Persuasion versus Argument in Apologetics

Written by Mark Farnham

On February 22, 2016

persuade_othersPersuasion versus Argument

The good news when it comes to evangelism and apologetics is that Jesus does not call us to argue with people in a contentious manner, but rather to seek to persuade. The good news of Jesus was never spread through quarreling, but through persuasion. Persuasion can be defined as the art of speaking to people who are indifferent or resistant to what we have to say, and moving them closer to our position.[1] Returning to 1 Peter 3:15-16 we note several principles regarding persuasion in apologetics:[2]

  1. Apologetics is not about starting arrogant arguments with unbelievers. We are not trying to prove them wrong, humiliate them, or make ourselves feel smarter. Rather, our goal is to present a reasonable defense of the truths of the Christian faith. As Kevin DeYoung says, “We don’t want people to think that we are always right, but we want them to know that the Bible is never wrong.” We show how Christianity is built on rational truth that does not contradict itself, as well as on verifiable historical events. In doing this we aim to continue the conversation until it can be focused on Jesus.

We also need to discern between arguing and being argumentative. Argument is a natural part of life, and simply denotes the way we seek to logically present ideas. Being argumentative, on the other hand, is an attitude of opposing ideas just for the sake of it, or for the love of conflict. This is the equivalent of being contentious or quarrelsome. As G. K. Chesterton quipped, “A quarrel can end a good argument. Most people today quarrel because they cannot argue.”

Because apologetics involves the give and take of conversation, arguing your point is a natural means of persuasion. Just as Paul argued and reasoned with those to whom he shared the gospel (Acts 19:8-9; 25:8), so in seeking to persuade people of the gospel, we argue the truth of Christianity, albeit with gentleness and respect (1 Pet. 3:15-16).

  1. We are not responsible to convince anyone of the truth of the gospel, simply to present it in a convincing way. As Bahnsen says, “We can offer sound reasons to the unbeliever, but we cannot make him subjectively believe those reasons. We can refute the poor argumentation of the unbeliever, but still not persuade him. We can close the mouth of the critic, but only God can open the heart. Only God can regenerate a dead heart and give sight to the blind. This is why apologists should not evaluate their success or adjust their message on the basis of whether the unbeliever finally comes to agree with them or not.”

This is one of the truths that alleviates our fear of witnessing. While I want to be as persuasive as I can, it is the Holy Spirit who ultimately convinces the unbeliever of his sin and need of salvation.

The same authority that serves as the basis for our theology (the Scriptures), serves as the basis for our apologetics, too. Even if the unbeliever I am talking to doesn’t believe the Bible to be true, I must base my apologetic on the living and powerful Word of God if I want to be as persuasive as possible (Heb. 4:12). We dare not capitulate on that which is the basis for all our arguments. That does not mean that we only quote Scripture in response to arguments against the Christian faith. Rather, in addition to quoting Scripture, we also present our arguments as the consistent outworking of our belief in the Christian worldview as taught in the Bible.

[1] Adapted from Os Guiness, Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion. (Downers Grove: IVP, 2015), 18.

[2] See Greg Bahnsen, Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith. (Covenant Media Press, 1995), 111-12.

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