The Case for ‘Sense of the Heart’ Apologetics

Christians know that the satisfaction of the gospel surpasses the relief of a consistent syllogism, yet many fail to preach like it. Those who have been transferred from darkness to light are not only guided by reason, but also by “taste.” Their “eyes of the heart” have been given a sense of the breadth and the length and the height and the depth of the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. Yet not enough preachers aim at the sniffer to give them the aroma of life.

In the Upper West Side of Manhattan, our church is surrounded by “Bobos” (David Brooks’s famous coinage for the bourgeoisie and bohemians) who are bursting with spiritual aspirations and longing for transcendence. As Brooks says, “They don’t want to forsake pleasures that seem harmless just because some religious authority says so, but they do want to bring out the spiritual implications of everyday life.” Struggles arise inside them between “autonomy and submission, materialism and spirituality.” But—surprise—you don’t only find these folks in New York City. You can find them wherever Trader Joe’s has set up shop.

Giving the same old “evidence that demands a verdict” doesn’t quite cut to the heart when preaching to these skeptics. This isn’t a new observation. Tim Keller and others have long advocated for worldview apologetics—something you can find in The Reason for God. But can our preaching to skeptics also appeal to their senses—a kind of “sense of the heart” apologetics? It can—indeed, it must. Skeptics who show up in church today are not so much looking for preachers to make sense of the brute facts of life but of their desires and hopes. If you dismiss their questions as juvenile angst, then they will likely feel dismissed and, in turn, will dismiss you.

We shouldn’t feel like we need to invent the wheel, though. This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon—pastors and apologists have recognized this need for centuries. Jonathan Edwards in his preaching and C. S. Lewis in his writing both effectively employed “sense of the heart” apologetics.

Jonathan Edwards, Affectionate Preacher

Jonathan Edwards was famous for preaching that aroused emotional conversions in New England. However, he’s never been particularly known as an apologist. He never wrote a formal work on apologetics, though he planned to, and much of his miscellanies are filled with apologetic material where he engaged the Enlightenment idealism of the day.

Michael McClymond and Gerald McDermott’s The Theology of Jonathan Edwards illustrates Edwards’s sophistication as an apologist. Edwards preached during the hey-day of John Locke’s philosophy of empiricism, which denied any form of innate ideas and insisted that all human ideas (God or otherwise) must originate out of the mind’s reflection on things derived from the senses. In other words, unless something can be touched, smelled, heard, seen, or tasted, it cannot be known. Knowledge of God and knowledge from God is, then, immediately disadvantaged.

But Edwards believed that the believer’s spiritual sense of God—“sense of the heart”—is a kind of evidence for God. Faith is a form of “seeing for oneself.” It is not blindly believing the account of others, as so many describe faith. Faith is “tasting and seeing” the reality of God and his gospel. This spiritual perception of God brings immediate certainty of a “first hand experience.”

Turning Locke on his head, Edwards granted that a believer must see with his own eyes, but with the eyes of the heart. This seeing gives the believer more intellectual certitude than what human reasoning from empirical evidences can afford.

But what McClymond and McDermott neglected to mention was how Edwards labored to not only show that you could taste the truth, but also that the truth was sweet. Edwards employed “sense of the heart” apologetics to argue with your senses that God is more delightful and satisfying than anything else. Edwards toiled in his sermons with imagery and analogy to reveal the beauty of God as the only thing “appreciated and rested in for its own sake.” He ultimately aimed to help the unbeliever see that he has nothing in his life so good, so lovely, and so satisfying as Christ, so even if the skeptic doubted the gospel to be true, he would hope that it was.

Do you preach about God in that way? Do you “argue with the senses” of your listeners? Edwards tempted skeptics, so to speak, to be dissatisfied with whatever currently contented them.

