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preaching article The Preacher's Task: Saving Souls or Making Disciples?

The Preacher's Task: Saving Souls or Making Disciples?

based on 7 ratings
May 3, 2013

I experienced an uncomfortable moment recently when someone expressed admiration for my chosen vocation, which was characterized as “saving souls.”

The reason I was uncomfortable is that I don’t do that, and so I couldn’t take credit for it. No, this is not just a typical case of Midwestern modesty, like a firefighter who dashes into a burning building to save a child and then insists he’s not a hero. Shucks, I’m just an ordinary guy doing his job.

Seriously, saving people is not my job. I don’t save souls. Never have, never will. Getting credit for doing so reminds me of the story in Acts 14 where Paul and Barnabas are mistaken for Zeus and Hermes. When the townsfolk bring out on ox to sacrifice to them, the two missionaries frantically plead, “Why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news.”

That’s it exactly. Jesus saves souls — that’s what Easter was all about. Don’t confuse me with the one who saves souls; I’m just a messenger bearing good news. Maybe there shouldn’t be a “just” in that sentence. Being a messenger of the good news is certainly a meaningful vocation. But the fact that bearing good news is my vocation doesn’t make me any more or less worthy of admiration than anyone else.

 Not only do I not save souls, but I don’t think it’s helpful language for preachers to talk about saving souls. Maybe I’m just overly sensitive because of the wisdom imparted by parents from the years they spent in the mission field in KwaZulu, South Africa, but it sounds like a condescending, paternalistic way of going about things. Like it’s our job as superior beings to rescue others from their ignorance or intransigence.

I think that, in the past, this one-way-street attitude not only got missionaries in trouble, it got the universal church in trouble. I was asked recently if the traditional Lutheran understanding of mission work is basically that you have to convert them first, and then offer help. I responded that I hope not. When I read the Gospels, I don’t see Jesus focused on converting people; he spends most of his time healing and helping and loving. He does not describe his mission as saving souls and converting people. He does say, “I have come to heal and help folks, especially the poor and the powerless.” And in the process of that, faith incubates and grows, lives are changed and people are saved.

Yes, Jesus asked us to make disciples of all nations, but that isn’t the same as asking us to save souls. There are a lot of Christian believers in our congregations who are not disciples, and it is one of our jobs as preachers to try to make disciples out of them. Why? So that they can heal, help, love and proclaim the good news to others who aren’t disciples.

So while we’re in our pulpits trying to make disciples out of congregation members, we should also be out there being a blessing to others. I can’t see where one goes before the others. You can’t proclaim effectively about the love of God without reflecting that love.

Christians reflect the love of God — love that has the power to heal, to feed and to save. That’s what we do. There is no nobler vocation in the world. If we’re doing it right, that’s what preachers do as well.

Nathan Aaseng serves as pastor at St. John's Lutheran Church in Eau Claire, WI. He has had more than 170 books published, sacred and secular, for readers from 8 to adult. His latest work is The Five Realms, an epic fantasy based on 1 Corinthians 1:27.

Talk about it...

