Tuesday, July 23, 2013

What does Paul Mean When He Refers to "Saving Some" in I Corinthians 9:22?

For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law. To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. (I Cor 9:19-22)

What does Paul Mean by "Saving Some"?

In a recent dialog with a fellow believer I was asked:  What does Paul mean in I Corinthians 9:19-22 when he talks about "gaining all the more" and "saving some?" At first blush, this statement seems to indicate that Paul believed he might land more souls in glory if he did his work as an evangelist better in the ways he describes. Can Paul be suggesting that his performance in ministry could alter the number of God's elect who will be saved?

Paul is NOT Suggesting He Could Add or Subtract From the Elect

Well, first and foremost we should remember that Paul taught that God chose a people from before the foundation of the world, that they should be holy and without blame before him in love. (Ephesians 1:4-5) He taught that Christ died for such people and that there is therefore NOTHING that can separate us from the Love of God that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:31-39). I could point to many other affirmations in Paul's writings and in the statements of the Lord Jesus Christ (John 6:37, John 17:2) that make absolutely certain that the elect are a known and definite number and that their salvation is a matter of ironclad certainty by covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34). So can Paul be saying that he could add to or diminish from this number based on his performance in modifying his approach to evangelism? Clearly not.

Know Your Audience

What then does Paul have in mind? I believe Paul is talking about modifying his approach to presenting the truth based on the composition of his audience. He is not modifying the truth, but modifying how he will present it to optimize reception and understanding. If you wanted to present the gospel to a lawyer you might approach it from the standpoint of justification and substitution in a legal setting. If you wanted to discuss it with a Jew you could relate these things to the teachings of the OT scriptures. But for a Gentile, with no understanding of the OT, this would not be a good place to start. Instead one might approach it from the truth that "the heavens declare the Glory of God." (Psalm 19:1) So I believe Paul is asserting that the best way to communicate truth is to know your audience and to adjust your starting place and reference points accordingly.

Put the Cookies on the Bottom Shelf - Without Changing the Recipe

The gospel makes an appeal to the mind of man. One must have a spiritual mind to receive this truth, to be certain (I Corinthians 2:11-14), but that does not mean that every means of telling the truth is equally appealing and compelling to all audiences. The logical argument that appeals to the lawyer may not impart the same understanding to a stay-at-home-mother and vice-versa. I believe what Paul is saying is that his evangelistic efforts in convincing God's people to join the church and become disciples of Christ could be more effective to the extent that he worked to accommodate different levels of understanding, cultural reference points, religious backgrounds, etc. In essence he's saying that teaching is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. While the truth does not change, the way you explain it to a child may be different than the way you explain it to an adult, or a Jew, or a Gentile, etc. I believe he is teaching that the gospel minister is a servant, and to properly serve God's people in teaching the truth it is profitable to know your audience so that your presentation of truth to them is more resonant with their experience and understanding. The challenge for the gospel minister is to communicate the same truth to different audiences without modifying the underlying truth that gets communicated. Stated another way, it's all about putting the cookies on the bottom shelf without changing the recipe. That is, making truth more accessible to people by accommodating their limitations and experiences but still delivering the truth.


So in summary, to posit that I Corinthians 9:19-22 teaches that Paul believed his personal performance could change the number that will be eternally saved is just completely untenable. To suggest that would be to assert that something could separate God's people from the love of God, and Paul clearly taught that this is impossible (Romans 8:31-39). The "salvation" that Paul has in view is the temporal deliverance that God's people have in obedience to Gospel truth. It is that whereby they may "save themselves from this untoward generation" (Acts 2:40), not save themselves from eternal damnation, because Christ alone did that work.

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