For the Sake of the Gospel — Part One
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For the Sake of the Gospel — Part One

From Series: The Pastor's Study, Volume 5

1 Corinthians 9:1-27  (ID: 2510)

Paul was divinely compelled to preach the Gospel no matter what. His handling of the Scriptures and his personal conduct testified to the integrity of his ministry. Alistair Begg teaches us that if we wish to share the same Good News with our friends and neighbors in an understandable way, we must begin by acquainting ourselves with their needs and worldviews.


Sermon Transcript:

I invite you to turn to 1 Corinthians and to chapter 9. Verse 1:

“Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.

“This is my defense to those who sit in judgment on me. Don’t we have the right to food and drink? Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas? Or is it only I and Barnabas who must work for a living?

“Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk? Do I say this merely from a human point of view? Doesn’t the Law say the same thing? For it is written in the Law of Moses: ‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.’ Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because when the plowman plows and the thresher threshes, they ought to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more?

“But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ. Don’t you know that those who work in the temple get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.

“But I have not used any of these rights. And I[’m] not writing this in the hope that you will do such things for me. I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of this boast. Yet when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make use of my rights in preaching it.

“Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I[’m] not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I[’ve] become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”

Amen.

You can safely keep your Bibles open there, and of course, you can use the outlines that I gave you, which contain all of my best stuff. Sorry, there is no outline; of course, you understand that.

I think we can safely assume that Paul would have been perfectly happy with the theme that we have chosen for this particular conference. After all, he was a gospel man. In this ninth chapter here of 1 Corinthians, he makes use of the phrase, either in its noun form or in a verbal form, on a number of occasions, and I tried to highlight them as I read them. Elsewhere, particularly in his introduction to the book of Romans, he identifies himself almost entirely in terms of his links with the gospel. He tells the Roman Christians that he has been “set apart for the gospel.”[1] He quickly makes it clear that he is eager to preach the gospel. And in the memorable words of Romans 1:16–17, he tells the Roman believers that he is in no way at all ashamed of the gospel. And even though that gospel—referred to when he writes in Corinthians 1, as we saw yesterday afternoon—even though that gospel, and the message of the cross which is at the heart of the gospel, is foolishness to men and women, nevertheless, he refuses to deviate from his course. And if you want a heading for this particular study this morning, I think I would take it from verse 23: “For the Sake of the Gospel.” “For the Sake of the Gospel.”

Now, I’d like you to indulge me by pausing with me for a moment. I know this can be tedious, but it’s purposeful on my part. I remember being picked up at the ferry in Larne in the north of Ireland by two elderly gentlemen. I’d had a train ride from Glasgow to Stranraer and then a ferry across the Irish Sea, and I was keenly looking forward to getting to my final destination, and these very kindly gentlemen met me, and we got into the car. We drove, I think, about 150 yards and immediately parked. And they then went in the back of the car, and one of their wives had produced sandwiches for them, and we were supposed to sit in the parking lot and eat these sandwiches, which I dutifully did, but all the time thinking, “Could we not get to our destination?” So, if you’re gonna have that experience for a moment or two, then please don’t get weary; we’ll finish the sandwiches as quick as we can and move on to our destination. But this is a purposeful pause.

What would you think if one of your colleagues came to you after listening to you preach over a number of months and suggested to you that the gospel, the cross, the work of Christ, had little place in your preaching? I think without exception it would be a daunting challenge to us, and I’m not sure just personally how I would respond.

I mention this because that is exactly what happened in the early years of the ministry of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, whom, if you didn’t know him before your meal yesterday, you all now know him and have a picture for your wall in your study—the picture, that very endearing picture on the front of the thing. As a medical doctor, it must have been a real trip going to see him, don’t you think? And he would scare most illnesses away without even having… Anyway, he was a dear man, and we shouldn’t make fun of him twenty-five years after he’s dead.

But nevertheless, Martyn Lloyd-Jones had a minister in his congregation come to him at the end of an evening service, ask to talk with him, and suggested to him that the gospel, the message of the cross, the work of Christ, had little place in his preaching. It wasn’t that Lloyd-Jones was setting aside the exhortations to men and women to be born again. He was clearly doing that; he described himself all of his life as an evangelist in pastoral ministry. He was doing that. But this gentleman whom he respected posed the dilemma for him.

History records that he went home that evening, he got up the next morning, he went to a bookshop, and he purchased two books: one, The Death of Christ by James Denney, and the other, a book by R. W. Dale on the atonement. He took them home, he went into his study, and he did not reappear, neither at lunchtime nor at dinnertime—so much so that his wife was alarmed. She phoned her brother to tell him what was going on, and she asked her brother whether he thought that they should call the doctor to visit the doctor. At some point in the evening, Lloyd-Jones emerged, and “he claimed to have found ‘the real heart of the gospel and the key to the inner meaning of the Christian faith.’”

