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Faithful Flexibility

Series: Rewire

Sermon by David Strain on Sep 17, 2017

1 Corinthians 9:19-27

Now would you please take a copy of the Scriptures in your hands and turn with me to 1 Corinthians, chapter 9; 1 Corinthians, chapter 9. As we continue to study this great letter of the apostle Paul, we come this morning to the first part of the last section of this chapter. We’re thinking about verses 19 through 23. 1 Corinthians 9:19-23; you’ll find it on page 957 in the church Bibles. Paul, you will remember, has been defending his ministry. He would not take a salary from the Corinthians. Some of them felt that was grounds to begin undermining his ministry. They could not control him, you see, if they couldn’t pay for him. And so they began to insinuate that perhaps Paul ought not to be trusted. “He’s not a real apostle, after all.” And so for most of chapter 9, Paul has been defending himself and explaining why he has developed the strategy and the approach that he has; why he did not take financial remuneration from the Corinthians.

And this morning as we come to this last section of the chapter, together with verses 24 to 27, 19 through 27 gives us a continuing insight into Paul’s ministry. In particular, you can get at what he’s doing here if you ask, “What is the direction Paul is facing in each section?” So today in verses 19 to 23, we see Paul facing outward toward others as he shares with us his missionary principles. His missionary principles. Then in 24 to 27, as we’ll see, God willing, next week, Paul is turned inward. He’s facing inward in a moment of self-reflection as he shares with us his personal priorities. So this week, missionary principles; next week, God willing, personal priorities.

If we’re going to be faithful as a church, if we’re going to be effective, faithful, fruitful servants of Christ in our private lives, we need to bolt the truths that Paul is teaching in both sections firmly into place in our thinking. And so this is really an important portion of the letter for us, I think, particularly in the days in which we live together now as a church. So before we dive into the text itself, let me ask you first to bow your heads with me as we pray together.

O Lord, would You come please and open the Word to us; open our hearts to the Word. Help us to be fertile soil for the seed of the Word, to put down deep roots and to produce a real harvest. We ask, O Lord, that You would teach us and renew us by the transforming of our minds, the renewing of our minds, that we might not be conformed to the pattern of this world but may be enabled to test and approve what Your good, pleasing, and perfect will is. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.

1 Corinthians chapter 9 at the nineteenth verse. This is the Word of Almighty God:

“For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 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. 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. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.”

Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken in His holy and inerrant Word.

In preparation for the message this morning, I read a short article in a secular news site that invited responses to the short article. The title was provocative. It is a question designed, I think, to elicit a response from its readers. The question is, "Are you offended by evangelism?" And I thought the comments were actually quite instructive and helpful in understanding our cultural moment. "Evangelism," declared one contributor, "is a form of abuse." "Offensive is perhaps not the first word I would think of," said another. "I'd say irritating or seriously annoying." A third, "Evangelism is unhealthy, hence, best avoid it."

Evangelism today is controversial business. We are well aware, aren’t we, that it is increasingly common in the culture and in our society to consider evangelism to be intolerant and coercive. And to be sure, there are some dreadful examples of people who seek to follow Jesus using intolerant and coercive means and we want to denounce those and distance ourselves from them. But nevertheless, even a careful, gentle, loving but faithful proclamation of the Christian Gospel is often met with a frustrated, sometimes angry, often equally intolerant reaction in our society. So much so that we can sometimes be a little gun shy as Christians to speak about Jesus; at least if you’re like me, you can be.

And then there are a range of complicated questions that we have to try to navigate. Like, "How do we flex to respond to the particular questions and concerns of this generation with understanding and care, without at the same time making so many adjustments along the way that we lose the Gospel altogether?" Or, on the other hand, "How do we get engaged and stay engaged in frontline mission, pressing the claims of King Jesus and calling all people everywhere to repent and come to Him with boldness and urgency? How do we do that without, at the same time, confirming the worst stereotypes that the world has about Christians and their evangelism? How do we endure the suspicion and the hostility of many in our society toward evangelism without wimping out altogether of the task that Christ has entrusted to the Church to go and make disciples?"

It’s a challenging business, evangelism. Isn’t it? Could we all just admit right now at the outset that we find it difficult? That we’re a little uncomfortable being invited to engage in evangelism? That it’s hard going? And at least, if you’re like me, you will feel like you need all the help you can get. Shall we admit that together, frankly, this morning? That’s certainly how I feel. I’m grateful, therefore, for 1 Corinthians chapter 9, verses 19 to 23, because this is one of those places, one of the most important actually, in the New Testament, where the apostle Paul helps us to think through some of those questions about “How do we be faithful and yet adaptable as we minister to others the good news about Jesus?” One scholar said of this passage, “that it is the quintessential passage concerning Christian witness in the world.” So here is help for us as we struggle to make Jesus known. Paul, as I said earlier, is facing outward here and he shares with us his missionary principles.

Evangelistic Imperative

And the first thing that I want you to see as we consider them together is the evangelistic imperative that drives him. The evangelistic imperative that drives him. Did you see how Paul articulates his goal, his target, right throughout these verses? In verses 19 to 23 he says it five times over that his goal is to win people. That’s his goal. Verse 19, “that I might win more of them.” Verse 20, he sets out in order “to win Jews and to win those under the law.” Or verse 21, he is seeking also “to win those outside the law.” Verse 22, “to win the weak.” So Paul isn’t merely offering gentle propositions in the marketplace of ideas casually throwing out suggestions for the disinterested consideration of his peer group. No, Paul sets out in a calculated, purposeful way to win people to Christ.

The word that Paul uses is an interesting one when he talks about winning people. It has, sometimes has, financial overtones. And given the context in chapter 9 where Paul has been discussing why he refused financial remuneration from the Corinthians. That may well have been in the back of Paul’s mind as he uses it here. Jesus uses it, for example, in Matthew 25:16. You remember the story of the men who were each entrusted with a sum of money and one of them invested it and made a gain. He made a return, a five-fold return on his investment. The gain that he made is the word that Paul uses here. It’s the word for profit. And I think Paul is saying something like this. He’s alluding to the fact that, for him, his real recompense for all his labor, all the work he’s poured out on the Corinthians’ behalf, the profit that he hopes to make, the return on his investment of time and energy, is this – that men and women, boys and girls, might be won for Jesus Christ. That is all the reward that he seeks. That more people would come to know Jesus through his labors.

To Save People

If you’ll look down at verse 22, it’s interesting that he changes the word as he talks about the target he’s aiming at, the goal, the outcome of his labors. He’s been talking about winning people, but in verse 22 he changes the word that helps us understand what he means by winning people. Verse 22, “I become all things to all people that by all means I might” – not this time, “win some,” but - “that I might save some.” Here’s what’s at stake. As Paul purposefully, carefully, in a calculated manner developed strategies and methods in order to try to persuade and convince and win people to Jesus, here’s what’s really at stake. Not simply winning the argument. But to win people, for Paul, means through the instrumentality of his proclamation of the Gospel, salvation itself breaks into their hearts; eternal destinies are at stake, in other words. David Prior, one of the commentators says this. “What is at stake is not simply the failure or success of human persuasion, but man’s eternal destiny.” It is the weight and the urgency of the human predicament that ignites a fire under Paul and drives him to proclaim the Gospel that he might win some. That is, that some, through him, might be saved.

That means, for us, that we have no mandate simply to make more Presbyterians. Jesus did not say, "Go into all the world and make more Calvinists." Now I am a convinced Presbyterian and a devoted Calvinist. I believe that Reformed theology is the teaching of the Bible. But it is not to Presbyterianism or to Calvinism that we have been called and charged to win people. We are to disavow all interests in merely swelling the rolls and recruiting new members for First Presbyterian Church. I said that in the early service and then I met a Baptist couple who were worshiping with us, and before I knew what I was doing I said, "You know, Baptists make the best Presbyterians!" And all that I had just said in the sermon came rushing back to me! The truth is, we have no mandate simply to swell our tribe. Do we? That's not our call to make more people like ourselves, to expand our empire. That is not our concern. Our concern is to be the same as the concern that animated the apostle Paul. Our concern but always be that around us today – in our city, on our streets where we live, in our homes, sleeping in the bedrooms next door perhaps, sitting beside you in the pew this morning, next to you in the classroom, across the corridor in the office – there are men and women, boys and girls, who are going to hell today and who do not know it.

