The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life; and he that winneth souls is wise. — Proverbs 11:30 (KJV)
Not many Christian leaders use the language of “soul-winning” today. We hear a lot about making disciples, which of course is equally biblical and theologically sound terminology. After all, Jesus’ mandate for the church in the Great Commission was (and is) to “go … and make disciples” (Matt. 28:19).
Still, none other than the apostle Paul—a staunch advocate and practitioner of disciple-making (see 2 Tim. 2:2)—also used the language of winning people to Christ and the gospel. Five times in 1 Corinthians 9:19-22, he used a Greek word (kerdaino) that means “to gain,” “acquire,” or “win (over).” It was a transactional term used in the ancient business world to describe making a profit or trading up for something better.
In effect, Paul saw himself as an agent of Jesus Christ offering lost people something far greater than they had. Were people enslaved to sin? Paul wanted to win them over to forgiveness and freedom in Christ. Were they futilely attempting to gain their own salvation by keeping the law? Paul sought to win them over to the grace of the gospel. He said, “I have become all things to all people, so that I may by every possible means save some” (1 Cor. 9:22). He was laser-focused on soul-winning.
By saying he had “become all things to all people,” Paul didn’t mean that he was prepared to compromise his Christian character. Instead, he described and displayed four essential qualities of an effective soul-winner.
An effective soul-winner has a servant’s heart. In 1 Corinthians 9:19, Paul stated that he had made himself “a slave to everyone, in order to win more people.” The word Paul used for slave means “a bond-slave,” someone who was the property of another. Above all else, Paul considered himself to be Christ’s bond-slave. Yet, he understood that serving Christ involved humbly serving others in Christ’s name. In Christ, Paul saw himself as no more deserving of God’s love and salvation than the most pagan Gentile. Therefore, he made it a lifestyle practice to show honor and respect to any person—Jew or Gentile—in order to win them over to faith in Christ.
An effective soul-winner has an athlete’s discipline. Most Jews of Paul’s day were not sports enthusiasts. They disdained the famous Greek athletic games, in large part because of the Greek tendency to glorify the naked human body. Whether Paul ever attended an athletic competition is unclear, but he was familiar with the rigorous discipline required of an athlete who wanted to compete at the highest level. In 1 Corinthians 9:27, Paul stated that he kept his body under strict discipline so as not to disqualify himself as an advocate of the life-transforming gospel. Soul-winners must take care to practice what they preach.
An effective soul-winner has a selfless attitude. Paul reminded the believers of Corinth that they were to “do everything for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). Evidently, the Corinthians liked to boast about themselves. They considered their favorite preacher to be better than all the rest (1:12-13). They wanted to be known as the most tolerant of sexual freedom (5:1-2). They desired to have the flashiest or most mysterious spiritual gifts (12:4-11). Paul sought to correct the Corinthians’ arrogance by reminding them that the gospel’s essence was to love God with all one’s heart and love one’s neighbor as oneself. In other words, “God first; others second; and me last.”
An effective soul-winner presents a Christlike example. This fourth quality really is a combination and summary of the other three qualities. In 1 Corinthians 11:1, Paul exhorted Christians to imitate him as he in turn imitated Christ. In other words, the best way to win over a lost person to faith in Christ is to let them see Christ in you. Christ said that He came into the world not to be served but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many. He called people to follow Him as disciples—people who committed themselves body and soul to Him as Lord. He challenged them to deny self, take up the cross, and follow Him.
Whether we prefer to call ourselves soul-winners or disciple-makers, the Lord Jesus Christ expects us to be about the business of living out the gospel consistently and doing everything we can to introduce others to Him.
David Briscoe is a content editor at Lifeway for Explore the Bible resources.