1 Corinthians 9:19–23
For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. 20 And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law, though not being myself under the Law, that I might win those who are under the Law; 21 to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, that I might win those who are without law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some. 23 And I do all things for the sake of the gospel, that I may become a fellow partaker of it.
Should We Imitate Paul's Strategy?
The first question to ask is whether this remarkable testimony of Paul is something we should imitate, or is this just something that apostles did—or that missionaries do who must adapt to other cultures?
The answer comes from one of the clearest commentaries on these words that Paul himself wrote in the next chapter. Look at 1 Corinthians 10:31–11:1. Here the issue is exactly the same as in 9:19ff., namely, how to relate to Jews and Greeks so as to win them for Christ. He says,
Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 32) Give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God; [in other words, adapt as much as you can in non-sinful ways] 33) just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of the many, that they may be saved. [That's the same as 9:22, "I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some." Then comes the answer to our question, in 11:1.] Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.
So that answer is: No, this is not a specifically apostolic or missionary way of life. It is something that he meant for all the Corinthian believers to imitate. He was imitating Christ, and he wants us to imitate him. So hear this message this morning a Word from God for you particularly and not just for someone else. Ask how you, in your sphere of life, can use your freedom the way Paul and Jesus did, if by any means you might save some.
What Is Paul's Aim?
Now the second question to ask in this text is what Paul's aim is. Why has he made himself a slave to all? Why is he becoming "as a Jew" to the Jews? Why did he make himself as a "lawless one" to the lawless, and weak to the weak? Which is the same now as asking, Why should we?
It's a tremendously important question. Paul is telling us to live and act in ways that are different from the way we would act if we didn't share his aim in life. So it makes a big difference if we have the same aim Paul does here. What was his aim?
To Win Others
Five times he says that his aim is to win people. Verse 19: "that I might win the more." Verse 20: " that I might win the Jews . . . that I might win those under the law." Verse 21: "That I might win those who are without law." Verse 22: "That I might win the weak."
To Save Others
So five times he says that his aim in adapting to the way people live is to win them. Then at the end of verse 22 in his summary statement he says, "I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some." So he says his aim differently here. Five times it was "to win" people; and now it is "to save" people.
To Be a Partaker of the Benefits of the Gospel
Then in verse 23 he gives one last aim: "And I do all things for the sake of the gospel, that I may become a fellow partaker of it." I believe this means exactly what R.H. Lenski says it means. Paul is saying, "If I omit this concern of love for others, although through my work, devoid of such love, many others may be saved, yet I myself would not be saved." In other words, Paul knew that his faith in Christ would be utterly inauthentic and false, if he abandoned the pattern of life set by Jesus and no longer cared for other people.
So Paul tells us his aim in three ways:
- to win others;
- to be partaker in the benefits of the gospel himself.
Now what does this mean? Win others for what? Save others from what? Partake in what benefits of the gospel?
Saved from the Wrath of God
The most straightforward answer is given in Romans 5:9: "Having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath [of God] through Him." Of all Paul's uses of the word "save" in his letters this is the one place where he tells us explicitly what we are saved from. When we put our trust in Christ, we are saved from "the wrath of God."
So that is the aim of Paul in becoming all things to all people. Verse 22: "I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some"—from the wrath of God. The gospel is the good news that God has made a way to save us from his own wrath. In 1 Thessalonians 1:10 Paul says that "Jesus delivers us [=saves us] from the wrath to come."
Partaker of Eternal Life
That's what Paul seeks to save people from, when he adapts to their way of life. But now what does he win them for? Or: what benefits of the gospel does Paul hope to share in when he is saved from the wrath of God?
Jesus tells us the alternative to the wrath of God. In John 3:36 he says, "He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him." The alternative to the wrath of God abiding on us is eternal life. This is what Paul wins people for. This is what he wants to be a fellow partaker of.
So now we know our goal and aim. Our aim, like Paul's is to save people from the wrath of God and to win them for eternal life; and in loving people like this we prove the reality of our own faith and confirm our participation in the gospel.
Do We Really Believe the Wrath of God Is Coming?
A question that presses itself on me here is this: is one of the reasons that we make as little effort as we do in winning others the fact that we don't believe the wrath of God is coming? For many today the good news of Jesus Christ is conceived almost entirely as another strategy to handle psychological needs—depression, grief, abandonment, loneliness, anger, low self-esteem, fear, etc. And the gospel does have an impact on all those things. But that is not what makes it the gospel. If the gospel did not touch any of those things in this life (which is conceivable), it would still be unspeakably good news. Do you believe that?
What makes the gospel good news is that I am already acquitted in the courtroom of heaven. There is no condemnation to those in Christ Jesus. The sentence of infinite, holy wrath has been revoked in my case. Jesus absorbed it for me. Therefore, as 1 Thessalonians 5:9 says, "God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ."
But O what a difference there is for those who do not embrace the gospel! Romans 2:5 says, "Because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God." I wonder if we believe this. Very little in our culture helps us believe this. It is a massive worldview change from what most people think. There is coming a day of wrath and righteous judgment of God. Everyone, Paul says, will give an account of himself to God (Romans 14:12). And there are only two verdicts and two sentences: guilty or not guilty; and eternal life or eternal wrath and punishment (Matthew 25:46).
