The Practice of Evangelism
Passage: 1 Corinthians 9:19-23
Most people get excited to “talk shop” about their job or some other areas of personal interest. I grew up on a farm, and farmers love to talk about farming. Mechanics love to talk engines, and medical professionals love to talk anatomy. People who love to hunt or fish are in their own category. They all have a story about the big catch, and they love to share their stories. This will be the last sermon in my series, “Foundations for Church Ministry.” Since I’m a pastor and I have spent a lot of time thinking about church philosophy, this series has been my opportunity to talk shop. You may not have enjoyed this study as much as I have, but I pray that the Lord will use it to unify us around biblical goals, to get us excited about what God has called us to do, and to help us work together to see these goals accomplished.
The final practice of the church that we will study is evangelism. We already discussed the importance of evangelism from Acts 1:4–11 the third week of the series; therefore, I’d like to consider an important issue of evangelism (Read). To understand this text, we need to set it in the context of 1 Corinthians 8–10. In these chapters, Paul addresses some challenges the Corinthians faced while trying to follow God in an idolatrous society. The central issue is that some of the Corinthian Christians were attending feasts at the pagan temples around Corinth. From our perspective, going to a feast in honor of a pagan deity seems clearly out of line, but these believers were under tremendous pressure to participate. Idolatrous worship was central to life in Corinthian; therefore, if someone cut himself off from this system, he cut himself off from his culture. I have friends who are missionaries in Turkey, and the Turks believe that to be Turkish is to be Islamic. Therefore, rejecting Islam is unpatriotic, and it means rejecting your culture, your family, and your nation. It was the same in Corinth. You couldn’t reject idolatry without alienating yourself from the leaders of society and from connections for work and business. Rejecting idolatry meant putting yourself on the outside of society and accepting a lowly position in the culture. This was difficult for at least some in the church to accept. They wanted prestige and recognition,. As well, abandoning the pagan temples may have meant losing a good job if you were part of a trade guild. Paul responds to these concerns in chapter 9 by describing how he made similar sacrifices. In particular, he talks about how he had the right to receive financial support from the Corinthians but refused it because it would hinder his ministry among them. Instead, he supported himself by making tents. This decision made Paul very busy, but it also lessened his social status. A tentmaker was not nearly as prestigious as a traveling teacher; therefore, Paul took a hit in the eyes of the socially elite. Paul talks about this decision because some of the Corinthians who were concerned about social status didn’t like the founder of their church being a tentmaker, and Paul wanted them to see that spreading the gospel is far more important than status. As well, he wanted to encourage those for whom it would be very costly to abandon all connections to idolatry by noting that he wasn’t asking them to make a sacrifice that he didn’t understand. As such, Paul talks at length about his decision to not accept financial support from the Corinthians for the sake of advancing the gospel, and then he proceeds in our text to talk about other sacrifices he made for the sake of advancing the gospel. In so doing, he provides some valuable help for thinking about evangelism in various contexts.
Paul begins our text by establishing…
The Goal of Evangelism (v. 19):
Paul was free from financial obligation.
Paul begins the text by noting that he was “free from all men.” Verse 18 clarifies what he means. Because Paul was not accepting financial support from the Corinthians, he was free from human obligation or manipulation. Whether we like it or not, money is power, and when someone is paying you, they hold power over you. By not accepting pay from the Corinthian church, Paul freed himself to do what God had called him to do without obligation to anyone.
But while Paul was free from human obligation, He didn’t use this freedom to do what he wanted; rather…
Paul made himself a slave.
