I spent a lot of time in church while I was growing up. We were there Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday night. I’ve been told that God likes people who are faithful, and if being faithful means showing up at church every time the doors are open, we absolutely were.
<Rant about soul-winning> The first church I really remember was a soul-winning independent evangelical Methodist church. I put the emphasis on “soul-winning” because soul-winning churches rely heavily on what I see as an inexcusable misinterpretation of Proverbs 11:30, which says in the King James “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life; and he that winneth souls is wise.” Somehow, in some freakish misinterpretation, “winning souls” came to mean “convincing people to pray and accept Jesus Christ into their heart as their personal Lord and Savior.” It’s ironic because the writer of Proverbs did not mean and could not have meant anything like that. Jesus hadn’t even been born yet. I realize that people of the soul-winning orientation argue that the writer of Proverbs was writing prophetically about Jesus and about convincing people to accept him, but I think that interpretation requires an incredible stretching of the text to make it fit that theology. <end rant about soul-winning>
Whether or not the phrase “soul-winning” means what the soul-winning churches think it means, the issue of “convincing people to pray and accept Jesus Christ into their heart as their personal Lord and Savior” was a megatheme throughout my childhood.
I remember sitting in one service as another preacher made an abominable reading out of Revelation 20:12 in which John says “I saw the dead, great and small.” The preacher made it out to say that every Christian will see every other human being on judgment day. He said that on judgment day, every person you ever met who isn’t a Christian will look at you and say “WHY DIDN’T YOU WARN ME? Now I’m going away to Hell and if you’d had the nerve to tell me about Jesus, I wouldn’t be.” Unforgivable eisegesis or not, the idea of meeting someone that I hadn’t told about Jesus who was at the judgment seat of Christ about to be condemned to hell for all eternity was horrifying to me.
Another preacher said that we don’t really believe what we claim we believe if we believe that everyone who’s not a Christian is going to burn in hell for all eternity if we don’t tell everyone we can about Jesus. Others frequently referred to the great commission (preach the gospel to every creature) as “The Great Omission” because many Christians aren’t preaching the gospel to anybody. And I was as guilty as anybody.
When I was around 10, an older kid was talking about how he had led a 5-year-old in the sinner’s prayer. Because of what he had done, there would be one more soul in heaven and one less in hell. I felt so ashamed. I had never told anyone about Jesus. I had never in my life led a single person to Christ. (Which is to say, convinced someone to pray and ask Jesus Christ to come into their heart and be their personal Lord and Savior). And I still haven’t. For a long, long time that made me feel like a horrible Christian.
We sang songs like “Rescue the perishing,” about convincing people to become Christians before they died and went to hell:
Rescue the perishing, care for the dying,
Snatch them in pity from sin and the grave;
Weep o’er the erring one, lift up the fallen,
Tell them of Jesus, the mighty to save.
Rescue the perishing, care for the dying,
Jesus is merciful, Jesus will save.
Though they are slighting Him, still He is waiting,
Waiting the penitent child to receive;
Plead with them earnestly, plead with them gently;
He will forgive if they only believe.
I once heard a famous baptist talk about his friend who saw one soul saved every day. Imagine! Somebody out there meeting people every single day and convincing at least one of those people that they need to pray and accept Jesus into their heart to be their personal Lord and Savior! At the time, I thought it was absolutely wonderful. And I felt more guilty than ever, but now I was inspired to try harder to do the same. Now I’m somewhere between wondering if it’s doing any good and if it’s actually doing harm to the Kingdom of God.
Another time someone told a story of a girl who was sitting in a pew and said, “Pastor, I don’t want to accept Jesus just yet. I’ll do it next week.” Then she went out and got hit by a bus and died and went to hell. So you never know when someone’s time is coming; get them to accept Jesus now. Another abominable misinterpretation from Ezekiel poured guilt upon guilt:
But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet to warn the people and the sword comes and takes the life of one of them, that man will be taken away because of his sin, but I will hold the watchman accountable for his blood.’ -Ezekiel 33:6
In short, if you don’t tell someone about Jesus and they die and go to hell, God is going to hold you accountable for their soul. I don’t think they said it means you go to hell, but that’s pretty awful. The blood of their figurative soul is on your hands, and all because you weren’t out standing on a street corner holding up a sign that says “REPENT!”
Suffice it to say, there has been a lot of condemnation in my life because I don’t have the gift of evangelism. Sure, I believed my coworkers at Subway were going to Hell. I just didn’t know how to tell them about Jesus who would save them from the fate worse than death that they didn’t know could be lurking right around the corner if they died. And all of the apologetical stuff I had learned melted into mush in the presence of real, actual, honest suffering.
It’s been a long road. I no longer feel guilty when I see someone walking down the street and don’t try to convince them to pray and accept Jesus.
Maybe it was my slow transition to a more Calvinistic perspective in which God and God alone is responsible for salvation, and in which God decides in advance who’s going to be saved, and if the people I meet are predestined for salvation and I miss my chance, they’re not going to go out and get hit by a bus. They’re just not. God will put someone else in front of them to tell them about Jesus. It’s called Irresistible Grace because the Holy Spirit doesn’t let you just get out of becoming a Christian by getting hit by a bus, yo.
This mindset was a great relief to me, as you may imagine, what with people’s souls not going to hell because of me. It was their own damned fault (see what I did there? Going to hell… damned… Nevermind). Everybody deserves to go to hell, and God is saving some people. It was a far, far less condemning and destructive story. And God had chosen me to be among those He was going to save.
It took me a while to notice that Calvin’s doctrine had issues, too.