A Strategy For Spreading The Gospel—1 Corinthians 9:19-27


Levi Durfey




There have been countless tactics developed for sharing the gospel. Here’s a few:


  • Take someone to church with you, go to lunch afterward and ask them how they felt about the sermon (then dive in!).
  • Write someone a letter that gently segues to the gospel. Ask them what they thought about the letter later.
  • Initiate a conversation with the people you are next to on the bus, plane, etc.
  • Ask a waiter/tress how you can pray for them (when you pray before a meal) tip big and leave a gospel tract.
  • Go to a park with your kids, engage the other parents in conversation and tie in where you take your kids to church.
  • Evangelize people who call you at home to try to sell you something (even if they don’t believe, they’ll stop selling!)
  • Take someone to a movie with spiritual themes then go out afterward and talk about it. (http://www.christianpost.com/news/21-ways-to-share-the-gospel-94021/)


Those are good tactics, but in our passage, Paul lays down part of an overall strategy for sharing the gospel. This strategy needs to undergird any tactic we use in sharing the gospel.


 The first part of his strategy is…




1 Corinthians 9:19 For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant (ἐδούλωσα, VAAI1S, δουλόω) unto all, that I might gain (κερδήσω, VAAS1S, κερδαίνω) the more. 


Paul was free from having to conform to the ideas of other people. He did not have to adopt Gentile or Jewish customs when it came to preaching or dress or eating or whatever. 


Yet, because he was concerned about the people he preached the gospel to, he was willing to bend in order to serve them. Servanthood is what Jesus taught us to do by example:


14 If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you. (John 13:14–15)


1 Corinthians 9:20 And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law [either Jews or Gentiles who had become Jews or both], as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; 


Paul would observe certain Jewish customs when he was around Jewish people. For example, he had Timothy (a half-Jew) circumcised (Acts 16:3) and he took a Nazarite vow (Acts 21:23). 


But he never allowed Jewish customs to interfere with the message of the gospel. He confronted Peter when Peter did not eat with Gentiles to please some Jews (Galatians 2:11-13). And (we find in Galatians), while he did circumcise Timothy, he did not circumcise Titus because it would interfere with the Gospel:


3 But neither Titus, who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised: 4 And that because of false brethren unawares brought in, who came in privily to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage: 5 To whom we gave place by subjection, no, not for an hour; that the truth of the gospel might continue with you. (Galatians 2:3–5)


When he was working with Gentiles, he adapted in order to serve them better:


1 Corinthians 9:21 To them that are without law [Gentiles], as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law. 

1 Corinthians 9:22 To the weak became I as weak (ἀσθενέσιν, JDPM, ἀσθενής—he refers to the weak Christian of chapter 8), that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.

1 Corinthians 9:23 And this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you. 


What did Paul do different around Gentiles? He ate what they ate, perhaps he dressed as they dressed. But what he didn’t do was break God’s law. That’s what he means when he says “being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ.” 


While he would break some Jewish laws that were not in line with God’s law, he would never break the law of God—the law of Christ—in reaching out to people. 


Some Christians think that we have to join in with someone’s sin in order to relate to them. Paul understood that his first priority was to be obedient to Christ.


Hudson Taylor was one of the first modern missionaries to copy Paul when he went to China. He wore his hair like the Chinese, he dressed like them, he ate their food, lived in their kind of houses, and adopted their customs. He said:


In [Chinese dress] the foreigner…escapes the mobbing and crowding to which, in many places, his own [clothes] would subject him; and in preaching, while his dress attracts less notice, his words attract more (http://www.globalchinacenter.org/analysis/christianity-in-china/between-two-worlds-j-hudson-taylor-and-the-clash-between-british-and-chinese-customs-cultures-and-laws.php).


We need to be able to reach our culture by understanding them and reaching out to them. Even within our borders, culture changes from place to place. 


You reach out to people on Wall Street differently than the people on small town main street. I know from experience that Minnesota is different from Montana.


At the same time, we need to understand that there are some things that can’t change, or we lose the gospel. 


In adapting to culture, do not do something that shames your witness to Christ, or violates your conscience, or gives a foothold for Satan to tempt you. Don’t become a drinker or a drug-addict to reach drinkers and addicts. 


Remember what Paul says in Galatians:


13 For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another. (Galatians 5:13)


Part of Paul’s strategy to reach the lost was to become a servant to the lost, in that he adapted what he could so that they could relate to the message he preached. 


A second part of Paul’s gospel strategy was…





Throughout the next verses, the key thought is self-control or self-discipline. Paul uses the picture of an athlete and the kind of self-discipline they need to win. 


