The Prayer Gap

The first Solas event I ever went to was when a group of us travelled to Dundee to hear Professor John Lennox speaking about science and faith. Having read some of his work, I was really excited to have the opportunity to hear him in person. This took place during what we now look back on as the high-water-mark of the New Atheism, when Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and Hitchens’ God is Not Great were on prominent display in high street bookshops and friends’ coffee tables. Suddenly people around us seemed confident in their assertions that belief in God was not only idiotic; but also positively evil. Popular anti-theism seemed to be carrying all before it.

Lennox strode the platform, clearly undaunted by all of this. Well versed in all the New Atheist literature, he demonstrated their scientific, methodological and philosophical flaws; and the ways in which their towering self-confidence was completely ill-founded. It was at once, educational, authoritative and inspiring. I remember someone saying to me at the end of Lennox’s second talk, “How could anyone not believe after hearing that?” Which was quickly followed up by the suggestion that if only we could get him to our town, then inevitably huge numbers of people would come to faith.

The problem is that winning arguments doesn’t necessarily win people to faith in Jesus.

There are dangers in an anti-intellectualism on one hand (which fails to address the questions of the age, with reasoned, coherent arguments) and with an over-reliance on winning the battle of ideas on the other. Those of us engaged in apologetics are constantly in danger of this latter imbalance, which can severely hinder our witness for Christ. If all our efforts are focused on researching, learning and presenting reasons for faith, we can miss an essential spiritual dynamic: the essential role of prayer, and the leading of The Holy Spirit in evangelism. If we neglect prayer, even the best arguments will fail to change people’s hearts, because intellectual assent to the things such as the existence of God are not enough. Ultimately, a Christian is someone who is “in Christ” to use the central theme of the New Testament. When someone is united to Christ they do, of course, need to be persuaded that Christ died for them and rose again –  there is an essential belief/truth element to it, the mind must be converted.. However, they must also be forgiven for their sins by God in heaven and regenerated in their inmost being by the Holy Spirit, evidenced in faith and repentance which is symbolised in baptism.

The power of God is needed to convince the mind, impart the Holy Spirit and unite them to Christ. It was an over-confidence in apologetics, and in persuasive techniques to win converts that led Martyn Lloyd-Jones to write, “I am not sure that apologetics has not been the curse of evangelical Christianity over the last twenty to thirty years[1]” in 1966. You may think that that is not what you expected to read in a Solas publication, as we are firmly committed to apologetics! But hear Lloyd-Jones out, because he was not denigrating the life of the mind in any way – he was pushing firmly back against the idea that we can bring people to Christ on our own, without the power of God, if we could only just get our arguments finely tuned*, and our presentation contemporary.

So, while we do our evangelism to the absolute best of our ability, we will be ineffective if we do not pray. In places like Solas, we are sometimes accused of depending on winning arguments, not on God’s Spirit. We understand that critique and while we would never want to present anything less than our best answers to enquirers and sceptics, we are trying to be increasingly committed to praying as we present, and for our hearers too.

I knew someone who lost his faith for many years around questions of faith and science. He had come to faith as an adult and studied science to a high level. It was a long, complicated story, but it was the arguments of new Atheists that shipwrecked his faith in God. Which brings me back to Professor John Lennox. This chap came back to Christ, after John Lennox skewered the atheist arguments which had bamboozled him, in a public lecture: the power of apologetics in all its glory you might think. However, there is another side to this tale. That is that some people had been praying for this guy everyday for more than a decade, before he was even willing to go to a public lecture from a Christian apologist. The fact that he was even there listening and engaging was in itself an answer to much prayer. Likewise when we are enabled to formulate a wise answer which connects to a sceptic hearer, this is not by-passing prayer but an answer to it! Prayer and apologetics should not be pitched against each other as being in tension any more than the left and right oars in a boat should. They may occasionally need to correct each other; but they are most assuredly on the same side.

Knowledge, apologetics and good communication are no substitute for the power of The Holy Spirit. That is a truth that must be held in tension with the fact that when the gospel is proclaimed, it has objective cognitive content! It is coupled to the fact that Paul, that great Spirit-filled Apostle reasoned for the faith,[2] and Peter who was the preacher on the very Day of Pentecost when the Spirit came; commended giving reasons for our faith.[3] The point of coalescence seems to be that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength[4]; and not pick and choose which faculty we do so with most!

Acts 4 is a model for us in making sure that we do not let God and our neighbours down by presenting arid arguments, without the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit.[5]  The context is that the early church had suffered its first persecution, and had been told not to speak the name of Jesus in public again.

24 When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. “Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. 25 You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David:

“‘Why do the nations rage
    and the peoples plot in vain?
26 The kings of the earth rise up
    and the rulers band together
against the Lord
    and against his anointed one.

They called out to The Lord together, echoing the words of Psalm 2. Their prayer is remarkably informed, they bring together the Old Testament concept of Kingship and apply it to Jesus the Messiah, and His ongoing work through the church. It was heartfelt too – they didn’t read a set of impressive words in which they had no consuming interest either.

The way that God responded to their cry was quite amazing. Luke puts it simply like this:

31 After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.

There is a tendency in the church to think that the Holy Spirit was only poured out once, at Pentecost; and that this is a model for us – that we are regenerated by the Spirit when we are converted and never should ask for more. Acts challenges such thinking, as do Paul’s prayers for the churches in his epistles. Here, just two chapters after Pentecost, the Holy Spirit fills them again, and the room is shaken like an earthquake. Those pyrotechnics (however eye-catching) are not the point though. What Luke wants us to grasp is the substance of the matter, not the side-effects, namely “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly”.

There is an old truism, “Speak to God about people, before you speak to people about God!”. We do need to pray for our hearers, and ourselves, for our arguments, presentation and non-verbal communication too. We must pray that we will be filled with the Holy Spirit and proclaim the word of God boldly. Those involved in apologetics must on one hand study hard, think hard, and write and speak as persuasively and winsomely as we possibly can. We long for God to be glorified in what we do, this is our worship and we want to present the very best to God. Yet on the other hand, we dare not do that prayerlessly as if the power of argument can by itself change people’s lives.

John Wesley the great Methodist evangelist, so used of God in the 18th Century, seems to have been convinced of the main tenets of the Christian faith, prior to the experience of the Spirit he had in Aldersgate Street in 1738 when his “heart was strangely warmed”. So much so that Christian historians debate whether he was meaningfully a Christian before that date. It was from that point that he preached the word of God boldly.

When we are proclaiming, publishing, debating and defending the gospel; if we find that people are not engaging, or we lack power in our proclamation, let’s first check and make sure that we haven’t fallen down the prayer gap. Pulling back from activity to pray, can sometimes be the most fruitful and productive possible thing for us to do in God’s kingdom. I once knew a man who preached with an unusual sense of clarity and a Godly authority. I asked him how he was able to do that. His answer was that for every hour he spent preaching he spent ten in prayer. The most impressive buildings rest on unseen, hidden foundations without which they would topple. If we’re finding our efforts unproductive, we perhaps need to re-underpin our spiritual foundations, and devote ourselves firstly to prayer. Then our apologetics will win hearts, souls, minds and people for The Lord.

[1] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Authority p14