That ought to be breaking our hearts, I think. I have repenting to do – I don’t know about you – for how little that breaks my heart. Our concern is that there are countless multitudes in our country who have imperishable souls that are lost without God and without hope in the world. Our concern is not to recruit some people to our club – to make people look like us and talk like us and act like us. Surely our concern is to do all that we can, by all means, to win people to Christ. That by any means we may save some! That was Paul’s great concern. I believe that God, in the Scriptures, is calling us to make it ours also. You look around and there are lots of empty pockets in the pews beside us. The solution is not to fill them with our available market share of Christians in Jackson. It's not to do a better job of getting more people from other churches to fill ours. No, the empty pews around us ought to remind us there is a mission to which we have been called and we are to reach our city with the Gospel and invite people not to become Presbyterians or Calvinists or members of First Church but to invite them to come to Jesus Christ and to bend the knee to Him. That is God's call to us individually and together as a church. There is an evangelistic imperative driving Paul; an impulse that animates him.

Evangelistic Strategy

And then I want you to notice secondly that, arising from that, there is an evangelistic strategy that he develops. To give expression to this fire that is lit under him to reach others, he has developed a strategy to help him do so effectively. We might call it a strategy of faithful flexibility. Faithful flexibility. You can see it articulated in principle if you’ll look at verse 19, first of all. Verse 19, “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all that I might win more of them.” So that’s the goal; he wants to win people. He wants to see them saved. And he is willing, he’s now telling us, to be remarkably, personally adaptable to accomplish that goal. He will be the servant of all, even though he is free from all. That is to say, Jesus Christ is Master in his life, so he serves all but the people he serves are not his master. King Jesus is his Master and he is their servant for Christ’s sake.

That is an important way to fit this together for us, I think, that we need to get straight. Because there is a great deal of confusion about it that is causing, I think, a considerable amount of harm in the church. Alistair Begg once, I think, put it this way speaking about pastors. That pastors are the servants of the congregation, but the congregation is not their master. That’s what Paul is saying here about all Christian witnesses. We are the servants of all people, but the world is not our master; Jesus is. If the world was our master, if we are the servants of the world and the world was our master, well then the world gets to dictate our message and our methods. The world gets to set the agenda. Do you see? The culture, it’s prevailing opinions and the preferences and mores and dictates of the society will drive the message and the method that we use in our service of them. But if, as is the truth according to Paul here, we are though servants of the world, mastered only by Jesus, then while we are to be flexible in our service our message and the parameters of our method is determined not by the world’s desires but by Christ’s. There is a faithful flexibility. Do you see?

And Paul, in verses 20 through 22, gives us examples of how he works that out in his own ministry. Do you see them in verses 20 through 22? “To the Jew,” he says, “I became like a Jew to win Jews. To those under the law,” that is, under the regulations and ceremonial of the Mosaic covenant, he became like one under the law, though himself not under the Mosaic economy any longer, “in order to win those under the law. And to those outside the law,” that is to Gentiles, he became “like one outside the law, though not free from the law of God altogether but under the law of Christ that he might win those outside the law.” To the weak, he became weak. You remember the weak at Corinth, in the chapter immediately prior to this one, where those who had weak consciences and were offended at the careless use of Christian liberty that was taking place at Corinth. And so Paul is saying, “I will gladly give up my rights and stand with my weaker brothers if I might win the weak.”


You see the two sides to Paul's strategy? There is flexibility and there is faithfulness. He's remarkably flexible. Even though he has now come to understand, through the Gospel, that Christ has satisfied the ceremonial regulations of the Mosaic law. When he's ministering to Jewish people, he will flex and adapt and gladly adopt those old Jewish customs that were once so very familiar to him so as not to give offense and win a hearing for the Gospel. Then, as he was largely amongst the Corinthians, ministering to Gentiles, those not having the law, he was free to not worry any longer about keeping kosher, not being under the ceremonial requirements of the Mosaic law, because Christ has fulfilled it for him and so now he can serve among them almost as though he were a Gentile himself. There's incredible personal adaptability and flexibility seeking to identify what are the major concerns and stumbling blocks and "How can I avoid giving undue offense so that Christ and the cross alone might be the only offense I ever give?"


