Woe Is Me if I Preach Not the Gospel

Chapter nine of I Corinthians gives us most excellent instruction for the calling of the church to preach the gospel. Never has there lived a preacher or a missionary who was more faithful and more mighty in accomplishing the work of his Lord than the apostle Paul. Never has there been one who has more exalted the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ and at the same time steadfastly refused to have glory for himself among men. Never has there been one who has been more truly successful as an instrument for the salvation of the Lord’s people.

Let us not follow the example of some famous modern preacher. He may boast of having gained a huge following through his ministry. He may have made himself the senior pastor of one of the famous mega churches in our land with thousands of members. But beware of such a man!

Let us not run off to be trained in some highly publicized seminar with great claims of training men and women for ‘successful ministries.’ Rather, let us learn from the inspired apostle of the Lord. In the next few articles we intend to draw attention to what Paul has to say in I Corinthians 9.

Paul does not usually distinguish in any absolute way between what today we call preaching in the established congregation and preaching on the mission field, whether in home missions or in missions among the heathen in far-off lands who never before heard the gospel. As we know, Paul went on three great missionary journeys. He also at times preached for extended periods in established congregations to build them up in the knowledge of the truth.

We want to make three great statements in this passage the focus of our attention. The first one is the statement “necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel!” (I Cor. 9:16). The second statement is “I made myself servant to all, that I might gain the more” (I Cor. 9:19). The third statement is “I am made all things to all men that I might by all means save some.” All of these statements have at times been grossly misinterpreted. We shall by the grace of God attempt to set forth the meaning and implications of these statements.

In this article, then, we focus on this mighty statement: “Necessity is laid upon me, yea woe is unto me if I preach not the gospel!” This “necessity” was laid upon Paul when the crucified, resurrected, and exalted Lord stood before him on the road to Damascus. The history of this is recorded in Acts chapter 9. At the time Paul was “breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord.” He was, in doing this, the great enemy of the Lord. But the mighty sovereign Lord of heaven and earth confronted Paul. He stood before Paul in His glorious majesty. Paul was blinded by the brilliant light of His glorious presence. He was cast down at the feet of the Lord. In great astonishment Paul said, “Who art thou, Lord?” And Jesus answered, “I am Jesus whom thou persecutest; it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.” Trembling before the Lord, Paul earnestly asked, “What wilt thou have me to do?” and the Lord answered him, “Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do.” This amazing and unforgettable event in the life of Paul made him deeply conscious of the fact that he was the Lord’s servant, really literally His slave, not by his own will, but by the will of the sovereign Lord.

Paul speaks of an awesome, a fearful, compelling necessity that had been laid on him. He was overwhelmed by this. This is what drove him in his whole ministry. In I Corinthians 9 Paul speaks of not insisting on the financial support that was rightly his according to the Word of God. Paul was ready to relinquish this right if he thought that insisting on it would create an offense and a hindrance in preaching the gospel.

There were charlatan preachers around already in Paul’s day who went from place to place preaching and asking for money. Paul was not like many modern-day preachers who have made the business of preaching one of the most lucrative of our day. These command salaries equal to those of corporate executives and live in astounding luxury and in palatial estates. All the while they imagine themselves to be ever so important, even indispensable to the cause of Christ. They are doing such great things for the Lord in the world that they have the right to make endless and nauseating appeals for more money from their supporters. The Bible calls this business “filthy lucre.”

Woe is me if I preach not the gospel! Some dreadful calamity would come upon Paul if he refused or was in any way unfaithful to the commission of his Lord. The fearful judgment of the Lord would come upon him! This does not mean that Paul considered the Lord to be an unmerciful tyrant. The false preacher who seeks his own glory and his own advantage must in fact live in the fear of the judgment of the Lord, who will surely hold such a man accountable. The Lord of Paul and of all faithful ministers is a gracious and merciful Lord. So gracious was this Lord to Paul, who confessed himself to be the chief of sinners, that he was forgiven even the heinous sin of having once been a persecutor of the church. But the sovereignty and majesty of the Lord was still the cause for holy reverence and trembling fear on the part of Paul, and this affected his entire ministry. Only in the way of being a willing and faithful servant of his Lord could Paul look for the reward of His grace upon his ministry. In this way would he have glory before God rather than before the men of this world.

Paul is very clear concerning the purpose of the ministry. He does not want to have glory for himself. If ever there was a man who had a “purpose driven ministry,” it was this apostle of the Lord. His purpose is stated in verse 16: “For though I preach the gospel, I have nothing to glory in.” Christ must be glorified through the preaching of the gospel, the declaration of the truth concerning Him, and the saving of His people.

