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Becoming All Things to All Men

Last Sunday, the sermon text was 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. We looked at three key points from Paul’s words.

  1. The priority of the gospel (v. 19). Our freedom in Christ compels us to become servants of all that many people will be saved from the wrath to come.
  2. Our practice in the gospel (vv. 20-22). We intentionally adjust our lives and sacrifice our preferences in order to overcome any unnecessary hindrances that would otherwise keep us from interacting with unbelievers, prevent us from communicating the gospel more effectively, or limit our love for others. Such adjustments should always preserve the offense of the cross and never compromise new life in the Spirit.
  3. The prize of living for the gospel (v. 23). Our ultimate treasure is not bound up in self, but in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The sacrifices we make in becoming servants of all are nothing when compared to the infinite blessings gained in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

As I mentioned in point 2 of the sermon, the application of this text sometimes suffers from two unhealthy extremes in contemporary Christian circles.

Undiscerning “Engagement”

Sometimes Paul’s words are abused by many who champion “cultural engagement” to the neglect of a pursuit of holiness. The danger, here, is that you eventually look just like the culture, even in unhealthy ways, and eventually have nothing to offer in the gospel, since your “redeemed” life is indistinguishable from theirs. If you tend to lean this way, I would encourage you to commit yourself afresh to scouring God’s word and fleshing out what it means to submit yourself to the “law of Christ” in everything (v. 21). You may also consider asking yourself these questions:

  • Are you engaging a particular culture to reach the people in it, or are you engaging that culture because you already enjoy that culture, even in unhealthy and idolatrous ways? Be sure “becoming all things to all men” is not a slogan by which you hide ungodly desires.
  • How much does a text like Ephesians 5:11-12 inform your cultural engagement: “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret.” Or for those of you who are into the arts and movies, how does a text like Psalm 101:3 inform what you engage: “I will not set before my eyes anything that is worthless. I hate the work of those who fall away; it shall not cling to me.”
  • What measures are you taking for discerning what is sinful within a particular culture that you say you’re trying to engage for the sake of the gospel?
  • Are you intentionally thinking about ways you can adapt to your culture and ways you should not adapt?
  • How much does your adaptation to a culture account for the fact that normally when Paul engaged one culture or the other, he suffered greatly for the offense of the gospel? Are you preserving the offense of the gospel and do you intend to challenge a culture’s sinful ideas with the truth of Scripture?

Exclusivist “Holiness”

At other times, Paul’s words tend to be ignored, at least in practice, by many who pursue what they perceive to be a life of personal “holiness” but to the neglect of engaging anyone  and any culture with the gospel. The danger, here, is that our passion to be not “of the world” fails to remember that God left us “in the world” for mission and sacrificial love toward the lost as we preach the gospel to them. If you tend to lean this way, you may consider asking yourself these questions:

  • Have you reduced Christianity to “sin management”? That is to say, would you define your Christian walk by how much sin you stay away from? Have you given any thought to the fact that personal “holiness” also embraces God’s mission to save human beings who live within very specific cultures which you ”uc">must enter and preach the gospel?
  • Have you reduced Christianity to only those people who live within the very specific culture that only you approve of?
  • How much effort do you put into strategically engaging the people who live around you with the gospel? Do you build your life and your commitments only around the cultures you’re most comfortable with, while the cultures of people most likely uncomfortably different than yours go unreached with the gospel of Jesus Christ?
  • Are you requiring lost people to come and find you inside your culture? Or are you taking the message of God’s salvation in Christ to them in their culture as Jesus commissioned us (Matt 28:18-20) and Paul assumes of Christians (1 Cor 5:9-10; 10:27)?

In  asking all of these questions, I’m not trying to put a damper on anyone’s cultural engagement or anyone’s pursuit of holiness. The Christian life demands Christ-centered approaches to both, because people from every culture really need to be saved from the wrath to come through belief in the distinct gospel of the crucified and risen Christ. I have asked these questions as an attempt to bring about further discernment in remaining faithful to the words of 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. I pray they will be used in pursuing a kind of holiness that’s willing to go to extreme lengths to engage people with the gospel and a kind of engagement that preserves the distinctiveness and offense of the gospel our risen Lord as we become all things to all men that by all means we might save some.

In the words of Paul,

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved (1 Corinthians 10:31-33).

As a fellow partaker in the gospel,