Does Christian character have apologetic value?

In a recent post, C. Michael Patton argued that “Christianity is not validated upon the character of its adherents.” In other words, he contends that whether or not Christians actually live significantly differently than non-Christians  should have no bearing on whether or not we believe Christianity to be true. He concludes, “Christianity is based solely on the historic person and work of Christ.”

I’d be curious to hear what you have to say about this. On the one hand, you have Patton’s argument that the truth of Christianity is not predicated on the extent to which Christians live out this truth. And, you also have all the sociological evidence supporting the notion that Christians do not in fact live lives that are significantly different from non-Christians. Those two pieces would seem to suggest that Christian character does not have apologetic value. It doesn’t work (i.e. there’s no evidence suggesting that Christian character is noticeably different) and it isn’t necessary (i.e. the truth of Christianity stands or falls without it).

Of course, on the other hand you have the life-changing power of the Gospel and the indwelling of the Spirit. These truths would seem to indicate that if Christianity is in fact true, it should be noticeable. Consequently, Christian character is legitimate evidence for (or against) the validity of Christianity.

What do you think? If you were engaged in an apologetic dispute with someone and they raised the apparent lack of noticeable transformation in the lives of Christians, how would you respond?

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on June 2, 2010, in Apologetics, Sanctification and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Now, I will try one more time to leave a comment. It seems that Patton’s concept of truth is very much of the Enlightenment. He assumes that the truth of Christianity can be established solely by the historical person and work of Jesus Christ.

    In a sense, yes, truth will always be truth regardless of how many people believe or not. God will remain a living God even though Nietzsche claimed that God died. The gospel will remain true no matter what people say or do.

    However, what is the meaning or value of establishing the truth of the gospel or Christianity unless there is no proper response to it? The gospel includes the commands Jesus gives to his followers. His commands prescribe a certain kind of life, which leads his followers to participate in the ongoing work of salvation. Oh, wait. Didn’t Jesus say, “It is finished”?

    The gospel is God’s communication to humanity. In communication, a response is expected. Christianity is a combination of God’s word and work and our response to his word and work. When we (the church) screw up, the gospel sounds unconvincing.

    I understand where Patton is coming from. However, proving the truth of Christianity without the accompanying lifestyle of its adherents is worthless. Otherwise, why would Peter say that we should be ready to give an explanation or an answer for the hope we have? Is this a hope that one day we will escape from our life that never measure up to the standard of Scripture? No. It is a hope that motivates us to live the life Christ prescribed to us.

    There is two sides to truth. Patton only sees the objective side. But, life doesn’t work that way. Dead faith is demonic, meaning even demons have that kind of faith.

  2. I agree with what you’re saying. We need to affirm to affirm at least two things. (1) The Gospel is true irrespective of whether we see its impact in particular human lives. (2) The Gospel is transformative and should make a noticeable difference in the lives believers. The first point should lead us to argue that the Gospel is true regardless of what we see around us. And, that is the strength of Patton’s argument. But, as you note, the second point should press us to consider the reality as it actually exists “on the ground.” If the Gospel is not noticeably transformative, what does that mean for the truths that the Gospel claims? Although we’d want to affirm that Christians remain broken and sinful beings, if there is no measurable difference between Christians and non-Christians, what does that say about the Gospel?

    All of this leads me to conclude one of the following: (1) sociological evidence suggesting that Christians are not much different from non-Christians is wrong; (2) the Gospel is wrong; (3) something is desperately wrong with how we are teaching and living out Gospel truths in the world today. At the moment, I’m inclined to think that it is actually a combination of (1) and (3).

  3. The truth of Christ is absolute and it’s truthfulness is not contingent upon how someone who professes Christ lives their life. The believability of this truth, however, is! If a master skydiver takes me skydiving for my first time, and tells me about how fool-proof the parachute is, how the maker has crafted each component of it flawlessly, and how this particular parachute has a 100% safety rating, I would be impressed. If he then turns around and says, “But I’ve never jumped with it and never will because I simply don’t trust it and don’t want to die!” My response would be one of two things: 1) You fool! You have this amazing experience awaiting you and you won’t jump. 2) I’m not jumping either because this guys doesn’t believe a thing he says about this parachute, and he knows more than me. The latter is more probable. Christianity without fruit is a false Christianity anyway, that believes in a false gospel. How you live matters in Scripture. To those outside the faith who are watching, and ultimately before God whom we will all stand before and give account.

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