So he’d been preaching for some considerable time before he sat down and asked himself the question posed to him: “Do I understand enough to be able to proclaim this gospel?” And the content of his preaching changed, and the impact of his preaching changed. And the basic question, Lloyd-Jones said, from that point was not Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo—“Why did God become man?”—but the basic fundamental question, he said, was “Why did Christ die?”[2]

Graeme Goldsworthy has helped many of us in his writings. And in his book Preaching the Whole Bible, he reminds us that “telling people the need for the gospel, both their felt need and [their] real need, is plainly important, but it is not itself the gospel.” Telling people their need of the gospel, felt and real, is very important, but it is not the gospel. “When we have explained,” says Goldsworthy, “what God has done for us in Christ—the gospel—then we may go on to explain the benefits of receiving the gospel and the perils of ignoring it.”[3] I was greatly challenged when I read that some time ago. And it made me think about the gospel itself and the way in which I as a pastor approach it, and I recognized how easy it is for me to think that, having pressed upon people the demands of the gospel or secured to them in their minds all of the affections and appeals of the gospel, that I have actually dealt with the gospel, when I may not have dealt with the gospel.

And one of the ways, says Goldsworthy, that we will be able to tell whether we are effective in relationship to this is by listening to those who profess faith under our ministry give their testimony to what it means to have an assurance that they are in Christ. And when a person answers the question “How do you know that God will accept you?” and answers it immediately in the first person—for example, like, “I know that God will accept me because I have Jesus in my heart,” or, “I know that God will accept me because I have asked Jesus to be my Savior,” or, “I know that God will accept me because I have the Holy Spirit who lives within me”—those questions, those answers, are really quite insufficient. Because the answers we should be looking for on the part of our people are answers like “God gave his only Son to die on the cross for me.”[4] So that with Luther they are recognizing that in every realistic sense the gospel is outside of them, because they are looking away from themselves—not looking within themselves to the ongoing sanctifying work of the Spirit, but looking away from themselves to the cross, to the finished and completed work of Jesus, which is the very centrality of the gospel which Paul proclaims at all kinds of lengths and in all kinds of ways to all kinds of people.

When a question of conduct or behavior arises, the exercise of Christian freedom must always have the good of our brothers and sisters in view.

And this kind of answer will never happen amongst our people, never take place in our congregations, unless we labor like Paul did to warn everyone we meet, to teach everyone we can, so that under our care they may grow more certain in their knowledge and may have an even surer grasp of God himself.[5]

Well, that’s the little park at the side of the street. I was so grateful for Vaughan’s beginning yesterday, and that is simply to stand alongside it, as it were, and to say amen.

But some of you are saying, “Wait a moment. I read the chapter with you, and indeed, I allowed my eyes to look back into chapter 8. Are you not in danger here of divorcing Paul’s statements regarding the gospel from the wider context?” And the answer is, yes, I am. And in some sense, we always have to, don’t we, unless we’re going to teach great huge chunks of the Bible?

Those of you who, like me, have benefited so much from the ministry of the Reverend Richard C. Lucas and who have in your mind, very importantly, “the melody line that runs through the text,” you have been feverishly looking for the melody line here, and you’ve decided that the melody line is not the gospel; therefore, I’ve missed the whole point. Well, what is the melody line? Well, actually, there are quite a number of melody lines in this. One of them has to do with rights and responsibilities. One of them has to do with the nature of Christian freedom. Indeed, if we were going to start at 8:9 and follow the line through, we would actually say that this was a whole passage about the nature of freedom. And Paul gives a warning that freedom is not to become “a stumbling block” in the lives of others. He then, in chapter 9, says, “Let me ask the question, ‘Am I free?’” He then concludes that he is free in verse 19. And what Paul is doing in the midst of that is he’s pointing out that in light of this, when a question of conduct or behavior arises, the exercise of Christian freedom must always have the good of our brothers and sisters in view. And actually, you could go further back in the Corinthian text to substantiate that principle.

Having laid that down, it is, then, in that wider context that in chapter 9 he provides an illustration of this very principle from his own life and ministry. He illustrates it from his personal experience. There’s very little that is hortatory in this passage. In fact, if you read from chapter 8 all the way through chapter 10, I think there are only three exhortations that he gives. One is in chapter 8, where he says, “Be careful”;[6] one is at the end of chapter 9, where he says, “Run”; and the other is, again, in chapter 10, where he says, “Be careful.”[7] So for those of us who are always all tied up about our application and so on—or our exhortations, or our ability to say to people, “Come on now, come on now, come on now”—now, Paul doesn’t do a lot of that. He’s very didactic. He illustrates. He lays down principles. He underscores the theological underpinnings. It’s a lesson for us in preaching.