Several things are clearly implied in the statement of Paul under our consideration. The first of these is that Paul was committed to the method of the Lord Himself by which He saves His people, builds them up in the faith, and inspires them to live unto Him. Today there is so much emphasis on what methods are used in accomplishing the work of missions. Famous preachers and popular training institutes claim to have some great new plan of action for leaders in the church. Whatever method will produce the greatest show and greatest measure of success in the eyes of world, this is considered to be the ultimate goal for their great ministries.

More than ever today there are challenges being posed to the Lord’s own method through which He Himself saves His people and gathers His church. Simply put, the Lord’s method is the preaching of the gospel.

But so much of Christendom considers this method outdated and ineffective. One can better gather a lot of people by making the worship service a popular entertainment program that rivals the wild and exciting and popular concerts of the world. All the modern- day media and electronic wizardry must be employed. Rock bands must take center stage. All the senses must be engaged to stir up excitement and enthusiasm and emotion. The focus must be on the appearance of the person on the stage, and his popular appeal to the audience.

These kinds of man-centered presentations will draw large audiences, especially of the young, though even the older generation goes for such programs today. But the question has to be asked, is this audience truly the church, as it claims? Do such popular meetings represent the fearful, holy, truth-centered, God-glorifying worship of God that is clearly demanded by the Holy and Sovereign One of heaven and earth? Are these worship services, as popular as they may be, the means whereby God’s people are built up in the knowledge of the truth and equipped to confess the name of God in this ungodly world? Do these kinds of programs instruct God’s people in true godly living and holy consecration to their God?

The faithful slave of Christ must be steadfastly committed to and have full confidence in the power of the preaching of the gospel. This is the Lord’s own method whereby He accomplishes not only the saving of His people but also the hardening of the hearts of the wicked. From age to age the method of the Lord has remained the same. Woe is me if I preach not the gospel!

Secondly, the passage under our consideration speaks of the great importance of preaching the truth clearly and without compromise and with all authority. Paul was passionate in declaring and defending and maintaining the true doctrine of God. He did not preach a gospel of four or five simple spiritual laws to follow that would magically make a person a Christian. Paul shunned not to declare the whole counsel of God, holding back nothing that was profitable for the people of God.

The Lord is glorified through His own word when it is preached. He is not glorified by the wisdom of the world, humanistic psychology, or the modern-day popular preacher who tries to be a stage actor. Woe is me if I preach not the gospel! A man may gather to himself a church of 10,000 or more members by means of a false gospel. The false gospel is always eminently more popular than the true one. But even if a false preacher establishes a mega church through his preaching, he has nothing to glory in. He will be condemned by the Lord in spite of his acclaim among men. It is striking that many of the apostolic churches were so small that they could meet in a home. Paul was not ashamed of these. Are the preachers of this century better than and more ‘successful’ than the apostle Paul was?

Hear the great confidence Paul had in the power of the gospel! He says, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ; for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth: to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16).

The solemn duty of the preacher is to set forth the truth of the gospel in all of its glory and power. He must declare the truth of God’s absolute sovereignty in saving His people. He must declare the truth of the righteousness of God as it is revealed alone in the cross and resurrection and exaltation of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. This truth stands against all the boasting achievements of mere men. It condemns all the works of men and all their glorying in their own righteousness and in their own imagined inherent goodness and great achievements in life.

This gospel will never be popular among men. The truth of the gospel will always prove to be a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to Greeks. The world will never change. Increasingly, as the end of time approaches, the apostate church is hardened in its blindness and even open hatred for the truth of the gospel. The faithful preacher may not remove the offense of the gospel and change it in such a way that it will become more popular among men and receive greater acceptance in the world.

The apostle of the Lord expended tremendous efforts, laboring day and night for the sake of the gospel. The necessity that the Lord laid upon Paul impelled him in all of his great missionary journeys in which he traveled virtually to the ends of the world. He tells us that on his journeys he suffered many perils, he was opposed by many fearful enemies, he endured great hardships, he was severely persecuted. Several times he experienced the agony and shame and public humiliation of scourging. He was opposed by wicked men inspired by the devil himself. He was often falsely accused by those who opposed the preaching of the gospel. When these could not find fault with the Word of God that he brought, they attacked his person. See the litany of all that Paul suffered for the sake of the gospel that is recorded in II Corinthians 11:23-26. Contrast with this how the popular church leaders of our day use the ministry to enrich themselves and live in palatial estates in worldly pleasure and luxury.

The conviction of the necessity laid upon Paul gave him the courage to stand even before the princes and kings of the earth. He was not afraid of men, no matter how mighty they were. He dared to condemn false teachers and enemies of the cross of Christ in spite of their worldly popularity.

So all-compelling was the necessity that the Lord laid upon Paul that he finally was ready by the grace of God to sacrifice himself, to suffer and die as a martyr. The apostle could die in peace after having served his Lord faithfully in his ministry. After having fought the good fight and finished his course and kept the faith, he knew that the Lord would give to him a crown of life.

Who today is ready to follow this example?