C. S. Lewis, Apologist of Hope

I may get nasty emails from “the experts” for this suggestion, but from what I can tell, if you want to get a sense of the apologetic method of C. S. Lewis, you should read chapter 10, “Hope,” in Mere Christianity. For Lewis, creatures are not “born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists.” And if I have desires that no earthly measure can satisfy, it does not mean that I am delusional or that the universe is a fraud, but “that I was made for another world.” All our hopes and dreams, desires and wants can never finally rest in earthly pleasures or else, as Lewis put in, we are like the child far too easily pleased with mud pies that he cannot imagine a holiday at sea.

I’m not aware that Lewis ever offered a rational defense for heaven, but he sought to convince his readers that life is not worth living unless such a place exists. He doesn’t allow us to be neutral about the matter.

The created world was never meant to be an end in itself. The heavens and earth do not declare their own glory, but the glory of another. Divine glory is not found in them, but through them. As Lewis puts it in his famous work The Weight of Glory, if we mistake created things for the thing itself, “they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

Lewis gave his readers reason to believe that his God satisfies better then theirs; that they’ve been eating mud clots and calling them truffles all along.


If a preacher presents Christ in this way, rarely does he have to choose between preaching to a believing or a skeptical audience. Keller makes a similar argument in “Evangelistic Worship” for a church service that “attracts nonbelievers through comprehensible worship and leading those people to personal commitment.”

The believer will be drawn to worship, and the skeptic will question his functional saviors. Believers will be led to taste, again, the bread of life, and skeptics will watch as the believer, completely satisfied in Christ, never ceases to hunger for him.

  • Matt Capps


  • Pingback: The Case for 'Sense of the Heart' Apologetics – The Gospel … |

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    “Lewis gave his readers reason to believe that his God satisfies better then theirs; that they’ve been eating mud clots and calling them truffles all along.”

    In conversation with acquaintances, friends, and family, this is an often-winning approach.

  • Fellipe Mendenhall

    Mr. Starke, thank you for your blog. For an aspiring and prospective apologist, it was certainly edifying and a true delight to read. May we reach the lost through the sheer delight of the Gospel of Christ, perhaps the most effective apologetic indeed.

    One question that I had as I read, however, was whether or not “Sense of Heart” apologetics is merely gospel proclamation. It seems to me that the true innate sensation comes with the bursting in of the gospel in the life of the recipient. Since apologetics is giving a “defense” for the hope (be it positive apologetics or negative), would “Sense of Heart” apologetics fall under evangelism? I recall apologist William Lane Craig saying that the majority of those we interact with have no need for apologetics but rather fundamental evangelism. Can it be, then, that “Sense of Heart” apologetics was the practice of true evangelism by Lewis and Edwards and all others?

    • John Starke

      Hi Fellipe-

      Thanks for this. I would say that it is not “less” than gospel proclamation. But I would also say that it is a bit more, in that it aims at the heart and does more than simply connect the dots, so to speak. It’s arguing that God is more satisfying, not simply more reasonable. I think you can proclaim the gospel without aiming at the heart—in fact I think many do.

  • Steve Cornell

    Great emphasis and reminder! I think it helps to start where the Bible starts with humanity. Too often, our “plan of presentation” starts with humans as sinners rather than beings made in God’s image. After God completed His work, He “saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). We had a very good and noble beginning (and we (humans) know it – intuitively). Those intended for greatness have fallen. Sin is falling short of glory– (Romans 3:23). We were meant for so much more (and, again, we (humans) know it).

    It should not be unexpected that most people feel like something is missing from their lives. We have moments when life feels whole, full and satisfying but these times easily give way to a sense that we’re not what we’re supposed to be.

    Something great has fallen from its greatness.
    Something amazing has lost its amazement.
    Something beautiful has lost its beauty.
    Something whole is broken.
    Something healthy is sick and in need of healing.
    Something peaceful has been disturbed.

    As a result of this fall from glory, those who were whole are broken, partial and fractured. Humans are a combination of dignity and depravity. We find in each person a mix of good and bad.

