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1 Corinthians 9:22–23

“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.”

Gospel contextualization—the presentation of the biblical gospel in ways appropriate to a particular culture without compromising it—is both required and fraught with peril. For instance, early on the church learned that the gospel would not be confined to Jewish culture with all its particular traditions but would also go forth to the gentiles and would be received without gentiles’ being forced to culturally transform themselves into Jews (Acts 10). For the gospel to cross cultural boundaries, it must be to some degree “translated” when it meets a new culture in order for that culture to be able to make sense of it. Doing this without compromising the gospel is often more difficult than we imagine, and church history is filled with people and churches that ceased to be effectively Christian in their zeal to reach a culture. Sometimes a commendable zeal to see lost people saved is not matched by an equal zeal for biblical truth.

First Corinthians 9:19–23 is one of the most important biblical passages on gospel contextualization. However, we must be careful lest we misinterpret and misapply it. Many people have tried to adopt Paul’s approach of becoming “all things to all people” (v. 22) without also adopting his controlling principle of doing so not “outside the law of God but under the law of Christ” (v. 21). In fact, there was a limit to how Paul became “all things to all people.” He would not do anything that violated the “law of Christ.” Essentially, the law of Christ is the law of love, the eternal moral law of God that was given to the ancient Israelites along with specific, temporary provisions for sacrifices and the Israelite civil order. This moral law is unfolded with particular clarity by Jesus and His Apostles (Ex. 20:1–17; Matt. 5:17–20; Rom. 13:8–10). Whether Paul was seeking to save Jews or gentiles or trying to bring weaker Christians to maturity, he did not do anything to break the law of Christ. As John Calvin comments, “It was only in things indifferent, that are otherwise in our choice, that [Paul] accommodated himself to the weak.”

Calvin goes on to say that it is a great error not to distinguish between things indifferent and things unlawful. When believers surrender their freedom and adopt some of the practices of the culture they are trying to reach, they dare not fail to make the distinction between indifferent matters and evil matters. The only way we can do this is to know the Scriptures, to have a thorough understanding of the law of Christ, the eternal moral law of God.

Coram Deo Living before the face of God

It is good, even essential, to have a zeal to see lost people come to saving faith in Jesus. However, we will commit many errors if we do not also have a zeal for the law of Christ, the eternal moral law of God. We should regularly be seeking to understand the law of Christ, revealed throughout Scripture, so that we do not lead ourselves or others astray.

For Further Study
  • Psalm 119:1–8
  • Proverbs 28:9
  • Acts 15:1–29
  • James 1:25

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From the April 2021 Issue
Apr 2021 Issue