So said Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:23. And so we must agree with him. Still, I wonder whether this verse can sustain all the freight that has been loaded onto it over the years. Does it mean, as John Piper suggested a few months ago, that Christians should not carry concealed weapons or use lethal force against violent intruders/rapists? Does it mean, as one side of last week’s boycott battle over Target affirmed, that Christians should eschew boycotts? Does it mean, as a man insisted to me last month at the Menno-Hof Museum in Shipshewana, IN, that we must be resolute pacifists? The following are a few thoughts on the topic:
- While nearly every activity in which we engage has at least some remote implication for the gospel, not all things that we do in life are for the Gospel in a primary sense. Some things that we do are not primarily redemptive but civil in nature. Going to war, replacing a septic tank, buying a car, tightening a bolt firmly on the assembly line, going to a niece’s wedding, using a urinal rather than a brick wall, and a thousand other things are done primarily because of their civil ends. Yes, they all have implications for the Gospel (some more immediate than others), but they are not primarily “Gospel” activities.
- Scripture teaches that God is glorified not only by the successes of special grace, but also those of common grace. God is glorified by the restraint of evil and the performance of civic good (1 Pet 2:14), as well as the successful implementation of the dominion mandate in every sphere of life (Gen 1:26ff), whether in a field of crops (Psa 65:5–13) and even flowers (Isa 35:2) or in the intimacy of marital love (Song of Songs, passim). IOW, we can glorify God without conscious reference to the progress of the evangel proper.
- Scripture even intimates that God’s glory may be achieved in surprisingly “judgmental” ways. God is glorified when certain criminals are capitally punished (Gen 9:6)—even though it summarily ends all opportunity for their repentance. God is glorified when good triumphs over evil in violent battle (with the same end). God is even glorified in the consignment of the wicked to the Lake of Fire that effectively ends the age of special grace.
- We cannot, of course, escape the fact that Paul sees the success of the Gospel as a matter of singular import, even instructing us to temporarily curtail our enjoyment of God’s common graces (eating and drinking in our context) in our quest for Gospel success. So even as we delight in God’s common graces, pursue the dominion mandate, and attempt to resist/restrain evil (say, with a boycott), we need to be aware of the implications of our actions for the Gospel, suppressing our liberties to that end.
- The effects of our actions on the Gospel are not monolithic in nature—sometimes, in the context of our governing text, you must eat the meat and sometimes you must not eat it. Furthermore, an action may have conflicting immediate and long-term effects that must be measured with great care. For instance, a violent war might end a soldier’s chance to embrace the Gospel, but then create a “tranquil and quiet life” in which godliness and the Gospel flourish (1 Tim 2:1–4). A boycott might make some unbelievers hate God and the Gospel all the more, but might also extend God’s longsuffering just a little bit longer and cause certain other unbelievers to assess their wickedness afresh in the light of a biblical worldview.
To summarize, all that I do should be done with an awareness of all possible implications of my actions on the success of the Gospel. However, the success of the Gospel is not for that reason the only interest that informs my actions. My life must be lived attentive to the comprehensive glory of God in every sphere, including spheres both redemptive and civil.