In 1959, C. S. Lovett, pastor of Baldwin Park Baptist Church, published his guide to personal evangelism, entitled Soul-Winning Made Easy. In it, he describes “the controlled conversation technique,” which “ignores excuses and complete side-steps the explosive area of religious debate.” Instead, Lovett focuses on Revelation 3: Jesus knocking on the door of our hearts and urging sinners to open their hearts to him. Lovett writes, “If he can truly be made aware of Christ waiting at the door of his heart, his responsibility becomes most clear. This makes soul-winning a positive ministry requiring fewer skills. Actually, it is a new frontier which allows Christian obedience to become fun!”
In addition to a gospel presentation, Lovett provides practical directions in evangelism (complete with illustrations). For example, in pressing for a decision, Lovett instructs,
Lay your hand firmly on the subject’s shoulder (or arm) and with a semi-commanding tone of voice, say to him, “Bow your head with me.”
NOTE: Do not look at him when you say this, but bow your head first. Out of the corner of your eye you will see him hesitate at first. Then, as his resistance crumbles, his head will come down. Your hand on his shoulder will fell the relaxation and you will know when his heart yields. Bowing your head first, causes terrific psychological pressure.
This brand of technique-based, results-driven evangelism grew to be quite popular in the 60s and 70s. Soul winning was a phrase that captured the optimism and energy of the movement.
But where did “soul-winning” come from? My guess is that one source of the phrase can be traced back to the ministry of C. H. Spurgeon. In 1897, five years after his death, his associates published The Soul Winner, a collection of sermons and lectures to the Pastors’ College, Sunday School teachers, and his own congregation on evangelism. The title came from a sermon preached in 1869 at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, entitled “Soul Winning,” based on Proverbs 11:30, “He that winneth souls is wise.” Baptists have long admired Spurgeon as the preeminent pastor-evangelist, with many thousands converted under his ministry. So, it only makes sense that “soul winning” would become a popular phrase among those who saw themselves as heirs of his evangelistic ministry.
But were C. S. Lovett’s methods in line with Spurgeon’s teaching on evangelism? What do we learn from Spurgeon about soul winning from his 1869 sermon?
Soul winning is not about a particular technique or style
Revivalistic evangelism emphasizes technique – a form of words, certain gestures, “terrific psychological pressure.” But for Spurgeon, such techniques can provide no guarantee of conversion, nor is God limited by them. Certainly, God can use such things. But Spurgeon taught that effective evangelism could come about in many different styles and methods, using all kinds of people and personalities.
He who actually, really, and truly turns men from the error of their ways to God, and so is made the means of saving them from going down to hell, is a wise man; and that is true of him whatever his style of soul-winning may be.
He may be a Paul, deeply logical, profound in doctrine, able to command all candid judgments; and if he thus win souls he is wise.
He may be an Apollos, grandly rhetorical, whose lofty genius soars into the very heaven of eloquence; and if he wins souls in that way he is wise, but not otherwise.
Or he may be a Cephas, rough and rugged, using uncouth metaphor and stern declamation, but if he win souls he is no less wise than his polished brother or his argumentative friend, but not else. The great wisdom of soul-winners, according to the text, is proven only by their actual success in really winning souls.
Spurgeon rejected any religion which taught that the use of a technique could produce salvation. This was the error of Roman Catholicism, which was creeping into the Church of England in his day.
I am sorry to say that much of legerdemain and trickery are to be met with in the religious world. Why, there are those who pretend to save souls by curious tricks, intricate maneuvers, and dexterous posture making. A bason of water, half-a-dozen drops, certain syllables—heigh, presto!—the infant is a child of grace, and becomes a member of Christ and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven. This aqueous regeneration surpasses my belief; it is a trick which I do not understand: the initiated only can perform the beautiful piece of magic, which excels anything ever attempted by the Wizard of the North. There is a way, too, of winning souls by laying hands upon heads, only the elbows of aforesaid hands must be encased in lawn, and then the machinery acta, and there is grace conferred by blessed fingers! I must confess I do not understand the occult science.
In the end, a belief in soul winning as a technique means that we place our trust in man, robbing God of his glory. Soul winning cannot fundamentally be about human effort, but it must be rooted in God.
Soul winning depends on God to work through human means
At the same time, while God is sovereign over salvation, his people also have an essential role to play. In evangelism, God graciously uses human means to accomplish His sovereign work. While the soul winner knows there are no guaranteed methods of evangelism, he employs all kinds of means to share the gospel. But even as he does so, he is utterly dependent on God in all his efforts. The soul winner’s job is to proclaim Christ faithfully and leave the results to God.
To accomplish such a work, a man must be wise, for to win a soul requires infinite wisdom. God himself wins not souls without wisdom, for the eternal plan of salvation was dictated by an infallible judgment, and in every line of it infinite skill is apparent. Christ, God’s great soul-winner, is “the wisdom of God,” as well as “the power of God.” There is as much wisdom to be seen in the new creation as in the old. In a sinner saved, there is as much of God to be beheld as in a universe rising out of nothing; and we, then, who are to be workers together with God, proceeding side by side with him to the great work of soul-winning, must be wise too. It is a work which filled a Savior’s heart—a work which moved the Eternal mind or ever the earth was. It is no child’s play, nor a thing to be achieved while we are half asleep, nor to be attempted without deep consideration, nor to be carried on without gracious help from the only-wise God, our Savior.
