The Lost Art of Persuasion

Persuading the Unpersuaded:

How do I persuade you that persuasion is a key factor to mission and evangelism?

After all, Paul told the Corinthian church that he didn’t come with eloquence and wisdom – resolving only to know the crucified Christ.  Paul wrote, ‘my message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power’ (1 Cor 2:4-5).

But to argue that Paul wasn’t persuasive is to miss Paul’s point. Paul didn’t come with oratory power, arguing about anything and everything, he came with Holy Spirit power arguing about one thing – the gospel of Jesus. And he was persuasive.

We read in Acts 18, while he was in Corinth that every Sabbath Paul ‘reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks’ (v4) and that the Jews in the city complained that he ‘is persuading the people to worship God in ways contrary to the law’ (v13). As one commentator says, ‘Paul indeed “persuaded” Jews and Gentiles of the truth of the gospel’.[1]

And these are not isolated cases.  In the very next chapter, when he was in Ephesus, we read, ‘Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God’ (Acts 19:8).

In another letter to the Corinthians he writes, ‘Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others’ (2 Cor 5:11).

Paul was a persuader – he thought the gospel was persuasive – do we?

Compelled to Persuade:

There is a sense in these last two references that helps capture why Paul felt at liberty to persuade. In Acts 19:8 we are told he ‘spoke boldly’ and later in 2 Corinthians 5:13-14 Paul writes, ‘If we are ‘out of our mind,’ as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died’.

We can list two reasons for Paul’s persuasive presence:

1: Paul was bold.

2: Paul didn’t mind looking silly, for Christ’s love compelled him to speak.

There is a strong connection between what we love the most, what we find the most attractive in our lives and how persuasive we are. When Christ’s love compels us and when we rely on Holy Spirit boldness (Acts 4:31), we can’t help but want to persuade people of the truth and beauty of the Gospel.

When our thoughts, feelings and imagination are captivated by Christ, that’s when we’re at our most persuasive. Why can you persuade me to watch your favourite TV show or film? Because it captivates your thoughts, feelings and imagination and you can’t help but speak out about it! The same goes with the Gospel. Which begs the question, does Jesus captivate our hearts so much that we want to persuade others to trust in Him?

The Persuasion Toolkit:

Of course, it doesn’t mean our words will change people’s hearts – it means how we use our words, and in what way we use our words are often the means by which the Holy Spirit opens up people’s eyes to the truth. 

This is what happened in Thessalonica. For after ‘explaining’, ‘proving’ and ‘proclaiming’ (Acts 17:3), ‘some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women’ (17:4).

This little episode in Thessalonica shows us persuading comes in various shapes and forms. Like a toolkit, there are several devices or instruments we can use.

We might simply explain winsomely, and that knowledge and the ability to answer searching questions might be enough.

But some might be looking for proof. How do we prove to people Jesus is real and Christianity is awesome? In one sense we can’t with 100% certainty, but by appealing to arguments and people’s affections, based on the objections or questions people are asking, we can point people to the high possibility that the Gospels are true.[2] Jesus is worth trusting in.

Then for others, proclaiming the gospel might be enough. Of course, we do this as creatively and faithfully as possible, pointing people to Christ and his Gospel with passion and courage.

But the most important instrument in our toolkit is love – love of God, love of the church and love of the lost. When this love is lived out, it won’t just be our words that are persuasive, but our actions too. After all, how will people know we are Jesus’ disciples? When we reflect God’s love, by loving one another (John 13:35).

Are You Persuaded?

So, as you go out and talk to friends, family and work colleagues, are you persuaded to take ‘persuasion’ seriously?

If we are to be effective witnesses for Christ, we need a holistic, Holy Spirit-filled apologetic that taps into people’s thoughts, feelings and imagination which persuades them of the truth of Christianity![3]

[1] Eckard J. Schnabel, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Acts, p. 758.

[2] In the end although our knowledge of Christ might be a combination of rational thought or empirical evidence, or even some subjective experience – true knowledge of Christ requires faith through the Spirit. The difference is that persuasion can (to paraphrase John Lennox) change a leap in the dark into a confident step into the light.

[3] For a book length look at the importance of persuasion in evangelism and apologetics, see Os Guinness, Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion.

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