by Dr. Leighton Flowers
As I have studied apologetics over the years I have noticed that the word “persuasion” comes up much more regularly than what I have been use to throughout my church and educational experience. I have been to countless evangelism events, conferences and training sessions over the years, but I cannot recall a single sermon, lesson or resource on the biblical concept of persuasion.
The English word “persuasion” (in all its various forms) is used twice as many times as the word “predestination,” yet it seems the latter receives a thousand times more attention. Persuasion is at the very heart of apologetics, and I dare say, it is at the heart of evangelism itself. I have to wonder if the lack of emphasis on this biblical doctrine has lead to the decline in baptisms and evangelistic efforts among evangelicals over the last few decades? <link>
What does the Bible say about persuasion?
Let’s take a look at some of it’s most relevant uses:
“The chief priests and the scribes persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed.” (Matthew 27:20)
“(the people) were persuaded that John (the Baptist) was a prophet.” (Luke 20:6)
“Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas.” (Acts 17:4)
“Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.” (Acts 18:4)
“This man is persuading the people to worship God.” (Acts 18:13)
“(Paul was) arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God.” (Acts 19:8)
“Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to become a Christian?” (Acts 26:28)
“Since then we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men.” (2 Corinthians 5:11)
Too often we speak only of the need to proclaim and explain the good news to the lost, but clearly the Bible teaches us that we should be trying to persuade people of its truthfulness. Is that not what Christian apologetics is all about?
Notice in Acts 17, when Paul “dialogued” (Greek: dialegomai, meaning ‘reasoned’) in the synagogue that it resulted in people being “persuaded” (Greek: peitho). Paul explained the Old Testament scriptures and answered their questions so as to convince them of the truth. This was typical in his approach with his fellow Jews (“his custom” v. 2) , because he knew the Jews considered their scriptures to be authoritative. However, Paul’s approach with the Gentiles shifted to speaking about their culture first rather than the Scriptures (see vs. 22-31). Paul is using his God given gift of persuasion by connecting with his audience on their level. He has “become all things to all people so that by all possible means [he] might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22).
What does it mean to persuade?
Vine’s Dictionary of New Testament Words describes the word “persuade” as follows:
To prevail upon or win over, to bring about a change of mind by the influence of reason or moral considerations.
The Shorter Oxford Dictionary states:
Successfully urge to do; talk into or out of an action; attract in a particular direction; cause to believe a statement or truth; to urge strongly; try to convince; lead a person to believe by argument; to talk earnestly with a person in order to secure agreement; to carry conviction; be convincing.
Notice that the Vine’s Dictionary draws attention to both reason and morality. In other words, appealing to one’s conscience in an effort to get them to do what is right morally may be one effective approach to persuasion, but it’s not the only tool. Appealing to sound reason (by means of dialogue) is an equally important biblical tool in the persuasion process.
To be honest, I cannot stand listening to screaming preachers telling their audiences how sinful they are and how ashamed of themselves they should be. Maybe this approach works to persuade some, but frankly it turns me off and I suspect it turns off many others outside the church. Stirring up emotions and playing on people’s shame instead of speaking with respect, gentleness, love and reason does not seem to be the most persuasive approach.
Persuasion is not about emotionally abusing people into submission. It is about speaking truth in love (Eph. 4:15). It is about being a person of character who earns the respect of the audience by showing them respect. It is about making sound, logical, well reasoned arguments that connect with the listener on a personal level. As Paul said:
“We have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.” (2 Corinthians 4:2)
Paul, while he was in Ephesus, was “arguing persuasively” (Acts 19:8). Doesn’t that strongly imply that it is possible to “argue unpersuasively?” Why would anyone want to risk being “unpersuasive” when it comes to proclaiming the most important news of all?
Why don’t we speak more of persuasion?
If our evangelism is not persuasive the only thing left is unpersuasive evangelism, and what would be the point in that?
Maybe it does not sound as “spiritual” to speak of persuasion when it comes to evangelism, as if we are not relying on the Holy Spirit like we should? Some might argue that we have to rely on the supernatural work of God to persuade the listener. But, what does that even mean? Has God not given the preacher of the gospel the gift of persuasion? If so, why wouldn’t God still get the credit when His own people successfully use their God given gifts to accomplish those God given purposes?
