well as informed by his Word.
In his most helpful book How to Give Away Your Faith, Paul Little has this excellent quote:
Unless the Holy Spirit illumines a person’s mind to see the truth as truth, unless He bends that person’s proud will to submit to the authority of Jesus Christ, no words of ours will [ever] penetrate. But in the hands of God an intelligent answer to a person’s question may well be the instrument [God uses to open] his heart and mind to the gospel.
It’s great. An intelligent answer to a genuine question of one of your school friends, of one of your work associates, of one of your traveling companions may be the very key which God chooses to use to open a man or a woman’s heart and mind to the truth of the gospel.
It is for that reason that we need to be diligent in our understanding of the Scriptures. And in being diligent in getting to grips with the Scriptures, we realize that the chief purpose of the Scriptures is to bear witness to Jesus Christ, not to answer people’s difficulties. Very important. The Bible is not a compendium—the kind of things you can buy in a bookstore—which answers the five hundred most-asked questions. It is not put together in that way; it was never intended to be put together in that way. Rather, the chief purpose of the Bible is to bear witness to Jesus Christ, reminding us that that is our chief purpose as well. Our chief purpose is not to answer difficult questions, but rather, it is to bear witness to Jesus Christ. And therefore, we need to remind ourselves the limitations of human persuasion and also the boundless power of God to do what we cannot do. Okay?
So, if you remember two things—how limited we are in our ability to persuade and how boundless is God’s power to do what we can’t do—then in that tension, we’re about ready to be useful.
And we’re about ready to give an answer to number one. Just in a matter of moments, I’ll give you the threadbare outline of how I would go about question number one. And I think you’ll agree that this is not a question which is one of the questions that people spend their time answering and nobody’s asking.
Funnily enough… And the reason I put it number one was because my girls asked me this very question during Christmas week. Driving in the car, out of the blue, one of them said—and it was out of the blue to me, but she had obviously been thinking about it—“Daddy, how do you know we’re the right religion?” And as I began to answer that question, I said, “We need to take all the things that people say about God and look at them in the light of the Bible. In other words, we must use the Bible as our textbook.” “Daddy, how do you know we can trust the Bible?” Okay?
So, if our children are asking it, presumably grown-up children are asking it too. How are we going to go about doing that? It sometimes comes across to us in the way somebody says, “Ach, the Bible is full of errors!” Again, beware of getting drawn offsides and going, “Oh, yeah? Show me one!” Okay? That is not a good response. It’s not good. Because the person who said it probably hasn’t got in their mind any verse in the Bible at all. Somebody said that one time, “The Bible is full of errors,” and it sounded good to them, and so that’s been part of their jargon ever since. And so when you use the Bible, out it comes: “The Bible is full of errors.”
Now, how are we going to proclaim the thing? Well, at the bottom line of it all is the word of Spurgeon when he was asked, “How do you defend the Bible?” And he said, “I don’t defend the Bible. I no more defend the Bible than I would defend a lion. You simply let a lion loose. And you need only let the Scriptures loose, and they will take care of themselves.” However, that may seem like a cop-out to somebody, and they’ll be looking for something a little better than that.
So, this is where I would begin. I would say, “Well, interestingly enough, the Bible makes claims for itself.” And then I would quote 2 Timothy 3:16, where the Bible says of itself, “All Scripture is inspired by God,” and goes on to say how profitable it is for correction and for teaching, etc.
Now, that in and of itself may not be particularly compelling to an individual, except that what we would like to point out in mentioning that is that the Bible is unique in that respect. There is no other book about which I know anything that actually makes that claim—that claims that in and of itself, it is the very Word of God. You’ll find the same thing in 1 Peter and in 2 Peter, the same claim being made throughout. And so I would just say, “As a matter of interest, it is interesting that when you open this book, you find that the book says about itself it’s God’s book.”
And then I would say, “You know, it’s interesting: if you were going to have to go away for a long, long time and leave your children behind, possibly with the prospect of never coming back, what would you do? You would want to leave for them something of yourself. And so, doubtless, either you would leave photographs, or you would leave a videotape in our age, or you would write down for them the things which are you and which are important for you to communicate. And in the same way, the claim of Scripture is that God has written down for us that about himself which is vital for us to know and which is flawless in its claims.”
Secondly, I would point to the unity of the Scriptures. I would point to the fact—and again, this will be news to 99.9 percent of the people that you are addressing—to say to them, “I wonder if you have ever considered that what we really have between these covers is a library rather than a book. There are some sixty-six books contained in here. Interestingly enough, they were written by over forty separate authors, different in their background, different in their personality, different in their experience and relationship to history. And they were written over a period of hundreds of years. And yet, if you would be prepared to meet with me and we could read and consider the Bible together, I want to show you, if I might, that the Scriptures possess a quite unbelievable unity that, I put to you, could not be created over these manifold books, multiple years, and various authors, were it not that behind all of them there was the creative, authoritative stamp of the Author himself, whom the Bible itself says is God.”
