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Soul Winning

I like winning. I feel fairly confident that everyone does, since it is a rare thing to find someone who enjoys losing — at least in the general sense.

Losing money, losing our keys, losing our homework, losing the big game or losing our minds just don’t satisfy like sweet victory.

Now, I am all for encouragement of those who don’t win (in addition to some friendly trash talk between friends). I think effort and hard work deserve praise, though I feel a bit ambivalent about participation trophies. I bring this dynamic of winning and losing to the column this month because of a conversation I had regarding how so many, after the women’s ordination vote at General Conference, framed the issue in winners and losers.

The term “winning" then began pushing buttons and pulling levels in my brain and led me to think about the realm of evangelism where we often talk about “soul winning.” Where did we get that term? I thought about overbearing evangelists who want to “get decisions” and how so many church members become intimidated by evangelism because it seems like a contest where you have to overpower someone else's reasoning and then wrestle them into the baptistery. Or we have to give a rhetorical masterpiece sales pitch to pique their interest.

Ugh, it’s easier to just mail things and hope someone reads them. Where did we get this idea we need to “win” people? Prov. 11:30 seems to be a source … of sorts. The KJV renders the passage, “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life; and he that winneth souls is wise.”

Well, there it is. Time to winneth us some souls.

Other translations seem to echo this. The NIV says, “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and the one who is wise saves lives,” and the ESV boldly declares, “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and whoever captures souls is wise."

Saving is good, capturing seems a bit different than “winning,” but we speak of “capturing” people’s attention, so that works I guess.

But some other translations seem to go off the rails a bit. The Holman Christian Standard Bible says, “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, but violence takes lives.” The Good News Translation states, “Righteousness gives life, but violence takes it away.” The Message renders it, “A good life is a fruit-bearing tree;  a violent life destroys souls.”

I needed more research.

Even though there is a new (much-needed and appreciated) Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, I went to the old version since my quest was to uncover the origins of this phrase and the apparent confusion of translations.

I was surprised to see the old commentary recognized and explained the issue. The Hebrew loqeach from the verb laqach means “to take” or “to take away.” In combination with nephesh, which also means “life” (not just that it seems more about taking people’s lives, which doesn’t seem like a wise thing to promote). The LXX (the Septuagint, or Greek Old Testament) renders the verse in such a way to make a point that the wicked’s souls are “cut off” in contrast the righteous who are like a tree of life.[1]

Despite the tension in the translations, at some point the concept of “winning souls” entered into the evangelism vocabulary. Communication professor Quentin Schultze observes, "During the Great Awakening of the mid-eighteenth century, mass evangelist such as George Whitfield refined rhetorical strategies that would ‘guarantee’ conversions. They viewed ‘soul winning’ as a human-oriented enterprise. In the process evangelists inadvertently advanced a secular view of communication."[2]

This human-centered approach overemphasizes the technique of the rhetorician, instead of the living Christ present in the witness. This can lead to an argumentative debating style of sharing the gospel, rooted in the intellect instead of relationship, that becomes a clash of worldviews instead of a dialogue between two people — where we try to score points in order to “win.” This has led some to suspect why we have traded the eye witness for the expert (professional apologist/evangelist) witness.[3]

I believe in evangelism and sharing Jesus, so the point is not to commit career suicide by claiming no need for influencing others for eternity. Rather it is a call for reframing how we share. In Speaking of Jesus: The Art of Not-Evangelism, Carl Medearis says, "Relax. Enjoy your friends. Enjoy their company along with the company of Jesus. Point Him out, freely, without fear or intimidation. You're not responsible to sell Him to them. You're simply saying what you've seen. You're not the judge. You're the witness."[4]

Don’t worry about not having a degree in theology; just share your testimony. Don’t worry about not being able to have a conversion; just have conversation. Don’t worry about winning; just witness.


[1] Nichol, F., et al, eds., Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol. 3. (D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1954), 986–987. 

[2] Schultze, Q., Communicating for Life: Christian Stewardship in Communication and Media (Ada, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2000).

[3] Penner, M.B., The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context (Ada, Mich.: Baker Academic, 203), 82.

[4] Medearis, C., Speaking of Jesus: The Art of Not-Evangelism. (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2011), 105.

Featured in: June 2018


Seth Pierce

associate professor of communication at Union College in Lincoln, Neb.