1) Self-Discipline Has A Prize


1 Corinthians 9:24 Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. 

1 Corinthians 9:25 And every man that striveth for the mastery (ἀγωνιζόμενος, VPUP-SNM, ἀγωνίζομαι) is temperate (ἐγκρατεύεται, VPUI3S, ἐγκρατεύομαι—self controlled) in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. 


Self-Discipline Is Agony


The phrase “every man that striveth for the mastery” comes from the Greek word ἀγωνίζομαι (agonizomai—can you hear “agonize” in it?). It means to fight or to engage in athletic contest. 


I’ve never been much of an athlete, but I understand that to train and to participate is hard, grueling, effort. It’s agonizing. 


So agonizing, in fact, that a person has to be “temperate in all things.” The word “temperate” means to “to keep one’s emotions, impulses, or desires under control” (BDAG). 


An athlete has to watch what they eat, they have to train constantly. It’s hard work. It’s agony.


I was reading about Tim Tebow, the Christian quarterback who first played for the Denver Broncos several years ago. Basically, he flunked out of the NFL—he simply wasn’t good enough. 


But Tebow’s dream is to be an NFL quarterback. So he went to a couple baseball trainers who are well-known for their work in improving the throwing ability of football quarterbacks. 


Using time-lapse film, they analyzed his throwing ability and discovered several flaws: his balance was off, his posture was off and he was throwing with this arm, not his body. 


Next, they started to train Tebow out of his bad habits. Their experience has shown that a quarterback needs to complete 1,000 perfect throws to begin to change a bad habit and 10,000 throws to gain mastery over it (http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nfl/2015/07/23/tim-tebow-philadelphia-eagles-tom-house-quarterback-coach/30575803/)! 


When I read that, I thought, “Wow, we Christians give up way too soon in conquering sin in our lives!” We need more self-discipline. Imagine if we, relying on God’s strength, stopped ourselves 1,000 times from complaining or gossiping!


Folks, we want to believe that the Christian life is supposed to comfortable and easy. You know, “he maketh to lie down in green pastures.” Yes, there is that, but we cannot let that be the whole of the Christian walk. It’s going to be hard. We will have to be self-disciplined.


But it will be worth it all, because…


Self-Discipline Wins The Prize


The athlete trains hard and runs hard to win a prize whether it be a trophy, a medal, or even the adoration of fans. 


But all these prizes have one thing in common: they are “corruptible.” Someone will break the records that you set. The trophies will one day be set in a box in a basement until someone puts them in the “free” box at a garage sale. 


Christians, however, are striving for an “incorruptible” crown—a crown that will never fade away. What is this crown? It’s not salvation. Salvation is by grace, not by works:


8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: 9 Not of works, lest any man should boast. (Ephesians 2:8–9)


If you strive for something and you get it, you will be able to boast about it. Salvation comes when we admit that we are sinners who cannot make ourselves right with God, so instead we place our trust in Jesus who died for our sins. The most important thing you can do in this life is become a Christian—are you? 


If the crown is not salvation, then what is the “incorruptible” crown that we are to be self-disciplined to obtain? The Bible talks about crowns of “righteousness” (2 Timothy 4:8), “life” (Revelation 2:10), and “glory” (1 Peter 5:4), but here, in this context, I think Paul is talking about something else. 


His key thought, I believe, is still a concern for winning people to the Lord—“that I might by all means save some.” He says to the Philippian Christians, 


1 Therefore, my brethren dearly beloved and longed for, my joy and crown, so stand fast in the Lord, my dearly beloved. (Philippians 4:1)


Of course, self-discipline will benefit Christians in many areas of their life, but what greater incorruptible crown can we gain than to have been instrumental in leading a person to Christ? That is the greatest prize we can strive for!


Self-discipline has a prize, and…


2) Self-Discipline Has A Purpose


1 Corinthians 9:26 I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: 


Paul pictures a runner and a boxer. Does the runner run looking around at the scenery? No, his focus is on the finish line. Does a boxer get anywhere “shadow-boxing” an imaginary opponent? No. A self-disciplined athlete has focus and purpose. They know where they are going—they know their goal.


So the Christian also must live his life with a definite purpose. The over-arching purpose of the Christian life is to glorify God the Father by being faithful witnesses to his Son Jesus Christ.


It’s easy for us to become distracted from that purpose. In chapters 8 and 9, Paul has been arguing that we are easily distracted by focusing on our rights. Once we start fussing about rights and privileges, the mission goes out the window. 


Our real purpose is lost and we become like a runner who is running the wrong way, or a boxer who is beating the air with his punches instead of his opponent.


