Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions by Greg Koukl – book summary and thoughts

Chapter one – Diplomacy or D-Day? Koukl opens his book by discussing what apologetics means to most people: it’s a defense of the faith that is aggressive, hostile, and combative. He also discusses how at times apologists are ill-prepared to defend their faith. Apologists make the mistake of wading “into battle only to face a barrage we can’t handle”.[1] Koukl urges us to adopt a “more excellent way” by making diplomacy our goal. Koukl relates a story about him and his wife encountering a witch and carrying on a conversation with her about her beliefs and convictions concerning abortion. Koukl’s side of the conversation was really just one question after another rather than a series of statements. He basically let the young lady hear herself, possibly for the first time, revealing her illogical and contradictory point of view. Koukl did more listening than talking, and avoided what could have been an intense argument. Next Koukl discusses three basic skills that twenty-first-century ambassadors need. The first is knowledge of God’s message and how to respond to criticisms of it. Next is wisdom that avoids using brute force. Lastly the character of the apologist must be impeccable. Koukl differentiates between strategy and tactics. Strategy is basically a plan on paper and tactics are what happens on the ground. Tactics are guidelines to help us arrange our resources “in an artful way”.[2] Koukl’s tactics, both offensive and defensive, if abused can make someone look foolish. An apologist of character will avoid using the tactics as assault weapons. Koukl stresses, “My goal… is to find clever ways to exploit someone’s bad thinking… [while] remaining gracious and charitable”.[3] The idea is to “turned a potentially volatile situation into an opportunity”.[4]

Chapter two – Reservations Koukl acknowledges that apologists might be worried about getting into squabbles with critics. If a quarrel breaks out during a conversation, everyone loses. But “kind, patient, and gentle” argument “for something that really matters… is actually a good thing”.[5] When we argue we use our God-given minds to discern between truth and falsehood. Rationality (not rationalism) is something God gave us to figure out him and “the world he has made”.[6] Some Christians are afraid of arguing, claiming that strong opinions threaten unity. Koukl concedes that some disputes are useless. But the Bible still urges us to reprove, rebuke, and exhort, and to rightly divide the word of truth. This might involve arguments. Arguments and dispute are good and healthy, Koukl says: “they clarify the truth and protect us from error and religious despotism”.[7] Koukl quotes Acts 17.2-4 to show that people surely can be argued into the kingdom. He also says both love and reason will accomplish God’s purpose with the Holy Spirit’s help. Koukl is convinced that most Christians are regular laborers in the Mission Field, working the ground and tending the plants until someone down the line brings in the harvest. It may take a long time before someone is ready to receive Christ. We might be wise to set the modest goal of merely giving our opponents something to think about.

Chapter three – Getting in The Driver’s Seat: The Colombo Tactic Our author presents four scenarios in which we must decide how to respond to a critic. In scene one, a teenager claims there’s no proof that God exists. In scene two, a newcomer to Bible study says that all religions are basically the same. In scene three, a friend questions the inspiration of the Bible. In the final scene, a stranger criticizes religious groups demonstrating over “important moral legislation”.[8] Koukl says we have about ten seconds to speak up on these issues before our chance is gone. He suggests responding to these scenarios by asking questions. Sometimes the questions are simply to gather information; at other times they expose bad thinking on the part of the critic. The famous TV detective Columbo used this tactic, hence the name. Asking questions will show that we’re interested in the other person and her ideas. It will also educate us about a subject we are unfamiliar with. Questions also allow us to advance the conversation without sounding rude. It also puts us in control of the conversation. Asking the question “What do you mean by that?” will engage the other person and clarify to us what she really thinks or reveal that she’s not thinking. Koukl closes chapter three by explaining the questions he would use in response to the four scenarios.

Chapter four – Columbo Step Two: The Burden Of Proof The criticisms that people level at Christianity are often just “vacuous slogans”.[9] When someone presents a challenge, he should be the one to give reasons for the challenge. Opinions are not reasons and can never really lead to discussion. The critic must be ready to prove what he says. If we can give a theistic explanation for something, for example, and someone else offers an alternate explanation, we must ask if the explanation is possible, plausible, and probable. Is it a reason or an opinion? College professors often take potshots at Christians even if the class discussion has nothing to do with religion. If we were to challenge the professor, she would turn it around and make us disprove what she had said. Koukl asserts that it is the professor’s job to back up what she said. College students should never be afraid to question their professors. The person who makes the claim bears the burden of proof. If we lack information on the current topic or we are overwhelmed by a talkative opponent, we can often step back and listen, do research on the issue, truly absorb the information that we lacked before, and possibly take up the conversation where we left off. We shouldn’t see this tactic as a retreat but as a way to reduce our anxiety, strengthen our confidence, and educate ourselves.

