Becoming as the Weak Ones
When men violate the law, and the law convicts them of sin, they come “under the law,” that is, under the sentence of law, and the law then puts them into forced servitude, or slavery to pay off their debt. Only when the debt is paid do men come “under grace.” We know that Jesus paid that debt on the cross, and this is why we are under grace.
We do not come under grace by turning our backs to the law—as if law and grace were opposite ways of life. Sin is the violation of the law (1 John 3:4). Paul says in Rom. 6:19 that prior to coming to Christ, our “members” (body parts) were enslaved to lawlessness (sin), but now, being slaves of Jesus Christ, our “members” are to be presented as slaves to righteousness. Now that our debt has been paid, and we are no longer “under the law, but under grace” (Rom. 6:14), Christ’s blood does not give us the right to sin with impunity, for how can we continue in a life of sin after so great salvation has been wrought for us?
However, many Bible teachers today say the opposite, because, not having studied the law, they do not understand its terminology. They think that being under grace means that the law no longer defines sin, and if we try to be obedient and conform our lives to the righteous tenets of the law, then somehow we “fall from grace.”
But as we have shown already, only lawbreakers are under the law, for as Paul says, “the law is not made for a righteous man, but for those who are lawless and rebellious” (1 Tim. 1:9). Hence, “the law is good, if one uses it lawfully” (1 Tim. 1:8). However, if a believer gives himself the right to be lawless whenever he disagrees with the law, on the grounds that he is “under grace,” he is using the law unlawfully. God never gave believers the right to sin.
Once we understand Paul’s terminology, we have a better chance of understanding his writings. So let us paraphrase 1 Cor. 9:20 with this knowledge of his terms:
20 And to the genealogical Jews I accommodated their conscience and became as a genealogical Jew, that I might win Jews; to those under the law—that is, to the world, including Jews—I became (as though I were yet under the sentence of the law) a fellow slave with them, still working to pay off my debt—that I might win those who yet remain in slavery.
Changes in the Law
Paul continues in 1 Corinthians 9:21, saying,
21 to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, that I might win those who are without the law.
Some make a distinction between “the law of God” and “the law of Christ,” as if they are different. There are certainly some differences, as the book of Hebrews points out. For example, Heb. 7:12 points out the change of priesthood from Levi to Melchizedek, saying,
12 For when the priesthood is changed, of necessity there takes place a change of law also.
The priesthood has changed, the temple has changed from wood and stone to human flesh, Jerusalem has changed from the old to the new, sacrifice has changed from animals to Jesus Himself, and the covenant has changed from the first (Exodus 19:6-8) to the second (Deut. 29:10-15; Heb. 8:8-12).
But none of these changes altered the righteous character of God or the definition of sin. Murder, theft, adultery, and idolatry are still sins even today, because the law was not put away. The command to love God and your neighbor as yourself was the fundamental law given through Moses, and Jesus did not alter that command in any way (Matt. 5:17, 18, 19).
In His “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus taught the law as it ought to be understood. He did not put it away but stressed the spiritual principles on which the law was based.
So Paul says in verse 21 that he became “to those who are without law, as without law.” Did he mean that he was literally “without law” in the sense that he adopted lawless behavior? No, because he immediately added, “though not being without the law of God.” Paul’s conscience did not allow him to sin that grace may abound. Others, who did not know the law as Paul did, conducted their lives “without law.” In other words, they saw nothing wrong with many of the things that the law forbids, and so their conscience was not violated by certain acts that the law declares to be sinful.
Again, this discussion is an extension of Paul’s council in regard to deferring to the conscience of others. Recall that Paul was willing to give up his liberty to eat food sacrificed to idols in order not to destroy a brother whose conscience was “weak.” So also, in the case of unbelievers, whether Jewish or another ethnic group, Paul was willing to give up his liberty and work as an apparent slave alongside those who were yet enslaved to sin and lawlessness.
Paul was a slave of Christ and therefore followed the laws and commands of Christ, for Christ had redeemed him (Lev. 25:53). But Jesus had made him an apostle to the nations that yet labored in bondage to sin. To reach them, Paul gave up his life of liberty and joined them in their slave labor, even though he did not owe any debt to sin, since Jesus had already paid his debt.
But this should not be interpreted to mean that Paul believed he was free to sin, for that would violate the law of God and the law of Christ as well.
Slaves are Weak
Paul continues in 1 Cor. 9:22, 23, saying,
22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some. 23 And I do all things for the sake of the gospel, that I may become a fellow partaker of it.
Those in the world who yet labor as slaves to their sin-debt are legally weak. A slave may be strong physically or mentally, but if he is a slave, he is weak in his status or position. In other words, he has no power over his own body or actions, for he is subject to the will of others. Slaves cannot even live according to their own conscience, for they are compelled to fulfill the conscience of their masters.
