Woe is me - it's not all optimism

A little while ago I was reading one of those daily anthologies on the topic of the day.  The one I was reading was based on the Moffatt bible, a translation that appeared between the wars.  The  text that caught my eye was 1 Corinthian 9:16, where Paul says with some passion, 'Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel'.  I have read this text numerous times, but I felt a nudge to read the whole of the chapter.

The whole passage gives a fascinating insight into apostolic practice.  But it gives a deeper insight into the personal psychological thought patterns and internal motivations of the apostle.  We hear a truly human voice speaking to us over two millennia.  In the first half Paul speaks about the rights and privileges of an apostle.  He has the right to be supported by the churches he visits and ministers to.  Secondly he has the right to be accompanied on his travels by a Christian wife, a way of life followed by the brothers of the Lord, and by Peter (verse 5).

From verse 6 till verse 14 he gives examples from the Law of the reasonableness of being supported financially in the work of God.  The priests share in the sacrifices, no soldier serves at his own expense, and no shepherd abstains from drinking the milk of his herd or flock.  Thus the gospel worker gets his living by the gospel (verse 14).  Yet Paul deliberately refused to avail himself of this privilege.  It was his source of pride or glorying that he was determined to preach the gospel freely.

The second half of the chapter is a very moving description of his inner purpose and motivation, the things that drove him forward.  He is a driven man.  Constraint and even necessity is laid upon him.  His whole raison d’etre is to preach the gospel.  'Woe is me – it would be agony and grief to me – if I didn’t preach the Gospel'.  Seeing signs and wonders were undoubtedly of great importance to him; social action in feeding the poor in Jerusalem was another task that occupied him; but the overwhelming passion of his life was to see the heathen around put their trust in the Saviour.  He said, 'I made myself the slave of all, to win over as many as I could' (verse 19 Moff.).  To the weak he became weak, so that he might win the weak, and to the pious Jew he became like one of them in order to win Jews.  He sums up the passion of his life in those well known words – that he does all these things in 'order to save some'.  

These two simple words, to save some, have a profound significance for us today, because today the gospel being preached by many in the church is a gospel of inclusivity.  Everybody must be in.  Biblical principles and gender issues are being blurred.  A sort of a universalism is abroad, even in the evangelical church.

But Paul talks of the saving of his hearers.  This logically pre-supposes that they are presently lost.  This is backed up by the following word, some.  It implies that his evangelism would not be universally successful. Many today indulge the pleasing notion that all will be well for all human beings at the end.  But the Bible knows nothing of this easy going optimism.  We have a God who divides and makes distinctions.  He created male and female, we have law and grace, the sheep and the goats, faith and doubt, sin and holiness, heaven and hell.

These ideas are anathema to many.  To them God always loves, never judges; he universally includes even those who offend him and he never draws immutable lines.

How wrong they are.


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