"It is often said that you can't argue people into faith. Well, I don't want to dispute that statement, but I do want to deprecate the idea that it is something worth saying. What can you argue people into?" 1
Generally, I think people have good intentions when they point out that people do not convert based on argument. In fact, like a lot of silly statements, there is likely a grain of truth here.
It's probably a safe bet that most Christians (or Muslims or Mormons or Hindus or whatever) do not believe what they do solely because somewhere along the way an argument convinced them. In fact, most of them probably aren't even aware that such arguments can be made.
However, there are about three things here that are rarely considered when people say, "You can't argue people into the Kingdom."
First, it just isn't true. There have been many people for whom evidence and intellectual argument played an integral part in their conversion. Sometimes it was even the deciding factor. I won't give a list here, but a couple of the most influential in recent decades have been apologists Lee Strobel and C.S. Lewis himself. Strobel has actually said that he has lost count of how many people have told him that they have come to faith after reading his apologetics material. And Lewis describes his own conversion as a reluctant one, purely intellectual at first.
Also, the fact that argument may not be the deciding role in most conversions does not imply that argument is therefore unimportant. I'll be honest. Generally, I believe what scientists tell me about the world. I believe that the earth spins at seemingly dizzying speeds, all the while hurtling through ice-cold space at an unbelievable pace around a gigantic ball of fire...while I sit here comfortably typing this post.
Mostly, I don't believe this because of any arguments I've seen. In fact, odds are good that I wouldn't understand much of the math involved in such arguments if they were presented to me. No, I believe it because I have it on what I consider to be good authority. But of course, this doesn't mean that the arguments involved don't matter. They matter greatly. And if physicists ever found better arguments that led them to different conclusions about the world, my beliefs would probably change as a result.
Second, even if it were true that people couldn't be argued into belief, this would not be peculiar to Christianity. Yet this is the only context in which I have heard it used. As van Inwagen points out in the essay quoted above (which I highly recommend, by the way), people do not go around claiming that you can't argue people into believing Plato's account of Socrates or some other such thing, though this would probably be equally true. "The fact that people go about saying that you can't argue people into faith," he says, "and saying this as if it were an intelligent thing to say, is simply one more example of ... double standard."
Thirdly, if argument is the wrong way to approach conversion, then someone should have told the apostles. From the hall of Tyrannus 2 to confronting the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers on Mars Hill, 3 Paul used argument in his evangelism all the time. In his address to the Jews at Pentecost, Peter reasoned with them about Jesus' miracles and resurrection. 4
Eventually, what it all comes down to is what means God chooses to use to bring people to Him. Everybody is in a unique place in their relationship to God, and what works for some will not necessarily work for others.
The person who says that argument can't bring people to faith is committed to saying either that God cannot use argument in this way if He so chooses, or that He always chooses not to.
And that's just silly.
* Be sure to check out John Lennox discussing the 'Evils of Christendom' in the Featured Video section.
1 Peter van Inwagen. "Quam Dilecta." God and the Philosophers, 46-47.
2 Acts 19:8-10
3 Acts 17:16-34
4 Acts 2:22-24