When we do the work of apologetics we do it as disciples of Jesus, and therefore in the manner in which he would do it. This means, first of all, that we do it to help people, and especially those who want to be helped. Apologetics is a helping ministry.
The picture presented in the context of I Peter 3:15 is that of disciples who are devoted to promoting what is good, but are being persecuted for it. Their response, as Jesus had taught them, was to “rejoice and be glad.” And that led those looking on to inquire how the disciples could be joyous and hopeful in such circumstances. This question would, of course, be inevitable in an angry, hopeless and joyless world. So the disciples were charged by Peter to “be ready to help people understand the hope that is in them, but with gentleness and fear” (vs. 15), and always with a clear conscience that one has done what is right. (vs.16)
So we give our explanation, our apologetic, as an act of neighbor love. And as we do so we are to be as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves. (Matt 10:16) The serpent’s wisdom is timeliness based on watchful observation. And doves are incapable of guile or of misleading anyone. So are we to be. Love of those we deal with will help us to observe them accurately and to stay entirely away from manipulating them—meanwhile intensely longing and praying for them to recognize that Jesus Christ is master of the cosmos in which they live.
Love will also purge us of any desire merely to win, as well as of intellectual self-righteousness and contempt for the opinions and abilities of others. The apologete for Christ is one characterized “humbleness of mind” (tapeinophrosunen; Col 3:12, Acts 20:19, 1 Pet 5:5)—a vital New Testament concept which cannot be captured by our word “humility” alone.
So the call to “give an account” is not a call to beat unwilling people into intellectual submission, but to be the servant of those in need: often, indeed, the servant of those who are in the grip of their own intellectual self-righteousness and pride, usually reinforced by their social surroundings.
But secondly, we do the work of apologetics as relentless servants of truth. Jesus said that he “came into the world to testify to the truth” (John 19:37), and he is called “the faithful and true witness.” (Rev 3:14) This is why we “fear” as we give our account. Truth reveals reality, and reality can be described as what we humans run into when we are wrong. In the collision we always lose.
Being mistaken about life and about the things of God and the human soul is a deadly serious matter. That is why the work of apologetics is so important. So we speak the truth in love. (Eph 5:14) And we speak with all the clarity and reasonableness we can muster, simultaneously counting on the Spirit of truth (John 16:13) to accomplish with what we do an effect that lies far beyond our natural abilities.
Truth is the point of reference, which we share with all human beings. No one can live without truth. Though we may disagree about which particular things are true or false, allegiance to truth—whatever the truth may be—permits us to stand alongside every person as honest fellow inquirers. Our attitude is therefore not one of “us and them,” but of “we.” And we are forever here to learn and not only to teach.
So, if at all possible—sometimes it is not, due to others—we “give our account” in an atmosphere of mutual inquiry animated by generous love. However firm we may be in our convictions, we do not become overbearing, contemptuous, hostile or defensive. For we know that Jesus himself would not do so because we cannot help people in that way. He had no need of it, nor do we. And in apologetics as everywhere, he is our model and our master. Our confidence is totally in him. That is the “special place” we give him in our hearts—how we “sanctify Christ in our hearts as Lord”—in the crucial service of apologetic.