The remainder of the text will explain that Paul continually sacrificed his desires and personal comforts for the sake of reaching people for Christ. Paul wasn’t wrapped up in having a good time or accumulating stuff. He wasn’t concerned for prestige and position. He didn’t use his freedom to pursue his agenda but to make himself a slave in order…
To Win As Many as Possible:
The context is clear that Paul is talking about winning people to Christ. We saw this in v. 18, and vv. 22–23 also makes this clear. The verb Paul uses is a commercial term that was commonly used for accumulating assets or making profits. Paul uses it several times in our text with the idea of winning or gaining another follower of Christ. I have to admit that its use here is striking to me because I strongly believer in God’s sovereignty over salvation. I believe the Scriptures clearly teach that God’s decree ultimately determines who will be saved, not man’s choice or the evangelist’s presentation. Because of that, the idea of the evangelist winning a convert sounds rather man-centric. But while Paul frequently states that God ultimately draws the sinner to himself, he was also comfortable saying that that he sought to “win” converts, and in v. 22, he states that his goal is to “save some.” These are strong statements regarding human responsibility in evangelism. God’s decree is not intended to let us off the hook. We must work hard to share the gospel clearly, to answer people’s questions, and to persuade them to accept Christ. We must do everything we can to win them because people’s souls are at stake. All of us who know Christ, need to take a serious look at Paul’s commitment to evangelism and ask ourselves if we share his commitment. Am I willing to make myself a servant that I might win some?
Reaching people is the goal, but how did Paul go about trying to accomplish this goal. Verses 20–22 describe…
The Method of Evangelism (vv. 20–22a):
In these verses, Paul talks about his efforts to reach various types of people with the gospel. Specifically, he elaborates on how he made himself a “servant to all” as v. 19 states by adapting to his context.
Jews/Under the Law (v. 20):
At first, this verse might seem puzzling because Paul was a Jew. How then did he become a Jew? The second statement of v. 20 clarifies where Paul made adaptations. Paul taught that the OT Law is no longer binding on church. Romans 7:6 states that through the gospel, we die to the Law. The NKJ leaves it out, but many versions include a statement in v. 20 that Paul was not under the Law himself. The evidence indicates that this statement is authentic. There were many regulations in the Law that are no longer binding because Christ ended their authority, and some of these had major ramifications for regular life, such as the food laws, Sabbaths, and clothing regulations. And a Jew would have found it very offensive for a fellow Jew to not observe them. To disobey these rules wasn’t just sinful in their eyes; it was also a rejection of your culture. Imagine how you would feel if your son came home with a swastika tattoo on his shoulder. Because these laws were so significant to the Jews, Paul would often defer to the Jews when he was trying to reach them with the gospel. If Paul were having a Jewish family over for dinner, he wouldn’t serve pork or catfish. If he visited a synagogue, he would wear clothing that met OT regulations, and he would observe their practices. Paul never did anything that would potentially distort the gospel in order to please the Jews. For example, in Galatians 2 Paul confronted Peter publicly for pleasing the Jews by not eating with Gentiles because Peter’s actions gave an unclear message about the gospel. Paul wouldn’t tolerate a distorted gospel, but as long as the gospel was clear, he would gladly defer to the Jews and observe OT regulations in order to gain an audience with them for the gospel. He didn’t flaunt his liberty around them, and he didn’t conclude that since their rules were outdated, he didn’t need to obey them. He adapted to his setting in order to remove a distraction from the gospel.
But in other settings, he made other kinds of adaptations.
Without Law (v. 21):
The first two uses of law in this verse refer to the OT Law; therefore, this verse is referring to Gentiles who had never lived under the OT Law. Paul says that when he ministered among the Gentiles, he didn’t follow the regulations from the OT Law. He adapted to a different setting. But Paul adds an important qualifier. Although Paul didn’t follow the OT Law when he was among the Gentiles, he continued to obey the law of Christ. This law was mentioned in our text last week, and we said that the law of Christ is the teachings and example of Christ and the apostles. Paul never disobeyed God in order to reach someone with the gospel. He never compromised his commitment to holiness and truthfulness in order to make people more open to his message. This is an important point to make because this text is often used to justify sinful practices for the sake of evangelism. For example, there are pastors who will use foul language when they preach because that’s how people in our culture talk. They say that if we want to reach them, we’ve got to talk like them. Or they might say that if we want to reach people who are comfortable in a nightclub, then we’ve got to make church feel like a nightclub. Sadly, others use this text to justify removing truths from their gospel presentations that are offensive such as God’s wrath against sin and coming judgment. Instead, they preach a watered down message that simply tells people God loves them. But Paul clearly shoots down any usage of this text to justify unholy or sinful practices or an incomplete gospel. We always have to obey God’s Word even if it means that people think we are weird or offensive. Evangelism never trumps obedience. That being said, what kind of adaptations does Paul have in mind here? Paul spent time evaluating the culture of the places he served to determine what aspects of the culture were tainted by sin and which were not. And if a particular pattern or practice didn’t violate the law of Christ, he would adapt. Maybe he would change his style of clothing or diet. Maybe he would change his speech patterns if he was with the educated or uneducated. I would have to think that since Paul grew up in a strict Jewish home and spent time as a Pharisee that he probably felt most comfortable in a Jewish culture even if he no longer strictly obeyed the Law. But when Paul was among Gentiles, he didn’t hold tightly to what was comfortable; he adapted.