Russ Hadley avatar
Russ Hadley
0 days ago
How does Jesus claim "I have come to seek and to save that which is lost" fit into your claim "He does not describe his mission as saving souls...."?
Frank Gant avatar
Frank Gant
0 days ago
I was with you until you quoted Jesus as saying, "I have come to heal and help folks, especially the poor and the powerless." What is the chapter and verse for that quote? And which translation is it? Matthew 28:18 Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." That's what Jesus came to do. Feeding the hungry is a by-product of our mission to spread the gospel and to make disciples. A pastor has a responsibility to teach and train others how to spread the gospel; other good works will come as a secondary benefit to the unsaved. Let's not get our priorities reversed.
Kevin Kleinhenz avatar
Kevin Kleinhenz
0 days ago
I see the message you are trying to convey but unfortunately like the first poster my red flag popped up with the idea that Jesus did not have saving souls as His mission. "They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." (Mark 2:17) Of course we should know that we are not the ones who actually save, but Prov 11:30 says "The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life and he that wins souls is wise". We know that we cannot heal, or deliever or do any work of God on our own the disciples knew that yet Jesus told them "Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils; freely you have received, freely give. (Mat 10:8) I agree all we do is vainity without "love" but let us not put the cart before the horse and think for a moment that benevolent acts can somehow supercede the charge of sharing the good news of "whosover shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved".
Zachary Bartels avatar
Zachary Bartels
0 days ago
First three commenters are right on. Jesus came to save the lost. And, guess what? A faithful preacher (or any faithful disciple) can do just that! Don't believe me? See 1 Corinthians 9:22 "I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some," or James 5:19?"My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death..."
Dennis Cocks avatar
Dennis Cocks
0 days ago
Ditto with the first four posters!
Jim Gauntt avatar
Jim Gauntt
0 days ago
I'm sorry, but I have to agree with the previous posts... While I do agree that we don't save anyone, its the Father that draws them, and Jesus who saves them, its also written, "How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? God has chosen the foolishness of preaching to reach the world, and if God has called you to serve Him full time in this capacity, then God has called you to share the gospel, and through the power of the gospel (the good news) people will be saved... I believe you must do the work concurrently, as the Holy Spirit leads (i.e. share the gospel, share Gods love in tangible ways, and make disciples of those that have been saved)...
Jim Gauntt avatar
Jim Gauntt
0 days ago
I'm sorry, but I have to agree with the previous posts... While I do agree that we don't save anyone, its the Father that draws them, and Jesus who saves them, its also written, "How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? God has chosen the foolishness of preaching to reach the world, and if God has called you to serve Him full time in this capacity, then God has called you to share the gospel, and through the power of the gospel (the good news) people will be saved... I believe you must do the work concurrently, as the Holy Spirit leads (i.e. share the gospel, share Gods love in tangible ways, and make disciples of those that have been saved)...
Ben Clinton avatar
Ben Clinton
0 days ago
Pastor ben clinton says....jesus came to seek and to save the lost souls.
Charles Ingwe avatar
Charles Ingwe
0 days ago
Brother Nathan, surely I too like Frank stayed on with you until I believe when you used your own translated words. I know at times we do use our own wording to imply what scripture says but we need to be accurate when doing that. The "I have come to heal and help folks" does not fit according to my understanding. My prayer is that if you were trying to shorten Luke 4:18, you will do better to go over it word by word and you will see that the helping of those who were in captivity has the seal of the wording " to preach the good news " and there will never be any good news if salvation is not foundation. That good news is saving souls and then charity will carry meaning. Stay blessed brother and keep the good work of the Lord.
Derrick Tuper avatar
Derrick Tuper
0 days ago
I had the same concerns as the other posters. Although it's true we can't literally save anyone we are the means by which that happens. 2nd Cor. 5:17-21 highlights this. Also, making a convert and making a disciple are one and the same. You can't be a convert without being a disciple. In the Greek disciple means student, one who follows another's teachings. A convert is someone who is a follower of Jesus. Jesus said go and make disciples, baptizing them, teaching them. We see Peter doing that very thing at Pentecost. Acts 2:36-38. He taught them and they were convicted and asked what they needed to do. Peter replied, "repent and be baptized and you will receive forgiveness and the indwelling Holy Spirit". [paraphrased]
Joshua Newton avatar
Joshua Newton
0 days ago