Paul shows us that the only thing in life that really matters is the progress of the gospel—glorifying God and witnessing Jesus to others. To that end, he disciplines himself—


1 Corinthians 9:27 But I keep under (ὑπωπιάζω, VPAI1S, ὑπωπιάζω—to beat, wear down) my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway (ἀδόκιμος, JNSM, ἀδόκιμος—disqualified).


There’s a couple things that are easy to misunderstand in this verse:


1) Paul does not mean that he literally beat or abused his body in any way. He’s speaking metaphorically here. It’s not the body that needs self-discipline anyway—it’s our minds that tell our bodies what to do!


However, that doesn’t mean that the self-discipline is easy:


Discipline has to become a passion. It isn’t merely a question of doing whatever is mandatory and avoiding whatever is prohibited. It involves voluntary self-denial. 


An athlete has every right to eat a full eight-course dinner just before he runs the 100-yard dash. That’s his privilege. But it’s not smart. And if he doesn’t sacrifice that right, he’s not going to win. (John MacArthur, The Book on Leadership: The Power of a Godly Influence, [Nashville, TN: T. Nelson Publishers, 2004], 152–153.)


What is it that keeps you from being a better witness to Jesus? If it’s a sin, it should certainly have to go. If it’s not a sin, but still is a weight—it’s hindering you from sharing the gospel—then it must also go.


2) When Paul says that he could become a “castaway” or disqualified, does he mean that he could lose his salvation? 


Hopefully, you can see from the context that is not what he means. He has been talking about his rights and his gospel witness, not his salvation. 


Paul was saying that if he lost sight of his purpose, to witness Jesus and glorify God, then it would be as if he was a castaway or disqualified from the race to win the crown of seeing people come to Christ. 


Think of it this way: a runner who is disqualified doesn’t stop being a runner, they merely lost out on the prize for the race.


We already have said that the prize is not salvation, but it’s those that we win to Christ. Many Christians are castaways. They are saved, but they haven’t done anything for the gospel. They’ll have no crown in Heaven.


3) The Necessity Of Self-Discipline 


Why is self-discipline necessary in our gospel strategy? Robert Murray McCheyne was a pastor in the 1800’s. Once, after preaching, he was sent a note that said:


“I hope you will pardon a stranger for addressing to you a few lines. I heard you preach last Sabbath evening, and it pleased God to bless that sermon to my soul. It was not so much what you said, as your manner of speaking that struck me. I saw in you a beauty in holiness that I never saw before.” (Robert Murray McCheyne and Andrew A. Bonar, Memoir and Remains of the Rev. Robert Murray McCheyne, [Edinburgh; London: Oliphant Anderson & Ferrier, 1894], 165)


What does self-discipline have to do with a strategy for sharing the gospel? 


Partly, it has to do with our testimonies. What are you known for? Are you known as a person who is more concerned about your rights than you are about others? Are you known for your complaining, cheating, gossiping or other sins and not your holiness? 


Our testimonies should reflect Jesus Christ, and that will require self-discipline on our part.




How do we do any of this? How can we be servants? How can we be self-disciplined? It seems to be so much work and effort! 


Indeed, it is. That cannot be denied. But it is work and effort and striving for which we have help. From whom? From the Holy Spirit. What is the last of the fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22-23?


22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, 23 Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. (Galatians 5:22–23)


Temperance—self-discipline—is something that the Spirit grows in you. It’s not that we do nothing, however…Philippians 2:12-13 explains:


12 Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. 13 For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12–13)


We are to cooperate with God as he works in us. One pastor said it like this:


…self-control happens when we believe the promise of the Word of God that greater joy will come through self-denial, and when we trust the Spirit of God to give us strength, and when we seek the glory of God as the outcome of our victory. (John Piper, Sermons from John Piper [1990–1999], [Minneapolis, MN: Desiring God, 2007].)


A good athlete will ask, “What will make me run faster, jump farther, hit harder?” 


The coach will say, “You need to do this training exercise 10,000 times.” Then, believing the promise of the coach, the athlete will put every ounce of effort he has into the training.


A Christian must ask, “What will make me a better witness for the Lord? What will make me more zealous for Jesus? What will help me give more glory to God?” 


The Holy Spirit, using the Word of God, will show the Christian—perhaps to pray more, or to cut out some habit that detracts from Christ, or some other matter of obedience. 


Then, believing the promise of God that they found in the Bible, the Christian will find the strength to obey by trusting the Spirit to act. The Christian won’t do this for themselves, but seeking to further the glory of God.


  • What do you need to do to follow Paul’s strategy for spreading the gospel?
  • What areas of your life do you need to be a servant to those who don’t believe?
  • What matters of self-discipline do you need to pursue to have a better testimony to unbelievers?

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