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Lesson 7: Winning Others to Christ (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)

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When Gib Martin, who later became a pastor, was 27-years-old, he was a school teacher. After spending his day with 27 kids, he would unwind by stopping at a bar to have a beer and bemoan life. He had come from a religious background, but for three years he had been an atheist. He was going through a period of desperation and he didn’t feel like being around anyone.

Every day at the bar he would see an older man named Charlie, a carpenter who for many years had been an alcoholic, but then, many years before, had been led to Christ by Martin’s great-grandmother. Charlie was so burdened for souls that after work each day, he would stop at this bar, drink coffee, and share his life with those who would listen.

Charlie could tell that Gib was miserable, so he tried to befriend him, but was met with resistance. He wasn’t able to share Christ because of Gib’s attitude, but he invited him to go hear a man with a doctor’s degree who was speaking in the community. Gib told Charlie he would go if they could later discuss what the man had to say. Gib went and heard the gospel for the first time. He was so convicted of his sin that he vomited all night long and thought he was dying. The next day at noon, he dropped to his knees and gave his life to Christ. He later found out that Charlie and others that Charlie had led to Christ had spent all night praying for him.

But the sad part of the story is that none of the local churches would allow Charlie to associate with them because he went to the bar every day. Even though he wasn’t getting drunk—he wasn’t even having a beer—they didn’t like what he was doing. Even the church where Charlie directed Gib to go after his conversion wouldn’t allow Charlie to join (from A Theology of Personal Ministry, by Lawrence Richards and Gib Martin [Zondervan], pp 44-45).

What do you think? Was Charlie wrong to go into a bar to get acquainted with those who frequented that place and look for opportunities to share the gospel? Or, was Charlie following the example of the apostle Paul, who became all things to all men so that by all means he might save some (1 Cor. 9:22)? I’ll tip my hand: Give me ten men like Charlie to reach out to Flagstaff’s bar crowd!

There is no doubt that some have greatly misapplied our text. For example, during the hippie days, women from the Children of God cult were encouraged to “be all things to all men” by offering themselves sexually to entice men to join the group! A more current and subtle example is the so-called “Insider Movement” among missions to the Muslims. In attempting to contextualize the gospel for Islamic cultures, some have gone so far as to say that Muslim converts to Christianity can still go to the mosque, repeat the Islamic creed, observe the fasts, view the Koran as a revelation from God, and esteem Mohammed as God’s prophet! Many rightly fear that these missionaries are creating a new syncretistic religion that we might call, “Christlam.”

If we want truly to win others to Christ, we need to think carefully about Paul’s words in these verses. As Gordon Fee points out (The First Epistle to the Corinthians [Eerdmans], p. 432), this text has nothing to do with adapting the message of the gospel to the language and perspective of the recipients. Neither, he says, does it have anything to do with observing social taboos among Christians. Rather, it has to do with how one lives or behaves among those he wishes to evangelize. The message of the cross is often offensive to proud sinners, but we should not be personally offensive in neutral matters of custom or culture. Paul is saying,

Winning others to Christ requires presenting the gospel to lost people without needlessly offending them.

In the context, Paul is writing against the Corinthians who were demanding their rights. He is showing how he laid aside his rights for the sake of others. He had a right to support in the ministry (9:1-14), but he laid aside that right so as not to be a hindrance to the gospel (9:15-18). Here he is arguing that he had a right to be free from the social customs of others in non-moral areas, but he laid aside that right and enslaved himself to all, becoming all things to all men that by all means he might save some.

We need to understand that to win others to Christ, we must share the content of the gospel (9:18). People will not be converted by watching our lives alone, without hearing the good news about Christ. But what Paul tells us here is that we should remove all cultural barriers that would needlessly distract or offend those we are trying to reach. We don’t want our outward appearance or political views to be the issue. We want the gospel to be the issue.

