Dead to rights.
The salvation offered through the life, death and resurrection of Christ is unearnable and gloriously good. There is no need to put restriction or payment on this grace.
Giving up our rights, sacrificing what we are entitled to—these are ways of living, and dying to self, that few would embrace. But for the Apostle Paul, all of this an instinctual response to life. Paul knows his rights as well as anyone, but he’s after something better. Maybe the church will catch on and live for it as well.
In the previous chapter, Paul has called believers to set aside their dietary rights out of care for weaker believers. Here, he is continuing to model how this sacrifice of rights works in life, and he begins by reminding the church of his apostolic status.
The Corinthian church itself is Paul’s claim on pastoral credibility. Some in the church have been questioning whether he was the pastor they deserved, and they were condemning him for not taking pay from them (see 2 Corinthians 11:7).
If one of us was to turn down a gift, we would probably tell the giver we don’t deserve it. Paul, on the other hand, builds a case for his entitlement to the honor and compensation from the church, since he has labored to shepherd and disciple them. He and his ministry partner, Barnabas, have the same rights as the other church-supported apostles and preachers.
Paul’s right to pay is just the ordinary way the world works. Soldiers don’t wage war on their own dime; those who tend the grapevines drink the wine; and the dairy farmer drinks his cattle’s milk.
Paul’s rights are also Scriptural, and he quotes from Deuteronomy 25:4, presenting the claim that God includes this in the law so that all laborers would benefit from their work. If Paul has turned the spiritual soil of Corinth, then he has the same right to support as any preacher.
After submitting all this evidence, Paul turns down what he is entitled to because he doesn’t want to put a roadblock in front of the gospel.
Religious custom fortifies his right to earn a living from preaching and cinches the argument. Even Jesus said that ministers of the gospel are to get their provision from that ministry1.
Paul has not cashed in what he is owed, and he is not writing this to get paid. Instead, he doubles down on his mission to preach the gospel free of charge. This good news of Christ, and him crucified, is better than what he is entitled to and, where some might consider wages their reward, for Paul it is the free preaching of the good news of Jesus.
The believer can give up their rights, even when they are well-deserved, because the gospel is better. Jesus is better than money, honor and celebrity—and because that is true, we present him as he came to us: without price.
The salvation offered through the life, death and resurrection of Christ is unearned and gloriously good. There is no need to put restriction or payment on this grace. Having Christ, we can turn down lesser things for his glory, and our good.