Persuasion is a pivotal word in understanding evangelism, but it has for a long time been overlooked. I have been to countless ‘training sessions’ and read numerous books on evangelism, where neither the word nor even the idea have been mentioned at all. Even a Dictionary of Apologetics and an Encyclopaedia of Apologetics on my shelves do not have entries under the ‘P’ word. Yet, if you take persuasion out of evangelism, you are left with unpersuasive evangelism.
My concordance tells me that the English word (used as a noun, verb or adjective) occurs fifteen times in the New Testament (the relevant Greek words are peitho / peithos / peismone). Here are the main examples:
“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)
“(Gamaliel’s) speech persuaded them.” (Acts 5:40)
“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)
So often in contemporary evangelism the emphasis is given to proclaiming and explaining the gospel to the complete neglect of trying to persuade people that it is true.
Why Has Persuasion Been Ignored?
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).
This style of preaching usually assumed the existence of God and the reliability of the Scriptures. There was no encouragement to ask questions. So it became increasingly irrelevant as people were seriously unpersuaded about God and believed little or nothing about the gospel Christ.
The law of diminishing returns set in where only those on the fringes of the church were responding to evangelism. And even for them, simply telling the story and explaining the gospel was not enough. Others had lost interest. Evangelism was addressed to subjective needs, to the neglect of objective truthfulness. People felt that ‘Religion was for the religious’ and those of a temperament to crave after such things.
Now Europe has largely forgotten its Christian heritage and many Christians look on in despair. However, we need to encourage ourselves that there was a time when the name of Christ was unheard of in Europe, yet the early Christians took paganism by storm. If we are going to have a similar impact today, we must look closely at what they actually did and how they described their evangelism. ‘Persuasion’ sparkles from the pages of the New Testament as a forgotten jewel.
What Then is Persuasion?
Vine’s Dictionary of New Testament Words describes peitho 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 includes these ideas for persuade:
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.
In terms of Gamaliel’s persuasive speech, the crowd were furious until he came forward (Acts 5:33). Why was he persuasive? Several factors are implied. Firstly we are told that he was “honoured by the people”, that is, he was held in high regard. They knew he was worth listening to. The man was credible.
Secondly, he put the Christians, who had caused the disturbance, out of the room. Then, presumably when tempers had quietened down, he addressed them.
He started, “Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do.” He then told them two lessons from history, where rebellions had fizzled out when the leaders had been killed. “Therefore, in the present case, I advise you, leave these men alone … lest you find yourselves fighting against God.” His was the cooling voice of sweet reason – and his speech persuaded them.
So it wasn’t just the apparent logic of his argument, although it seemed reasonable enough to them. He was a wise old bird, who knew a thing or two, and was greatly respected. Furthermore, he attended to practicalities. He first quelled the atmosphere to enable them to give him the attention he needed. Then he presented his argument gently, “Therefore, in the present case, I advise you…” He wasn’t dogmatic and cock-sure of himself. He did not rant. But his case was reasonable enough and it won the day. So there was much more going on here than relentless intellectual logic. He won their trust.
At Thessalonica, we read that Paul in the synagogue was engaged in dialogue (Acts 17:2-4). He was explaining and proving from the Scriptures about the promised Messiah, and he described this activity as “proclaiming Christ”. Luke records that the result was that many people were “persuaded”.
We are led to believe that they came to this conclusion because Paul was answering their questions in dialogue (Greek word dialegomai, usually translated as ‘reasoned’), explaining and demonstrating from scripture that the Messiah must suffer and rise from the dead. This was for Paul the normal way he proclaimed the gospel in the synagogue to the Jews (see verse 2 “As his custom was…”). We need to note also his very different approach to non-Jews in Acts 14:15-17, Acts 17: 22-31, where he argued from their culture, not Scripture.
How Then Should We Do It?
Clearly from these two examples, there is more going on here than philosophical logic. Gamaliel wasn’t just playing a mind game. Surely, this was why Peter wrote that we should be ready to give an answer to everyone who asks “with gentleness and respect”.
I have to say that I cringe from raucous preachers, people who shout at their audiences, wave their arms about and try to whip up their emotions, instead of talking to them like normal human beings, with reason, gentleness and respect. Such preachers are in my view an appalling model for good evangelism.
Our bearing in evangelism matters. Our credibility is at stake. Can this man be taken seriously? Is he reasonable? Is he arrogant? Is he nice? Perhaps, even, is he ‘human’? Does he stand ‘six foot above contradiction’? Has he marked his notes in the margin, “Argument weak – shout louder!” Persuasion is not a matter of battering people into submission.
Vine’s Dictionary, quoted above, brings out the place not just of reason but of “moral considerations”. This reminds us that the message itself appeals to the conscience, bringing conviction about its intrinsic goodness and I take it that the character of the messenger must be consistent with it in the way he delivers it.