Now, I tried to get three points out of chapter 9. I managed two, and then I just gave up. And I’m not sure the two are that great, but here they are. I’m going to suggest to you that he provides us a lesson in integrity, and then he provides us with a lesson in adaptability—and then I just couldn’t come up with anything for verse 24 and following. The best I had was something like “a lesson in constancy,” which sounds just absolutely hopeless. So I decided that I would run out of time before I got to verse 24. And I can guarantee you that I will. You know the tricks of the trade, don’t you, fellas? “Come along, come along. We’ll need to come back to this next time…”

A Lesson in Integrity

Well, of course, my first point has to do with integrity. Yeah.

Now, it’s a lesson in integrity, I think, in three particular ways. First of all, there is a lesson in integrity here in terms of the completeness or the wholeness of his argument. If you like, there is a lesson in logical integrity, in the way in which he tackles the information. I’m not going to work my way through his argument here. I read it as purposefully and as clearly as I could. I think it’s fairly obvious to us. But what he is doing is posing this question regarding his freedom—along with Barnabas, his colleague—to receive the legitimate support of those who are the beneficiaries of his gospel ministry. He chooses to argue this in a manner of logical integrity. And he argues from common practice: “You don’t see soldiers buying their own uniforms, do you? You don’t see somebody with a vineyard going out buying a pound of grapes at Tesco’s? It stands to reason that this would be the case.” He argues then from the Law. He argues from the teaching of Jesus, as we find it quoted elsewhere. And in each instance, what he’s doing is he’s pressing upon his readers the legitimacy of his receiving remuneration for his teaching and preaching of the gospel. Verse 12: “If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more?” Verse 14: “In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.”

And once he has pressed his reasonable line of argument upon his readers, he then immediately turns the tables. Once they have no ability to respond in any other way except in the affirmative, he moves on. And in moving on, he gives us another dimension of his integrity. There is an integrity that is marked not only in the wholeness or soundness of his argument, but it is an integrity that is also seen in his personal dealings on this very subject. He has chosen, he says, not to exercise what would have been a legitimate right, and the reason that he has chosen to operate in this way is so that he might avoid misunderstanding. “I haven’t used any of these rights,” he says in verse 15. “I’d rather die than have anyone deprive me of this boast: that I’m not all caught up in the labyrinths and in the dangerous avenues that money in relationship to preaching so often brings.” He is ensuring that he was not in any way hindering the gospel. You will find that phraseology as you allow your eyes to scan the text. It’s important for him to be able to extend the free offer of the gospel unencumbered by any thoughts of financial benefit, and certainly without raising the question of financial benefit in the minds of his listeners.

Now, Vaughan suggested to us yesterday afternoon that one of the marks of the “super-apostles”[8] was their ability not only to talk but to charge big fees for their talk. Paul chooses not to do that, therefore facing the fact that he is despised by the “super” fellows, because when the question is asked—when he’s invited to the local Bible conference and the letter comes, “Dear Paul, we hope you will come and speak on Friday evening, Saturday evening, Sunday evening, Monday morning,” and so on, “and please reply at the return of post, and let us know what your fee will be”—and Paul wrote back and said, “I don’t have a fee,” the people said, “Oh, come, if you were any good at all, you would have a fee.” So the people said, “If you don’t have a fee, you’re no good.” So he gets a hammering from that side. And then on the other side, where he has a legitimate right to the support of those who are his beneficiaries, they don’t want to give him any money in any case. So he’s between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

But there is something very freeing, isn’t there, about being able to deal with the gospel unencumbered by the question of financial benefit? This may come up in one of our question and answer times. I don’t think there’s any benefit in me prolonging this.

In verse 18, in a characteristically ironic way, he points out that his greatest reward is found in refusing a reward: “What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make use of my rights in preaching it.” “The best payment you can give me is no payment,” he says. “That is how I can operate most effectively.”

And his personal integrity comes out also in verse 15, where he’s able to say, “I haven’t used any of these rights,” and also, he closes the door on any insinuations that what he’s doing here is taking a line of approach that is a subtle ploy paving the way for the future. “And I know,” he says, “that some of you are probably thinking this is a clever approach by me, but I want you to know I’m not writing this in the hope that you will do such things for me.”

You know that kind of thing where, at a very different and trivial level, someone say, “Would you like a piece of pie?”

“Oh no, please don’t go to any trouble at all.”

“No, come along, I could make you a pie.”