Chapter five – Step Three: Using Columbo to Lead the Way Koukl presents examples of using questions to remind people of what they already know. We also must be aware that most everyone is intolerant to one degree or another. Telling us we shouldn’t tell someone what to do is telling us what to do. Asking an opponent to clarify his opinion can expose circular or flawed reasoning, a non sequitur, or some other logical fallacy. To avoid being offensive or rude is an important goal and any conversation with an opponent of Christianity. We must remain innocent as doves.

Chapter six – Perfecting Columbo To improve our Columbo skill, we should anticipate any potential issue that might arise in the future, meditate on a conversation we might have just hand, and practice out loud. Koukl reflects on conversations that he has had where he realized later what he should have said. If someone tries to use Columbo against us to trap or embarrass us, Koukl says we can “simply refuse to answer”.[10] In a polite way, we allow our opponent to keep talking while we avoid her trap. Often an opponent will make a statement disguised as a rhetorical question: “What gives you the right…?” or “Who are you to say?”[11] If we use our “What do you mean by that?” question, we can avoid this trap. Minding our manners is always of vital importance. Koukl ends this chapter with a story about a conversation he had with a shy waitress who offered stock remarks about religious pluralism and Biblical errors. The waitress had no response to Koukl’s questions, panicked, and claimed “she was being cornered”.[12]

Chapter seven – Suicide: Views that Self-destruct Koukl examines the law of noncontradiction. People make contradictory statements all the time, often without realizing it. Koukl presents the example of his debate with Marv Meyer where Meyer was defending the view that “objective truth does not exist and cannot be known”. By stating that “objective truth does not exist” Meyer was stating an objective truth. Quite often a person will ask a nonsense question, like “If God beat himself up, who would win?” people also make self-defeating statements, like “I don’t think God takes sides, and I think he would agree with me”. Koukl discusses the Hindu concept of maya, the notion of theistic evolution, scientism, and religious pluralism as being self-destructive ideas.

Chapter eight – Practical Suicide Koukl says that “Some points of view… simply cannot work in real-life application”.[13] At times critics will condemn Christians for condemning someone else. When someone tells us we can’t push our morality on someone else, they are pushing their morality on us. Koukl highlights a trip to Eastern Europe where border guards made two claims that were contradictory: the USSR has religious freedom and no one is allowed to bring Bibles into the country. Koukl also points to the ADL’s anger that “Christians were trying to change their religious convictions of Jews”[14] and the solution was to try and change the religious convictions of the Christians. Koukl follows up this story with a brief argument against determinism.

Chapter nine – Sibling Rivalry and Infanticide Koukl writes about a situation in which the critic offers a pair of objections that are “logically inconsistent with each other”.[15] Our illustrious author cites examples such as: the Hindu man who suggested that Gandhi was a good man, and deserved to go to heaven, but that good and bad couldn’t be defined. Koukl sums up sibling rivalry by quoting Chesterton: “In [the modernist’s] book on politics he attacks men for trampling on morality, and in his book on ethics he attacks morality for trampling on men”.[16] Infanticide refers to a claim that relies on a parent concept yet denies that parent concept. The atheist trying to “make sense of morality in a universe without God”[17] is an example of this fallacy. Morality comes from God, whom the atheist denies exists.

Chapter ten – Taking the Roof Off This chapter highlights what philosophers call reductio ad absurdum. This means to take a claim and follow it “to its absurd conclusion or consequence”.[18] Koukl refers to Matthew chapter 12 where the Pharisees accuse Jesus of using Satan to cast out Satan, which is absurd. Equally absurd is the idea that any natural behavior is acceptable, i.e. homosexuality. Koukl points out that gay bashing also comes naturally to some people. The argument for natural behavior fails.

Chapter eleven – Steamroller Often a critic of Christianity will attempt to dominate the conversation. Emotion, prejudice, or stubbornness can make a person resist every single argument we could possibly come up with, and the person may become aggressive and start yelling at us. Koukl says we need to “stop him… shame him… [and] leave him”.[19] Koukl assures us that we shouldn’t take such abuse personally. It’s not about us; it’s about Jesus.

