Gospel & Culture blog
Charles Spurgeon wrote in The Soul Winner “Soul-winning is the chief business of the Christian minister; indeed, it should be the main pursuit of every true believer”. Is this really the main pursuit? If that’s not YOUR main pursuit, does that mean Spurgeon doesn’t think you’re really a Christian? Note that the Westminster Shorter Catechism, written two hundred years before Spurgeon, framed the “chief end of man” as “glorifying God and enjoying him forever.” That is a MUCH broader task than soul-winning. Can God be glorified in other ways than just soul-winning? Is God glorified when we run businesses, plant gardens and heal the sick? If so, Spurgeon’s comments are really myopic.
Spurgeon was what we would now call a prioritist: He believed proclamation was a priority over social action. The syllogism seems to go
Prioritism is in contrast to holists like the formers of Lausanne Committee’s paper on Evangelism and Social Responsibility, who see the proclamation of the gospel as part of the Christian mandate, along with the command to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. Holists see proclamation as one way of ministering to people, and feeding them, clothing them, healing them, and befriending them are other ways to minister to them.
You might think that missionaries’ main priority is proclaiming the gospel to the lost (and by that I mean explaining the propitiatory sacrifice of Jesus to those who don’t believe that Jesus can atone for their sins). But, missionaries like all Christians, have lots of priorities: holding corrupt governments accountable, introducing life-saving technologies, strengthening families, healing the sick, etc. I wonder if Spurgeon would have criticized modern day missionaries for having such a broad list of (God-glorifying) priorities.
Actually, I am pretty sure Spurgeon would criticize many modern missionaries. I have even been criticized as a Bible translator for going to the South Pacific instead of making the world’s “unreached, unevangelized people groups” a priority. The priority of resources (financial and personnel) is debated even with mission agencies. I was with Wycliffe Bible Translators, which has had a long-standing question over whether “good deeds” are an ends or a means. Is literacy an ends in itself, or only a means to saving souls? Is the scientific study of language and the preservation of minority cultures an ends, or a means? Should Wycliffe, with its large fleet of jungle aircraft, use the planes to just be helpful towards people- or only when it serves the ends of proclamation? Even in 2014, critics were still talking about Cam Townsend’s decision in 1954 to give a free airplane ride to two Catholic missionaries in South America. The critics say missionaries shouldn’t just love others- they should ONLY take stands for the truth.
But most Wycliffe missionaries these days are holists, and see no reason to make everything subservient to evangelism. Scientific study of languages glorifies God, so it’s an end (not just a means). Preserving cultures glorifies God, and is an end, not just a means. Giving free plane rides to the sick or poor glorifies God, and is an end, not just a means.
Jesus’ main pursuit was to do the will of his father (John 6:38). That included, first and foremost, proclaiming good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the captive, and release of the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19). You would have to spiritualize every act of Jesus’ ministry on earth to make it look like His priority was ONLY soul-winning. His priority was bringing glory to God. Sometimes that was done through healing, sometimes through proclamation, sometimes through confronting unjust political leaders.
Certainly, Jesus’ command to make disciples of all nations (which is more or less what Spurgeon meant by ‘soul-winning’) brings glory to God, and is binding on every believer. But we have many other binding commands in scripture that are also essential for every believer, including: living just lives, loving our neighbors as ourselves, and pleading the cause of the poor and needy. Is evangelism the priority of every believer? Yes. Is justice the priority of every believer? Yes. Is personal holiness the priority of every believer? Yes. How can these all be a priority? Because if we truly follow Jesus’ example, our priority is doing the will of our heavenly father.
© 2015 Kenneth Nehrbass. All Rights Reserved.
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor