Does this mean that Paul would compromise with God's law under special circumstances? Absolutely not! Does he endorse "situation ethics"? Absolutely not! Does Paul embrace syncretism? Absolutely not!
Paul understands that we need to guard and protect jealously certain core beliefs such as God's laws and statutes, which we hold as non-negotiable. But we find a rather wide variety of marginal beliefs (such as choice of music, automobile, food, clothing, etc.) upon which we can compromise without sin.
The apostle Paul had a keen sense of what part of his belief structure was negotiable and what was not. He had the knack to make things that he and other people agreed upon to seem like mountains and those he and others disagreed upon seem like molehills.
In I Corinthians 6:12, He expresses the realization that just because something was lawful does not mean it is the thing to do—especially if it will offend someone. In Romans 14, Paul sets some guidelines on dealing with marginal issues. If becoming a vegetarian or a teetotaler for a day proves the price of peace and not offending, he considers it a small price to pay.
David F. Maas
Godly Tact and Diplomacy
What Paul means in this passage becomes clear when we understand the sense and usage of two Greek words, those translated as “win” and “save.” In the evangelical world, both of them have taken on lives of their own, but with just a little digging, we will see that no contradiction lies between this passage and the numerous other clear statements.
The word translated as “win” is kerdaino (Strong's #2770), and its basic meaning is “gain,” which is how it is typically translated. It means “to acquire by effort or investment.” It can mean “to earn” or “to make a profit.” The flipside is that it can also mean “to cause a loss not to occur.”
This word is used infrequently, but the verses that contain it are well known. For example, Jesus uses it when He cautions against gaining the whole world yet losing one's own soul (Matthew 16:26; Mark 8:36; Luke 9:27). The gain is a physical or material one—it is not speaking of evangelizing the whole world. It also appears in the Parable of the Talents, where two of the servants gain more talents through their efforts and investments (Matthew 25:16-22).
Kerdaino is also found in the well-known Matthew 18:15, where Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother.” The gaining here is not about “winning” someone “for Christ.” When we gain our brother, we are gaining a better relationship. We are keeping a breach in the relationship from continuing. We receive a profit, as it were, by enhancing the connection or bond between us. There is no implication that we are opening his mind to the mysteries of God's Kingdom. It simply means that after bringing a sin to his attention, if he hears and receives us, then we have gained our brother because the relationship has been restored.
David C. Grabbe
Can We Win People For Christ?
Paul mentions five times here that he is trying to “win” different people, and in verse 22, he writes that he is trying to “save some.” This passage is commonly interpreted that Paul would present himself differently in various circumstances to win people for Christ; he became all things to all men in order to “save” at least some of them. This interpretation fits the general evangelical belief that Christians should do whatever is necessary to “win souls for Christ” and to get all manner of people “saved” before they die.
However, if that is what this passage means, then holy Scripture is broken (see John 10:35)! Such a reading contradicts numerous other clear biblical statements. For example, in John 6:44, Jesus says, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him.” A little later in John 6:65, He reiterates this: “. . . no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father.” Without the Father providing an individual an approach to Christ, he cannot come to Him for salvation. The Father must intervene first—human intervention makes no difference.
Acts 13 contains the story of Paul and Barnabas preaching to Gentiles in Antioch. Luke writes in verse 48: “Now when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the word of the Lord. And as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.” Even though the apostles preached to many, only certain people believed what they heard because only they had been appointed to eternal life.
John 17:3 provides a basic definition of the eternal life to which some were appointed: “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” Eternal life, then, is not merely endless living, but is the quality of life that comes from having relationships with the Father and the Son—and only the Father determines who will have such relationships during this age. Those who are not appointed to eternal life now will have their opportunity in the second resurrection.
This parallels Paul's statement in Ephesians 2:8 that grace and saving faith are both gifts from God. He is not beholden to give the faith that saves—that is why it comes as a gift only to some. In fact, in II Thessalonians 3:2, the apostle says that “not all [people] have faith.” An interlinear Bible will show that the Greek contains a definite article—“the”—before “faith”: “not all have the faith.” There is a specific faith, but only those to whom God gives it have it.
Jesus declares, “Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). Claiming Jesus as our Lord has no effect if He does not know us (verse 23), and as John 6:44 shows, the Father determines whether a person can even approach Jesus Christ.
In Acts 2:38, Peter speaks about receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit. Then he says, “For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call” (verse 39). But without that calling, the promise does not apply. Many verses mention God's specific foreknowledge, calling, and election of some and not others (Acts 13:2; 22:14; Romans 1:6-7; 8:28-30; 9:11; 11:2; 16:13; I Corinthians 1:9; 1:24-28; Galatians 1:6; 5:8; Ephesians 1:4; 4:1; Colossians 3:15; I Thessalonians 1:4; 2:12; 4:7; 5:24; II Thessalonians 1:11; 2:13-14; I Timothy 6:12; II Timothy 1:9; Hebrews 3:1; 9:15; I Peter 1:2; 2:9; 5:10; II Peter 1:10; Jude 1; Revelation 17:14). Clearly, God has specifically determined who will come into a relationship with Him during this age—and it is not everyone! The rest will have this opportunity in the resurrection.
If the scriptures are to remain unbroken, either all of these examples of God limiting salvation right now are wrong, or the common interpretation of I Corinthians 9:19-22 misses the mark!
David C. Grabbe
Can We Win People For Christ?
In verse 22, Paul speaks of “sav[ing] some.” Sometimes we have an automatic tendency to think of eternal salvation, or at the very least justification, whenever we hear the words “save” or “saved.” However, that is only one facet of the Greek word translated as “save,” sozo (Strong's #4982), whose basic meaning is “to make safe.” It can be expanded to mean “to deliver or protect, either literally or figuratively.”
This word is frequently used in reference to physical deliverance from a dangerous or undesirable situation, and is often translated as “heal,” “preserve,” and “make whole.” When healing people, Jesus would tell them, “Your faith has made you whole.” He was essentially saying, “Your faith has saved you”—but the salvation was a physical one. The person was saved from a condition of misery.
In the highest sense, a person is not ultimately saved—“safe”—until he or she is no longer subject to death or to sin, which earns death. That is, we are not truly safe until “this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality” (I Corinthians 15:54). Until resurrected or changed at Christ's return—until we are “like Him” (I John 3:2), and “death is swallowed up in victory” (Isaiah 25:8)—we are subject to the corruption of our human nature, the breakdown of our physical bodies, and the cessation of life, all things that keep us from being eternally safe. Until we are spirit beings, we will always be in need of deliverance, protection, healing, and restoration. Even the salvation that takes place upon our repentance—the forgiveness of our past sins—does not guarantee our future safety, for until we take our final breath, it is possible for us turn away from God and reject His way of life.
What kind of salvation is Paul talking about in I Corinthians 9? Since no man is saved eternally at the point of conversion, he is not referring to eternal salvation. We also know that he could not have meant justification here either, because even an apostle does not have the power to justify. Nor was he given the authority to impart true belief. Only those whom God appoints to eternal life at this time are going to believe (see Acts 13:48). So that sort of saving is not what Paul is talking about.
Before we get to the full explanation, we need to understand how this passage fits with the rest of the epistle. I Corinthians 8-10 relate to the controversy over eating meat offered to idols. Paul's basic teaching throughout these chapters is that it was far better for the Corinthians to deny themselves a perfectly lawful thing than to risk causing a brother to stumble. Through much of this instruction, he uses his own pattern of self-denial as an example, showing in various ways that he would go without lawful things to keep from causing unnecessary offense.
Thus, if he were interacting with the Jews, he would deny himself things that could be offensive to them but that technically would have been fine. It is not that he would compromise with God's standards, but he would limit himself for the sake of not turning people away. This is what he was doing to gain them. By these means, he was working for a more profitable relationship. His basic point in the overall context is that, if he were willing to do this to gain people who were not even converted, then the Corinthians should be willing to limit and restrain themselves for the sake of gaining their own brethren. A person who is “gained” is more likely to hear what we have to say, so we may be used to help them in some way.
So what does Paul mean by writing, “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some”? He may have been referring to their eventual salvation, which he might play a part in, but which he could not actually claim as having brought about. As he had previously written: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase” (I Corinthians 3:6-7).
However, there is a type of “saving” that Paul could have a hand in through his preaching:
My brothers, if any among you strays from the truth, and someone turns him back, he should know that whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his life from death and cover a multitude of sins. (James 5:19-20)
James is not referring to eternal salvation or justification. He means making a man safe by helping him to stop a sin. If a person is sliding into apostasy, and someone turns him back, a type of salvation has occurred, for the one who had been going astray is now on a safer trajectory. If an individual helps another avoid or overcome any sin, a type of salvation has occurred because there is always greater safety where sin has been diminished. This salvation is only a shadow of the kind that God gives, but a saving nonetheless occurs anytime protection or deliverance is provided.
Thus, I Corinthians 9:19-22 shows that, wherever possible, Paul practiced self-denial so that he could gain a positive rapport with others. In this way, he might help them because his preaching of the truth could stir repentance in some area. He is not suggesting that through his preaching or example a person would be justified and brought into a relationship with God, but that his life would be better because there would be at least a little less enmity toward God and His way.
Without compromising, Paul kept the door open so that he could preach, and perhaps his preaching would protect or deliver someone in a small way, even if God was not calling the individual. Nevertheless, Paul was not bringing people into a relationship with Christ, nor is he suggesting that we try to do that either.
David C. Grabbe
Can We Win People For Christ?
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing 1 Corinthians 9:19:
1 Corinthians 9:19-22
1 Corinthians 9:19-22
1 Peter 3:1-2