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1 Corinthians 9:16–18

“What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel” (v. 18).

Continuing our look at 1 Corinthians 9:15–18, we have seen that Paul did not accept payment for his gospel labors from the Corinthians because he believed that it would deprive him of his “ground for boasting” (v. 15). Since Paul finds grounds for positive Christian boasting only in the weaknesses through which Jesus can show His own strength (2 Cor. 12:1–10), apparently he believed getting paid for preaching the gospel would take away the weakness in which he could boast. Somehow it would impart strength to him that would reduce his ability to boast only in the Lord.

Today’s passage will help us make more sense of Paul’s thinking. In verses 16–17, Paul says that his mere call to preach the gospel is no ground for boasting, and this because it comes to him by necessity and not of his own will, which would entitle him to a reward. Essentially, the Apostle is saying that he did not choose to be a preacher; rather, this vocation was imposed on him from without. In fact, he is so obligated to it that divine judgment will fall on him if he does not carry out his calling. “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (v. 16). In other words, Paul is a slave of Christ and is therefore entitled to no reward for his labor. He must serve because he is a slave. If he were to have chosen the vocation of ministry, he would have a right to a reward, much as free workers can choose their labor and wages. As he did not choose it, no payment is due him (v. 17).

Yet, Paul still gets a reward (v. 18). What is this reward? It is his right to do that which he was not compelled to do from without—that is, to preach the gospel free of charge (v. 18). Given that manual labor was largely despised in first-century Corinth and elsewhere, exercising his right to reject payment for gospel ministry and to support himself through manual labor was for Paul an embrace of weakness, a weakness that would eventually become a ground for boasting in the Lord. By voluntarily surrendering his right to make his living from the gospel, Paul gained weakness as a ground for boasting and thus a reward, for Christ would be more thoroughly magnified through Paul’s preaching and the Apostle would benefit from decreasing as Jesus increased (see John 3:30).

Paul had every right to receive financial support for preaching the gospel. But he gave up his rights in order to remove any obstacle to the gospel and to show forth his weakness. This was no final loss but would result in a greater reward for him (1 Cor. 9:1–18).

Coram Deo Living before the face of God

As one commentator notes, Paul’s pay or reward is “no pay.” By voluntarily forgoing financial compensation, Paul saw himself as receiving ultimately a greater reward. This is by no means required for all ministers or all Christians. Nevertheless, let us not overlook the fact that the Lord will bless those who make sacrifices for Him.

For Further Study
  • Psalm 72:13
  • 2 Corinthians 13:4

Paul’s Boasting

Being, Becoming, and Mission

Keep Reading Luther on Trial: The Diet of Worms

From the April 2021 Issue
Apr 2021 Issue