Persuading Others of the Truth
Christianity is not blind following, but a reasoned decision. When we present the gospel to others, we need to persuade them of its advantages. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. Knowing, therefore, the terror of the Lord, we persuade men; but we are well known to God, and I also trust are well known in your consciences” (II Corinthians 5:10-11). This is what Paul did as he traveled:
“Now when the congregation had broken up, many of the Jews and devout proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas, who, speaking to them, persuaded them to continue in the grace of God” (Acts 13:43).
“Then Paul, as his custom was, went in to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, "This Jesus whom I preach to you is the Christ." And some of them were persuaded; and a great multitude of the devout Greeks, and not a few of the leading women, joined Paul and Silas” (Acts 17:2-4).
“Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city was given over to idols. Therefore he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and with the Gentile worshipers, and in the marketplace daily with those who happened to be there” (Acts 17:16-17).
“And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and persuaded both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 18:4).
“And he went into the synagogue and spoke boldly for three months, reasoning and persuading concerning the things of the kingdom of God” (Acts 19:8).
“So when they had appointed him a day, many came to him at his lodging, to whom he explained and solemnly testified of the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus from both the Law of Moses and the Prophets, from morning till evening. And some were persuaded by the things which were spoken, and some disbelieved.” (Acts 28:23).
The Art of Persuasion
Persuading others of the truth requires wisdom on the part of the teacher. He needs to know when to speak, what to speak, and how it needs to be spoken. “Walk in wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time. Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one” (Colossians 4:5-6). As with all wisdom, experience is the most effective teacher. You have to get out and talk with people about the gospel. Very quickly you will learn where there are holes in your knowledge. Hit the books and fill them in. Different people reason in different ways. When you run into an argument that throws you for a loop, sit back and analyze it. Is it proper reasoning or not? If it is faulty, where is the flaw that you can point out to others so they too can recognize the flaw?
Don’t prejudge your audience. You never know who is going to respond to the gospel. Some of those whom I thought would never be interested turn out to be the strongest supporters of God’s words. Others, whom I just knew would find the gospel appealing fall away rapidly. God wants everyone saved (I Timothy 2:3-4), so give everyone you meet an opportunity to respond to the gospel.
While illustrations are not proof, they do make grasping difficult concepts easier by relating the difficult to everyday events. Jesus used this method of teaching regularly, such as in his parables. One illustration that we often overlook is our own life. Things to which we can relate first-hand are far more persuasive than abstract ideas. This is to what Paul credited his ability to lead others to God. “And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has enabled me, because He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry, although I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man; but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceedingly abundant, with faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life” (I Timothy 1:12-16). Often we are too embarrassed to mention our past mistakes. Our pride prevents us from lowering ourselves in the sight of others. But people caught in the trap of sin need to see that it is possible to get out and what better way to show the possibility than with your own life.
Yet, remember that you cannot persuade others to the truth if you are unable to live by it. “Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity. ... Meditate on these things; give yourself entirely to them, that your progress may be evident to all. Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you” (I Timothy 4:12, 15-16, see also Titus 2:7-8). Nothing ruins a good argument quicker than “Well, I don’t see you doing that so why should I?”
Don’t get so caught up in winning the argument that you lose sight of your goal of persuading. “And a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth, and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him to do his will” (II Timothy 2:24-26). Persuasion requires patience. What is obvious to you may not be obvious to another. They probably haven’t spent as much time as you have considering the topic. Often there are important facts that they haven’t learned, which are needed to understand the point you are trying to reach. We live in an impatient society. We want results immediately and if they don’t come immediately we are ready to throw in the towel. Yet, if we keep in mind that our goal is to get people to heaven, then we will be willing to spend whatever time it takes to get people pass the difficulties they have encountered.
Often the greatest hindrance to persuading others is our own pride. We know we are right. We know they are wrong. So, we don’t take the time to see things from the other person’s viewpoint. But without knowledge of what that person truly thinks and why he thinks that way, how can you persuade him out of his incorrect thinking? I have met people who think they are teaching others by taunting them with the incorrect conclusions of their thinking or the contractions with the Scriptures to which they come. Taunting might serve a wake-up call – to shock a person out of the complacency of their position – but if that is all a person offers, it will simply lead to frustration and anger. Persuasion requires teaching a person the facts and reasoning needed to reach the proper conclusion.
It is our concern for the souls of our fellow men that should motivate us (II Corinthians 5:10-11). “Remember that Jesus Christ, of the seed of David, was raised from the dead according to my gospel, for which I suffer trouble as an evildoer, even to the point of chains; but the word of God is not chained. Therefore I endure all things for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (II Timothy 2:8-13). Unless you are fully convinced of the immense importance of your topic, you cannot effectively persuade others.
You must also realize your responsibility to teach others. Without a sense of duty, we will let opportunities slip by because it wasn’t convenient. “For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for necessity is laid upon me; yes, woe is me if I do not preach the gospel!” (I Corinthians 9:16). Effective persuasion requires taking advantage of every opportunity to teach the message of God. “Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching.” (II Timothy 4:2)
Teaching is a two-way street
While much can be learned from listening to a lecture, lectures may not be the most effective method of teaching in all cases. New ideas are being presented to the student which will naturally trigger questions as the student seeks to integrate the ideas into his way of thinking. At times the new ideas will conflict with old assumptions and this conflict must be resolved before the student is persuaded.
The effective teacher will be expecting questions. “Always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear” (I Peter 3:15). This is not to say that you will have answers for every question or argument presented to you, but a good number of questions can be anticipated. Study the ones you can think of in advance.
