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For the Sake of the Gospel

*1 Corinthians 9:15-23
July 1, 2018
Lord’s Day Worship
Sean Higgins

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The sermon starts at 15:35 in the audio file.

Or, Free to Win by All Means

I am not sure which is easier: to misuse our personal rights or to misuse the passage we’re going to study this morning. Ironically, the way this passage (especially verse 22) is often used makes the opposite point of what the passage (in the context of chapter 9) means.

The theme of the these two paragraphs in 1 Corinthians 9, verses 15-18 and 19-23, are Paul’s intent to do all that he did “for the sake of the gospel” (verse 23). He was concerned about doing anything that would “put an obstacle in the way of the gospel” (verse 12), and he was especially concerned with how taking money as a preacher could cause a hindrance to the hearers.

In the first part of the chapter (verses 1-14) he built a solid case that paying those who proclaim the gospel is right. Everyday occupations, temple occupations, and God’s Word itself all point to this right. And it was a right that Paul refrained from using.

In the next section he clarifies that he’s still not interested in getting material support from them. He explains why, in terms of his calling (verses 15-18) and his strategy to see others saved (verses 19-23). He is free, a point he made at the beginning of chapter 9, and because he is free he has even more opportunities to be a slave. This is a paradox, as is the glory of the cross.

Paul finishes his argument about renouncing payment and renouncing his preferences for the benefit of others, and all of it embodies his challenge to the Corinthians to give up their own position of strength for the benefit of others. This is his winning formula, a formula to win by all means, and it is not as cheesy or as easy as it sounds.

For the sake of the gospel Paul did not take rightful payment. (verses 15-18)

He already couldn’t help himself from making the point (verse 12), but here he really transitions to his personal refrain. But I (for my part) have made no use of any of these rights. Even the “Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (verse 14), not in such a way that Paul was disobeying, but proving that it was the proper expectation. He had the right, and he renounced the right.

He hadn’t changed his mind either. Nor am I writing these things to secure such provision. They could have taken his arguments in the first half of the chapter to be a set up, as if he said, “Paying preachers is right, as you know and as you have done, though not to me. Now it’s well past time to pay up.” Instead he explains his motivation for continuing to refuse their patronage. For I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of my ground for boasting. Or the less smooth, more exact translation:

In fact, it would be better for me to die than—-no one will deprive me of my reason for boasting! (NET)

He doesn’t finish his thought. It’s emotional, it’s extreme. But what “ground of boasting” does he have in mind?

Verse 16 continues the chain of explanations (see the “for” v.15 “for” v.16 “for” v.16 again “for” v.17 and another in v.19). For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. We need more to fill out his meaning.

For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. (verses 16-17)

What is he talking about? He’s talking about his calling to preach. He could preach or not preach (verse 16); he preached. He could either preach freely or under compulsion (verse 17); he preached without a choice. It wasn’t his idea, he was following orders. Woe and trouble if he didn’t. The Lord interrupted Paul’s personal mission to murder Christians and assigned him the mission to preach the cross of Christ by which God would make more Christians. Paul understood his call in a similar way to the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah didn’t want to preach (Jeremiah 1:6-8), but the Lord promised to destroy Jeremiah if he didn’t (Jeremiah 1:17). The Lord set apart Jeremiah before he was born (Jeremiah 1:5), and so had the Lord done with Paul (Galatians 1:15).

Paul, like Jeremiah, had no choice. His will, like that of any slave, was directed by the will of his Master. That’s why Paul speaks of necessity…laid upon me, it’s why he says woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! His decision to preach wasn’t a special or heroic. He couldn’t get out of it without danger to himself. God entrusted (him) with a stewardship. So he didn’t see his preaching, and the possible provision that could come from preaching, as his reward.

What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel. This was the unique part. Here is what stands out. It was right for him to get his living by the gospel, but he present(ed) the gospel free of charge. This is what he saw as his reward, this was his ground for boasting (verses 15 and 16).

Paul cannot “freely” give his apostolic work (since to this he is pressed by God without choice), what is left to give “freely” is his toil and labor as a leather worker and salesman in the commercial agora. (Thiselton)

And this is the reason why he’s using this example to begin with. Paying those in full-time gospel proclamation work isn’t one of the Corinthians’s questions, nor was it a particular problem that had been reported to Paul. The right–which is a true, legit, biblical, lawful right–refrained from embodies the gospel itself and illustrates how Christians should behave. Chapter 9 appears to digress from the question of weak Christians in chapter 8 only to demonstrate even more how to treat weak Christians.

For the sake of the gospel Paul did not follow personal preferences. (verses 19-23)

Not taking advantage of others, but putting himself into various positions to serve others, oriented all that Paul did. Renouncing material support from the Corinthians aligned with that strategy, but it was only one obvious example. Paul was free to do a lot of things, and how he used his freedom in the gospel was for the sake of the gospel.

