One of the things that we consistently believe is that if we just got our arguments right, if we were just more convincing, more people would believe the gospel. Quite why we believe this, I’m not sure because the Bible is clear that it often just isn’t the case. The issue is rarely that our arguments were not as good as they might have been (even if they weren’t as good as they might have been).
One thing we see consistently in scripture – throughout the gospels, Acts and the letters – is that sometimes the same preaching that persuades in one instance leads to dissent and aggression in another (cf. Peter in Acts 2 and Stephen in Acts 7). Sometimes the same miracles that cause people to believe lead others to hate and oppose (cf. John 7:31, 12:37). Consistently, those who oppose the message begin with apparently legitimate questions of interpretation, but are really just as a means of trying to trap someone (cf. Matthew 22:15-40, Acts 6:9-10). If this fails to work, it moves on to outright lies (cf. Mark 14:56-58, 15:11, Acts 6:10-14). Soon enough, these things descend into plotting to do harm in a bid to stop this person saying the things they are saying (John 11:53, Acts 7:54-60).
We are clearly mistaken if we think the preaching of Jesus, Peter or Stephen needed to be a bit more persuasive. If we think the Lord Jesus just needed to nail his arguments better, more people would have believed, we must surely wonder how any of us could possibly say anything of any value ever! The issue in all these cases was not unpersuasive preaching or lack of familiarity with the requisite scriptures. It wasn’t even failing to understand the hearts of the people because, certainly in Jesus’ case, he knew exactly what was in their hearts. Yet, they were not won to Christ, but set against him. The sound of the same gospel that was life to some was the aroma of death to others.
Why is this the case? The bible tells us, in Jesus’ own words, ‘No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him’ (John 6:44). Unless God is at work, no one will believe. Unless the Spirit has imparted new life, no amount of convincing arguments and gospel clarity from us will do anything about it. It is not the soundness of our arguments that draws people to Christ, but the Father at work by his Spirit. The same gospel offered with the same arguments may draw one and repel another. The drawing is not down to the arguments, but the Spirit who blows where he wills.
If these things are true (and they are), I think three things follow:
First, if we want to see people come to Christ, we perhaps need to spend less time honing our arguments and more time in prayer. Don’t get me wrong, I think being persuasive is important. I think offering a reason for the hope that is in us is specifically biblical. I think it is absolutely right and appropriate to offer real answers to honest questions. Being persuasive is not unimportant. I am just saying it is not ultimate.
You can offer the most objectively persuasive case someone might ever hear and yet receive no response because the Spirit has chosen not to make them Words of Life to this person. You can offer some fairly ropey arguments and a less than well constructed case and see people confess their sin, repent and genuinely convert. That is not because such people are more stupid than the first, but because the Spirit determined to do his thing in one case and not in another. Which tells me we do well to spend more time in prayer, asking the Spirit to work in the lives of those we want to reach with the good news of Christ, than honing our persuasive arguments. It’s not to say we should neglect either, but it is to say one of those is able to save whilst the other is by no means guaranteed.
Second, we should expect opposition to the gospel. If the same gospel preached by Jesus, the Apostles and the Early Church faced opposition, why would we assume things will be any different for us? If those who will be won are drawn by God’s Spirit, it is hardly that surprising that those who will not be won will be repelled by that same Spirit. Opposition to God is inherent in all of us. We are all by nature hostile to him. It only makes sense, then, if we were not drawn by him to Christ we will necessarily be repelled by that same good news that are words of death to us. Which means opposition is inevitable. Indeed, Paul says it explicitly: ‘all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.’ Peter, similarly, tells his readers to ‘not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.’ Opposition to the gospel is inevitable because we are all naturally hostile to God. Unless the Spirit is at work, hostility is unavoidable.
Third, if we never face any such hostility, our gospel is almost certainly lacking. Jesus put it very starkly: ‘Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets’ (Luke 6:26). If the world – who is naturally hostile to Christ – can come and be around us and feel entirely comfortable all the time, we must ask ourselves why. Are we really teaching the whole counsel of God? Are we really being honest with people about their standing outside of Christ and the reality of the eternal fate awaiting them in Hell? Are we preaching the gospel as it really is or are we only preaching a partial gospel that tickles the ears of those listening?
Of course, if everyone hates us because we are just utterly obnoxious, that is not becoming of believers. The bible does have stuff to say about how we conduct ourselves in the world. Indeed, just after Jesus offers his woe when all men speak well of you, he immediately goes on to tell us to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us. We are to conduct ourselves well, with integrity and love even those who do not love us in return. But that doesn’t change the fact, if unbelievers are totally comfortable with us all the time – when the Bible tells us the world is naturally hostile to Christ and his gospel – what does that say about the gospel we proclaim? Are we really being honest or are we offering a partial gospel that cannot save but will certainly not offend even the most hostile of unbelievers?