1. Winning others to Christ requires presenting the gospel to lost people.

God could have chosen other methods to spread the gospel, and probably they would have been more effective. Angels could have done a better job, but God chose saved people to tell lost people the message. Our text shows that there is both a goal that we must own and a message that we must proclaim.

A. There is a goal that we must own: by all means to save some.

Paul sums up his goal in 9:22b-23a: “so that I may by all means save some. I do all things for the sake of the gospel ….” When we read these words, we all must ask, “Is that my goal?” Maybe you’re wondering, “Should it be my goal? Isn’t that just a goal for an apostle or missionary or for someone gifted in evangelism?” But Jesus said that He came to seek and to save that which was lost (Luke 19:10), and we are to become like Him. And Paul said (1 Cor. 10:33), “Just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit but the profit of the many, so that they may be saved.” Then he immediately adds (11:1), “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.” So while we all have different gifts, we should purpose to use them for the ultimate goal of seeing lost people get saved. Consider four things about this goal:

(1) It is a realistic goal.

Even Paul, as gifted as he was, does not think that he will save everyone. But he did aim to save some, and those some would save some others, who would save some others. Paul realistically knew that the gospel would be for some an aroma of life, but for others an aroma of death (2 Cor. 2:15-16). The goal is to save some.

This helps me not get under a pile thinking about the enormity of the task. I can’t reach all of Flagstaff with the gospel, much less the whole world! But maybe I can be God’s instrument in saving some. Begin praying for those you have contact with who don’t know Christ. Pray for opportunities to present the gospel to them. It is a realistic goal to ask God to use you to save some.

(2) It is a worthy goal.

Nothing is more worthy of your time and effort than helping people get rightly related to God. Nothing will help the world more than leading people to saving faith in Jesus Christ. Nothing will help families more than leading family members to Christ.

A worthy goal deserves worthy means of achieving it. When Paul says that he uses “all means” to save some (9:22), in the context he means that he is willing to lay aside all of his rights to bring someone to Christ. He does not mean that the end justifies any means. I read about a church in Texas that attracted 23,000 to its Easter services by advertising that they would give away 16 cars and millions in prizes, including bicycles, furniture sets, flat-screen TV’s, and 15,000 gift envelopes stuffed with coupons for goods and services valued at $300 each (World, May 8, 2010, p. 30). The pastor justified it by saying that it gave them a chance to offer the free gift of heaven to those who came. He claims that thousands received Christ because of the giveaway. But I think he cheapened the gospel by making it seem like an extra door prize that you can take home with your new TV set! It was not a worthy means for the worthy message of the gospel.

(3) It is a crucial goal.

What could be more crucial than saving people? If a person is not saved, he is lost. Those are the only choices. And we’re not talking about a temporary situation, but an eternal one!

If we say that we believe the Bible and follow Jesus as Lord, we cannot escape the fact of an eternal hell that is an awful place. Jesus described it as a place of unquenchable fire (Mark 9:43), where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30). He never pictures it as a giant party for all the wicked. He tells of the rich man in the flames pleading with Abraham to send someone from the dead to warn his brothers, so that they will not come to “this place of torment” (Luke 16:27-28).

So when we talk about people getting saved, they aren’t getting saved from low self-esteem or from a life of failure. They are getting saved from God’s eternal wrath and judgment on their sin to eternal life with God in heaven. It’s a crucial goal.

(4) It is a compelling goal.

Because it is so crucial, the goal of saving some must grip our lives. These verses throb with Paul’s passion to reach the lost: “that I may win more” (9:19); “that I may win Jews” (9:20); “that I may win those who are under the Law” (9:20); “that I might win those who are without law” (9:21); “that I might win the weak” (9:22); “that I may by all means save some” (9:22); “I do all things for the sake of the gospel” (9:23). Back in verse 16, Paul says that he was under compulsion to preach the gospel. He didn’t control it; it controlled him. The man was obsessed!