“Oh no, please, no, no, no, I don’t want you to go to any trouble… Give a pie! I want a pie! Give me six pies!” you know. And your wife knows you’re just a complete fraud, you know.

“Can we give you an honorarium?”

“Oh no, not at all, no. No…”

Okay, I think I’m in the company of my peers.

What he’s really saying is, “I don’t have ulterior motives when it comes to the gospel.” When he writes in his second letter, remember, he contrasts himself with these individuals that were identified for us yesterday, and he says, “We’re not the peddlers of the word of God. We do not peddle the word of God for profit. We’re neither diluting it to make it more acceptable, nor are we distorting it to make it more attractive, and you can be dead sure that we are not here on some kind of financial exercise. This is not why we showed up!”[9] Tremendous freedom in that!

Indeed, if I could make tents as he made tents, I think I’d like to try it! But I can’t make anything but a mess, so there would be no point. I would be bereft of all support if I were to try and sustain myself by practical usefulness. At this point in my life, I think the only reason I’m still in the ministry is because I’m totally unemployable in any other way. Some days I think I could become a postman. And then I look at the postman, and I said, “No, I’m not bright enough for that job; I’d get the stuff all in the wrong box.” Woe is me. Woe is me.

Now, this does raise all kinds of questions of financial gain and remuneration, doesn’t it? The way missionaries are supported. The way pastors are supported. The way things ought to be done. The ridiculous double standard that exists in many churches, where the people that decide on your salary operate on one standard when they’re at their corporate office and on an entirely different standard when they’re present in the elders’ meeting or in the deacons’ meeting. They want to have for the general population the freedom to exercise stewardship over their own money, because they believe that they have earned the legitimate right to do so. They, however, do not want to give you the privilege to exercise stewardship over your money, because they’re frightened you might not be able to do it; therefore, in order to help you out, they’ll just give you as little money as possible so that you’ll be, you know, in perfect position. How silly.

Let’s be very clear about this. We mustn’t delay here either, but let’s be very clear: nobody pays us to preach. No one pays us to preach. They could never pay us enough; they could never pay us too little. We’re with [Billy Bray]. Who was [Billy Bray]? I don’t know. But I like some of the things he said. (You have crossed the burning desert in your bare feet for a good quote.) [Billy Bray] said, “If you put me in a barrel, I’ll cry glory out of the bung hole!”[10] In other words, “I am not dependent on you for the proclaiming of the riches of God’s glorious grace.” And when that is endemic in a life, when that is at the core, when that runs up the middle of a man’s ministry, it is a tremendously freeing factor. Because it saves us, then, from always looking over our shoulders, agonizing over what another may be getting, or doing, or receiving, or whatever it might be. And Paul, in his own circumstances, chooses to cut the umbilical cord between that financial dimension and his own exercise of gospel preaching.

He is an example to us of integrity—in the logical nature of his argument, in the personal moral conduct of his life, and thirdly, in the way in which he deals with the theology of gospel preaching itself. Notice he says, “I am compelled to preach,” in verse 16. In the King James Version, it says, “For necessity is laid [on] me.” And that notion of necessity in the Greek mind was a dark and sinister force. It really was blind determinism. It was fate. It was cruel. It was an unavoidable thing. It was like something pressing down on your neck. But Paul employs the very terminology, and he says, “And there is a necessity that is laid upon me. But this is the necessity not of the grip of a dark force, but this is the necessity of sovereign grace. This is the compulsion of the God who has redeemed me. This is the one who has taken me as a rebel without cause, turned me upside down—which is the right way up—and set me out on the journey of life to proclaim his name before the gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel.”

And in verse 17 he says, “If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily I[’m] simply discharging the trust committed to me.” You can read that about three times and still not know what it means. Actually, six times. I tried it. I gave up after six. It’s quite challenging, both in this and in the Greek. But it seems, I think, with a tenth-grade education, that what he’s pointing out at least is this: that he can never claim any credit for simply fulfilling the terms of his commission. There is no credit in being a conscript. It’s not that he put up his hand and volunteered for a job, and as a result of his volunteerism, he deserves some kind of special benefit. No, it is that the hand has laid upon him and conscripted him into service, and that now he exercises the privileges of the gospel along the line of duty.

This is a perfect opportunity for us to get sidetracked on the very question of the call of God, and to wrestle with the idea of “everyone is called,” à la Os Guinness, and the peculiar call to pastoral teaching ministry. And depending on the background from which you come, you may come from a background that says, basically, you could never get called, and no one should be called, and if you are called, then you’re probably not called at all. And on the other side, everybody’s in, and it’s just whether you recognize it or not; we’re all called to preach. I don’t think we are.

