Rev. denHartog is pastor of Southwest Protestant Reformed Church in Grandville, Michigan. Previous article in this series: March 1, 2007, p. 255.
In our last three articles we have been considering some of the great statements the inspired apostle Paul makes in I Corinthians 9:15-21. Paul is speaking as the greatest missionary of all times. He is speaking of his own example in order to instruct the church of the New Testament even today in the great and wonderful work of preaching the gospel to all men. We have seen in past articles the great zeal of the apostle Paul for the gospel of Christ. “Woe is me if I preach not the gospel.” The Lord Jesus Christ arrested Paul on the road to Damascus and called him to be an ambassador of the gospel. It was not by Paul’s own choice that he became the minister of Christ. He was not a self-appointed charlatan. The calling of Christ laid upon Paul an overwhelming and compelling necessity to preach the gospel. Paul confessed that in all his labors as a missionary he was the servant of Christ.
A servant is nothing in himself. His Lord is all to the faithful servant. A servant is by no means one who serves himself and his own glory. He serves his Lord who called him, and in the case of the Christian missionary, the Lord who saved him by the mighty power of His sovereign grace. A missionary who is the servant of Christ does not act according to his own wisdom, nor does he choose his own words or methods to accomplish the work of his Lord. He has no choice but to obey his Lord and Master and to serve Him with godly fear.
The statement quoted in the title of this article has been subjected to the most gross false interpretations imaginable. Supposedly, the end justifies the means. As long as a method of evangelism can draw the crowds, that is all that matters. So the statement of Paul has been used by some to justify totally unbiblical methods of doing evangelism, some that are most unworthy of the glorious gospel of Christ. Preachers today find justification in the above statement of Paul to change the gospel to make it more ‘user friendly.’ Those who promote this modern-day strategy for church growth have changed the gospel to take away its offense, to appeal to the popular sentiment of the masses. By all means, do not preach the offense of the cross, these maintain, for that will turn people off. Do not insist on strict keeping of the law of Christ, for that also will turn people away from the church. Do not insist that the followers of Christ are called to holiness. Do everything you can to gain numbers in the church, and to build mega-churches. Make the worship service a forum for popular entertainment. Bring in the popular rock groups to sing and dance. Produce movies of Bible history, even of the life of Christ, that have popular appeal. Use the same music and stage antics as the ‘pop culture’ of youth of the world. This is especially the best way to get the youth of our day to return to church. Never mind what they do in church, as long as they are present. Build gymnasiums attached to your church sanctuaries so that the youth of the church have a place to play. Never mind if they are not catechized in the truth of the Word of God.
Mass audiences, performances that have popular appeal and create a great sensation—these are the things that must encourage people to return to church. Give the presenters at these meetings (not preachers) the opportunity to promote themselves, and make themselves popular and make a lot of money doing it—these are considered the greatest in the church world of our day. Dress like the world, act like the world, make everything man-centered and entertainment-orientated.
All of this could not be further from Paul’s method of doing mission work. Some of it even leads to extremes that are blasphemous to the name of the Lord. Much of this fills the churches with numbers, but such attenders hardly know what it means to be a true child of God. There is little regard for truth and sincere Christian living. Fundamental doctrines are compromised in the interest of gaining larger followings. By such methods the world is brought into the church and the church is thoroughly corrupted.
Paul was passionately concerned about preaching the truth of the gospel. He was earnestly concerned about preaching the whole counsel of God. He warned against any compromise of the truth of the gospel. The greatest issue at stake for Paul was the glory of the name of his Lord. To compromise the gospel would compromise the very thing that Paul believed to be the power of God unto salvation. Paul was not ashamed of the gospel. He resisted every temptation to water it down in order to avoid offense and gain popular appeal. He gave his most serious warnings about false teachers acting like ravenous wolves in the church. He warned the elders to be on guard against these and by all means to keep them out of the church.
Paul knew that it was not the purpose or desire of God to save all men. He preached the doctrine of predestination without shame. He knew that the gospel that he preached would be both a savor of life unto life and of death unto death. When people who heard his preaching became angry with him, Paul did not change the truth of the gospel in order to please men.
The preaching of the gospel can and even must create division and offense. The preacher must be prepared for this. There will be those who throw stones at the preacher for the truth he preaches. Paul literally experienced that. There were times in the ministry of Paul when all turned against him because of the truth he preached. All of this will happen in our modern-day age, when the love of men has grown cold and the hearts of men are hardened to the truth of the gospel. Paul himself prophesied that the time will come when men will not endure sound doctrine. We are living in these times.
Having said all of this, however, we must listen to the positive statement of Paul and follow his example. Paul was passionate for preaching the gospel; he served his Lord faithfully; and he desired by all means to save some. In general, the point of the apostle in the above quoted statement is that he was greatly concerned that nothing that he did would in any way hinder the gospel from accomplishing its purposes for the salvation of men. In the course of the work of preaching the gospel, Paul would encounter all sorts of men. He wanted to be ever so careful that his behavior before different kinds of men to whom he was called to preach would not be a stumbling block leading them to sin rather than to salvation and truth. He did not want by his own person and behavior to create an unnecessary offense, which would hinder the wonderful operations of the Spirit of Christ to save His people through the preaching of the gospel.
The statement that “he was made all things to all men” must be understood in the light of the whole passage in I Corinthians 9. Though Paul was free from all men he made himself the servant of all. In order to avoid offense of the gospel, Paul would give up his personal right to monetary support in the preaching of the gospel, even though the church that Paul served was obligated to give such monetary support.