Verse 22 cites one more group.
The Weak (v. 22a):
There are two possible groups that Paul has in mind with this reference. Some believe that Paul is referring to Christians who have a weak conscience since chapter 8 refers to these individuals; however, our text is about evangelism not relationships with believers. The better view is that Paul is referring to those who are weak sociologically—the poor, the slaves, and the manual laborers. Paul referred to these people as weak in chapter 1 when he noted that God primarily works among the weak of society rather than the upper classes. I find it interesting that Paul doesn’t use the word “as” in this statement. He said in v. 20 that he “became as a Jew” and “as under law.” In v. 21, he said “as without law,” but in v. 22, the word “as” is not in the Greek because Paul actually was weak in the eyes of Corinthian society since he did manual labor. Paul was highly educated, intelligent, and he had the right to receive pay as a travelling teacher, but he didn’t cling to a high social status. Instead, he identified himself with the humble in order to reach them.
In these 3 verses, Paul describes how he adapted to various groups. He then concludes the passage by articulating…
The Results of Evangelism (vv. 22b–23):
Which he was seeking to accomplish. He notes two results.
Some are saved (v. 22b).
The end of v. 22 summarizes the purpose behind Paul’s adaptations. Paul “became all things to all men.” Again, I want to emphasize that this statement must be qualifed. Paul’s “all things” was within the boundaries of obedience to Christ. But within this boundary, he adapted to his context. He did so in order that some might be saved. And I want to emphasize that this passion is what drove his adaptations. That’s because it’s easy for us to read our selfish interests into a passage like this. We can read the fact that Paul adapted to his audience to mean that I should never stand out and seem weird at work, at school, or in my family. But oftentimes these concerns are more about wanting to fit in than about reaching people. Or we may use this passage to justify edgy or worldly practices that we just want to do. I’ve got to watch this movie because I’ve got to be able to talk about it with everyone, although really, we just want to see it. But if we use Paul’s words these ways, we miss Paul’s heartbeat. This passage has nothing to do with justifying what I want; rather, it’s about sacrificing my personal comforts and putting myself in uncomfortable situations to reach people for Christ. This passage is about sacrifice for the sake of evangelism, not indulgence. Rather than just doing what was comfortable, Paul got out of his comfort zone and sacrificed to reach people, and we must have the same desire. We’ve got to be more concerned with reaching people for Christ than about what is comfortable to us. I’ll talk in a moment about what this means practically.
Before we do so, notice the second result is that…
We share eternal life with them (v. 23).