Chapter twelve – Rhodes Scholar Sometimes an opponent will claim to be an expert in the issue at hand. Occasionally those who are actually experts in a field will make comments about another field. Koukl refers to embryonic stem cell research legislation in California where Nobel laureates in biology, chemistry, and medicine voiced their opinions on ethics and economics. Koukl reminds us of the a priori rejection of evidence for intelligent design and rejection of the reality of the supernatural.

Chapter thirteen – Just the Facts, Ma’am Here Koukl tells us that many critics of Christianity don’t have their facts straight, and encourages us to get ours straight. The claim that religion has caused more bloodshed than anything else, for example, is not true. Well over 100,000,000 people have been killed by Nazism and communism—atheist ideologies. It is often said that the members of the Constitutional Convention were deists, not Christians. But records show that 51 of the 55 men were members of Episcopal, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Lutheran, Dutch Reformed, Methodist, and Roman Catholic churches, and one unknown church. We must always ask what the claim is, and if it’s factually accurate. Koukl revisits the Da Vinci Code controversy, states his case on inconsistent laws, and urges us to always examine the context of a claim.

Chapter fourteen – More sweat, less blood Koukl’s last chapter gives us eight quick tips for sharing our faith, inspired by an overzealous brother on a plane. Preparedness, simplicity, and avoiding religious language and pretense are key; focusing on the truth of Christianity and giving reasons for it are also vital; finally, we must remain calm, allow the person to leave if she wants, and give her something to read if she does leave. Koukl then stresses the importance of staying in fellowship with other believers, bouncing your thoughts and convictions off someone who probably disagrees with you, and having confidence and courage.


The topic Greg Koukl writes about in Tactics that stood out to me is Doing Your Homework.[20] Making an effort to do things like read books and blogs and access multimedia about current topics (gay marriage, terrorism, religious pluralism, the Westboro Baptist Church) and read non-Christian religious texts (Greek myths, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Qur’an, the Communist Manifesto) in order to speak the language of and converse with our non-Christian friends and neighbors is inexpressibly important in letting the love of Christ flow out from us. If we are to fulfill the Great Commission, we all must be students; we must read what non-Christians read and write, we must learn (or remember) how non-Christians think and talk, and we must do our homework.

Many years ago a few of my friends were undergrads at Samford, a Baptist university in Birmingham, Alabama. Quite often my friends would talk about something they called “The Samford Bubble.” Some students would stay on campus (read: all-Christian environment) all the time, never venturing into the city (read: non-Christian environment), and never having contact with non-Christians or their ideas. Quite a number of students would choose to spend all their time in the Christian university comfort zone, aka “The Samford Bubble,” doing schoolwork, studying the Bible, listening to Christian pop music and watching “Christian” movies. Sadly, many Christians live in bubbles like this, especially those of us who have grown up in Christian households. We don’t know how to talk to non-Christians, and are paralyzed (or uninterested) when it comes to engaging in conversation with atheists, pagans, Hindus, Muslims or anyone else who is not “like us”.

Very early in his book Koukl says, “The truth is that effective persuasion in the twenty-first century requires more than having the right answers. It’s too easy for postmoderns to ignore our facts, deny our claims, or simply yawn and walk away from the line we have drawn in the sand.”[21] Koukl is right, and it’s discouraging. Even if we do our homework, our atheist, Muslim or Buddhist neighbors might completely ignore what we say. But we can’t let that stand in our way. It’s a great example of the parable of the sower in the Synoptic Gospels: some of our seed will fall on rocky places and among thorns. That should never be an excuse to not try, though, because Koukl also says, “You may be surprised to know that most critics are not prepared to defend their faith. So don’t be startled if you get a blank stare [from a critic during a conversation]. Many people have never thought through their views and don’t know why they hold them.”[22] We as Christians should never be guilty of not thinking through our views. We should know why we believe what we believe, and know as much as possible about the beliefs of everyone else. The New Atheists provide an example of a group who don’t think through their own beliefs or the beliefs of others.

The New Atheists are notorious for their refusal to really investigate theology.[23] If Dawkins, Sam Harris, and others were to read the Bible instead of, for example, defining faith according to the pop culture idea of believing in yourself and making your dreams come true, they might really understand faith. Dawkins knows what biblical faith is according to himself, but he doesn’t know what biblical faith is according to the Bible. The book of Hebrews in the NIV says that faith is “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (11.1). The passage does not say “Faith is confidence in wishful thinking and assurance about what did not and cannot happen”. Nor does it say we should believe without any evidence at all, as atheist Sam Harris suggests.[24] Having assurance about what we do not see can mean that someone before us did see something.