In fact, Thomas Brooks, who was a Puritan, he had a real interesting take on this. I quote for you:

Many weak and slight spirits in these days think that it is as easy to preach as to play, and so they hop from one thing to another, and those that are not qualified … for the least and lowest [appointment], yet judge themselves fit enough for the greatest and … weightiest employment in the world …. (… “Who is sufficient for these things?” Almost every upstart in these days thinks himself sufficient. ‘Who am I?’ says Moses. Who am I not? saith every green-head in these days.)[11]

Are you compelled to preach? Or are you in here today because you came to a fork in the road, and you said, “I don’t know whether I want to be an attorney or a pastor,” and you said, “I think I’ll be a pastor!”—obviously not choosing for the money!

William Perkins, another of the Puritans, is said to have written at the head of all of his sermons and in the flyleaf of all of his books, “Thou art a minister of the Word. Mind thy business.” “Thou art a minister of the Word. Mind thy business.” And Shepherd—Thomas Shepherd—in the same era, telling a group of young men about how he felt in the task of proclaiming the gospel, he said, “I never went … into the pulpit but, as if I were going to give an account of myself to God.”[12] “I never went … into the pulpit, but as if I were going to give an account of myself to God.”

I personally, after thirty years, would not still be in pastoral ministry were it not for the fact of divine compulsion. I don’t know what keeps you in the difficult days. I don’t what else it is that sustains you. I often turn my gaze back to a Sunday morning in Charlotte Chapel in Edinburgh, and I see the faces of the elders there as they gathered around me and laid their hands upon me—1976—and commended me to the work of the gospel. And on that day I wore a clerical collar. Derek Prime, who was my boss, my mentor, my friend, in a Scottish context told me, “If you’re ever going to wear a clerical collar, you should probably wear it on the very day that you’re ordained, because that’ll be the best day to start, and if you don’t start then, you may find it very difficult to start afterwards.” A very wise wee man.

So I went out and I bought a gray stock and a clerical collar in George Street in Edinburgh. And I took it home, and I was in the house by myself, and I put it on, and I didn’t know whether to burst into tears or burst out laughing. My wife and one of my sisters came back, and I still had it on. They settled the matter for me. They said, “I have never seen anything as ridiculous in all of my life!” Well, of course, that was reassuring. That’s the kind of encouragement you hope for from your partner in life as you walk forward with a call of God.

But I tell you this not for any sense of effect. I tell you this: if I had been asked to stand in the pulpit butt naked, I could not have felt any more vulnerable than I felt in that morning, being shut up to the compulsion to give my life as others do to proclaiming the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. And I know that you can identify with that kind of conviction.

A Lesson in Adaptability

Now, I’m right on track for missing my third point, so let’s go to my second: a lesson in adaptability. You see how these words even work for me. You’ve got to be adaptable if you’re going to skip your third point—and your congregation needs to be adaptable too. That’s why it’s helpful to stay a long time in a place.

Actually, I used the word flexibility to begin with. I was thinking flexibility during the week. Then I thought, “I wonder what the difference between flexibility and adaptability is?” So I went to the Oxford English Dictionary, the only real reliable source, and I determined that adaptability was the right word and flexibility wasn’t. You can judge for yourselves; you’re a bright group. But when I looked for a definition of flexibility, it seemed to me to be more on the back foot, more on the negative than on the positive, as was adaptability—so that flexibility is defined in one part as that “willingness to be disposed to yield to influence or persuasion, able to be guided or easily led.” So it’s a responsive word, flexibility. So, responding to circumstances in a way whereby the circumstances tend to lead us rather than that we make an endeavor in relationship to them. Whereas to adapt is “to alter or to modify for a new use or for new conditions.” And when the word is used in biological terminology, according to the OED, it is of “an organ or an organism that becomes better fitted for its new environment or its new mode of existence.” But what helped me most of all was thinking in terms of last week in the Czech Republic, when I wanted to charge my laptop and went in search of an adapter so that I would be able to connect one mechanism to another mechanism so as to put both of them into the same socket.

Now, what Paul is saying here, I think, is that it is adaptability that he is taking on. It is not so much that he is in the responding mode as it is that he is in the initiating mode. He says, “Though I am free,” verse 19, “I don’t belong to anyone. I’m the one doing the adapting here. I make myself a slave to everyone, and the reason I do is to win as many as possible.” In fact, this little paragraph is framed between these two significant statements: that one in verse in verse 19, and then further down, where he says, “I have become all things to all men,” verse 22, “so that by all possible means I might save some.” So, if you like, the connection in every case is to the gospel. The line of access to that destination may vary, and, Paul says to us, should vary.

