Persuasion and Needs
Persuasion requires some fundamental building blocks before it can go very far. The book of Acts shows the apostle Paul reasoning, explaining, and proving that Jesus was raised from the dead and is the Christ (Acts 17:2-4). He engaged in the art of persuasion (Acts 18:4; 19:8). Yet engaging in persuasion does not mean that everyone will, in fact, be persuaded. Paul was able to persuade many people, but not everyone accepted and believed the arguments he put forth. Reasoning, explaining, and proving do not convince everyone, and people even rejected Jesus in the flesh after they saw some of the signs and miracles He performed. What made the apostle Paul successful, however, were several factors, and Christians do well to imitate these insofar as they are able.
First, knowledge of what one is reasoning about is vital. It does little good to try to persuade others of the truth of something when the one making the case has little knowledge about it himself. How can facts be presented and tied together properly when there is not enough knowledge to do so? For example, when Paul was held in custody awaiting trial, he had the opportunity to speak and reason with Felix, the Roman governor or procurator of Judea. Acts 24:25 says, “And as he (Paul) reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment, Felix was alarmed and said, ‘Go away for the present. When I get an opportunity I will summon you.’” Paul reasoned about righteousness, self-control, and judgment to come. Felix was not immediately persuaded (or perhaps ever), but this may in part be due to his ulterior motives of wanting Paul to pay him some money as a bribe (v. 26). Yet the point is that Paul was able to converse well on the subjects addressed, and this is necessary if any persuasion will occur.
Second, commitment to the task is needed. Paul’s commitment is clearly evident in his attitude and effort. When held in custody, and ultimately held to be put to death, Paul did not waver. In this, he was mirroring the example of Jesus Christ who would not compromise the truth about Himself in order to forego the suffering and death. People can see how committed Christians really are, and this goes a long way to helping convince them that Christians are serious about what they are doing. Peter made the point in 1 Peter 2:12, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” Without commitment to the task, unbelievers will think that since Christians do not really mean what they say, what is the point of listening further? This is why Jesus would say in Matthew 5:14, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
Paul was so successful in his work because his commitment was so obvious. In an interesting twist in Acts 21:7-14, after it became known by prophecy that Paul would be bound in chains in Jerusalem if he went here, his traveling companions were trying to persuade him not to go. His commitment to the Lord meant that he would not be persuaded by them. “I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus,” he said. He took this commitment to his death, as is shown in his last letter to Timothy (2 Tim 4:6-8).
Third, Christians need to nurture the ability to grasp where others are in order to address what they need to hear. This ties back into the matter of presuppositions. If Christians are talking to atheists, for example, it would do little good to ignore that fact and jump into a discussion that assumes they believe Scripture. Such a discussion will not get off the ground because there is nothing held in common there. When Paul went into Athens in Acts 17:16-34, he was fully aware of his surroundings and could see what he needed to address. They accepted a multitude of gods, and Paul seized upon the inscription on one of their altars that said, “To the unknown god.” He used this as an opportunity to talk to them about the God of Scripture and the resurrection of Jesus. Paul was a master at seizing the opportunities that he saw around him.
Modern culture is more and more skeptical of biblical claims. There are a variety of worldviews and ideas in competition with the biblical worldview. Christians need to be aware of what is going on around them so that they can be better prepared to speak up for Christ. As Paul in Athens, Christians may find themselves surrounded by a pagan culture that does not know the true and living God of the Bible. It may well be, then, that the starting point now is similar to then. “Let us talk about the God you do not know.””
To do this well, Christians need knowledge of Scripture and the topic under view, commitment to the task through a commitment to Jesus, and an understanding of where people for a proper starting point.