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Article 2019-07 From Aroma to Persuasion

Chapter 57: From Aroma to Persuasion


Display of Christian character is of vital importance for every missionary, and learning your people group’s language and culture shows your respect for them. In this learning process new missionaries should become ‘like children’, as Jesus said; it helps a missionary, when he can laugh about himself, instead of being insulted. Being an ‘aroma of Christ’ is an indispensable missionary quality, but we also need to learn how to persuade people of the truth of the gospel.

Scripture reference

But thanks be to God, who … through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life (2 Cor. 2:14-16)

The story

Traveling through many countries, Paul met people groups whose language he knew and others whose tongue was unknown to him. When he ministered in Athens he had the big advantage of knowing Greek language, culture, history, religion and literature. It helped him to address the Greeks at an academic level. There may have been reasons for his limited success in Athens, but it was not his lack of knowing the language and culture.
Yet, what did he do when he came through areas where he did not know the language? He did not give us direct advice, but there are some things that can help us to guess his approach. One is his encouragement to ‘be an aroma of Christ’. He wants us to ‘smell like Christ’, even when we cannot yet ‘talk about Christ’. We can radiate His character, even if we don’t master their language yet.

Once you are Christ’s disciple, He starts to change your sinful life into a new one, that He lives through you. His presence in you becomes visible. Your character changes to a friendlier one. Where you used to hate, you now love. Your selfish attitude He changes to a selfless one. People see this, whether you speak their language or not, because you smell like Christ! Long before you can speak someone’s language, you can love, help and treat him kindly. People will love you because you become Christ’s representative to them – which they never saw before.

Learning a language is no waste of time, because during your learning period you can get to know them and their habits. The better you know these, the easier it becomes to tell the gospel in a way that speaks to their hearts. Apart from their language, you need to learn their culture too. A new language is best acquired on the field where it is spoken. Have a native speaker help you with the language for some hours daily. Go to the market place (that was probably where Paul made his tents), rehearsing and exercising the small sentences you learn. You will be surprised how fast you pick it up then.

Scripture reference

I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 18:3)

The story, continued

At first you feel like a child, when you try to speak a new language, especially when people laugh at you. But Jesus told us to become like little children, in order to enter God’s Kingdom. You must also become like a child when you go to the mission field. In that new culture you are like a child again. We must be so childlike in our attitude that we won’t be insulted when people laugh at our failures, when we try to speak their language. Rather laugh with them. Maybe it is even true to say that ‘Whoever does not go to the mission field as a small child will not help others to enter the Kingdom of God!’

Scripture reference

You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts (2 Cor. 3:2,3)

The story, continued

Paul gave the Corinthians yet another analogy, when he compared them with a letter. He wrote the teachings of Christ on their hearts with the invisible ink of the Holy Spirit. When meeting unbelievers, the latter ‘read’ their Christian character from their lives. Such reading doesn’t require language knowledge!
That does not mean that missionaries don’t have to learn the language, on the contrary. It only means that they don’t have to be concerned about wasting their time as long as they have not yet mastered the new language. Missionaries may be comforted because usually their target population is impressed about the efforts to learn their language. This helps to earn the right to be heard later. They must learn to walk the walk before talking the talk.

Becoming an effective missionary is a process. Once you are no longer considered a foreigner, living among or even preaching at them collectively is not enough. More important is to talk to people personally, trying to persuade them of gospel truths.


There is comfort for first-term missionaries who struggle to learn local languages and are not yet able to express themselves in it. Being Christ’s aroma is the solution. If our attitudes are right, our characters friendly and our behavior loving and compassionate, we can make people ‘smell Christ’ in us before we can explain about Him and His work in words. We can be ‘Christ’s letter, read by everybody’. This conveys the same message: being precedes doing and your walk precedes your talk. The work of the Spirit in your heart will not be lost on people, even without words.

Scripture reference

Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men … For Christ’s love compels us (2 Cor. 5:11,14)

Comment, continued

When Paul speaks about ‘persuading men’ he plays down ‘compromise outreach’. Presence-evangelism, which means being around as Christians, will not do the job. Neither is proclamation-evangelism (‘preach at them’) enough. Relationship-based persuasion-evangelism is needed. This is dialogue, almost arguing with people while trying to persuade them into the Kingdom. Obviously it is only the Holy Spirit who can really persuade people in the depth of their being. But if we fear the Lord – that is, if we are really convinced of the justness of His case – we will try harder to save people from His judgment. Paul adds that Christ’s love compels us: He died for us and therefore we should take evangelism and missions more seriously, imploring people to become reconciled to God through Christ. This ministry of reconciliation has been entrusted to us.

Discussion & dialogue

  • Compare in your study group your plans for cultural- and language preparation with those, indicated in this chapter. Do you need to apply modifications?
  • How can you ‘smell like Christ’ to your target-population, as long as you do not yet speak their language fluently?
  • Assess the benefits – or disadvantages – of studying the religious writings of the people group you want to share the gospel with. E.g. could reading the Koran contaminate you spiritually, or could your Koran knowledge help you to ‘persuade’ Muslims of the gospel’s superiority?

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