What God Can Do in One Conversation

Recovering the Power of Personal Evangelism

Agrippa said to Paul, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” (Acts 26:28)

“You know,” Festus had said to the king, just one day prior, “I have this prisoner who the Jews are simply desperate to kill. Strange case, in my opinion. They came with the raucous of the gods, only to tell me the most idle of tales.”

“What tales?” asked King Agrippa.

“Apparently they want this man dead because he claims that some prophet died, a man named Jesus, and yet is now alive. Impossible to investigate such delusions. I am not sure what to say to Caesar.”

“May I examine the prisoner?”

“Of course, my King. We will make a spectacle of it tomorrow.”

The next day, as Agrippa sat enthroned in royal pomp and splendor with the mighty attending, he found Paul much smaller than expected. The royal hush washed over the assembly as the king motioned for Paul to give his defense.

“I consider myself fortunate,” began the prisoner, “that it is before you, King Agrippa, I am going to make my defense today against all the accusations of the Jews, especially because you are familiar with all the customs and controversies of the Jews. Therefore I beg you to listen to me patiently” (Acts 26:2–3).

Agrippa was ready to do just that.

He listened as Paul recalled growing up a Pharisee, hunting Christians, and meeting Jesus in a heavenly vision on the Damascus road. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Jesus was alive, Paul insisted. Furthermore, he said that Moses and the prophets spoke of this very thing and even foretold such things as salvation extending to the Gentiles (Acts 26:4–23).

“Paul, you are out of your mind,” Festus interrupted with a yell, “your great learning is driving you out of your mind” (Acts 26:24). To this Paul responds with something equally as shocking to the king’s sensibilities. And how Paul replies next, how he turns matters to the king directly, offers a balancing word to one of our evangelistic emphases today.

King in the Dock

“I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus,” Paul responds, “but I am speaking true and rational words.” And as if pointing to the throne, he continues, “For the king knows about these things, and to him I speak boldly. For I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this has not been done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe” (Acts 26:25–27).

Paul, on trial before the king, puts the king on trial before Christ.

Paul’s appeal is no vague word or bashful plea. He speaks plainly, courteously, boldly, and directly. He does not shoot over Agrippa’s head but lets the arrow fly at his heart. Before the watching eyes of everyone who is anyone in the region, Paul looks him in the eye, and says for all to hear, “King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.”

The arrow finds its mark. The king staggers. In wonder he asks, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” (Acts 26:28).

Whether Long or Short

I find great correction in this scene, summarized by Paul’s final response,

Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am — except for these chains. (Acts 26:29)

Organic, relational, “long” evangelism has its place. This form of evangelism tends to be especially useful with people woven into our lives. With those we will see again, we want them to witness our lives and open up to us that we might bring Christ to their specific hopes, sins, and sorrows. One brick at a time, one conversation at a time, because we have more time, so we think. “Whether short or long” he declared to Agrippa, “I wish that you would be a Christian.” He makes space for long.

But how many of us today have jettisoned the first half — the short-term, first-conversation evangelism that arrested the king? He did not expect that Paul would press the relevance of this news to his conscience and call for a response in their first conversation. “In such a short time,” he asked, “would you persuade me to be a Christian?” In such a short time, Paul would.

Not only did Paul have the spine to evangelize the king in front of all notable somebodies, but he turned to them, seeking to win everyone within the range of his voice to Christ. “I would that all of you be a Christian, just as I am,” he said turning to the spectators, “except, of course, for these chains.” He only had one shot. And so, with little regard to his own welfare, he broke down the fourth wall and addressed every man, woman, and child openly: “I would that all of you believed and were saved!”

Lies Short-Circuiting Evangelism

Do we do the same? Does it feel taboo to share the gospel at the bus stop, restaurant, basketball game, on the airplane? “Drive-by” evangelism, some have called it. Unnatural, ineffective, abrupt, and most likely offensive. That sort of thing is impolite and undemocratic, and if it must be done, surely it should be left to those especially gifted as evangelists, right?

When I am tempted to think this way, such resistance belies several wrong beliefs that are especially compelling in our day.

‘Jesus can’t save in one conversation.’

When I forget that the gospel is the power of God for salvation (Romans 1:16), I remain silent. Offering a word of true hope to a stranger can’t do anything but make me look foolish, so why bother?

But Paul remembered the power of the gospel.

“God, through his gospel, can and does save — sometimes over years of relationship and often in random, short conversations.”

One vibrating with divine life, quaking with expectation, muscular enough to capture and liberate even the chief of sinners. He was willing to persuade them, with a “loud voice” at his trial, and expected King Agrippa, the military tribunes, and “the prominent men of the city” to cast off their crowns and bow their knees before the King of glory (Acts 25:23). If Jehovah’s Witnesses, with their door-to-door evangelism, believe they have a message that can save in a moment — why not the actual witnesses of Jehovah?

‘Salvation is my work, not God’s.’

New birth is not fundamentally the offspring of a good relationship between a Christian and non-Christian. Our coffee conversations or basketball games or neighborly help has no power to raise anyone from the dead. Salvation is now and forever a sovereign act of our Almighty God. When Nicodemus hears Jesus explain this, he is perplexed and astounded (John 3:4). “You must be born again.”

  • No, Nicodemus, your positive assessment of me and my miracles is not enough — you must be born again.
  • Yes, your self-striving will not avail you of the kingdom. Correct, you can no more choose to be born again spiritually than you chose to be born physically.
  • You have as much control of the Spirit as you do the wind. And if you had read the Scriptures correctly, none of this should surprise you.

That night Jesus baffled Nicodemus, but it can encourage us in our evangelism. No matter how vulnerable, risky, awkward it feels, God, through his gospel, can and does save — sometimes over years of relationship and often in random, short conversations. Nicodemus’s life, for one, shows what one uncomfortable conversation can do (John 7:50–51; 19:38–40).

‘A personal relationship makes evangelism easier.’

In my experience, the less short-term mindset I have at the beginning, the harder long-term evangelism tends to be. If I refuse to tell someone from the get-go that I am a Christian, the harder it becomes to tell him later. It always feels odd to introduce something so massive about myself later on. It seems to betray that Jesus isn’t really that important to me.

“I know we have known each other for a while now, but did I ever mention what matters most to me? I believe a murdered Jewish carpenter — who was also God in the flesh and the fulfillment of God’s plan for the world — is now alive, enthroned in heaven, and will come back soon to judge the world in righteousness?”

“Gospel truth doesn’t only travel through well-established relationships, nor does it travel at all when not shared.”

Typically, the more upfront we are in the beginning (if possible, in the very first conversation), the easier it becomes to return to Jesus later on. And again, it is our privilege to share the hope that we have, and not our responsibility to convert the person by our conversational prowess. The saving work is God’s alone.

God, Give Me One

None of this is an assault on “relational” or “friendship” evangelism. The apostle himself, after all, would win King Agrippa in a short time or long. My point is that long-term evangelism must not be our only method, nor is it a reasonable excuse to neglect single-conversation evangelism. Despite the merits of the statements like, “Truth travels best through relationship,” I want to remind you, as I remind myself, that gospel truth doesn’t only travel through well-established relationships, nor does it travel at all when not shared.

I know of an elderly saint in my church who recently told me, “I have prayed every day for God to send me one person that day to tell about Jesus, and in fifty years he has not failed me once.” Paul modeled such bold, firm, polite, short and long evangelism. Let’s pray such prayers and not fail when it comes time to speak.