If this is a minor part of your thought world, if you don't think about this very much, then it will be hard for you to feel the sense of sorrow and urgency that Paul felt for the lost people around him. What we need to do is ponder the wrath of God that is coming—to meditate, think about, reflect on, mull over, turn over in our minds, and dwell on—the reality of the wrath of God. Until this figures as largely in our worldview as it did for Paul, we will not have the passion for evangelism that he had.
To help us do this I have written the STAR article this week about the wrath of God and included numerous texts about it. We need to memorize some of these and expose our minds to them as often as we are exposed to the messages of the media that the big things in life are money and position and coolness. One of the biggest realities in the universe is the wrath of God, and it is coming on all those who do not trust in Jesus, "who delivers us from the wrath to come."
What Is Paul's Strategy for Winning Others?
We have time for one last question in this text: What is Paul's strategy for winning and saving others? The answer is: his strategy was to use his Christian freedom to become the slave of all. 1 Corinthians 9:19, "For though I am free from all, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more." I use my freedom to become a servant.
The Strategy of Love
In 1520 Martin Luther, the great Reformer in Germany, wrote a treatise called "The Freedom of the Christian." He began it with this paradox:
A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.
Then he explained:
These two theses seem to contradict each other . . . [But] both are Paul's own statements, who says in 1 Corinthians 9:19, "For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all," and in Romans 13:8, "Owe no one anything, except to love one another." Love, by its very nature, is ready to serve and be subject to him who is loved.
So Paul's strategy is love. It's exactly what he said in Galatians 5:13, "You were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another." Use your liberty to love by serving. That's what Paul says he is doing here in verse 19: "Though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave [or servant] to all." That's what Paul—and Jesus—mean by love.
His Relation to the Law
You can see this even more clearly in the three things Paul says about his relation to the law in these verses. Notice: First, verse 20b: "To those who are under the Law, [I became] as under the Law, though not being myself under the Law." So he says he is NOT under law. Second, verse 21: "To those who are without law, [I became] as without law, though not being without the law of God." So he says, in the second place, that he is not without the law of God. First, he is not under the law, but, secondly, he is not without the law of God. Third, verse 21b: "But [I am] under the law of Christ."
So there are three statements about his relation to the law:
- I am not under law;
- I am not without the law of God;
- I am under the law of Christ.
You might say, "That sure sounds involved." But life is involved. This is the sort of careful thinking you must do if you are going to take the risks involved in adapting to all kinds of people so that you might save some. As soon as you say, "I have made myself slave to all" (v. 19), and "I have become all things to all men" (v. 23), you are on the brink of idolatry and compromise and worldliness and sin. You are walking the razor's edge between fruitless separatism and unprincipled expediency. If you fall one way, you are of no use because you have no connection with the world; if you fall the other way, you are of no use because you are just like the world.
How do you keep your faith and your freedom and your radical zeal to win people and not just copy people? The answer is that you think hard about your relation to the law of God—the way Paul did. And what you come to is this:
- As a Christian, I am not "under law" (v. 20)—that is, I am not bound to earn my salvation by the law, nor am I bound to live by the ceremonial, dietary, separation laws of the Old Testament (for example, circumcision, holy days, no ham and catfish, no mixed fibers, no meat offered to idols, and so on). I am free to go to the home of an animist and humanist and eat whatever they put before me in order to win them for Christ (1 Corinthians 10:27).
- As a Christian I am nevertheless not without God's law (v. 21). In 1 Corinthians 7:19 Paul says, "Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God." This is a remarkable verse! It says that circumcision, which was a commandment of God in the Old Testament is negligible for Christians, but the commandments of God are not negligible. This is why we distinguish between the ceremonial law and the moral law. As Christians we submit to the moral law of God. We are not without the law of God, as Paul says.
- Which is defined for us in verse 21 as "the law of Christ." We are under the law of Christ. This is the law of love. In Galatians 6:2 Paul says, "Bear one another's burdens, and thus fulfill the law of Christ." The law of Christ is the law that fulfills all laws: Galatians 5:14, "The whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'" This is called in James 2:8 the "royal law" and "the law of liberty" (1:25; 2:12). It's the law that free people submit to gladly because they are led by the Holy Spirit. That's what Paul means when he says in Galatians 5:18, "If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law." Instead, you bear the fruit of love, and so submit gladly to the law of Christ, the law of love.
And What Does It Look Like?
In freedom, for love's sake, you try to overcome unnecessary, alienating differences that cut you off from unbelievers. In freedom, for love's sake, you learn the Maninka language and translate the Bible. In freedom, for love's sake, you eat dinner together the way they eat dinner. In freedom, for love's sake, you dress pretty much like the middle class American natives. In freedom, for love's sake, you get into their politics and their sports and their businesses.
And all the while you keep a vigilant watch over your heart to see if you are in the law of Christ. Here are two tests of how you are doing in this delicate balancing act. I close with these:
- Are you becoming more worldly minded than they are becoming spiritually minded? If so, you have probably crossed the line of the law of Christ. Christ does not call you to lose your holiness, but to gain theirs.
- Is your passion for winning your friends and family growing, or is it shrinking as you become all things to them? If it is shrinking, then you are not in the law of Christ at that point.
Here is the sum of the matter: Christ died to set us free. Free from the wrath of God, and free from the loveless limits of the law. Free for love and eternal life. Are we using our freedom to make this good news plain? Or are we so separatistic that we have no connection with unbelievers; or are we so worldly they don't know we have anything radically different to offer?
O may the Lord grant us to use our freedom to become the servants of all, that we might by all means save some!