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Relevance is Irrelevant (Conclusion)

This entry is part 14 of 14 in the series

"Relevance is Irrelevant"

Read more posts by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13

This series has been intended to address biblically the necessity of so-called relevant ministry. I have deliberately avoided articulating “dividing lines” of what is necessarily “relevant methods” and what is not. In fact, I do not believe such lines would prove as helpful as simply seeing the biblical testimony concerning the role of external props in true gospel ministry. At least for the first three chapters of 1 Corinthians, those props are not only unnecessary, but to be avoided and eschewed.

In this final post, I want to summarize the series as a whole and address a potential conflicting passage found later in the book of Corinthians. Before I get to the problem passage, however, allow me to recap where we have been.

A Summary

I believe that there is a meaningful point of contact between contemporary “relevant ministry” and what Paul describes as “eloquence” or “words of wisdom” in 1 Corinthians. These first three chapters are really a sustained critique of gospel ministry that uses “eloquence.” In 1:17, Paul says that to add eloquence actually robs the cross of its power. Moreover, attempts to shroud the gospel with natural wisdom is a horrendous way of ministering, for natural wisdom–the “wisdom” of sinful men trying to figure out the world apart from God’s revelation–is bankrupt. The Corinthians themselves were evidence that God does not follow the world’s ways. The whole method and result of gospel ministry is structured so that God alone gets the glory. He will “destroy the wisdom of the wise” (1:19). God deliberately made the gospel message impossible for natural men to accept in order that he alone would get the glory for man’s salvation. In order to overturn the world’s system, God appointed the foolishness of preaching Christ and him crucified as the way that he would save men and women. This is why Paul determined to know nothing among the Corinthians but “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (2:2).

Even so, there is a wisdom in the gospel message, but that wisdom does not have a natural or worldly origin; it is divinely wise. The ultimate proof of this is that the world, with all its self-gratifying wisdom, killed the Lord of Glory himself (2:8). No true wisdom could have done this. God’s wisdom comes to human beings from the Spirit, and so it is self-justifying, for the Spirit has access to all divine knowledge. No worldling could have thought it up.

Paul not only acknowledged the supernatural source of the wisdom he proclaimed (in that it came from the Holy Spirit), but proclaimed it in a way that highlighted the source. He proclaimed Christ and him crucified in a way that magnified the work of the Spirit. This manner of delivery rejects lofty speech or human, natural wisdom. The power lies in the message itself, and so it demonstrates the Spirit’s power when it brings sinners to embrace the Savior. The problem with the message of the cross is not that it is not relevant to unsaved folks, but the lack of spiritual life in them. They do not understand the spiritual truth or beauty of the Gospel. It goes right by them. Spiritual things must be spiritually discerned. A great divide lies between spiritual and natural men and women.

The final proof of the bankruptcy of eloquence is in 1 Cor 3:5-9. God gives the increase. Success in gospel ministry lies not in ministers, but in God himself. He gives the increase. We are God’s fellow-workers, so we had better go about our ministry in a way that glorifies Him. Yet, the success of our efforts rests in his hands. One man plants, another waters, but, in the end, God is the one who produces spiritual fruit. Given that overriding axiom, what benefit could there ever be in trying to make the gospel more relevant to sinners with anti-God (natural wisdom) cultural accouterments?

A Potential Problem

Now, let’s address a potentially conflicting passage that comes later in 1 Corinthians. If, indeed, Paul intended to avoid relevant gimmicks in gospel ministry, then what does he mean in chapter 9 when he says that he was “all things to all men”? Does not Paul’s admission in 1 Cor 9:22 overturn our interpretation of chapters 1-3? If we closely attend to the context of 1 Cor 9, we see that there is no conflict.

First Corinthians 9:19-23 is not about spicing up the gospel with the cultural artifacts of this world in an effort to make the gospel more palatable to those who value the world that is passing away. Instead, this passage is about the role of individual freedom and gospel preaching. In chapter 9, Paul is showing how he puts into practice the Christian imperative to give up rights in Christ in order to avoid offending others, the instructions he gave the Corinthians in chapter 8.