    Our fallenness means that every seemingly good part is tainted with the bad (Romans 7:21). Depravity extends to every atom of our being. It is without borders in us (see: Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 5:12). As a result a sad set of terms are fitting to humanity: lost, wayward, drifting, restless, fallen, broken, fractured, alienated, separated, partial, incomplete, and dying. This is why the vocabulary of salvation suits us. We need intervention, rescue, redemption, forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration. This is a fuller backdrop for apologetics and evangelism

    As we think about humanity, we can speak of…..

    A glory we once had (Genesis 1:26-27).
    A glory we fell from (Romans 3:23; 5:12)
    A glory being restored in us through God’s gift of salvation (Romans 6:23; II Corinthians 3:18)
    A glory fully restored despite our present suffering: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).

  • tim

    Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind 1 Peter 5:2 The early church fathers talk about the fact that the fear of the church was that non-christian came in there assembly for the miracle ….? today it’s the turning of thing upside down we are trying to draw the non-believer in our assembly with music and contextualization …? why the early church did not?

  • Patrick

    At some point a human soul will realize that this present world, although kept somewhat healthful and pleasurable in a limited way by God’s grace and power, is filled with death and vanity; plagued with a never ending thirst and hunger. It is upon this revelation that a person will either come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ or seek satisfaction in other deceptive spiritual wells.

    I agree, there is a type of heart apologetic that transcends the intellectual kind. After all the greatest apologetic statement ever made is the combined victory of (His)cross and resurrection.

    The purpose of the Cross The Power of the Resurrection:

  • Dustin

    Thanks for the article John! It’s a necessary reminder for us that non-believers don’t merely need to hear our rationalization, they need to see our satisfaction. In fact, God’s Word invites us to do just that! Ps. 34:8: “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good!” I hope and pray that we will take that invitation seriously by consuming the true bread from heaven and slaking our thirst at the everlasting spring: Christ.

  • Pingback: John Starke on Defending the Faith to the Mind AND the Heart « Awakening Grace()

  • John S

    I appreciate the both/and addendum. Knowing God is not just cold, hard facts it is also fellowship with Him. I consider unbelievers as primarily either thinkers or feelers. If I can discern which it seems best to initiate toward either evidence or ‘sense of the heart’.

    A caveat, many professing Christions who can’t articulate the gospel (subsitutionary atonement) will assert that their heart is satisfied, they have peace with God. I have talked to few of other religions but guess they will say likewise – they found ‘truth’ and it satisfies to pursue it. To borrow a phrase, their ‘bosom burns within’.

    We can’t evangelize apart from the facts of God and man, but I’m concerned of danger even if ‘sense of the heart’ merely overtakes ‘evidence’ in our proclamation. If subjective becomes primary and objective secondary it’s a reg flag for me. If what Christ will do to make you feel happy or give inner peace is in any wise more important than what Christ has done in forgiving sins and imputing righteousness and satisfying justice, something smells fishy.

    • Tom Larsen

      Good thoughts. I think the Gospel is broader than substitutionary atonement, though: fundamentally, it’s about the kingdom of God, and what God has done and is doing to bring it about on earth as in heaven through the person of Jesus Christ. (As N. T. Wright often points out, there are many Christians for whom it would be perfectly sufficient if Jesus was merely born of a virgin and died on a cross; we must keep in mind Jesus’ life and ministry and resurrection, too.) And we need to draw that out in our apologetics.

      • John S

        I don’t mean to disagree, just nuance. My view is similar to the idea of plurality in elders, senior is ‘first among equals’. Jesus life, ministry, resurrection and everything else about Him are essential and part of the gospel.

        However Paul speaks of ‘first importance’ as relates to evidence not experience. to know nothing among them except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I see the cross and it’s claims and implications as ‘1st among equals’ in evangelism (and for believers for that matter).