Sam Harris, a member of the so-called Four Horsemen of the New Atheism, misunderstands Pascal’s Wager, calling it an “epistemological ponzi scheme”.[25] Harris also says, “Religious beliefs, to be beliefs about the way the world is, must be as evidentiary in spirit as any other”,[26] obviously suggesting that religious beliefs are not evidentiary, which we know to be false. Harris continues, “As long as religious propositions purport to be about the way the world is… they must stand in relation to the world, and our other beliefs about it”.[27] Harris means that the religious proposition “God exists” must stand in relation to “our other beliefs” such as “No, he doesn’t”. But “God exists” will lose every time in Harris’ world. It may never be the other way around for him (barring a Pascalesque conversion or some such), but we must be prepared to give an answer if Sam Harris ever stops making unwarranted statements and starts asking honest questions about real faith.

YHWH speaks to Abram and promises him his own nation and many blessings (Genesis 12). YHWH reminds Moses of this in Exodus 6, where he says “I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob… I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan” (6.2). The Lord points to the evidence of his promise to the Patriarchs in order to prepare Moses to receive the new message: “I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them… I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God” (6.6, 7). YHWH promises Moses that these things will happen and will serve as evidence to the Israelites that YHWH is their God.

Apologist J. P. Moreland says, “The prophets appealed to evidence to justify belief in the biblical God” and the messages he gave to them.[28] Isaiah recalls Abraham’s covenant, the choosing of Israel as God’s people, and powerful and poetic details of the creation in order to comfort Israel (Isaiah 40-45). The prophet Haggai delivers to Judah the message that YHWH wanted the people to “give careful thought” to how selfishly they are behaving and to the way that the existence and continued care of the temple brought the nation prosperity. Moreland goes on: “[The prophets] did not say ‘God said it, that settles it, you should believe it!’ They gave a rational defense for their claims.”[29] Groothuis highlights the fact that Hebrew prophets were given “rational tests”[30] to determine if their messages were from God. Genuine prophets were accepted, often even if they had brought bad news; false prophets were put to death. Faith is not expressed by “leaps” but by trusting a person who has proven his trustworthiness. Even Jesus himself refuses to leap from atop the temple because he knows full well that that is not how faith is lived out. God gave us minds as well as bodies and souls and he wants us to use them.

Apologist and Oxford professor Alister McGrath notes: “It is quite clear that sections of the Acts of the Apostles show at least some degree of familiarity and affinity with Hellenistic rhetoric, as well as the beliefs and practices of the classical period”.[31] Peter’s Pentecost sermon is recognized as being the first Christian discourse given under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but the speech is also rife with evidence to support Peter’s message. Peter explains the fact that the disciples are speaking about God in languages they do not know by quoting the Prophet Joel concerning the outpouring of the Spirit of God in the last days. He gets the attention of the men of Israel by reminding them of the “miracles, wonders, and signs” performed by Jesus, and then emphasizes the fact that Jesus had risen from the dead. Peter goes on to use psalms to prove that Jesus is the Messiah they have been waiting for, and a couple of months earlier they railroaded and executed him. Poor fisherman Peter has learned a bit of “Hellenistic rhetoric” and is guided by the Holy Spirit to use it to preach Jesus. Peter has done his homework.

As Luke records in Acts chapter 17, the Apostle Paul is in Athens in the synagogue reasoning with his fellow Jews and some “God-fearing Greeks,” and in the market place preaching against idolatry and in favor of Messiah, presumably using his vast knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures. Some Epicureans and Stoics begin to argue with him, and take Paul to the Areopagus, a hill just below the Acropolis where a court met to decide criminal and civil cases and where philosophers gathered to discuss new ideas. McGrath stresses that “if Christianity was to take root in [Athens], it would have to engage the city’s formidable philosophical heritage”.[32] The philosophers of Athens seem to respect Paul’s method: they ask him to present his “new teaching” and explain his “strange ideas”; he begins to “speak the language” of the philosophers and gives their unknown god a name; he even quotes Epimenides and Aratus, two Hellenic philosophers (17.28). Because the apostle did his homework and met the philosophers on their terms, engaging Athens’ “formidable philosophical heritage”, Paul won a number of the people to Christ.

