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Proverbs 26:4–5 tells us: “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.” I have to confess that I love these verses. But let’s be honest. Many believers have stumbled over this text and even more have been challenged by unbelievers with this text. Don’t be intimidated. When they challenge you, they have actually opened wide a door for you to talk with them about the futility of unbelief and to talk about a life of purpose and meaning for any and all who come to Christ as their Lord and Savior. So, now let’s take on the inevitable challenges and blessings of this captivating text.
Inevitably, some Christians will be confronted by unbelievers wielding this text and sporting a barely concealed confident smile. It usually arrives this way: “I thought you said God’s Word was inerrant and without contradiction. Well, here is an obvious contradiction found in what you identify as a book of wisdom.” You can then eagerly share with them that the book of Proverbs is a book of divinely ordained common sense. It is neither a book of promises nor a book of prophecies. Furthermore, it is written in the genre of Hebrew poetry, which makes judicious use of parallelism. Synthetic parallelism, for instance, consists of two or three statements addressing the same truth to enhance our understanding. In the case of Proverbs 26:4–5, we have antithetical parallelism, which sets forth a seeming contradiction but does so also for the purpose of enhancing and enlarging our understanding of the truth presented. So, in other words, the command to “answer not a fool according to his folly” (v. 4) is not a comprehensive or universal stand-alone axiom but is necessarily modified by the following statement to “answer a fool according to his folly” (v. 5).
The Word of God is abundantly clear that foolishness is far reaching, but its foundation is a godless worldview—“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’ ” (Ps. 14:1). Therefore, when in conversation with a “fool,” our reply to his questions (apologetics) is to be rooted and framed by God’s truth revealed in His Word and in nature—yet communicated reasonably and always with gentleness (1 Peter 3:15). That is how we answer a fool not according to his folly.
Then we are ready to move from apologetics—defending the faith—to evangelism as you “answer the fool according to his folly” to win him. Specifically, we are seeking to win him from the foolishness and eternal ruin of his godless worldview (“lest he be wise in his own eyes”; v. 5), which he is presently convinced is unassailable wisdom, to a personal relationship with Christ as Lord and Savior who confounds the foolish “wisdom of this world” (1 Cor. 3:19) and delivers us from its inevitable consequences of death now and for eternity.
Let me restate it this way: when the fool comes as a skeptic with his questions, answer him from the truth of God’s Word, not from his faulty and irrational worldview. As you answer intentionally, seek both to dismantle his argument and to win his heart.
I’m sure you have heard the attractive statement that I once made with unfeigned confidence—“Don’t try to win the argument; win the person.” This is wrong. You should actually seek to do both—with full resolve and reliance on the Holy Spirit and the Word of God. In fact, for the sake of both the skeptic and watching young Christians who are easily intimidated by the foolish “wisdom of the world,” you must seek to do both. They must see and hear us not only “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5) and destroy every “speculation . . . raised up” (NASB) against the Lord your God, but they must also see it done winsomely to rescue the perishing.
Such an endeavor must be embraced with humility and bathed in prayer. “Contend for the faith,” but do not be contentious (Jude 3). “Defend” the faith, but do not be defensive. Win the debate with grace for God’s glory while you also seek to win the person to God’s grace and glory in Christ.
I love this challenge. But sometimes I love it too much. The remedy to that self-absorbed trap is to love Jesus more. And when you love Jesus, you will love what and whom Jesus loves. And Jesus loves His Word and He loves His people and He loves the lost. So must we, and by His grace so can we. Start answering—according to God’s Word and by God’s Spirit.