Soul Winning: Stop Saying That!
I run in fairly conservative circles, so I understand if this post does not mean anything to you, but I hear this phrase of “soul winning” a lot. Honestly, I hear it way too often. Yet, every time it makes me squirm. Soul winning might be the most prideful and legalistic term that I hear good Christians use on a regular basis. Now, I know their arguments and I know that their Bible translations use a variant of this term, but to quote Inigo Montoya from Princess Bride:
“I do not think it means what you think it means.”
I’m a big fan of the book of Proverbs, it is inspired after all, but can we just all agree on the fact that Solomon’s wisdom was not centered on the Gospel of Jesus or how to help others understand it? Solomon’s wisdom is largely focused on living a prosperous life free from the sinful entanglements that could arise from being king. So when he writes in Proverbs 11:30, “and whoever captures souls is wise.” He’s not talking about salvation as we know it, rather a general turning from doing evil as he discusses in verse 27.
Another verse that is often used in support of this phrase comes from James 5:20, "Let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” While this looks like there is effort on the part of the believer, if one were to read this verse in context one would easily find out that this “sinner” mentioned here is not an unbeliever, but a backsliding Christian according to verse 19. This text is about helping a struggling Christian return to serving Christ, not believe in Him for the first time.
Lastly, one of the main arguments I hear in support of this phrase comes from one of my favorite theologians. Proponents of soul winning will gladly quote Spurgeon when he said, “Soul winning is the chief business of the Christian minister; indeed, it should be the main pursuit of every true believer.” It’s true that Spurgeon loved this term. Yet, it’s interesting to me that often this argument comes from people who would not be pleased with other aspects of Spurgeon’s beliefs. Spurgeon drank alcohol and smoked cigars. Certainly, the soul winner would not think that Spurgeon’s use of these things make them permissible. Most who would use this argument have never even read a Spurgeon sermon, nor do they understand Spurgeon’s view of soul winning.
Spurgeon literally wrote the book on the subject, The Soul Winner: Advice on Effective Evangelism. In this book he clearly defines what soul winning is and the dangers of not understanding it properly. I’ve read this book and can say with confidence that what Spurgeon thought of soul winning and what modern fundamentalists think of soul winning are far from being the same term. Spurgeon has a different definition, motivation, and method of soul winning then many have today. Thabiti Anyabwile wrote a great article for The Gospel Coalition on the book, I would encourage you to read that for more information on Spurgeon’s view of soul winning.
Today, fundamentalists are the main culprits of using this term. Being a soul winner could be boiled down to one phrase “I win souls.” Maybe you think that’s unfair, but this is what people hear when you use this phrase, beyond that this is what I have been told by many proponents of soul winning. Here’s why “Soul winning” is so problematic:
I win souls.
You being a soul winner takes the focus off of the One who alone holds the authority, power, and freedom to save sinners from the gates of Hell and make them into a new creature. This phrase is so prideful, because it says that I did it. I won that soul. It was me. I’m not saying that people who use this phrase always have this line of thinking, but our words have implications. Let us bring glory to Christ for salvation and be rid of words that would rob Him of glory in any way. He saves people. We don’t. The Holy Spirit draws people, we don’t. Salvation is of the Lord, not me.
I win souls.
Most often, soul winning is used to describe a certain method of evangelism. Another way to describe this method is “visitation.” This is when Christians go and knock on doors in hopes of being able to preach the Gospel to the residents of that home. Some might be able to use this method with clarity and success, but many water down the Gospel as they are attempting to convert people. I win souls, I do what it takes. I use strategy to accomplish my goal. For some, this becomes a legalistic method of personal holiness. My righteousness is shown by how many notches I have on my heavenly belt.
Not only is the motivation wrong, but often so is the message of soul winning. When Evangelism becomes a win or lose scenario and dependent on the one preaching, then the message can be easily compromised. This is why we have a generation of “Christians” who simply said a prayer and now they consider themselves heirs with Christ, but act like friends of Satan. They never believed in Jesus, not really. They never truly repented of their sin. They heard a scary story about Hell and said whatever they needed in order to get out of it. Often the soul winner is so focused on winning the argument that they forget the Gospel is about belief, which goes beyond knowledge. As Spurgeon wrote, “A sinner has a heart as well as a head; a sinner has emotions as well as thoughts; and we must appeal to both.” Winning an argument does not equate salvation. Soul winning is a dangerous term because often times it leads to a philosophy that waters down the Gospel of the glory of Christ.
I win souls.
When I was a teenager I participated in a few International Accelerated Christian Education conferences (that’s a mouthful). I was in D.C. for one of these conferences, and I remember hearing there was a “Soul winning competition.” The girl who won first place “won” over 200 souls that year. Honestly, the whole thing made me want to vomit. This girl received a trophy for the amount of people she supposedly led to faith in Christ. These were not people, they were stats or more to the point they were souls.
Soul winning is not about relationships, but rather about seeing souls come to Christ. Yet, this is not the method we see in the New Testament. Yes, there are the big moments when thousands come to faith like in Acts 2, but more often we see individual moments that have friendship tied into the narrative. Lost people are still people. They are not just souls to be counted like sheep. They have feelings, will, and value just as anyone else does. They are souls, but they are not just souls. Soul winning takes relationship out of the evangelism process, which also means that discipleship goes out the window with it as you can’t have discipleship without relationship.
Christ is the only Soul Winner.
Let me be clear, I know this legalism well because I have been there. I might not have used this term to describe what I was doing, but as a teenager I was zealous for evangelism and would go stand outside of my Safeway handing out tracts and asking people “If you died today, do you know for sure that you’d go to Heaven?” I relied on this loveless act (I speak for myself) to show my righteousness. That’s legalism.
I don’t think I’m the only one, either. Evangelism isn’t a game. It’s not something you win, it’s something you do because you love that individual and want them to know the peace, joy, and love of Christ. Spurgeon called those he evangelized “the objects of our love.” How can the soul winner truly love the unsaved, when they just see them as souls?
You are not a soul winner. Christ is the only Soul Winner. You are a tool that the Master can use to accomplish His goals for the unsaved. He has called all Christians to evangelize, but don’t fall into the trap of manipulation. That is not true conversion. Christ does the work of salvation, don’t take credit where you don’t deserve it. After all, Peter reminds us who has the words of life, not us but “You have the words of eternal life…” (John 6:68)
Cited Works: Charles Spurgeon, The Soul Winner: Advice on Effective Evangelism