Because Paul considered that having a wife would hinder his missionary labors (think of the great hardships he faced on his missionary journeys), Paul chose to be single all his life. What a sacrifice for the sake of the gospel! This was not because Paul believed that all who are called to be ministers must remain celibate. This is the evil teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. It is contrary to Paul’s teaching. Ministers and missionaries have a right to the blessedness and happiness of Christian marriage. However, in some circumstances, for the sake of the gospel, it is a good thing for preachers to sacrifice this right. They do this according to the grace of God given to them in order wholly to devote themselves to the ministry of the gospel in special and difficult circumstances. Paul counted not even his own life dear unto him. He was ready to offer up his very life as a sacrifice to Christ for the cause of the gospel and the salvation of the elect of God.
We are impressed by the personal approach of Paul in all of his missionary labors. He was in the true sense a man of the people. He loved people, especially those who under the power of the preaching of the gospel showed themselves to be truly children of God. He cared about their salvation, their deliverance from the wrath to come, and their becoming partakers of the glory of Christ and the hope of eternal life.
Much of Paul’s time and efforts were spent on preparation for and engaging in public preaching. No minister may ever neglect this. Paul was bold to stand before large audiences to defend and promote the truth of the gospel. In his public preaching Paul was wholly devoted to his conviction concerning the power and effectiveness of the preaching of the gospel to save all kinds of men. Paul dared not substitute any other method for the one ordained of the Lord. He dared to preach before the kings and princes and rulers of the world.
But Paul was so earnestly concerned for the salvation of the hearers of the gospel that he also came down from the pulpit. He lived among the people to whom he ministered as the servant of Christ. He even went from house to house. He entered into their life and the circumstances of their life. He learned who and what they were. He was able to come down to their level and apply the gospel to the situation in life in which he found men. Without ever in any way compromising the truth of the gospel, Paul knew how to adapt his preaching to the various kinds of men to whom he preached. He never condemned them outright, though he was servant of the gospel that condemned wickedness and evil men. He was deeply sympathetic to his hearers and longsuffering toward them in their weaknesses. He labored to bring them from the state of being young and immature in the faith to perfection and maturity in Christ.
The particular example that Paul used in I Corinthians 9 is the difference between preaching to those who were Jews, whether now already Christian or not yet converted, and preaching to those who were Gentiles, who never were under the ceremonial law of the Old Testament. When among the Jews, Paul behaved himself as under the law (the ceremonial law of the Old Testament); he regarded the Jewish observance of the ceremonial law of the Old Testament. The time in which Paul labored was a time of transition between the Old and the New Testament times. In order to avoid giving offense, Paul sometimes continued to observe Old Testament law. Doing this he himself knew the reality of the fulfillment of the Old Testament law and the true and blessed freedom that we have in Christ, who delivered us from the burden of the law and fulfilled all the ceremonies of the law. Because of this perspective Paul at times kept Jewish ceremonies. He had Timothy circumcised, even though Paul believed that in Christ circumcision is nothing. When among the Jews, Paul would avoid eating unclean foods and things sacrificed to idols, though he knew that in Christ all things are clean and he boldly declared that an idol is nothing.
Paul was sympathetic to the weak who had not yet fully grasped the freedom that we have in Christ Jesus. He did not immediately condemn those who were not yet strong in faith to realize fully the glorious liberty that we have in Christ. In verse 21 Paul speaks of gaining those under the law. When the text speaks of ‘gaining’ these, this would also include Paul’s labors to bring those whose consciences were weak to a fuller understanding and appreciation of the glorious liberty that we have in Christ. At the same time, the gospel that Paul preached condemned those who sought to bring men again under bondage and to deny the true freedom we have in Christ.
Paul was called chiefly to be the ambassador of the gospel of Christ to the Gentiles. When among the Gentiles, Paul preached the glorious gospel of liberty. He did not insist that the Gentiles keep the ceremonial laws of the Jews, but immediately he adds that he was not without law. He taught that the Christian must not use his liberty as an occasion to the flesh, as freedom to sin. Paul was very serious about keeping the moral law of God, teaching all men how this law was the law of Christ and must be obeyed from the heart in the love of Christ. Those who teach that the “becoming all things to all men” means that the preacher must tolerate or be soft on sin and disobedience to the law of God, even tolerating gross immorality, find no support in the teaching and example of Paul. Paul preached the gospel in the midst of a grossly immoral, pagan world. He condemned that immorality even though this resulted in anger and ridicule from those to whom he preached. The gross immorality of modern nominal Christianity in a post-Christian society is far worse. The carelessness and lawlessness of those who are members of the church lead to the blasphemy of the name of Christ in the world.
Let us conclude with some positive lessons that we must receive and follow in the great endeavor of the preaching of the gospel. There is a very important balance that must always be maintained. The truth must be preached, nothing but the truth, and the whole of the truth of the gospel. But we must not by our own behavior create any offense or hindrance in the preaching of the gospel. Preaching the gospel always involves great personal sacrifice of those things that we might otherwise be able legitimately to enjoy in our Christian life. All of this for the sake of the gospel of Christ and the salvation of God’s people. The preaching of the gospel must be accompanied by profound spiritual concern for the hearers. The love of Christ for them must cause the Christian preacher to be an example of godly humility, sacrifice, and obedience to Christ. So we are made all things to all men.