Verse 23 begins by again noting that Paul’s driving motive was advancing the gospel, and he then adds a statement that may strike us as odd. The most natural meaning of being a partaker of the gospel is to enjoy its benefits. But if Paul is already a Christian and has already secured the benefits of the gospel, then how are the benefits of the gospel dependent on Paul’s evangelistic efforts? Paul makes a similar statement in v. 27. To understand these statements, we have to recognize that there are human and divine sides to our salvation. From the divine side, once we are saved, we will always be saved. There’s no doubt that God will protect the faith of all genuine Christians, and that they will persevere. But from the human side, we’ve still got to do it. In these two verses, Paul is viewing his relationship to God from the human side. He was responsible to fulfill the mission he had been given, and he understood the eternal significance of accomplishing it. But if he was faithful, someday, he could share in an eternal inheritance with those he won to Christ. This responsibility and hope drove Paul to faithfully share the gospel and to make any sacrifice necessary to see it advanced. How awesome is it to think that when we reach people with the gospel, someday we will have the opportunity to enjoy the glories of heaven alongside a brother or sister in Christ whom we won. What a blessing that will be to rejoice together for all eternity. It might be that someone is here today who has never truly received the gospel. If that’s the case, then I want to say on behalf of our entire church, that we want you to be a partaker with us of the benefits of the gospel someday. We want you to be alongside us in heaven enjoying the blessings of God for all eternity. Maybe you have always just assumed that you will be in heaven someday, but a major assumption of our text is that everyone won’t be in heaven. That’s why Paul was concerned to win people to Christ. That’s why he says that sinners need to be saved. On your own, you are headed toward God’s judgment in hell because your sin stands between you and God. But the gospel teaches that Jesus died to pay the penalty for sin. He took the judgment you deserve, and if you put your faith in Christ’s work on the cross, you can be saved from this judgment. I want to urge you to do this today. Believe on Christ and be saved.
What can we learn from this passage as we think about our evangelism as individuals and as a church? My simple summary challenge would be this. Value the lost more than your personal interests. But how do we adapt sacrificially in a way that will honor God and also help us be more effective evangelists?
I’d like to wrap this up with four conclusions.
We can never adapt the content of the message.
This should be obvious, but sadly, we can fudge on this out of fear or to push for results. But this text never talks about adapting the message, only the messenger. We must always be clear and bold in presenting the truth of gospel regardless of if it fits the culture and regardless of how offensive it may be.
We can never disobey God to do evangelism.
Paul is clear that every adaptation he made stayed within the framework of the law of Christ. More than we need to reach people for Christ, we must obey. Don’t ever compromise your obedience and justify it based on evangelism. Paul won’t have any of that logic.
Our commitment to evangelism must supersede personal preferences and earthly commitments.
What I mean by this is that we’ve got to to keep our priorities straight. Very often our political and cultural values get in the way of evangelism more than we would like to admit. For example, have you ever met someone who speaks little or no English and been frustrated that they aren’t learning our language rather than considering their soul? Or maybe your neighbor plays loud music and always has a rough crowd around, and you are more concerned about how he is ruining the neighborhood than about reaching him. Maybe when you see an Islamic person, you are filled with hatred because of the efforts of radical Islam to destroy America and Christianity. When we have these reactions, we demonstrate that we are more committed to preserving our way of life and traditional American culture than we are about reaching people for Christ. We are more concerned with our comforts than with loving people and reaching people. I’m not saying that you can’t have political positions or that you shouldn’t work to preserve righteousness in our nation, but if those things take priority over loving people and reaching them for Christ, we are missing it badly. Our first reaction to the sinfulness of man must be to pray for their souls and to ask God for opportunities to reach them.
We must be flexible enough to evangelize in various contexts.
We must be willing to make even the most basic adaptations that will help us reach people for Christ. Maybe you have a coworker who loves NASCAR. Even though you hate NASCAR, you watch the weekend race so that you can talk about it with him on Monday and build a connection. It might be that you were an English major and you are passionate about proper grammar, but you learn to use a little different lingo to make a coworker feel comfortable. Maybe you do a fist bump rather than a handshake to make someone relaxed. We could talk for hours about various examples of how we can reflect the pattern Paul articulates in this passage, but it really comes down to this. We’ve got to love sinners and be passionate about reaching them with the gospel, and we must be willing to get out of our comfort zone to build connections through which we can share the greatest news in the world.
In a moment, we are going to close with #363 “The Gospel Song.” This song is a simple reflection on the incredible truth of the gospel. Let’s rejoice in this message, and let’s commit ourselves to work hard to share this truth with the people of our community.