For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (ESV)
I hope I don’t incorrectly anticipate my friend. He is a man who reveres the Sovereignty of God. But I imagine the nature of Paul’s flexibility and Paul’s stated purpose can be quickly misunderstood.
I do not believe for one moment that Paul understands his efforts to be necessary to the successful conversion of a heart. I do not believe that we can justify corrupting the Gospel message to make it more palatable to unbelievers based on this Scripture. So, what is Paul saying here, in the common vernacular?
Paul’s purpose is clear. “… that I might win more of them.” The emphasis is on the subject, not the object. Paul does not say “… that they might be won.” Nor does Paul say “… that more of them might be won.” Paul’s emphasis is on his participation in the process. Over and over again Paul refers to his participation made available because of his willingness to be flexible. He is willing to be Jews so that he can have access to Jews to preach the Gospel. He is willing to be weak so that he can have access to the weak.
Paul might well have said, I have learned to speak and write Greek so that I might win those who speak Greek. Or I have sailed to Spain so that I might win those living in Spain. Out of obedience to the Gospel, Paul has subordinated himself to the Will of God in salvation. His purpose is NOT for their benefit or that they might be converted. In fact verse 23 states unequivocally “I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” Paul seems not primarily interested with the eternal consequences of his audience (although I am sure it is a large motivation to him) but primarily interested in sharing in the blessings of the Gospel.
A reading of the passage in the oft maligned NIV might tempt one to arrive at a different conclusion, so I include the New American Standard Version here as I believe it is commonly recognized as the most accurate word for word literal translation:
19 For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more.
20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; 21 to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. 23 I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it.
Contrast this with the NIV’s reading:
19 Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 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. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. 23I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
And as another source, consider the NKJV rendition of the original Greek:
19 For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; 20 and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law,[c] that I might win those who are under the law; 21 to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God,[d] but under law toward Christ[e]), that I might win those who are without law; 22 to the weak I became as[f] weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. 23 Now this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I may be partaker of it with you.
The NIV has rendered the Greek in such a way that the emphasis is changed from Paul’s participation (subjective) to the end result (objective). What does the Greek say?
19 ελευθερος γαρ ων εκ παντων πασιν εμαυτον εδουλωσα ινα τους πλειονας κερδησω 20 και εγενομην τοις ιουδαιοις ως ιουδαιος ινα ιουδαιους κερδησω τοις υπο νομον ως υπο νομον μη ων αυτος υπο νομον ινα τους υπο νομον κερδησω 21 τοις ανομοις ως ανομος μη ων ανομος θεου αλλ εννομος χριστου ινα κερδανω τους ανομους 22 εγενομην τοις ασθενεσιν ασθενης ινα τους ασθενεις κερδησω τοις πασιν γεγονα παντα ινα παντως τινας σωσω 23 παντα δε ποιω δια το ευαγγελιον ινα συγκοινωνος αυτου γενωμαι
Well now, allow me to provide some clues to the meaning of the above. Please understand that I have only the most basic understanding of Greek and any errors are going to be quickly eliminated when brought to my attention. As an example, let me consider the text of verse 20 (to the Jews). The first word after the conjunction (Kai, English “And”) is egenomen which is sometimes written ginomai. The words mean to become, but the tense is first person simple past tense, i.e. “I became” I note that the pronoun is not included in the Greek reading. It is sufficient to reference simply the tense and form of the vowel. All three translations include the pronoun “I” in the first part of verse 20. (New King James Version, New American Standard Version, and the New International Version). I also note that of the more than 15 different translations I surveyed (even Luther’s German translation) all include the unstated and inferred first person personal pronoun “I.” The next important word (for our discussion’s purpose) is the Greek word “kerdeso” sometimes written kerdaino. Again, the tense and form of the verb includes the idea that the speaker is acting. “I should be gaining” or “I might gain” or “I might win”
Again, I looked to the various renditions of this particular Greek word and found that 11 of the 21 versions I surveyed included the personal pronoun “I” Of those 21 four were the NIV or a derivative (such as the NIV UK version or Today’s NIV). One was “The Message” which is hardly a Bible in any sense. Throwing out the heretical work ‘the message’ and reducing the NIV variants to one leaves the count at 11 of 17. One of the six exceptions is the NIV leaving 5 dissenters. Which works are the other 5? They include the Holman Christian Standard Bible, the New Century Version, the Contemporary English Version, the New Living Translation and my beloved English Standard Version. Of these 5, the English Standard Version does include the personal pronoun in its translation of the other verbs (in fact this is the only exception and I can find no rationale for not translating it with the personal pronoun).
In contrast the NIV and its variants omit the personal pronoun “I” and in every other verse when the purpose is indicated, but the NIV includes the personal pronoun in every case where the necessary action is referenced. In other words, the NIV includes the pronoun “I” whenever Paul does something, but they omit the personal pronoun “I” when Paul is referring to why he did something. Perhaps this is a means of necessity. The English language would be cumbersome if the NIV omitted the pronoun “I” in every case. The reading would be something like:
19Though I am free and belong to no man,  make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20To the Jews  became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law  became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21To those not having the law  became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22To the weak  became weak, to win the weak.  have become all things to all men so that by all possible means might save some. 23do all this for the sake of the gospel, that  may share in its blessings.
Of note, the Greek personal pronoun for “I” which is “ego” (yes, you Freudian psychology students should be wide eyed and aware) is absent from the text in every verse. So the question might rightly be asked “Why does any translation include it?” I think the reason has more to do with the limitations of the English language than any particular translators intent to change the meaning. I sincerely believe the NIV is trying to introduce the personal pronoun where required to make the reading comprehensible, but omit it if possible. The other, more literal, translations include it regularly to be consistent and to convey the meaning that the form of the verb is personal.
The reading “so as to win those under the law” and the reading “so that I might win those under the law” might seem different at first, but if we look more closely at the NIV, we find that even the NIV make it clear what Paul’s intentions are as revealed in verse 22 and 23 when the NIV includes the personal pronoun.
Consequently I suggest that the NIV is in agreement that Paul’s idea is to draw attention to his involvement in the process, not the necessity of his method to accomplish the process.
To clarify, let me offer the following example. If I say:
I am going to the store to buy groceries so that I might feed my son
It would be presumptuous of me to infer that my son won’t be fed unless I go to the store. If that was my meaning, then I was unclear and should have wrote:
I am going to the store to buy groceries so that my son will be able to eat, otherwise he will go hungry
The first statement might be equivalent to the second, but more facts must be known. In the case of our Scripture, other Scriptures must be opened and examined before we can fairly conclude something the text doesn’t require. In hermeneutics this is the principle that Scripture interprets Scripture. And applying this principle to 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 we can fairly conclude Paul’s rationale by looking to verse 23:
… that I may share in its blessings. NIV
I use the NIV for reference because it illustrates that any reasonable reading of this scripture finds us with the most logical understanding that Paul’s desire is to share in its blessings – ‘its’ being the Gospel.
Paul’s desire is to make himself available to God to be used of God in as many ways as Paul can avail himself of. Paul is the kind of evangelists that learns the language of the tribe and people he feels called to witness to. Paul is the kind of evangelists that adapts his diet and culture and clothes to those around him. But Paul doesn’t change the Gospel message, and Paul isn’t thinking that his efforts will save anyone. This would require us to overlook everything else Paul says about salvation or to read Paul as an inconsistent schizophrenic. In order for this passage to have any meaning we must read it to mean that Paul is willing to deny himself his culture, his language, his preferences in order to serve those whom God would draw to Jesus. (John 6).
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