Listen to Paul: “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)
However, that does not give us licence to use sloppy arguments in a good cause. We should research and present the best case we can, argued as tightly as possible. Why? Well, we read that Paul in Ephesus was “arguing persuasively”, so it must be possible to argue unpersuasively! In fact, I know it is. I have heard lots of unpersuasive arguments. It clearly is not enough to be nice and kind, if we are not also convincing.
Neither is it enough for our message to appear plausible but ultimately be found to be unsubstantial. There is nothing to be gained by making out that our case for belief is better than it is. Exaggeration is a form of deception. Better to understate our arguments – and let the enquirer discover later that they are better than he first realised – than to overstate them.
But, you might object, we are also told that Paul said of his visit to Corinth that his preaching was “not with wise and persuasive words” (1 Corinthians 2:4). Doesn’t this refute my argument? Many have suggested that Paul regretted his approach to the Athenians and adopted a non-intellectual approach subsequently. I call this the Corinthian Heresy. There is absolutely nothing in the text to suggest he changed his approach as any comparison with Luke’s description of Paul at work in Athens, Corinth and Ephesus will show (see Acts 17-19).
There is some important background information here to help us understand the particular difficulties Paul encountered. Greek oratory continued to flourish in the Roman world and Corinth was noted for its visiting orators (no television in those days!). They were generally young men of athletic build and enormous self-confidence, who could speak, it seems, on any subject requested of them and entertain their audiences with flowing words, dramatic gestures and empty rhetoric.
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!”
When Corinthians heard Paul, they expected him to be another visiting orator but he could not compete. Far from bravado and athleticism, he was anxious and weak. Furthermore, he only had one message that he had come to speak about and he was not prepared to entertain audiences according to their requests. And he was not relying on an impressive flow of powerful rhetoric but on the power of God himself (1 Corinthians 2:1-4).
For those expecting to hear a visiting orator, Paul was a big disappointment. That does not mean that he did not try to present his message convincingly. In fact, it is clear that he did (Acts 18:4, 8; 2 Corinthians 5:11).
This raises another important matter. Should we worry about the words we use? Do we need to be careful about language? Well, I think Luke thought so. His Greek was eloquent. It surely is important that people find us easy and interesting to listen to. Think of good broadcasters that people love to hear. Or journalists whose columns are widely read and discussed. They all have worked hard on their communication skills. We should not throw up unnecessary obstacles of poor diction, limited vocabulary, unimaginative phrases or monotonous voices.
If anyone has shown in our generation the power of eloquent language to get across the Christian message it is surely John Stott. He is a great word-smith and his prose is immaculate. When I was a student, I used to listen to him regularly and particularly enjoyed his final summaries. Why? Because he would re-express the essentials of his exposition with entirely new and imaginative phrases. I would find myself asking, “Did he talk about that?” and then realise that he did but has now expressed it in a new context, that sent a new set of connecting thoughts running through my mind. I defy anyone to produce a passage of boring prose from the craftsmanship of Dr Stott! His book sales speak for themselves. It is interesting that the new – and excellent – biography about him reveals that that he learned to use precision in his speech from his pedantic father.
Words are our tools. We don’t want blunt instruments to bludgeon people with but precision instruments to cut through to the heart of the matter. (Stott’s father was a doctor – he knew about scalpels!) We need to sharpen our word skills, increase our vocabularies, consider our sentence constructions and feel the force of poetry to find the words that connect with and stir the imagination.
In our daily speaking we use a very limited range of words – words we know well and are confident about their meanings. The moment we start writing or prepare a talk, we use a much broader range. Interesting words come to mind and we may wonder what their precise meaning and range of meanings is. We find ourselves asking, “Is this the appropriate word to use here?” Earlier, I quoted from the Shorter Oxford Dictionary. My two-volume tome sits on the shelf immediately behind my rotating chair and I refer to it regularly. “What is the etymology of this word? Is it actually the word I want? Is there a better word?”
And why should we learn to love words? Because God loves the Word and the Word became flesh and the Word said exactly what God wanted to say to us. The word came in a highly accessible format! He took great care over the Word he sent us, and we should take great care over the words we send out. Paul denounced empty words, vacuous rhetoric and human wisdom but was at great pains to make sure his message from God was clear and on target.
Is Persuasion Enough?
Where does the work of the Holy Spirit come in, to bring about conversion? Certainly persuasion is not the same as conversion. Our task is to persuade people that God has revealed himself in Christ. The Spirit of Holiness convicts people of sin, righteousness and judgement. The Spirit of Truth exposes falsehood, convicting people that the Gospel is true and that Christ can be trusted. Our tasks are both to pray and to persuade. It is God’s task to transform.
The gospel then appeals to the heart, will, emotions, conscience, intellect and the imagination. And we need to keep all these matters in mind if we are to be effective Christian Persuaders.
 Plutarch, Life of Mark Anthony, section 2.
 Roger Steer, Inside Story – the Life of John Stott. (IVP, 2009).
© 2010 Peter May
This article was first published in the Newsletter of the European Leadership Forum.