English-speaking people are dreadful in other parts of the world where English is not spoken, aren’t we? I mean, isn’t it embarrassing? You don’t like to mention yourself as an illustration, so it’s always good to hit on somebody else. But you sit in a restaurant and you hear someone from England coming in. And everybody, it’s all “Parli italiano?” or, you know, “Parlez-vous français?” or whatever else it is. And the person said, “I would like to have the eggs. The eggs.” And the person says, “Pardon?” “I would like to have the eggs.” In other words, their approach to adaptability is you just speak English louder and slower. “Who are these clowns, that they don’t understand this stuff?”

We go into a world that doesn’t understand most of our terminology. They don’t have a flying rat’s tail’s idea about millenniums or eschatological theories and so on. And we think if we just say it louder, or perhaps slower, that will be sufficient. Paul says, “No, it absolutely won’t.”

No, “By all possible means,” he says, “I’m endeavoring to save some.” In other words, Paul is saying that he’s prepared to do everything within his power, everything within the legitimate framework of the gospel itself, to reach into the lives of men and women with the good news. Isn’t that what he’s saying? I think it is. You can judge. He is absolutely convinced of christological monotheism, as we learned last night. And what a wonderful talk that was, again, wasn’t it? Both of the talks yesterday, so tremendously helpful. Makes me excited for the rest of the day.

So Paul understood that in engaging in evangelism, he wasn’t interfering in people’s lives. In engaging in evangelism, he wasn’t exercising an option. In engaging in evangelism, he wasn’t somehow or another putting himself in the rarefied camp of a few orthodox extremists. No, he was doing what we learned last night. He was applying logic. “Jesus is Lord,” he says: “Kurios Iesous.” “Lord” translating in the vast majority of cases in the Septuagint “Yahweh” from the Old Testament. So he knows what he’s saying. He’s not making an expression of his personal devotion. He’s identifying who and what Jesus is. And so he says, “There is no other Savior, because there is no one else who is qualified to save.” And so, without compromising the gospel, irrespective of his own personal cost, what he does is he tailors his approach to his particular audience. Not altering his message; adapting his line of approach.

Do you ever wonder when you’re trying to buy a pair of socks and you ask, “And what size are these?” and the person says, “Oh, one size fits all.” “Okay. Oh! Like the feet of those big basketball players that were beating Detroit last night?” Sorry, sorry. “And my feet?” “Oh yeah, they’re one size fits all.” You know, I don’t think so. Well, it may fit all, but not in the same way.

Without compromising the gospel, irrespective of his own personal cost, Paul tailors his approach to his particular audience. Not altering his message; adapting his line of approach.

Paul doesn’t accept the one-size-fits-all approach to the proclaiming of the gospel. That’s what he’s telling us. He doesn’t subscribe, in golfing terminology, to the “just grip it and rip it” philosophy. No matter where you are on the golf course, you know, there’s always somebody who will come alongside you, and just when you’re in the middle of the predicament, you know what your goal is, you know where your destination is, you’re in a very bizarre place, and someone will say, “Oh, go ahead; just grip it and rip it!”

You know the story, incidentally, of the gorilla who was in the company of a friend, and the friend challenged his golf pro a hundred dollars a hole to play the gorilla. And the pro took it on, of course. Who wouldn’t? And the opening hole was a pretty good par 4, about 427 yards, and the pro stood up and hit a good ball right down the middle, about 290. The gorilla stood up, hit the ball awesomely—carried the whole way, landed on the green, and ran up to within about seven inches of the cup. As they got closer and the pro realized what he was up against, he went in his back pocket, took out a hundred bucks; he says, “I’ll cut my losses right now.” He says, “I’m not gonna do this anymore.” So the friend says, “Fine,” takes the money, and as the gorilla goes up to pick up the ball, the pro says to the gorilla’s owner, he says, “By the way, how does he putt?” The guy says, “The exact same way.”

Now, Paul will have none of that. Whether he’s adapting himself to the Jewish scruples in Acts 21—I won’t turn it to you now; we did it in a recent series in Acts—whether he’s dealing with Timothy’s circumstances in order not to jeopardize his relationship and opportunities for the gospel amongst the Jews,[13] whether he’s quoting the poets on Mars Hill in an entirely different environment,[14] or whether he’s getting down to the very grass roots of those whom he describes here as the weak ones, in every instance he is adapting himself. He is making an overt, committed, decisive line of approach for the sake of the gospel.