It has been the influence of our post-modern culture that has lead the church to value experience over intellect, as if it is more spiritual to feel than to think. Christian apologist, Peter May, explained:
Some thirty years ago, I heard a famous and influential English evangelist put it like this: “A man won by an argument is at the mercy of a better argument. Instead, we must bring people into an experience of Christ.” I wasn’t quick witted enough to point out that a person won by an experience is at the mercy of a better experience! However, his viewpoint was widely shared and highlighted a subjective and relative approach to truth. It was very post-modern. Interestingly, this popular preacher often used cultural references and quotations from famous people in his sermons. His talks had a veneer of intellectualism about them but he never presented sustained intellectual arguments. A quote from Nietzsche may decorate a talk, but an exploration of Nietzsche’s meaning did not follow.
Evangelism was about the heart not the head. In particular, there was no vision for “pulling down strongholds, demolishing arguments and every lofty idea raised up against the knowledge of God and taking every thought captive in obedience to Christ” as Paul put it (1 Corinthians 10:4,5). <link>
This approach to evangelism assumed God’s existence and the authority of the Bible while discouraging skeptics from asking questions. Therefore, the deeper thinking skeptics either buried their doubts or simply left the church. I am convinced that people don’t leave our churches because of their doubts, they leave our churches because they don’t feel like they can openly express their doubts. And so it is, we have raised a generation of people who are mostly unpersuaded intellectually about the claims of the scripture, while those who remain committed continue to wait on God to do what He has created and gifted people to do — PERSUADE!
Why does our theology matter when it come to persuasion?
Some people object to the use of persuasion by quoting from Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:4:
“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.”
Case closed! Persuasion is wrong. Persuasion is evil. Persuasion is resting on human wisdom, rather than God’s power, therefore this whole article has just been blown out of the water, right?! WRONG.
Only if you believe that Paul regretted his persuasive approach to the Athenians so as to adopt an “unpersuasive” approach from this point forward could the point of this article be deemed erroneous. Allow me to make a sound, logical and well reasoned argument to show you why Paul has not switched approaches or contradicted himself.
Hermeneutics requires us to look closely at the context of every passage. Corinth was a bastion of Greek culture and practice. Because there were no iPhones or TVs in the first century, the choice of daily entertainment often centered around Greek oratory. Imagine a young, handsome athletic man with muscles almost as large as his ego gathering a crowd around him by telling grand stories filled with flaunting words of empty rhetoric. Oratory was an art form in this city and the human wisdom of the Greek culture rested on the persuasiveness of this attractive medium.
The Roman General, Mark Anthony (of Cleopatra fame), trained as a public orator. Plutarch records that his style of oratory “had much in common with Anthony’s own mode of life. It was boastful, insolent, and full of empty bravado and misguided aspirations!”
Now, imagine being an weak, older, unattractive communicator with eye problems trying to live up to that standard. This is the context of Paul’s statement. He could not compete with the athleticism, prowess and speaking skills that the Corinthian people had come to expect from their orators of “wisdom.” He did not have a long list of exciting stories in his repertoire. He had the story of Christ and Him crucified. He only had what the Spirit told him to say (Eph. 3:1-11). Those Holy Spirit inspired words are the “power” to which the apostle refers in this context.
Is persuasion enough? What is the role of the Holy Spirit?
When Paul references “God’s power” in verse 4 he IS NOT referring to some supernatural additional working which is above and beyond the proclamation of His inspired word. He is referring to the inspired word itself. As Paul taught in Ephesians 3:1-5:
“For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles— Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets.”
How has God chosen to reveal the mystery of Christ according to this text? Paul says “by the Spirit.” But to whom? To every individual through some supernatural work of regeneration making them effectually see and understand the mysteries? No.
Paul clearly says, “by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets.” God reveals mysteries (that have been hidden in the mind of God for generations) by inspiring men like Paul to proclaim them clearly. This is called the “gospel” which is said to be “the power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16).
This brings up another important point about the words we use when attempting to persuade others. Does the content of our persuasive presentations matter? Of course it matters. We must persuade using the inspired scriptures if we have any hope of leading someone to Christ. Both the content and the means by which that content is delivered serves to persuade.
In Corinth, Paul’s delivery may have paled in comparison to the orators of that day, nevertheless the source of God’s power was found in the content of his message, the inspired words of God Himself. That does not mean we should check our minds in at the door or become dry and monotonous so as to prove we are depending on some kind of supernatural work of God to convince people to listen to our lazy, ill-prepared, boring speeches. Paul never intended such non-sense. He was simply declaring that even when his best effort falls short, the power of the Holy Spirit’s inspired word is sufficient to accomplish its given purpose (John 20:31).
 Plutarch, Life of Mark Anthony, section 2.