That doesn’t mean, however, that he’s free from all constraints. His flexibility is not absolute. He doesn’t simply study the culture, find out what people want, what makes them tick, and then give them that. There was a French revolutionary by the name of Auguste Ledru-Rollin who is reported to have said, “There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.” That is not Paul’s perspective here. He doesn’t simply try to identify what people want and then give it to them that he might recruit more of them to his own tribe, his own perspective. He’s not looking to make followers of Paul. Do you see? No, he is under the law of Christ. That is his conscience’s captive to the truth as it is in Jesus. Jesus dictates and governs both the message and the method; the limits of what is and is not acceptable, both in terms of what he says and in terms of how he lives. He is not free to pick and choose those emphases in the message that are less offensive or more so and drop the offensive parts and preach only the inoffensive parts. He’s not free to adjust the balance and proportion of truth as it is found in the New Testament Scriptures. He must faithfully represent it because his conscience is captive to the mastery of King Jesus. He is under the law of Christ. Neither is he free to say, “Well, my filthy mouth and my polluted eyes – that’s just me being relevant in order to communicate to the culture.” No, he is called to be holy and distinct under the law of Christ. King Jesus directs his ministry by His holy Word.

The Balance

And getting that balance right can sometimes be hard, can’t it? Faithful flexibility is hard to do and hard to maintain and the stakes are high. If we are flexible, adaptable, without due regard for Scriptural faithfulness, what will happen? We will lose the Gospel. If we are flexible without being faithful to the truth, we will lose the Gospel. If, on the other hand, we are only concerned about stating truth with precision and not concerned about communicating it with sensitivity, what will happen? Our message will be misunderstood and dismissed, straight out of the starting blocks. Sometimes fear makes us overly cautious about flexibility. And other times, our eagerness to make a difference and an impact for Jesus makes us impatient with doctrinal precision.

So the stakes are high and the challenge is real. Paul manages to wed these concerns together here beautifully, doesn’t he, into a strategy that is strong and effective, faithful and flexible. He sums it all up, if you’ll look at verse 22, when he says, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” Notice those sweeping universals – “all things to all people that by all means I might save some.”

As I was meditating on those words in preparation for this morning, I couldn’t help wonder if they weren’t God’s message for us as a church, particularly in these days. I wonder if you’ll agree with this. It’s my growing persuasion and sense that, as a church, we have a really clear grasp of who we are – our identity, our heritage, our history, our core commitments. If you were to be asked by a visitor, “What does First Pres really value?” you could probably give a pretty good account of the things that are important to us. But I also suspect we do not have anything like that kind of clarity or unanimity about our mission; about what we’re here to do. What is it we’re trying to get done? I suspect that we have a good deal of confusion or ambiguity about our mission. And so as I wrestled with the text, it seems to me this is part of God’s answer to that struggle. We are being called by the Word of God to be all things to all people that by all means we might save some. We’re being called in this text of Holy Scripture to dedicate or to rededicate ourselves to an evangelistic strategy driven by the evangelistic imperative that is both faithful and flexible.

We mustn’t fear flexibility, and neither must we ignore Biblical fidelity. We need to bring both together. We need to do that hard work of wrestling with what that should look like for us in our location and time and place. We need to bring both together – faithfulness and flexibility – in a renewed commitment to doing everything we can to see some saved. That’s our mission, isn’t it? To reach our neighborhoods, our city, and around the world, by all lawful means, in order to win people to Jesus.

So there's an evangelistic imperative, an impulse that drives Paul. He wants to see people saved. Do you want to see people saved? Do you long to see the lost found and the dead live? And then there's a strategy that goes along with it that is faithful to the truth, under the authority of King Jesus and is marvelously flexible and adaptable. To serve others in a way that will allow them to hear the Gospel and understand that the only offense we hope to give is the offense of the cross.