Not every argument is worth a reply (II Timothy 2:23; Titus 3:9). Some get caught up in minor side issues which distract from the major goal of winning souls for Christ and getting them to their heavenly home. “As I urged you when I went into Macedonia--remain in Ephesus that you may charge some that they teach no other doctrine, nor give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which cause disputes rather than godly edification which is in faith. Now the purpose of the commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith, from which some, having strayed, have turned aside to idle talk, desiring to be teachers of the law, understanding neither what they say nor the things which they affirm” (I Timothy 1:3-7). We are not to get caught up in wrestling over the meaning of words. “Remind them of these things, charging them before the Lord not to strive about words to no profit, to the ruin of the hearers. Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. But shun profane and idle babblings, for they will increase to more ungodliness. And their message will spread like cancer” (II Timothy 2:14-17). Keep your focus on the task at hand.
Methods of Persuasion
Personal example can often reach people who will not listen to words. “Wives, likewise, be submissive to your own husbands, that even if some do not obey the word, they, without a word, may be won by the conduct of their wives, when they observe your chaste conduct accompanied by fear” (I Peter 3:1-2). We may tune out a person’s words, but we can’t help seeing a person’s behavior.
Examples give others the encouragement to continue walking the path of righteousness (I Thessalonians 1:6-8). It greatly helps to know that God’s way does work, that it can make a difference in a person’s life (I Timothy 4:12; I Peter 2:21; Hebrews 12:1-3).
Of course, setting an example is not a complete method of teaching. It demonstrates one way that something may be accomplished, but it doesn’t explain why it was done in that manner. Examples do not give the student the parameters needed to adjust behavior when they are faced with slight different circumstances. One of my favorite stories in Acts is of seven men who after observing Paul cast out demons decided they would do so as well (Acts 19:11-16). They said all the right words, but they were not obedient to the one in whose authority they attempted to cast out a demon.
Hence, examples teach a way to accomplish things. Examples gives encouragement to learn more. But, we can never expect to teach someone solely by example.
Lectures shine as a way to get a large quantity of information over to an audience in the shortest amount of time. Lectures were employed by Jesus, such as his sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. Many of the sermons recorded for us in Acts are forms of lectures.
Ideally, lectures will trigger discussions, either in public or private, where those who heard the message of God can integrate the message with their own thoughts. Note in the gospels how often Jesus’ speeches trigger questions from his audience or cause the disciples to approach him in private to ask a question that was bothering them.
Of course, lectures can only be effective if those in the audience are listening. It is very easy for people to tune out what you are saying. Again take note of Jesus’ lessons in the gospels and notice how little impact his lessons made on the Pharisees and Sadducees in his audience. The fault did not lie with the Master Teacher, but with the unwilling students. “And the disciples came and said to Him, ‘Why do You speak to them in parables?’ He answered and said to them, ‘Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. And in them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, which says: 'Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, and seeing you will see and not perceive; for the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, so that I should heal them.' But blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear’” (Matthew 13:10-16).
Public discussion of questions can help many understand the nuances of the message. Here we can explore the range of possible applications and straighten out our own misconceptions. Yet, group discussions also have their limits. Some discussions become a pooling of ignorance instead of building of insight. In John 6:26-66 is the record of discussion Jesus had with a non-receptive crowd. While Jesus answered their questions, the answers triggered many side discussions among the audience. Rather than learning, they bolstered each one’s ignorance. They complained that the teaching was too hard, giving themselves satisfaction that they had a right to reject Jesus’ teaching because others also rejected it.
For public discussions to be effective, there must be one or more people who understand the truth. These people must ready and able to answer the questions and arguments presented in order to persuade others of the truth. Preferably the leader of the discussion must stay one step ahead of the group to show them the way they need to go. Otherwise, the conversation will splinter into numerous topics without any being fully addressed. This requires the leader of the discussion to have a goal in mind, a lesson that he wants to bring across, a point he wants made. Without a resolution, no progress is made in learning.
Debates are a form of group discussion, which will be discussed in greater detail in the next chapter.
Some people seem unable to learn until they experience the lesson first-hand. Peter thought he would never deny the Lord until he was forced to learn that he was vulnerable (Matthew 26:31-35, 55-58, 69-75). For the teacher of truth, this can be difficult. The teacher sees the danger and knows the eventual outcome. He never desires harm for his student, but sometimes hurt makes the most lasting impression. Consider the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32. When the younger son demanded his inheritance, his father gave it too him even though he surely knew it would come to a bad end. Yet, the father was ready to help his son pick up the pieces of his ruined life when the lesson finally sunk through his thick skull.
The danger with learning by experience is that at times the lesson is never learned. The danger overwhelms the student. The teacher should only willingly use experience when the outcome can be controlled. Yet, when a student insists on putting himself in harm’s way, the teacher should not despair that all is lost. Hope remains that the stubborn student will learn his lesson from the school of hard-knocks and one day return. This is one of the motivations behind withdrawal from a sinner (I Corinthians 5:5; I Timothy 1:20).
Not everyone will have the patience to listen to a lecture, especially if they have not realized that the topic is vital to their life. And in group discussions some are too shy or too quiet to voice their questions; or, others so dominate the discussion that they are unable to get a word in edgewise. The teacher must cultivate personal relationships with each student so that opportunities arise to address personal questions and issues.
An oft cited text is the private discussion that Nicodemus had with Jesus that is recorded in John 3:1-21. It is likely that Nicodemus went to Jesus privately because he feared what others would think of him, but one of the results of that conversation was Nicodemus becoming a follower of Jesus (John 7:50; 19:39).
The disciples often saved some of their most direct questions for private conversations (Mark 4:34; 7:17). Aquila and Priscilla corrected the errors of Apollos privately resulting in a man who powerfully defended the truth (Acts 18:24-28).