I love studying apologetics; however, when I get into discussions with other Christians about apologetic topics, our conversations often breakdown along the lines of intended outcomes. In the strictest sense, an apologetic argument is measured on its ability to defend one's original position (or presupposition) and defeat one's opponent. While I also generally approach apologetics this way, rather than defeat the opponent (or their position), I prefer an approach that would be more akin to 'converting' a fellow image bearer. So, a distinctive approach for me is that I try to leave room for an open door to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Theologians who "do apologetics" tend to view this more as evangelism than actual apologetics. However, I think they go together.
The other day is a case in point. A young Chinese college student was in our small group asking what seemed to be sincere questions about the fairness of God's justice against sin and the idea that He "choses" some to be saved, while condemning others. This is a common objection that comes up in formal debate, just as much as it does in conversations with skeptical unbelievers.
In order to make her case, she gave an illustration of two brothers who both steal from their father and are caught. How is it "fair" that the father choses to forgive one brother and yet still punishes the other? How is it fair or just that both are guilty but one is allowed to go free without punishment?
Of course, the standard theologically trained apologetic approach is to rightly quote Romans 9:13-15 which says,
13 Just as it is written: "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated."
14 What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! 15 For he says to Moses,
“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”
Clearly, this answer is a slam dunk. Two brothers. Both wretched sinners. One is the chosen heir of God's promises, the other rejected and turned away. Both deserved wrath, but God is merciful to whom He wishes to be merciful and is perfectly just to do so. And if we end the discussion there, we plainly declare in unspoken terms: "See, we win. We're right and you (unsaved, unchurched, untrained, skeptical, young woman from a foreign, secular, atheist upbringing) are just wrong."
Having been much like the young girl who asked this question myself at one time, I also like to take "the book answer" further toward a trajectory of how such questions are answered in Jesus Christ himself.
The girl's presupposition is that both disobedient brothers deserve equal punishment -- the father's wrath for what they have done to him. That is a perfectly true presupposition. I believe we should acknowledge this with her, so as
1 - not to give the impression that we are saying that God is unjust, and
2 - to carefully be sure that she does not view Christianity as promoting antinomianism (rejection of the holiness of God's law and His character).
By recognizing that law-breaking deserves punishment and wrath, she is demonstrating a strong sense of justice and understanding a vital foundation (the bad news) for laying out the truth of the Gospel (the good news).
Where she goes wrong, however, is in thinking that both crimes are not equally punished -- that the crime committed by the brother who receives mercy goes unpunished.
So, here this is the point in which I introduce Jesus Christ. I ask her to consider that there are not merely two brothers, but in fact three brothers. The two who sin greviously and both deserve punishment. Now, the third brother is the true elder brother (thank you Tim Keller, Prodigal God). Jesus is the third brother who has not sinned or done any wrong. He doesn't deserve punishment. He has lived in perfect obedience to His father. He is the true heir and the brother with the entact birthright. Yet, he loves his true younger brother Jacob so much that he steps in and says, I will take his punishment for him.
Thus, the forgiven brother has his sin paid for by Jesus on the cross -- and he is also made co-heir with Christ in the father's kingdom. In the same way, when we we are forgiven by trusting in Christ's death on the cross for our sin against our Heavenly Father, we are made co-heirs with our elder brother Christ in His kingdom.
Not sure what kind of impact it made, but she seemed to be thinking pretty hard about it. Now, we pray.