Evangelistic Blessing

And then finally, I want you to notice that as Paul labors in this evangelistic mode, there’s an evangelistic blessing that he longs to enjoy. Did you see it in verse 23? “I do it all,” he says, “for the sake of the Gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” When people come to Christ through his ministry, the blessing they enjoy, he shares. Those of who you have ever had the privilege of leading someone to Christ know a little bit about what he’s talking about. There’s no thrill quite like it, to be the instrument in the hands of the Holy Spirit, by which someone comes to spiritual life for the very first time. It’s electrifying. It is thrilling. And when Christians get a taste of it, they want more. That’s what’s happened to Paul. God has been using him. People have been coming alive through his ministry and the blessing they enjoy, he shares in, and he has an appetite for it; he wants more!

Maybe, I think, the greatest historical model of all of this that we’re talking about, outside of the New Testament, is Hudson Taylor. You know Hudson Taylor’s story? Shortly after the formation of China Inland Mission in 1866, Taylor returned to Shanghai in China with the largest group of missionaries to date. And they created quite a stir when they landed because they resolved, based on the teaching of this text, to adopt Chinese customs, culture, and dress in a way that was actually quite scandalous amongst the European settlers in the city. Taylor himself was devoted to learning several Chinese languages and dialects. He was proficient enough to preach in many of them; translated the New Testament into one. And he said, echoing Paul’s language, here’s the philosophy of faithful, flexibility. He said, “Let us, in everything not sinful, become like the Chinese.” He longed to reach the Chinese people with the Gospel. “So let us, in everything not sinful, become like the Chinese.”

He spent fifty-one years in China, pouring out his life for Christ. He retired to Switzerland and then in his seventy-third year he went back to China, on his eleventh trip, and there he gave his life in the cause of the Gospel. He is buried today on the banks of the Yangtze River, awaiting the resurrection. And running throughout Hudson Taylor’s ministry there is this sense that he is thrilled with Jesus Christ, with the good news, and at the prospect of seeing Chinese people come to know Him. He said this, “If I had a thousand pounds” – now a thousand pounds in the middle of the 19th century in Britain, that was a huge amount of money – “If I had a thousand pounds, China should have it. If I had a thousand lives, China should have them. No, not China, but Christ! Can we do too much for Him? Can we do enough for such a precious Savior?” He is captured, captivated, riveted by the glory of Christ and the needs of the lost and the possibility that King Jesus would use him to see men and women, boys and girls, come to know the Savior.

There is an evangelistic imperative to win souls that gripped Paul, gripped Hudson Taylor. I wonder, has it yet gripped us. Might we, perhaps, make it a matter of prayer that God would begin to stir our church and grip our hearts with a longing to see sinners saved and to be useful in winning some. There is an evangelistic strategy. It’s a challenging one, threatening even, uncomfortable, of faithful flexibility. And we need to do the hard work of figuring out what that means for us here in this place and time. But there is a great blessing if we’ll do that hard work; a joy for us to know – of being the instruments in the Redeemer’s hands in the salvation of another. What a joy that you might be, as it were, the midwife at the spiritual birth of a baby Christian! Paul longed to be such an instrument in Christ’s hands. And those of us who get a taste of that want to do it again and again and again. So my prayer for myself and for you is that God would begin to awaken an appetite for precisely that among us, that First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi might be a mighty instrument in reaching our city and our world for the glory of King Jesus.

Let’s pray together.

Our Father, we pray for our city, for the neighborhoods around our church. There are so many people who do not know Jesus and we ask You, please, to forgive us for our lovelessness toward them. That we could be so indifferent, that I could be so indifferent toward them and to do so little to reach them. Please, will You begin a work in my heart, in our hearts, to awaken us first to the glory and the sufficiency of Christ? We have news worth sharing, after all. And then to the urgency of the spiritual predicament in which so many around us still live. And then make us faithful and flexible and resolved to do all that we may that by any means, by all means, we might save some. And give us that heady blessing, heady joy of being Your instrument in the spiritual birth of new Christians. Would You do that in our hearts? For Jesus' sake, amen.

© 2017 First Presbyterian Church.

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