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all. Both halves of this statement are startling, the second more surprising in light of the first. One of the most basic divisions in first-century society was that between free and slave. In Christ, Paul was free. This freedom is not only from God’s wrath but also freedom from man’s opinion. Paul was no man’s property, no patron’s tool. He answered to no one. And with this freedom he made (himself) a servant to all. Because he didn’t have one earthly lord, he could give himself to all men.

He had a reason: that I might win more of them. To “gain” or win means to influence, to encourage, and even to save (see verse 22). He talks about winning five times in four verses. He knew that his service for “all” didn’t guarantee that “all” would be won, but it was his goal.

Then he gives examples of three different categories of men. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. The category of “Jews” and “those under the law” is probably one, viewing the same group in terms of the nation and their religion. Of course, Paul really was a Jew, but what he means is that he paid attention to their particular cultural preferences. He did not do it in such a way that undermined the freedom of the gospel; the letter to the Galatians makes that clear. But even though he wasn’t under the law in terms of how to please God, he lived (mostly) without offending the Jewish scruples.

He doesn’t refer to the second group as Gentiles, but to those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. These are those who aren’t Jews, so those who did not live under the Mosaic law. Though a Jew by heritage, Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles by calling (Romans 11:13). He did not bring his own kosher food to Greek dinner parties. But he also didn’t live as a heathen, that is, apart from obedience. He didn’t choose immorality to reach the immoral (i.e., a drunk to win drunks). He was under the law of Christ, a label only used only one other place (though a different Greek phrase here, ἔννομος Χριστοῦ, compared to that in Galatians 6:2, τὸν νόμον τοῦ Χριστοῦ) in reference to the regulating principle. As with the Jews, he wanted to win them.

There are a couple possible referents for the third group, and arguments for both sides, but really only one interpretive landing zone. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. Who are the weak? They could be those who are poor, lowly esteemed, not in positions of power, as the weak mentioned in chapter 1. But why mention the weak only? Why not also the foolish, the low and despised (1 Corinthians 1:27-28)? And why not also mention those of noble birth (1:26)?

Most important, why mention the weak here, in a context of giving up one’s personal preferences, in the context of charging the Corinthians not to do anything/eat anything that would defile the consciences of the weak in chapter 8? The only reason against understanding the “weak” as the “weak in conscience” is that Paul also desires to win them, and the “them” in chapter 8 are already believers.

But this is why it’s so important. The defiling of a weaker brother’s conscience is a destruction. Sacrificing a right for sake of a brother does what? It is the opposite of destruction. It is edification, building. Isn’t this a type of winning, or at least a comparable application of winning?

Paul’s summary is in verse 22, and also one of the most abused verses in the history of church outreach. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. The emphasis is on all…all…all, and another all in verse 23. In context it declares Paul’s willingness more than his creativity. In other words, he will give up his personal preferences for sake of a platform. He chose things contrary to his likes.

He did not tone down his assault on idolatry to avoid offending idolaters or to curry favor with them. His accommodation has nothing to do with watering down the gospel message, soft-pedaling its ethical demands, or compromising its absolute monotheism. Paul never modified the message of Christ crucified to make it less of a scandal to Jews or less foolish to Greeks. (Garland)

He does not say that he became strong to the strong. He’s not just trying to win “winners.”

This is not how the verse is typically used today. Many in the church today take it in an evangelism entrepreneurial spirit. Do you like to play video games? Go play video games to save the gamers. Do you like to ride skateboards? Go down to the skate park to save the boarders. Let’s start a church basketball/soccer/softball league to win the athletes. It is almost always a defense of a Christian’s interest being used to reach non-Christians who have a similar interest. It is also almost always a defense of reaching the Cool. There are not nursing home ministries coming from being “all things to all people.”

But that doesn’t mean that there is no application for us than criticism of many outreach plans. At least some are doing something for Jesus, even if the something might be shallow. Paul’s point is that what we give up for sake of others can be quite strategic, and we should use our freedom like this.

Being free to win by all means is not a motivational speech for life, though it is motivational strategy for Christlike service. Being free the way Paul understands it usually means more suffering. This is not being two-faced, duplicitous, but living in light of the word of the cross.

I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. Sadly, the word blessings isn’t in the Greek text. The ESV tries to make sense of the comment. Paul wants a share, but a share of what? Is he sharing in the work of the gospel or the fruit of the gospel? “Blessings” points toward the fruit.


“A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to everyone.” (Martin Luther, Concerning Christian Liberty)

Christian, you are free. How will you use your freedom? What are the ways you could serve by giving up a preference, rather than maximizing your preference? Will you lose (esteem, position) to win, or are you wanting to win (esteem, position) to win?


This week we remember the relative independence of our nation, and thank You, Lord, amen. But it turns out that liberty is a great excuse for the selfish and lazy, which is more visible in our culture than the biggest fireworks show. It must not be true for those who are free in Christ. Imagine that your Christian freedom is being discussed by some pundits on cable news. Do so much good with your freedom that fools have no more criticisms to make.


For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. (1 Peter 2:15–16, ESV)