If it were not the apostle Paul and if this were not inspired Scripture, some theologically correct brothers might say, “Paul, don’t you know that you can’t save anyone? Only God can save people. So relax, will you? If God has chosen to save them, then He will do that without your help!” That’s what a pious minister told William Carey 220 years ago when he proposed taking the gospel to India. But both Carey and the apostle Paul realized that the sovereign God uses means to save His elect. He uses men and women who are compelled by the goal of saving some.

Does the goal of saving lost people grip you? Is it your passion, as it was Paul’s? I confess that I’m too complacent about seeing lost people get saved. Paul shows us that there is a goal we must own: by all means to save some.

B. There is a message that we must proclaim: the gospel.

True, we cannot save anyone, but the gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). This means that winning people to Christ does not require that you learn how to become a clever salesman. Rather, it means that you understand the gospel clearly so that you can present it well. You should be able to present it in one minute or less. There are 3 parts:

First, our problem is sin, rebellion against the holy God who created us to know Him. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). And, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23), which means eternal separation from God in hell.

Second, God’s provision for our sin is the Lord Jesus Christ. He is God in human flesh. He came to teach us God’s ways and to offer Himself as the perfect sacrifice for sin that God’s righteousness demands. Since He is God, His death has infinite value. Since He is man, His death atones for human sin. God raised Jesus from the dead as proof that His death is the acceptable sacrifice for our sins. “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Pet. 2:24). “He [God] made Him [Christ] who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21).

Third, our required response is to trust in God’s provision in Christ as the payment in full for our sins. To trust in Christ, we must turn from our sins and give up our attempts to get into heaven by our good works. Rather, whoever believes in Jesus Christ has eternal life (John 3:16). We must trust in Jesus as we would trust a doctor who gave us a prescription and said, “Take this; it will cure you.” We must trust in Christ as we would trust a pilot who said, “Get on board and I will fly you to your destination.” To trust in Jesus Christ as Savior means that His death and resurrection are your only hope to be acquitted and get into heaven on judgment day.

To win others to Christ, we must present this simple good news: You have sinned against God, but Jesus Christ bore your penalty on the cross if you will turn from your sin and trust in Him.

2. Winning others to Christ requires presenting the gospel to lost people without needlessly offending them.

Paul shows us three things about how he preached the gospel boldly and yet avoided needless personal offense: There is an attitude to adopt; a perception to gain; and, a balance to maintain.

A. There is an attitude to adopt: I am a slave to all.

“For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more” (9:19). A slave does not view himself as being over others, but rather as being under them to serve. He doesn’t think of himself first, but of those he serves. Paul made himself a slave to those who were without Christ.

Do you view the lost as the enemy to be fought or as those whom you need to serve? If the latter, how are you serving them? Do you look for opportunities to serve your neighbors or your lost family members? If an unbeliever is rude toward you, do you react with anger or with kindness?

I read of a mean army sergeant who threw his muddy boots at a Christian private as he knelt by his bunk in prayer. They hit him in the head, but he went on praying. In the morning the sergeant found his boots beside his bunk beautifully polished. That act of kind service on the part of that private resulted in the sergeant’s salvation. I’ll be the first to admit that I probably would not have responded as that private did. But that kind of behavior starts with an attitude that we all must adopt: “I am a slave to the lost.”

B. There is a perception to gain: Where is this person at?

Paul had one message, the gospel, which he never changed. But culturally, he considered the perspective of his hearers and tried to think and act as they did, as long as it wasn’t sinful, so that they would hear the message.

To the Jews, Paul became a Jew (9:20). Wasn’t Paul already a Jew? Yes, but he had left the strict cultural aspects of Judaism behind when God called him to preach to the Gentiles. So when he went back to Jerusalem or to Jewish people anywhere, he had to relate to them as a Jew. In modern terms, with the Jews, Paul was kosher. He skipped the bacon for breakfast.