These are “the weak” in this context. Those who are “without law,” to whom Paul had been sent to preach the gospel, are “weak.” The flesh is often powerless, too weak to resist the old man’s command to sin—that is, too weak to resist the old man’s “law of sin” (Rom. 7:25).
Paul found it necessary to go to them, even as Jesus had come to earth as a bond-servant (Phil. 2:6, 7). Paul merely followed Jesus’ example, giving up his liberty in order to reach those who could not set themselves free. This was why Paul was “under compulsion” to do the same in whatever way he could. By becoming a fellow partaker of the slavery that the world was experiencing, he expected a reward—“that I may become a fellow partaker of it,” that is, a partaker of the gospel and its reward.
Paul, the Spiritual Athlete
Paul continues in 1 Corinthians 9:24,
24 Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win.
Only one person in a race can win first prize. This does not mean that only believers can be given a reward. Believers are not in competition with each other for the prize. Jesus is the winner in this case, but because we are part of His body, there are multiple winners who share in His prize. Yet the overcomers collectively are one body.
In 2 Tim. 2:5 Paul again uses this athletic metaphor. The Emphatic Diaglott reads,
5 And if any one contend in the games, he is not crowned, unless he contend lawfully.
The NASB renders this in more modern terms, saying, “he does not win the prize unless he competes according to the rules.” The “rules,” in this case, are the laws of God. An athlete cannot consider himself to be above the law, for if he breaks the rules, he is disqualified. So also is it with the believers. Those who are lawless, who think they now have a right to violate the laws of God, will be disqualified, even if they think they have won the race.
Paul continues in 1 Corinthians 9:26, 27,
26 Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air, 27 but I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.
Paul contrasted his own labor with shadow boxing, or “beating the air.” Paul’s work was real. He trained himself as a spiritual athlete. Even as an athlete deprives himself of certain foods and gives up his liberty to relax on a couch, so also did Paul give up his liberty of conscience in order to win those who were weak and lawless.
Paul did not want to lose, and he especially did not want to be disqualified in the end. There is nothing worse than going to the victor’s stand, only to discover that you were disqualified over a violated rule (law).
A victor is an overcomer. 1 John 5:4, 5 says literally,
4 For whatever is begotten [gennao] of God overcomes [nikao] the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. 5 And who is the one who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
The Greek word translated “overcomes” is nikao, “to conquer, to come off victorious.” It applies not only to one who conquers in battle, but also to one who is victorious in a race. This is how Paul uses the metaphor. The overcomer is, in effect, the one who wins the prize. Paul was in it to win and did not want to lose. If he should win the race, he did not want to be disqualified.
Some use 1 Cor. 9:27 as proof of the Arminian position, saying that people may lose their salvation if they do not endure to the end. Calvin opposed Arminius, believing “once saved, always saved.” He argued that those who fell away from Christ only had the appearance of being saved but were never really saved in the first place.
Both sides are partially right, but both really miss the point.
Paul and John both distinguished the overcomers from the church in general, mostly in terms of their differing rewards. It is too much to prove here, for I have already written extensively on this topic in other writings. See Four Lessons on How to Be an Overcomer and The Purpose of Resurrection. I showed how the Scriptures speak of two resurrections, the first for the overcomers and the second (at a later time) for believers in general.
Hence, Paul was not striving to win salvation itself, as Arminius argued. He was striving to win the prize of the overcomer. So he wrote in Phil. 3:14 (The Emphatic Diaglott),
14 I press along the line towards the prize of the high calling of God by Christ Jesus.
This “high calling of God” is not salvation per se but is the first resurrection, which is a resurrection limited to a smaller group of people than the universal resurrection later. The two resurrections are presented in Revelation 20.
In other words, Paul said that the real prize was the resurrection of some of the dead, but not all. John later develops this idea more in Rev. 20:4-6, where we see a partial resurrection of believers. In Rev. 20:12 the rest of the dead are to be raised a thousand years later.
In John 5:28, 29 Jesus spoke of this final resurrection, telling us that it was to include both believers and unbelievers. Hence, it is plain that not all believers will be raised in the first resurrection. Only the overcomers among them will win the prize of the high calling of God, the resurrection out from among the dead.
Philippians 3:11 says,
11 in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.
Dr. Bullinger comments on this verse, because Paul uses the term ek-anastasia, usually translated “resurrection” without accounting for the extra Greek word ek. He says in his notes,
“of the dead. All the texts read, ‘the one from (Gr. ek) the dead,’ making the expression emphatic… Resurrection from the dead (ek nekron) implies the resurrection of some, the former of these two classes, the others being left behind.”
Hence, the high calling that Paul desired was to be an overcomer who qualified for the first resurrection out from among the dead. He wanted to be raised in the first resurrection. This reward required more than just being a regular believer who had been justified by faith. Being an overcomer requires enduring to the end, and it requires running the race according to the rules of the game.