1 Corinthians 9:19-23 - Sacrificing Our Liberty for the Sake of the Gospel
For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it.NASB: 1 Corinthians 9:19-23
When the Apostle Paul repeats himself, it is for emphasis. In these few verses he repeats the word ‘all’ six times. Therefore what he wants to emphasise must be very important. So what is it that Paul emphasises?
From the beginning of 1 Corinthians 8 Paul has been addressing the issue of Christian liberty. Specifically, he is responding to a question as to whether it is wrong to eat meat offered to idols (v. 4). Paul’s answer to that question is two-pronged. First he says that since there is no real god behind an idol it cannot defile meat offered in sacrifice. So believers who go to the temple and eat meat sacrificed to idols have a right to do so. But secondly and with greater emphasis Paul says that such a right should not be used if it causes a brother to stumble, i.e., to sin against his conscience (v. 9). For in doing so those believers actually sin against Christ (v. 12). Paul emphasises his point by stating the principle by which he lives: “if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause my brother to stumble.”
Although Paul is answering a question about eating meat offered to idols, he draws upon a wide-ranging principle, the Gospel Principle that “everything we do should be for the sake of the Gospel.” It is for the sake of the Gospel that he is willing never to eat meat again in order not to cause a brother with a weak conscience to stumble (v. 13). There is no food so important that we may eat it when doing so would hinder the spiritual growth of a brother in Christ, no matter how weak he might be.
We might call this Sacrificial Principle Part One. It is: for Christ’s sake and for the sake of our brother’s spiritual growth we will sacrifice our Christian liberty.
But Paul goes further in 1 Corinthians 9, enlarging this Sacrificial Principle beyond its application to our Christian brothers.
In the first part of the chapter Paul draws the Corinthians into his thinking by referring to his own example. As an apostle he had every right to take along a wife on his missionary journeys (v. 5). And as an apostle he had every right to be supported in his labour in the Gospel (v. 12). After all, a soldier doesn’t serve at his own expense. And God teaches in the Law of Moses that an ox is not to be muzzled while it is threshing. And the priests who serve in the temple share in the sacrifices offered on the altar.
Although Paul had the right to get his living from the Gospel, he consistently refused to do so. Instead, when he preached the Gospel, he offered it without charge. Then in verses 19-23 Paul uses his own example to emphasise Sacrificial Principle Part Two, namely, for the sake of God’s elect, whoever they may be, and in order to become a partaker in the Gospel, we will sacrifice our Christian liberty. Paul summarizes what he does this way, “I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some” (v. 23).
How does Paul apply it?
This verse, when lifted out of its context, can be, and is, applied in all kinds of wrong ways. So to avoid many errors current in evangelistic outreach we should carefully consider the wrong and the right applications of Paul’s sweeping statement.
First, when Paul says he becomes “all things to all men” he certainly does not mean that he waters down the truth of Scripture in order to make it palatable to unbelievers. For example some say that we shouldn’t talk about the “hard” doctrines of God’s sovereignty and His electing grace with unbelievers because that will turn them away. And we should not talk about the “negative” doctrines of man’s total depravity and Hell or God’s wrath with unbelievers because these too will turn them away.
But such an idea would be anathema to Paul. He said to the Galatians, “even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel other than what we have preached to you he is to be accursed” (Gal 1:8). The doctrines of the faith, whether considered “hard” or “negative” by men, were consistently preached by Paul. When he says he has become “all things to all men” he is certainly not talking about modifying the doctrines he preached to accommodate the religious tastes of unbelievers.
Second, Paul does not mean that we should accept ethical practices that are contrary to God’s commands. Some have claimed this is what he means when he says, “to those who are without law, as without law” (v. 21). We can see Paul’s meaning very clearly since he continues by saying that he is not “without the law of God, but under the law of Christ”.
In these words Paul is contrasting his adaptation to the Gentiles with his adaptation to the Jews. In the previous verse he says “to the Jew I became as a Jew ... to those under the Law, as under the Law” (v. 20). We know of several examples of what he means. Paul wanted to take Timothy along with him on his second missionary journey and so “he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those parts, for they all knew that his father was a Greek” (Acts 16:3). So, although Paul vigorously opposed circumcision when it was required as a matter of justification before God, he had no hesitation for other reasons in conforming to this Jewish cultural practice which, because of the work of Christ, no longer had any spiritual significance (cf. Gal 5:6; 6:15). Paul was also willing to go through the purification ritual with some Jews who had taken a vow in order not to cause offence to the Jews (Acts 21:26).
These two examples make it clear that when Paul says “to those who are under the Law, (I became) as under the Law, though not myself being under the Law” (v. 20) he is referring to the ceremonial provisions of the Law which had passed away with the work of Christ. That is confirmed by his statement that he is not “without the law of God, but under the law of Christ”.
Third, we can say that in his ministry Paul is willing to accommodate himself to Jewish rituals for the sake of the unbelieving or weak Jews. He is also willing to abandon those Jewish rituals (which Jews would normally not do) for the sake of unbelieving Gentiles. And where there are weak Gentile Christians, he is willing to become weak for their sakes as well.
Paul’s adaptation, his becoming “all things to all men”, relates to cultural practices that do not compromise the Gospel or the truth of God’s revelation. For him no cultural practice is so important as the advance of the Gospel. And for that reason he sacrifices his Christian liberty, his rights as an apostle, and even his Jewishness.
How should we apply it?
What does all this mean for us in the communication and furtherance of the Gospel?
It surely means that we must never allow differences of race, culture, language, nationality or religious heritage to become a hindrance to the Gospel. We must be willing to sacrifice any and all of these to win some. For that reason, if people of another language group cannot understand my language, then I must learn theirs in order to advance the Gospel among them. If my countrymen despise someone because of his race, then I must leave the company of my countrymen and go out of my way to show that person the love of Christ for the sake of the Gospel.
In our situation now in New Zealand if I am tempted to despise someone because of his Muslim heritage and practices, then for the sake of the Gospel and my own salvation I must repent of my arrogance. I should humbly recall that we of western European background were violent pagans not many centuries ago and that our current Western civilisation is thoroughly wicked and sinful. So if my eating pork hinders my Muslim neighbour from listening to the Gospel, then for the sake of the Gospel I will not eat pork.
If my smoking causes my weak brother to sin against his conscience or hinders my anti-smoking workmate from listening to the Gospel, then, although I am free in Christ and subject to no man, I will sacrifice my freedom in Christ that I may win some.
If my extended family connections keep me from inviting the stranger, the workmate, or the visitor at our church into my home, then I will loosen those family connections for the sake of the Gospel.
I will sacrifice everything for the sake of the Gospel because Jesus, my Lord, sacrificed everything for me. If I don’t, then I am in real danger of losing the Gospel myself. This is the final point, and it is a powerful one, that Paul makes in v.23, “so that I may become a fellow partaker of it”. Paul knew that if we know the truth and yet refuse to live in accord with the truth, then we are in real danger of losing the truth. Paul knew that Jesus had come as a servant for our sakes and therefore Paul knew that he must become a servant for the sake of God’s elect, whether Jews or Gentiles, whether weak or strong, whether slave or freeman. So he made himself “a slave to all” not only to “win more” but so that he might be “a fellow partaker” of the Gospel.
This is the question we should ask ourselves: do I consciously and intentionally adapt to others in cultural and personal practices in order that nothing hinder my witness for the Gospel? If not, then we must seriously ask ourselves whether we are in fact partakers of the Gospel.