So, I would speak of the Bible’s self-authenticating claim. I would speak then of its unity. Thirdly, I would speak concerning fulfilled prophecy. And I would then illustrate to the people to whom I was speaking—again, trying to remind what I’ve said to myself this evening: “Don’t drown them with information”—but I would explain to them that it was always interesting to me that in, for example, the Minor Prophets, men were writing about one who was to come, although they didn’t know who he would be, and yet they wrote in specific terms, and surprise, surprise, Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled it to the very letter. And I would enforce that if I could.
I would then speak concerning the fact that Jesus of Nazareth himself verified Scripture by quoting it. That, of course, may well take us on to the next question, which is, “How do you know that Jesus is the person that he claimed to be?” And we’ll have to come to that as well. But for the time being I would say, “It is interesting that the one who claimed to be the Son of God verified the Scriptures in the Old Testament by quoting them, reinforcing them, and pointing out that it was these Old Testament Scriptures, from Moses right through, that spoke of Jesus who was to come.”
I would then speak about the fact that it is amazing to me that this Bible has circulated throughout the world and throughout the years like no other book ever written. No other book ever written. Nobody can say there is another book ever written like this, because there hasn’t been. There has never been! No matter what scriptures that may come from Islam, no matter what may come from Buddhism, there has never been a book with a circulation like this Bible. And that is something, at least, for the skeptic to chew on for a wee while. And I would want to encourage them to do so.
Also, I would say, “There has never been a book that has transcended social and racial and economic barriers the way the Bible has done. You may go to Hinduism and embrace a caste system, if you choose. But in Christianity there is no caste system. And this book has transcended all the barriers of humanity. From kings to paupers, you may find them with a Bible in their hands and a Savior in their heart. It’s worth consideration,” I would say.
And then I would point to the life-changing power of the Bible. I would take them, perhaps, to the book of Hebrews, and I would read the fact that the Word of God is sharp as a two-edged sword, and it gets right underneath people’s skin. And I would encourage them then, perhaps, to read with me over a period of time some of the Scriptures, to open their minds to the possibility that what the Bible says about itself is absolutely true. And I would say, “You know, there are books that amuse, there are books that instruct, there are books that pollute, there are books that elevate; but there is only one book that I know that has the power within itself to transform a life.” And then I would give personal testimony to the change that God has wrought within my life as a result of these Scriptures.
And then the person would be so convinced, they’d become a Christian right then and there. Not for a moment! For we can only do what we might do. And we might have, at that point or a later point, to have to point out that Pascal, the great philosopher, pointed out that the use of reason was in part to show us that there are some things which defy reason. But that does not make them unreasonable; it makes them suprarational. And any honest person will be prepared to follow that line of thought.
Let me say something to you as you speak to people concerning their questions. One of the things that you need to bear in mind… Whether you ask them this question or not, bear this in mind: you need to be saying, as it were, “Listen, you’ve raised a very difficult question. Let me ask you something: If I answer your difficult question to your unbiased satisfaction, will you then be prepared to change your way of life, to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, and to follow him all the days of your life?” And if the answer to that question is honestly “No,” then that doesn’t mean that we are unprepared to endeavor to answer, but it reminds us of this: that the fundamental problem in the human heart is not intellectual; it is moral. It is in the area not of the mind but in the area of the will. For people saw Jesus Christ face-to-face and still refused to believe a word he said. And if we could reproduce Jesus Christ on Euclid Avenue, because the issue in the heart of man is moral and not intellectual, they would still spit at him, curse him, and crucify him. So when we prepare to answer difficult questions, let’s read voraciously, let’s think to the limits of our intellect, but let’s remember that humility in our posture, sensitivity in our hearts, and sincerity in our words will, under God’s providence, go a lot further than any smart-aleck, canned, glib approach to faith.
Shall we bow together in prayer?
God, I think tonight of being in the common room as a senior at grammar school. And I can even name the guys, Greg and Lee. I can see their faces as they asked the difficult questions, and as some of us tried to answer, and as we were painfully aware of the inadequacy of our responses. And even as I think of them tonight, I pray for them, where they are, that some seeds sown twenty years ago may be brought to fruition according to your purposes.
And I pray for this group of people, that you will give to us sensitivity, humility, reality, diligence about the things of faith, relying upon you, not upon our ability to articulate, but yet always being prepared to give an answer to those who ask a reason for the hope we have. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
 Melanie Safka, “Nickel Song” (1971).
 Paul E. Little, How to Give Away Your Faith (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity, 1966), 64.
 C. H. Spurgeon, “Christ and His Co-Workers,” The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, no. 2467, 256. Paraphrased.
 2 Timothy 3:16 (paraphrased).
 See Hebrews 4:12.
 Blaise Pascal, Pensées (1670).
 See 1 Peter 3:15.
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.