How To Lose By Winning

It's complicated.

Acts 9:19b-22 (ESV)

For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” And all who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.

Saul, by virtue of his background persecuting the Way, was well qualified to be one of its most articulate defenders. This sounds ironic but it’s actually standard apologetic theory.

Training in debate typically involves practicing defending the other side. This makes one aware of the counter-arguments and thus better prepared to address them.

But converts from the other side have an extra advantage because they have inside knowledge of how the other side thinks and feels. Saul knew which arguments were most easily dismissed by his former self, and which ones gave him pause. He also knew which points trigger defensiveness or anger.

So, in a debate Saul could anticipate his opponent’s every move. He knew what his audience was thinking and how they would react to his arguments. They didn’t stand a chance. He confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.

But notice that this says he confounded them – not that he converted them. Another aspect of standard apologetic theory is that winning arguments doesn’t win friends (or converts).

So, we come up against the two real ironies in this section. First, despite his obvious aptitude for apologetics with Jews, and all his “wins” in the synagogues, Saul is actually off to a rocky start. His ministry is seventeen years away from really getting going. (See Galatians 1:15-18, 2:1)

Second, Saul won’t be called to work primarily with Jews anyway.

But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.” – Acts 9:15

The Bible is a plot-twist factory but Acts really takes it to the next level.

We all want to do the best possible job when sharing the gospel. The most visible part of that is how well we present our case – the words we use. To that end, there are many evangelism training programs.

While training is useful, it can only do so much and, to be honest, it’s not that much. Conversion is a miracle and clever words aren’t where miracles come from. Prayer, not some program, is our connection to the source of miracles. So, let’s try something different. Don’t plead with God to save the person you usually pray for. Instead, ask Him to show you who you should reach out to.

That invites the author of the plot-twists to act.

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Mike Slay

As a mathematician, inventor, and ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, Mike Slay brings an analytical, conversational, and even whimsical approach to the daily study of God's Word.