Hi there. I am afraid I must concur with the other wise gentleman. Your humility is admirable and should be commended. However, the interpretation of Jesus's words is dangerous. There is a big difference between the social gospel related to charity and the Gospel which is the power of God unto salvation. I understand where you were coming from and I believe your intent was good but I am afraid the message got twisted. Keep fighting the fight of faith but choose your words carefully.
David Braneky avatar
David Braneky
0 days ago
I appreciate your article and it provides a needed correction to the platonic dualism that many Westerners, including evangelical Christians, have come to believe in. Jesus came not to save souls, but individuals that they might be his disciples and live reconciled lives with God, one's self, each other and all of creation. When preachers speak of saving souls my experience is that most are referring to some dualistic part of the body that goes to some disembodied heaven after death. However, if they mean "souls" in the OT sense of "personhood" or "person" meaning "you are a soul" then they are right on. Lastly, how many times does Jesus say your faith has saved you in the NT when it has nothing to do with life after death, but life on this earth. There's many examples of that.
David Braneky avatar
David Braneky
0 days ago
I appreciate your article and it provides a needed correction to the platonic dualism that many Westerners, including evangelical Christians, have come to believe in. Jesus came not to save souls, but individuals that they might be his disciples and live reconciled lives with God, one's self, each other and all of creation. When preachers speak of saving souls my experience is that most are referring to some dualistic part of the body that goes to some disembodied heaven after death. However, if they mean "souls" in the OT sense of "personhood" or "person" meaning "you are a soul" then they are right on. Lastly, how many times does Jesus say your faith has saved you in the NT when it has nothing to do with life after death, but life on this earth. There's many examples of that.
John Pistorius avatar
John Pistorius
0 days ago
The first word of the Gospel is "Repent." With all due respect, your message contradicts the message of the one whom I serve. It is written in the 6th chapter of John's gospel record, Jesus answered them and said, "Most assuredly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set His seal on Him." Then they said to Him, "What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?" Jesus answered and said to them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent." Therefore they said to Him, "What sign will You perform then, that we may see it and believe You? What work will You do? Our fathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written, 'HE GAVE THEM BREAD FROM HEAVEN TO EAT.'" Then Jesus said to them, "Most assuredly, I say to you, Moses did not give you the bread from heaven, but My Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." Then they said to Him, "Lord, give us this bread always." And Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen Me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day. And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day." The Jews then complained about Him, because He said, "I am the bread which came down from heaven." And they said, "Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How is it then that He says, 'I have come down from heaven'?" Jesus therefore answered and said to them, "Do not murmur among yourselves. No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the prophets, 'AND THEY SHALL ALL BE TAUGHT BY GOD.' Therefore everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to Me. Not that anyone has seen the Father, except He who is from God; He has seen the Father. Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world." (John 6:26-51 NKJV)
Gerbrand Van Schalkwyk avatar
Gerbrand Van Schalkwyk
0 days ago
You are very correct when you say we dont save souls. We only preach the Word of God to all nations. As for the doing good part. We must be very careful how we bless others. We in Africa have a very big problem with "do good missionaries" who keeps on giving and in the process destroys the work ethic of many nations. Many of our friends are missionaries who work very hard to try and improve the living conditions of the people. Instead the people become more and more lazy. More and more dependant. More and more arrogant, even upset when people who they expect to give for free dont give. As if they are being owed for being alive. 1Ti 5:15 say women who are given who can still work will become lazy. 2Th3:10-12. If anyone does not want to work he should not eat!!!! Please help us to develop hard working people. Giving without guidence make lazy people. When you give to the poor, dont give food, give an oppertunity, schools, education, a bussiness opertunity, medicine for health. Give something that encourage work. And with that you give the Word. Bring them in contact with the Kingdom. God wants hard working people. Not lazy people. Another problem with too much giving is that people become self centred. What is in this for me. Instead of seeking the Kingdom of God they want pleasure now. Instead of serving they become demanding. Originally i made the same problems. Giving and doing everything for the poor. Poor because of laziness, not poor because of enviroment. Today I still give but in a reaponsible way. Its much harder work. You have to become involved, take part but it also opens the window wide to spread the Word of God. And to truely make disciples
John E Miller avatar
John E Miller
0 days ago
"Follow me and I will make you fishers of men." (Mat.4:19)

So, what did you think?


Thank you.