Winning people over
‘Soul-winning’ was a popular term in my childhood and youth. It seems to have gone out of fashion of late – probably because we tended to limit its use to mean: ‘Put your hand up in response to the preacher’s appeal,’ and ‘Pray with me the sinner’s prayer,’ although neither of those appeals can be found in Scripture! Nowadays those expressions can sound mechanistic. Surely Proverbs 11:30b, ‘he who wins souls is wise’ (New International Version), refers to a transaction filled with warmth?
In 1 Corinthians 9:12b-23 Paul uses the verb ‘to win’ five times (1 Corinthians 9:19, 20, 20, 21, 22) in the context of spreading ‘the gospel’ (eight occurrences – 1 Corinthians 9:12, 14, 14, 16, 16, 18, 18, 23). He aimed to adapt his ways of introducing the Good News to blend inoffensively with the varied cultures of his listeners in order to ‘win’ them over to Jesus. His verb ‘to win’, kerdaino (‘to gain’), is used in that sense of ‘win someone over’ in Matthew 18:15 – motivating an estranged Christian brother back into fellowship. And in 1 Peter 3:1 it refers to the effect of the non-verbal testimony of converted wives – a new, winsome demeanour toward their still unbelieving husbands, ‘so that … they may be won without a word when they see your respectful and pure conduct’ (see 1 Peter 3:1-6).
Capturing hearts and minds
However, the Hebrew verb laqach in Proverbs 11:30 means ‘take’ rather than ‘win’ or ‘gain’. It is rendered in the English Standard Version: ‘whoever captures souls is wise.’ Eliphaz gave it that emphasis in asking Job: ‘Why does your heart carry you away [like a hostage] … that you turn your spirit against God?’ (Proverbs 15:12-13). In fact, in his painful distress Job had already voiced it to denounce the night of his birth, ‘let thick darkness seize it’ (Job 3:6). It was also applied to Israel’s conquests in war: ‘Israel took all these cities’ (Numbers 21:25; Deuteronomy 3:14). These examples all seem to imply domination, and even suggest violence. But in Proverbs 6:25 it conveys a sense of warm attraction: ‘Do not desire [the adulteress’s] beauty in your heart, and do not let her capture you with her eyelashes.’
How did Jesus ‘win souls’?
Jesus won souls by a different approach from mine as a young open air preacher. My formula was: ‘Proclaim sin black, hell hot and grace free.’ But:
 Zacchaeus became convicted of his greed and dishonesty simply by Jesus’ befriending presence, yet there is no record of Jesus giving him ‘The Four Spiritual Laws’. And:
 The woman of Sychar faced up to her lost condition because Jesus asked her for a drink and offered her the means of constant spiritual refreshment. By ‘a word of wisdom’ he bade her to fetch her husband, followed by ‘a word of knowledge’ about her many failed marriages, and she became a Spirit-anointed witness straightaway! Also:
 Peter ‘fell down at Jesus’ knees’ and cried, ‘I am a sinful man, O Lord’ on experiencing a sudden miraculous haul of fishes after a night of trawling empty nets.
 Jesus still comes ‘to seek and to save the lost’. He still bids us: ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men’ (Matthew 4:19). A steel bar that ‘follows’ a magnet will attract steel pins from a mixture of items of various metals. Perhaps that line of a worship song expresses it best: ‘You’ve captured my heart with your love.’ Let’s start right there.