And what is that means by which God works his saving work? It is the proclamation of the gospel. Speaking to preachers, Spurgeon declares,
He will succeed best, who keeps closest to soul-saving truth. Now, all truth is not soul-saving, though all truth may be edifying. He that keeps to the simple story of the cross, tells men over and over again that whosoever believeth in Christ is not condemned, that to be saved, nothing is wanted but a simple trust in the crucified Redeemer; he whose ministry is much made up of the glorious story of the cross, the sufferings of the dying Lamb, the mercy of God, the willingness of the great Father to receive returning prodigals; he who cries, in fact, from day to day, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world,” he is likely to be a soul-winner, especially if he adds to this much prayer for souls, much anxious desire that men may be brought to Jesus, and then in his private life seeks as much as in his public ministry to be telling out to others of the love of the dear Saviour of men.
The soul winner prays and labors expectantly for conversions
On the opposite side of the revivalists are those who preach orthodox sermons but do not expect any conversions. In Spurgeon’s day, these were the hyper-Calvinist groups. They were proper in their theology and had an orthodox understanding of God’s sovereignty. And yet, when it came to evangelism, they could often be cold and dispassionate. Such an attitude could never result in soul winning.
The preacher himself wins souls, I believe, best, when he believes in the reality of his work, when he believes in instantaneous conversions. How can he expect God to do what he does not believe God will do? He succeeds best who expects conversion ever time he preaches. According to his faith so shall it be done unto him. To be content without conversions is the surest way never to have them: to drive with a single aim entirely at the saving of souls is the surest method of usefulness. If we sigh and cry till men are saved, saved they will be.
This is not to say that the preacher can ever presume on God’s grace. We know this because Spurgeon insists that prayer is a necessary ingredient in evangelism. “The soul-winner must be a master of the art of prayer.” Apart from prayerful dependence on God, we should have no reason to expect Him to work. Nonetheless, as those who have prayed for the lost and are preaching the gospel, we do so believing that the gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” The soul winner is not content to merely preach faithful sermons, but he longs to see sinners saved.
Soul winning requires perseverance
Though we believe in “instantaneous conversions,” we also understand that evangelism will require perseverance. Far from soul-winning being something easy and fun, Spurgeon used Bunyan’s allegory to compare soul winning to besieging a city:
How do we win souls, then? Why, the word “win” has a better meaning far. It is used in warfare. Warriors win cities and provinces. Now, to win a soul, is a much more difficult thing than to win a city. Observe the earnest soul-winner at his work; how cautiously he seeks his great Captain’s directions to know when to hang out the white flag to invite the heart to surrender to the sweet love of a dying Savior; when, at the proper time, to hang out the black flag of threatening, showing that if grace be not received, judgment will surely follow; and when to unfurl, with dread reluctance, the red flag of the terrors of God against stubborn, impenitent souls. The soul-winner has to sit down before a soul as a great captain before a walled town; to draw his lines of circumvallation, to cast up his intrenchments and fix his batteries. He must not advance too fast—he may overdo the fighting; he must not move too slowly, for he may seem not to be in earnest, and may do mischief. Then he must know which gate to attack—how to plant his guns at Ear-gate, and how to discharge them; how, sometimes, to keep the batteries going, day and night, with red-hot shot, if perhaps he may make a breach in the walls; at other times, to lay by and cease, and then, on a sudden, to open all the batteries with terrific violence, if peradventure he may take the soul by surprise or cast in a truth when it was not expected, to burst like a shell in the soul, and do damage to the dominions of sin. The Christian soldier must know how to advance by little and little—to sap that prejudice, to undermine that old enmity, to blow into the air that lust, and at the last, to storm the citadel.
To use another image, Spurgeon also compares soul-winning to wooing someone with love, again another task that requires perseverance and wisdom.
There are secret and mysterious ways by which those who love win the object of their affection, which are wise in their fitness to the purpose. I cannot tell you how the lover wins his fond one, but experience has probably taught you. The weapon of this warfare is not always the same, yet where that victory is won the wisdom of the means becomes clear to every eye. The weapon of love is sometimes a look, or a soft word whispered and eagerly listened to; sometimes it is a tear; but this I know, that we have, most of us in our turn, cast around another heart a chain which that other would not care to break, and which has linked us twain in a blessed captivity which has cheered our life. Yes, and that is very nearly the way in which we have to save souls.
Rather than expecting instant results, we should know that evangelism will require persistent effort as we seek to communicate the gospel to others.
Every Christian is called to be a soul winner
Lovett’s purpose for publishing his book was to equip lay Christians with the techniques they needed to share the gospel. Ironically, however, his techniques were more suited for people with the personality of a salesperson (as is evidenced by the illustrations), rather than all Christians. But true soul winning is the responsibility of all Christians, not simply those with a certain kind of personality or who have learned a specific technique.
But I am not talking to ministers, but to you who sit in the pew, and therefore to you let me turn myself more directly. Brothers and sisters, you have different gifts. I hope you use them all. Perhaps some of you, though members of the church, think you have none; but every believer has his gift, and his portion of work. What can you do to win souls?
Today, we might find Lovett’s brand of soul winning humorous. But it made sense in his day, given his context of 19th-century American revivalism and 20th-century modernity and therapeutic culture. But what about Spurgeon? Indeed, there were aspects of Spurgeon’s evangelistic practices that were also influenced by his culture. Spurgeon’s social activism, plain-speaking, and organizational efforts blended with his evangelistic fervor to fit his Victorian context.
And yet, in the points that we see above, Spurgeon’s evangelism was rooted fundamentally not in method but in theology. Spurgeon understood that salvation is from God alone. He believed that the Spirit alone brings about conversion. And salvation will only happen as the gospel of Christ is faithfully proclaimed. So, while Spurgeon may have contextualized his evangelistic practices, he refused to compromise the theological convictions on which they were based. And in the end, it was his theology, not culture, which shaped his evangelism.
For Spurgeon, soul winning meant a clear articulation of the gospel and humble dependence on God for salvation.
HT: Thanks to Challies for the picture.