Earlier in chapter 9, Paul showed that he, for the sake of Jesus’ gospel, gave up the right to receive financial support from the Corinthians. As a man laboring in gospel ministry, he had every right to receive compensation from those to whom he ministered. Instead, Paul gave up that right in order to remove any possible obstacles to the gospel while preaching in Corinth (9:13). Gospel preaching was so important to Paul that giving up such rights were of little concern (9:16).1 So for Paul, becoming “all things to all men,” meant doing everything possible to avoid activities, especially social and religious customs, that were offensive to particular cultures.2 When it came to the Jews, Paul would from time to time freely bring himself under the Mosaic Law (though he was free otherwise) in order to avoid offending the Jews (see, for example, Acts 16:3). When it came to the Gentiles, he would likewise avoid certain things that he knew might be a stumbling block to them (in 1 Cor 9, by forfeiting his right to receive financial compensation for his ministry). Even so, in so doing, Paul quickly adds, he refused to violate the law of Christ (9:21).

In other words, Paul’s ministry among “all men,” no matter who they were, was defensive. Paul did not attempt to add things to his message to make it more palatable. Instead, he avoided offending unbelievers–be they Jews or Greeks or whomever–in order that he could “by all means . . . save some.” John Makujina explains,

Becoming “all things to all men” does not refer to an offensive strategy of inventiveness, creativity, persuasiveness, or accommodation to new modes of evangelism that key in on the latest public novelty. Paul’s references here are purely preventative. He simply wished to eliminate any nonessential barriers that would hinder his proclamation the gospel.3

So Paul’s efforts in 1 Cor 9 do not contradict his words in 1 Cor 1-3. Instead, they complement it. We should be ready to give up our rights in order to avoid stumbling blocks to the gospel. This disposition of Paul should not surprise us, for it is the same that Jesus himself assumed, “taking on the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil 2:6-11). Jesus himself gave up his rights in order to yield his life for sinners. By giving up his rights to see men saved, Paul imitated the Lord he served. Yet in so serving those who had not yet believed, Paul never broke allegiance to Jesus Christ, the one he served above all others; he was still subject to Christ’s law down with his entire life.

No matter what, Paul did not think so much of becoming “all things to all men” that he believed he should try to make the gospel more appealing to them. Again, he simply wanted to remove obstacles to the Gospel, not add crutches to it. In the end, Paul’s method of ministry was one that highlighted the sheer power of God in the message of the cross. “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” He avoided natural wisdom and eloquence, the worldly gimmicks of his age. These things were attached to a system opposed to God’s wisdom and robbed the cross of its power. The Gospel is supremely self-relevant, and the Spirit alone is able to make this precious word of the cross relevant to those of us who have the Spirit. When the message of Jesus crucified for sinners is simply preached and sinners believe in him, it demonstrates that God “gives the growth,” that he alone is powerful to save. We believe this message is as powerful today as it was in Paul’s own day. So may we preach it and glorify the God who delights in putting on display his power and glorifying His Son through the preaching the Gospel.

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About Ryan Martin

Ryan Martin is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Granite Falls, Minnesota. Prior to that, he served as the associate pastor of Bethany Bible Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He is on the board of directors of Religious Affections Ministries. Ryan received his undergraduate degree at Northland Baptist Bible College, and has received further training from Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, Minn. (M.Div., 2004; Ph.D., 2013). He was ordained in 2009 at Bible Baptist Church of Elk River, Minn. (now Otsego, Minn.). He has a wife and children too. Ryan is the associate editor of Hymns to the Living God (Religious Affections Ministries, 2017). He contributed to the Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2017) and is the author of Understanding Affections in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards: "The High Exercises of Divine Love" (T&T Clark, 2018).

  1. We have hints in 2 Corinthians that some of the carnal members of that church actually despised Paul’s ministry because he forfeited the right to receive compensation. See 2 Cor 11:7-11. []
  2. For a helpful summary of 1 Cor 9:19-23, see John Makujina, Measuring the Music: Another Look at the Contemporary Music Debate, 2d ed. (Willow Street, Penn.: Old Paths Publications, 2002), 21-26. []
  3. Makujina, Measuring, 23-24. []