Most of us think of soul winning as a New Testament concept, but a related idea exists in the Old Testament: “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and he who wins souls is wise” (Proverbs 11:30, NKJV). A similar passage is found in Daniel 12:3: “Those who are wise will shine as bright as the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness will shine like the stars forever” (NLT).
Proverbs 11:30 turns out to be a difficult verse to interpret, and translators have rendered it in various ways. Some translations are close to the NKJV’s “he who wins souls is wise”: “the one who is wise saves lives” (NIV), “one who is wise gains souls” (NASB), and “the one who wins people is wise” (ISV), for example. But other translations take the Hebrew wording differently: “a wise person wins friends” (NLT), “if you act wisely, others will follow” (CEV), and even “violence takes lives” (HCSB).
The word wins in Proverbs 11:30 can mean “attracts,” suggesting that the wise person attracts others to wisdom and the “tree of life” produced by a righteous life. As he draws people to himself, the wise person can offer them sound instruction. This idea fits with the first part of the verse. A righteous person has life-giving influence in the way good fruit attracts one to a tree. The New Living Translation aligns with this notion of attraction, stating, “The seeds of good deeds become a tree of life; a wise person wins friends.”
Some translators apply the phrase wins souls to the concept of doing good to others, as in the NLT. But the Hebrew word can also mean “captures or takes possession of.” Using this sense, the English Standard Version renders the verse, “Whoever captures souls is wise.” Wins souls can also mean “takes lives or destroys lives,” as presented in the Holman Christian Standard Bible (“but violence takes lives”) and the Christian Standard Bible (“a cunning person takes lives”). Translated this way, Proverbs 11:30 becomes a study in contrasts, with the second part of the verse antithetical to the first—the righteous person gives life, but the unrighteous will connive to take it away.
Almost certainly, the phrase wins souls in Proverbs 11:30 does not mean “evangelism” as in the full New Testament sense of winning souls for Christ. However, it is likely that a similar principle is involved. Bible commentator Matthew Henry explains the term like so: “He that is wise, by communicating his wisdom, wins souls, wins upon them to bring them in love with God and holiness, and so wins them over into the interests of God’s kingdom among men” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, Hendrickson Publishers, 1994, p. 979).
By their righteous living, wise people attract other people and, as a result, can turn many souls away from foolishness and toward righteousness. “Those that would win souls have need of wisdom to know how to deal with them; and those that do win souls show that they are wise,” explains Henry (ibid.). James puts it like this: “Whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death” (James 5:20, ESV).
One of the Bible’s leading authorities on soul winning was the apostle Paul. He wrote, “Even though I am a free man with no master, I have become a slave to all people to bring many to Christ. When I was with the Jews, I lived like a Jew to bring the Jews to Christ. When I was with those who follow the Jewish law, I too lived under that law. Even though I am not subject to the law, I did this so I could bring to Christ those who are under the law. When I am with the Gentiles who do not follow the Jewish law, I too live apart from that law so I can bring them to Christ. But I do not ignore the law of God; I obey the law of Christ. When I am with those who are weak, I share their weakness, for I want to bring the weak to Christ. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some” (1 Corinthians 9:19–22, NLT).
Paul lived in such a way that would attract other people to himself—or, rather, to Christ. He sought to find common ground with anyone and everyone in the hopes of winning their souls for God’s kingdom. No one can deny the wisdom of his approach. If we desire to be one who wins souls, if we want to be wise, we will follow Paul’s example.
“The fruit of the [consistently] righteous is a tree of life,
And he who is wise captures and wins souls [for God—he gathers them for eternity]” (Proverbs 11:30, AMP).