        I want to include joy and love in Christ in conversation – i should be bursting with joy. I agree with Keller and Edwards and Lewis. I’m not concerned that these men lost or will lose the cross. But for the Church today I am very concerned, it’s happening before our eyes. And when I perceive even a hint of ‘perhaps we need more feeling and less fact’ I am concerned.

        I want to use the wicket gate, Christ’s body not the door of experience. I’m fearful of a proclamation that may encourage Formalist and Hypocrisy to jump the wall ‘how is your present condition any different than ours?’ and continue on with laughter. I don’t want to lead someone towards a Hebrews 6 ‘conversion’.

        Peter evangelizes using evidence- tongues, death and resurrection (I don’t see affections). I want to major on these evidences and minor on the feelings, they will surely come with true conversion. I would be glad to start with feelings and experience on an individual basis but as a ‘screen door’ as it were to the front door of the cross. How’s that for a lame analogy!

        examples of evangelism in the Bible, aren’t they all evidence based? Acts 2, Stephen, Ethiopian Eunuch, Acts 9 and 10, 13, 26 etc. Galatians letter. In Athens God is Creator and judge and commands repentance, gives evidence – the resurrection not ‘you’ll be happier’. It’s not that joy and experience are absent, they are just not emphasized. Christ and Him Crucified and repentance and forgiveness of sins are foremost, not subjective affections, and as such I want to do the same in my evangelism.

        wow, sorry far too long…

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    John S: “I have talked to few of other religions but guess they will say likewise – they found ‘truth’ and it satisfies [them] to pursue it.”

    John S, have you tried doing what C.S. Lewis does: “Lewis gave his readers reason to believe that his God satisfies better then theirs; that they’ve been eating mud clots and calling them truffles all along.”

    If you have, how did it go?

    • John S

      Sorry I didn’t word it well, I haven’t talked to many, in fact none that I can recall. This is a good argument I would have no problem bringing it up (although I always thought this quote was meant for believers. Perhaps I’m wrong, it’s true in both cases anyway).

      My concern though, is if people pursue a subjective idea of satisfaction apart from the weight of conviction. to call on Bunyan, Christian is weighed down with a burden of sin, a conviction of his own wrong. He doesn’t set out looking for more, he sets out looking for less – the removal of the burden. He surely does find more as well, but subsequently. It’s possible to go to what you think is the beach while your mud pies are still baking back at home.

      I’m concerned that an emphasis on ‘sense of heart’ without a clear sense of conviction of sin, framed by the Law and the cross, could lead to a conversion improperly founded, and just another inferior joy.

      This is a provoking article and conversation, makes me think about why I think the way I do. I see evidence and sense of heart as sides of the same coin. I’m just submitting that evidence should remain as heads.

  • Steve Martin

    Meet people in their their loss…in their pain. and then speak of Christ and what He has done about it.

    Tell them how Christ suffered also…but that His suffering was with them in mind, for their sake.

    And how in Christ all is forgiven and all will one Day be made whole, again. Even better than they can imagine.

    And then let it go. The Lord will do to them what He will, in that Word. Sure, pray for them. But don’t hold a shotgun on them to try and ‘get a decision’. That’s not the gospel…but the law.

  • Pingback: Treading Grain » Post Topic » Around the Horn: 1.12.12()

  • Pingback: The World Wide Religious Web for Tuesday, January 10, 2012 «

  • Pingback: The World Wide Religious Web for Thursday, January 12, 2012 «

  • Jon Nitta

    John, your article contained some wonderful thoughts. I have often pondered that there is a kind of evangelism that is “existential”, in the sense that it connects with the deepest longings and desires of the heart that people experience in existence. I would not only commend you on your observation that both Edwards and Lewis were targeting the heart but I would also add to that list, Kierkegaard and Pascal. The sense of the heart that all people have (whether they realize it or not) is a wonderful window to the gospel!

  • Pingback: The Monday Morning Coffee Break – Jan 16, 2012 « church wired()