“Those under the Law” (9:20) is another way of looking at the Jews. It focuses on their religious practices, especially keeping the ceremonial aspects of the Law. Paul was no longer under the Law of Moses (Rom. 6:14; 7:4), but he could observe a Jewish celebration if it gave him an opportunity to reach the Jews.

“Those without law” (9:21) refers to the Gentiles. When Paul was with them, he could lay aside the non-moral aspects of the Law of Moses and live culturally like a Gentile. He is quick to clarify that he was not without God’s law, but under the law of Christ, which refers to the moral aspects of God’s law. Paul would never use profanity or tell dirty jokes to relate to lost people. But he would eat meat offered to idols to reach Gentiles (1 Cor. 10:27-31).

“To the weak” (9:22) is difficult to interpret. Either you have to give a different meaning to “the weak” than it had in chapter 8, where it referred to weak believers; or, you have to give a different sense to “win,” which refers to saving the lost. Since the immediate context has to do with winning people to Christ, I think Paul means that with those who are overly scrupulous, he would be sensitive and not bowl them over with his liberty in Christ. In other words, he was sensitive to the sensitive.

Paul’s overall point is that we need to understand where a person is at and not do things in our behavior or manners that needlessly offend them. The message of the cross may well offend them, but we should not be personally offensive to them. Don’t make non-gospel issues the issue. Make the gospel the issue.

Thus, there is an attitude to adopt: I am a slave to all. There is a perception to gain: Where is this person at? Finally,

C. There is a balance to maintain: To be all things to all people, while being all for God.

This is always a struggle and it’s easy to err on both sides. Some professing Christians, such as the Amish, withdraw from the world and are so culturally distinct that they have virtually no impact in terms of saving any. The world just looks at them as being weird. They aren’t of the world, but neither are they in the world.

On the other hand, in their attempt to reach the world, other professing Christians become so much like the world that they lose their holiness and compromise the gospel. For example, I’ve read of pastors that freely use profanity and churches that use secular hard rock music (with lewd lyrics) to lure young people into the building. They’re in the world, but they’re also of the world.

Jesus calls us to be in the world, but not to be of the world (John 17:15-16). He was known as the friend of sinners, but He never compromised His holiness. One way to keep our balance is to keep our goal in view at all times: “to save some.” Your reason for going into the world is not to cavort with them, but to snatch them out of the flames (Jude 23). And, a second goal that Paul mentions is (9:23), “so that I may become a fellow partaker of it [the gospel].” Along with those he sees come to faith in Christ, Paul wants to share in the eternal blessings of the gospel.

If Charlie, the converted alcoholic, had said, “Now that I’m a Christian, I won’t go into bars,” he never would have reached Gib Martin. On the other hand, if Charlie had gone into bars and started drinking and carousing again, he never would have reached Gib Martin. To win others to Christ, we have to go where they’re at so that we will get opportunities to present the gospel to them. But we need to be distinct in our lifestyle and behavior so that we don’t compromise the message that we have to give them.

Conclusion

This passage convicts me in several areas. I lack Paul’s all-consuming passion, to by all means save some. I can’t honestly say, “I do all things for the sake of the gospel.” I’m too isolated from lost people to reach them with the gospel. Perhaps you’re convicted in the same way, or perhaps some of you are too much like worldly people to win any of them to Christ. However the Lord speaks to you, I urge you to wrestle with it and ask God to change you. May He use us as a church to win more to Jesus Christ!

Application Questions

  1. On the spectrum of being “in the world, but not of it,” where do you fall? Are you not “in it” enough, or “of it” too much?
  2. How can we shake off our apathy and develop a passion to win the lost?
  3. The Bible forbids us from being too closely associated with unbelievers (2 Cor. 6:14-17). How then can we befriend them to reach them with the gospel? Where’s the balance?
  4. Was Charlie right to hang out at the bar to reach lost people? How far should we go with this?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Evangelism, Soteriology (Salvation), Wisdom