Verse 23. “Why are you doing this, Paul? Why are you doing this?” I mean, I’m sure it’s the very same sort of question that they were asking Jesus, wasn’t it, when he goes to Matthew’s house: “Why are you doing this, Jesus?” And Jesus’ answer was the exact same: “I’m doing it all for the sake of the gospel. I didn’t come to call righteous people; I came to call sinners to repentance. The healthy don’t need a doctor; it’s the sick that need a doctor. Of course I’m in Matthew’s house! Whose house do you expect me to be in? I’m the Savior.”[15] “Why are you doing this, Paul?” The libertines were concerned that he’s becoming a legalist; the legalists were beginning to be concerned he was becoming libertine. And that will happen to us if we’re brave enough to follow his example. There will be people who find out what we’re doing, and they will say, “Begg has gone off the rails. You ought to see what he’s doing now.” Someone else will say, “Oh, he hasn’t gone far enough. He’s a coward. If he had the guts, he would go completely off the rails, and then we would all have something to say about him.”

Now, I want to take this very seriously to heart. I think I get this individually. I think I understand this individually—and I don’t say that in a self-serving way. But in talking with individuals, I recognize that if, for example, someone comes to me from a Roman Catholic background—and I’m sure you’re the same—I always start by points of identification: “Isn’t it wonderful that we have so much in common? Isn’t it good that we believe in the deity of Christ? Isn’t it interesting that we have these concerns about the nature of the Trinity, and how God has revealed himself in creation, and how life is sacred because God has made us in his image?” and so on, so that we’re building bridges all the time in terms of common territory and ground. Inevitably there will come a point at which the issues of the gospel may cause us to pick up the pieces of the jigsaw and look at them a little differently—indeed, a lot differently in the end. But for the time being, that’s not where we start—not if we’re sensible.

And when you meet somebody outside of Kmart, as I did not so long ago, and he stuck his head in my car door—quite why, I don’t really know; I can’t remember the incident—but it turned out that he was a Jewish gentlemen, and for some reason I just launched into the Shema. I said, “Oh!” I said, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord your God, the Lord is one. Ye shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul,”[16] and so on.

He said, “How do you know that?”

I said, “It’s in the Bible!”

“It is?” he said.

“Yes,” I said, “it’s in your Bible. Do you ever read your Bible?”

“No,” he said, “I don’t read the Bible.”

I said, “Well, maybe you would like to.” But the point of contact was there.

Two weeks ago, with my wife, sitting at a café in the street—again, in central Europe—I told her, I said, “If we sit outside, I don’t want to talk to anybody. I’m sick of talking to people.” She said, “Okay, that’s not a problem for me.” So the waiter sat us down next to a couple. I wasn’t sitting for five seconds till I said, “Say, how’s it going?” She looked at me like, “You are pathetic.” I looked back at her like, “Mind your own business!” And it was another routine day in the life of the Beggs.

Turned out the fellow was a golf pro of sorts; he was repping TaylorMade in Austria, and Adidas, and all good stuff like that. He was the husband of this girl Karla, and Karla was a transplant from Michigan. Some years before, she’d had a Fulbright scholarship; she was a bright girl. And she’d ended up in Austria, she’s married this man whose name is a sort of legitimate name, but he’s known as Fritz—why that is I don’t know, but he is—and she was excited because that evening she was going to go to the Rudolfinum to listen to Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. I asked Fritz how he felt about that; he merely turned his eyes to the sky and yawned. I said, “Okay, we have a philistine, and we have this lady.”

As the conversation went on—I won’t bore you with it—I said, “And whereabouts in Michigan are you from?”

She said, “Oh, I’m from western Michigan.”

I said, “Oh, western Michigan—Grand Rapids and all that way up on the beautiful lake.”

“Yes,” she said.

“Whereabouts?”

She said, “Muskegon.”

“Oh,” I said, “I know Muskegon.” So we talked a little about Muskegon.

And then, for some reason, I just said to her, out of the blue, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” Which is the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism, that everyone from a Christian Reformed background has been brought up with. And it was like time stood still.

And she said, “My only comfort in life and in death is that I belong, body and soul, to my only Savior, Jesus Christ.” And she said, “But I don’t believe it. I don’t believe that there is a God out there,” she said. “But I believe there is a God in here.” Which took us right back to the questions of last evening.

So I said to her, “I never heard such a stupid thing in all my life! No wonder you’re married to somebody called Fritz! That’s what someone like you deserves!”

Three days later in Milan, not being able to find a place to sit ’cause there were no benches, I went along with Andrea and sat down next to three dental students, as it turned out—although I didn’t know they were dental students. They were all Italian. They were all eating sandwiches, as we were too. So I started again: “Hey, how you doing?”

They said, “What are you doing here?”

I said, “I came to speak at a church.”

“At a church? What kind of church?”

Chiesa Cristiana, a Christian church.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

And with the help of Andrea, we had the opportunity to share the gospel. And I just said to them, I said, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” No, I didn’t! Some of you thought I did! That would have been ridiculous, wouldn’t it? That would have been a waste of breath.

