How to Make Better, More Careful, More Persuasive Arguments

April 30, 2024

Of all the memorable statements uttered by Charles Spurgeon, this advice from Lectures to My Students has stuck in my head as much as anything the great preacher said or wrote:

The sensible minister will be particularly gentle in argument. He, above all men, should not make the mistake of fancying that there is force in temper, and power in speaking angrily. . . . Try to avoid debating with people. State your opinion and let them state theirs. If you see that a stick is crooked, and you want people to see how crooked it is, lay a straight rod down beside it; that will be quite enough. But if you are drawn into controversy, use very hard arguments and very soft words.

So many wise sentiments in these few sentences. We could talk about how “the Lord’s servant,” even as he rightly contends for the faith, “must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness” (2 Tim. 2:24–25). We could talk about the folly of mistaking forcefulness for true spiritual power. We could talk about the wisdom of avoiding protracted debates, by stating your opinion and then moving on. All of that is pure gold.

But I want to focus on the last sentence in the paragraph above. I want to suggest two ways we can make our arguments harder, which in this case means better, more careful, and more persuasive.

First, we can make our arguments better by focusing on the what instead of the why.

Let’s suppose your church is divided over what kind of new flooring to get in the fellowship hall. One side wants to continue with carpet, but you are on the side that wants hardwood. You might argue that the hardwood costs less, or is easier to clean, or fits with the look and feel of the rest of the church. Those are what arguments. The other side might not agree with your reasons, but they are rational, objective arguments to consider.

But suppose you make the case for hardwood flooring in a different way. You insinuate that the only reason some people want carpet is because their grandparents own a carpet company, and they are hoping to get a financial windfall from the church’s decision. Or you suggest that the pro-carpet side has always tried to control the church, and this is about holding on to their power. Or you insist that non-Christians are repelled by carpet in the fellowship hall and that the pro-carpet side doesn’t care about reaching unbelievers with the gospel. These are all why arguments. In this second scenario, you are arguing that the other side is motivated by greed, by a love for power, and by an indifference toward evangelism.

We can see in this (hopefully) absurd example that why arguments can easily create more heat than light. This is not surprising because why arguments tend to be more personal, more ethically charged, and more difficult to prove. Of course, why arguments are not always wrong. Maybe the pro-carpet folks really are in cahoots with Big Carpet, maybe they really are a cabal of old-time powerbrokers, maybe they really are gospel-less infidels. Sometimes the why arguments are important arguments to make. But—and here’s the key—those things can’t just be asserted or insinuated. Arguments must be made. They can’t just be thrown out there because you’ve decided to connect the dots in one way, when those same dots could be connected in several other ways. If the pro-carpet ringleader has a grandparent in the carpet industry, he could be scheming for a kickback, or he could be trying to care for his aging grandparents, or it could be that he grew up familiar with all the benefits of carpet, or the connection could be a pure coincidence because the man hasn’t talked to his grandparents in years and they sell a different kind of carpet anyway.

Why arguments work because they pack a rhetorical punch. They insist that our opponents are not just wrong, they are bad people, with bad motives, in league with other bad forces in the world. It’s true, there are bad people with bad motives out there, and in so far as their badness is manifest, it may be right to make it known. But we must always be careful that if there is a why argument to be made, it only comes after painstaking attention to the what. We must deal first with the facts—and not just the facts that can support our conclusion, but all the facts, including the ones that might support a different conclusion. We should also consider that even if someone’s why is self-interested or inconsistent, the what of his position might still be correct.

I’m wary of arguments that depend upon unproven assumptions or vague connections. And yet, that’s how too many arguments are made: “These people I don’t like are motivated by an idolatrous love of power. These people I don’t like have been bought off by dirty money. These people I don’t like are jealous of the attention others are receiving. These people I don’t like are trying to impress a nefarious group of gatekeepers.” Again, maybe all these why arguments are true. But then they must be proven—carefully and cautiously, not quickly and slanderously, and with a good faith attempt to understand how people understand their own why before we try to prove that we know the real why.

Second, we can make our arguments better by making the who much more generic or much more specific.

This advice may sound contradictory, so let me offer another made-up example.

Suppose I want to write an article on what’s wrong with preaching today. If I stay at the level of “preaching today,” I’m not really talking about anyone or any group in particular, so if I mention the need for better application and more unction in the pulpit, no one wonders if I’m talking about them or their team. As long as I stay generic, the article is more about what makes for good preaching rather than what is wrong with a particular person or group of people.

But suppose in writing the same article I focus on what’s wrong with the preaching in Charlotte. Now everyone is going to wonder: who is he really talking about? As the focus narrows, the target gets more concentrated and potentially more offensive. People will speculate that I’m trying to critique the churches in my Presbytery, or the churches down the street, or the most well-known churches in town. If I want to critique any of those groups, then I should have the courage to do so out in the open. But if I just want to talk about preaching, then I should keep the focus more general.

The key is to ask yourself: Am I trying to make arguments about a what or am I trying to make arguments against a who?

You may have a who in mind as you talk about the what, but if the point is really to address the what, then keep the who at a high level. The problem is when people go after a who that is specific enough to be a jab, but not specific enough to actually be argued against. For example, “white evangelicalism” often functions as this kind of mid-level who—just specific enough to be criticizing an opponent, but not specific enough to know who we are talking about or if the who is actually representative of the whole. It’s not that we can’t ever generalize, lump people into groups, or argue from specific examples to broader themes, but if we mean to indict a whole group, we must show that the indictment is largely true of the whole group. Otherwise, we are just signaling to our in-group that we are against the correct out-group.

This also means we should not rely on our negative words to do all the heavy lifting. Certain words are so loaded, and have become so elastic, that they are used to shut down arguments rather than to have them. I’m thinking of words (on the left) like abusive, toxic, racist, and whiteness; and words (on the right) like effeminate, snowflake, SJW, and woke. We don’t have to banish all these words from our vocabulary—some behavior is genuinely abusive or racist or effeminate—but it would be a good exercise to try to express these negative assessments in different language. We might discover that we don’t really have a clear definition in mind, but we simply like the way these epithets land on our opponents.

By the same token, when I see someone reference “Big Eva,” or “regime evangelicals,” or “the patriarchy,” or “coastal elites” my first question is always, “Who exactly do you have in mind?” We all use shorthand words and phrases, but they are not in themselves an argument. Often, they are little more than opportunities to high-five our friends as we sneer at our enemies.


In summary, and to simplify, we can put it like this: (1) focus on the what more than the why, and (2) don’t go to the who if you really mean to focus on the what.

When in doubt, go up or go down the ladder of abstraction. If you mainly want to talk about ideas, go up the ladder. Keep the focus on the principles and arguments (what I’m trying to do in this piece). Talk about the what. Go to the why only after careful research and after first trying to understand people on their own terms.

If you mainly want to talk about specific people or movements (as I’ve done in other articles, books, and reviews), go down the ladder. Look at words and texts. Focus on concrete sentences and paragraphs. Make arguments using specific examples. Hopefully, we will be more careful, more gracious, and more thoughtful when we know we are talking about real people who can (and probably will) argue back. In both points, the aim is not only to make better arguments, but to make us better people when we have arguments to make.

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church (PCA) in Matthews, North Carolina and associate professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary.

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