Apologists over the years have pointed out logical flaws in the beliefs of Christianity’s opponents. McGrath asserts that “militant atheist” Richard Dawkins believes that all faith is blind and is “about running away from evidence, burying your head in the sand, and refusing to think.”[33] Dawkins is, of course, speaking from an a priori position that he is right about everything and there is no God to have faith in. Biblical faith is really about running to the evidence and, as we have seen, Darwinists like Dawkins are the ones who ignore the fact that Darwinism is the view that lacks evidence. He is the one who is burying his head and refusing to think. That is to say, he won’t step outside the “Atheist Bubble.”

We could gird up our loins and spend our Christmas break reading Origin of Species to see with Christian eyes what Darwinists see, and then write, speak, or make movies about it. Koukl wisely suggests doing homework particularly in the case where we run into a person who talks about something we’re not familiar with, but reading a book today by one of the Four Horsemen of the New Atheism will prove useful quite often. One way to shed some light in the world is to work in Christian service and be keenly aware of non-Christian issues in the world. Another is to work in a secular area. C. S. Lewis, in God in the Dock, writes: “What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects — with their Christianity latent. You can see this most easily if you look at it the other way round. Our Faith is not very likely to be shaken by any book on Hinduism. But if whenever we read an elementary book on Geology, Botany, Politics, or Astronomy, we found that its implications were Hindu, that would shake us. It is not the books written in direct defence of Materialism that make the modern man a materialist; it is the materialistic assumptions in all the other books”.[34] Lewis urges us to become experts in a “non-Christian” subject. Alvin Plantinga and Francis Collins are examples of this. But these days faith is more likely to be shaken than it may have been in Lewis’ day. We must remain faithful whichever path we choose.

In recent years, there has been much controversy over whether US government institutions should make it easier for immigrants to understand documents and signage by having the materials printed in English plus other languages, or just to print them in English. Many individuals take the hard line and call for English only; those individuals seem to take this stance in their personal lives, too, refusing to learn a single word of Spanish, for instance, to communicate with their neighbors. “Make ‘em learn English!” From a Christian perspective, we could say a mutual learning experience would be more in order. Immigrants can learn English and we can learn Spanish, Chinese, Arabic or what have you. The same goes with apologetics. Christian Apologetics is a dialect of a language spoken by skeptics and people of other religions and Greg Koukl has given us a phrasebook of sorts in Tactics. We Christians who speak Apologetics are speaking the language of skeptics and religionists eloquently and persuasively, and it will bring glorious, eternal results if we just do our homework.

[1] [1] Koukl, Greg. Tactics: A game plan for discussing your Christian convictions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 19.

[2] Ibid., 27.

[3] Ibid., 28.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 31.

[6] Ibid., 33.

[7] Ibid., 34.

[8] Ibid., 43.

[9] Ibid., 58.

[10] Ibid., 96.

[11] Ibid., 97.

[12] Ibid., 102.

[13] Ibid., 121.

[14] Ibid., 127.

[15] Ibid., 130.

[16] Chesterton, G. K. Orthodoxy (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959), 41, as quoted in Ravi Zacharias, Deliver us from evil (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1996), 95-96, as quoted in Koukl, 134.

[17] Koukl, 139.

[18] Ibid., 143.

[19] Ibid., 160-165.

[20] Ibid., 28, 69.

[21] Ibid., 19.

[22] Ibid., 61-62.

[23] McGrath, Alister. Dawkins’ God: Genes, memes and the meaning of life. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), 84-91.

[24] Harris, Sam. The end of faith: Religion, terror, and the future of reason. (NY: Norton and Company, 2004), 64.

[25] Ibid., 63.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid., emphasis added.

[28] Quoted in Groothuis, Douglas. Christian apologetics: A comprehensive case for biblical faith. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 30.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid., 31.

[31] McGrath, Alister. Mere apologetics: How to help seekers and skeptics find faith. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2012), 63.

[32] Ibid., 63.

[33] Ibid., 73.

[34] Lewis, Clive Staples. God in the dock: Essays on theology and ethics, 1970. Quoted in Jason, “Defending Christianity is Not Enough”, 2011. Source: Tim McGrew. http://thinkingmatters.org.nz/2011/08/defending-christianity-is-not-enough/. Accessed 5 December, 2013.


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