But you see, I think that’s part of what we were thinking about last evening, wasn’t it? That once we get into that framework and into that routine… Adaptability isn’t anywhere close to us. We’ve got one gig, one story, one line of approach, and half the time it’s useless. And so we just drop back from it. And we wonder why it is that our congregation is not intentional in reaching out to their non-Christian friends; why it is that they are not involved in developing meaningful relationships with those who are not remotely like them at all; why it is that they are entrenched, and they are enclosed, and they are insulated and insular. And the challenge, I think, that I face—I wonder if you share it—is that a congregation will never do better than its leadership—in this respect, as in others. And we are often the masters of giving a language to our people that is just full of clichés and shibboleths.

I mean, even my youngest guys on the pastoral team, I hear them pray, “In our midst…” “In our midst”! This is the internet age. These guys know how everything works. Where do they get “midst” from? “In our midst…” Any moment now, they’re gonna be praying for people who have “been laid on one side,” or who are “lying in beds of sickness,” or inviting them to the “Fellowship Hall.” Do you know how scary “Fellowship Hall” must sound to the average pagan? “I’m not going in there! ‘Fellowship Hall’? You’ve gotta be kidding me!” Even when I say, “Through the doors to my right…” I said, “I’m not going through those doors! There’s not even a window in the suckers. I am not going in there!” “There are pleasant people in there.” “I bet there are! But I don’t want to know them!”

Pastors will never win people to Jesus by sidestepping their questions or ignoring their problems.

Now, it’s highly unlikely they’re going in there to meet the pleasant people, because they really ought to be in the company of the pleasant people who have been building the relationships with them—reaching out to them in their weakness, or in their Judaism, or in their Catholicism, or in their pluralism. But it won’t get to there unless it starts with us.

You see, at the end, it costs, doesn’t it, to do this sort of thing? Costs us to understand the way our friends and our neighbors think. We’ll never win people to Jesus by sidestepping their questions or ignoring their problems.

Our time is gone, and we can’t do our third point, you’ll be… I can safely stop now. But do you ever think about the situation where Jesus is going down the road with the guys, and you’ve got blind Bartimaeus? “Son of David, have mercy on me! Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Disciples: “Hey, shut up! We’re doing evangelism here!”[17] That’s really their response!

If I as an undershepherd am unprepared, unwilling, unable for this, then part of the impact will be to cause those under my/our care to settle in holy huddles, to live in the shadows. And therefore, I must learn, not simply on a personal and individual basis but, if you like, on a corporate and structural basis, to be prepared to take seriously not simply Paul’s lesson in integrity but this peculiar lesson in adaptability.

And it is alarming to me—and I mean alarming to me—to recognize that as I become increasingly inflexible physically—for example, jumping from here to the floor is more of an ordeal now than it was five years ago, and I’m not even sure of the outcome; it has to do with flexibility—but please, Lord, do not let there be a correlation between an arthritic physical condition and an arthritis that runs throughout the body in relationship to seeing unbelieving people becoming the committed followers of Jesus Christ.

Father, thank you that you are such a patient and good God. Thank you that in your Son Jesus, you are a God who loves to save, an initiative-taking God—creative, ingenious, imaginative. Forgive us for our very lack of these things, and help us, we pray, in this area of moral and theological integrity—and certainly in this realm of the need for adaptability—to wrestle with what the Bible teaches and to see it worked out in our lives and in the lives of those around us. For we ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.


[1] Romans 1:1 (NIV 1984).

[2] John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1986), 9–10.

[3] Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 95.

[4] Goldsworthy, 95.

[5] See Colossians 1:28.

[6] 1 Corinthians 8:9 (NIV 1984).

[7] 1 Corinthians 10:12 (NIV 1984).

[8] See 2 Corinthians 11:5, 12:11.

[9] 2 Corinthians 2:17 (paraphrased).

[10] F. W. Bourne, The King’s Son; or, A Memoir of Billy Bray, 8th ed. (London: Bible Christian Book-Room, 1874), 50. Paraphrased.

[11] Thomas Brooks, The Unsearchable Riches of Christ, in The Complete Works of Thomas Brooks, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart (Edinburgh, 1866), 3:210, 211n.

[12] Attributed by James Foote, preface to The Parable of the Ten Virgins Opened and Applied by Thomas Shepherd (Aberdeen: George and Robert King, 1853), x.

[13] See Acts 16:1–5.

[14] See Acts 17:22–31.

[15] See Matthew 9:10–13; Mark 2:15–17; Luke 5:29–32.

[16] Deuteronomy 6:4–5 (paraphrased).

[17] See Mark 10:46–48.

Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.