Be Winsome and Persuasive

Editor’s note: This article continues Keller’s series on Gospel polemics. Read part one and part two.


In reading what a number of respected Christian authors have said over the years about polemics and theological controversy, I have distilled a few rules. These rules, I believe, will not help us avoid polemics, but will guard us against engaging in them in a spiritually destructive way. Almost every rule is mentioned in some ways by multiple authors, but when a writer has put a principle in a particularly strong or apt way, I’ve put his name on the rule.

4. Gillespie’s Rule A: Take your opponents’ views in total, not selectively.

Another rule for polemics related to Murray’s Rule against misrepresentation comes from the 17th century Scottish divine George Gillespie. In his forward to “The Candid Reader” in The Presbyterian’s Armoury, vol. 2, George Gillespie says the he is quite willing to take criticism. “If any man shall, by unanswerable contrary reasons or evidences, discover error or mistake in any of my principles, let truth have the victory, let God have the glory.”

However, in turn he asks that his critics follow several rules for polemics that he has always followed with them. And one of them is this: “That my own words be faithfully cited . . . without concealing my explanations, qualifications, or restrictions, if any such there be.” Here Gillespie, I think, puts a finger on an oft-violated principle that would bring much more light and less heat to our debates. There are a host of Christian doctrines that have an “on the one hand” and also “on the other hand” about them—and without both emphases you fall into heresy.

What if we find Mr. A making what appears to be an unqualified statement that sounds very unbalanced. If that is all Mr. A ever said about the subject, it would be right to conclude something about his position. But what if Mr. A was speaking or writing these statements to an audience that already believed some things and therefore the author was assuming those points of doctrine without stating them? Or what if, like Paul on Mars Hill, he was leaving out some important truths until he first establishes some more basic points? Or what if Mr. A simply couldn’t say everything he believes about a subject every time he speaks?

Gillespie says you should not pull some statements by Mr. A out, “concealing any explanations, qualifications, or restrictions” he may have mentioned elsewhere. This kind of “gotcha” game is now rife on the internet. Just because someone says (or fails to say something) in one setting—either for good reasons or because of a misstep—does not mean he fails to say it repeatedly and emphatically in the rest of his work. Gillespie is saying, “Be sure that what you say is Mr. X’s position really is his settled view. You can’t infer that from one instance.” If we build a case on such instances, we are in danger of falling afoul of Murray’s rule as well. We must take responsibility for misrepresenting the views of others.

5. Gillespie’s Rule B: Represent and engage your opponents’ position in its very strongest form, not in a weak “straw man” form.

Gillespie asks his critics to follow another rule for polemics that he always followed with them. “I have sought them [my opponents] out where their arguments were strongest, and their objections most plausible.” This should be our practice in polemics, Gillespie says, rather than seeking out our opponents’ views where they are weakest or least crucial to all their thought. It is not right, he says, “to lift up an axe against the outermost branches [of a man’s views] when he ought to strike at the root.” This may be the most comprehensive rule of all in polemics, because, if it is adhered to, most of the other policies and principles will follow. Do all the work necessary until you can articulate the views of your opponent with such strength that he says, “I couldn’t have said it better myself.” Then and only then will your polemics not misrepresent him, take his views in toto, and actually have the possibility of being persuasive. That leads us to something that Calvin once wrote to his friend Farel.

6. Calvin’s Rule: Seek to persuade, not antagonize, but watch your motives!

John Calvin was a reformer in Geneva, Switzerland. His comrade in this work was William Farel, who was very out-spoken and hot-headed by temperament. At one point Calvin wrote Farel a letter in which he urged Farel to do more to “accommodate people,” that is, to seek to attract and persuade them, to win them over. Calvin then distinguished two very different motivations for seeking to be winsome and persuasive: “There are, as you know, two kinds of popularity: the one, when we seek favor from motives of ambition and the desire of pleasing; the other, when, by fairness and moderation, we gain their esteem so as to make them teachable by us.” The Farels of the world believe any effort to be judicious and prudent is a cowardly “sell-out.” But Calvin wisely recognized that his friend’s constant, intemperate denunciations often stemmed not from a selfless courage, but rather from the opposite—pride. Writing to Viret about Farel, Calvin said, “He cannot bear with patience those who do not comply with his wishes.” (Bruce Gordon, Calvin [Yale, 2009] pp. 150-152.)

In short, it is possible to seek to be winsome and persuasive out of a self-centeredness, rather than a God-centeredness. We may do it to be popular. On the other hand, it is just as possible to be bold and strongly polemical out of self-centereredness rather than God-centeredness. And therefore, looking very closely at our motives, we should be sure our polemics do not unnecessarily harden and antagonize our opponents. We should seek to win them, as Paul did Peter, not to be rid of them.


This is a cross-post from Tim Keller’s blog at Redeemer City to City.

  • david bartosik

    Three things came to mind…
    Gillespie’s Rule A= context, context, context and maybe a little authors intent thrown in just for fun. I buy it.

    Gillespie’s Rule B= Tom Leykis….why? he would only allow straw men arguments to call into his shows as he tore them apart. Made for an entertaining yet frustrating show as he spewed his garbage.

    Calvin’s Rule= relational evangelism. at its finest. with the right motives. Not making someone a project but truly seeking to win them.

    does arguing and polemics make some uncomfortable? 100%. Don’t avoid polemics–just avoid being a punk about it and do it with the right motives, and following the above ideas, makes for a great time and a deeper relationship especially over some chai or coffee!

  • Steve Cornell

    I recently wrote a piece on responding to hard questions from skeptics that I believe overlaps with this concern. My five recommendations include:

    1. Don’t react defensively.
    2. Acknowledge the importance and difficulty of the question.
    3. Explore the context of the question.
    4. Start with plausibility points.
    5. Provide the context before answering the question.

    For more detail:

    I also think that special consideration should be given to the difference in thinking and posture of 18-29 year olds. I recommend 10 guidelines for ministry to this age group:’ts-for-effective-ministry-to-18-29-year-olds/

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  • Kenny Taylor

    Dr. Keller – thank you for this teaching. It is really enlightening and God-glorifying. Looking forward to more

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  • Russ Mason

    The point that really touched me was #6 – seeking to be winsome and persuasive without being forceful and abrasive. This takes great humility, meekness, and enormous trust in God. It is easy for us to say that we are defending God when in reality we are simply reacting out of our own will and emotions.

    Peter is a great example of this. He could not fathom Jesus going to the cross and the result was one time Jesus had to rebuke him and the other time Jesus told him to put his sword back in its place.

    These instances teach us that we must allow God to flush us of our own opinions and ideas so we can allow God’s thoughts and revelation to flow through us. When God truly possesses us, then we can rest in His defense and know that as we love and gently speak the truth that He has made real to us, God’s work will be accomplished in the earth.

    We need only to be still and know that He is God, for He will be exalted in all the earth. -Psalm 46:10