In these two words from 1 Corinthians 9:11, spiritualia seminavimus, hangs the essence of Christian ministry. What is meant by “Sowing things spiritual”?
1 Cor 9:11, “If we have sown spiritual things for you, is it a great thing if we reap your material things?”
Paul here built from the distinction between the spiritual and material also expressed by Moses in the chronologically antecedent Leviticus 10:10-11:
Lev 10:10-11, “that you may distinguish between holy and unholy, and between unclean and clean, and that you may teach the children of Israel all the statutes which the LORD has spoken to them by the hand of Moses.”
In order to understand what specifically needs to be “sown” in 1 Corinthians 9, we must understand what is meant by “things spiritual” (or “things holy” in Moses). Primary views can be roughly divided into four main camps, each of which could be subdivided into other camps:
1. Things spiritual refers to the spoken Word of God;
2. Things spiritual refers to doing good deeds on behalf of Christ;
3. Things spiritual refers to enacting the Ordinances of Christ (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper) for a person or group;
4. Things spiritual refers to calling the power of God down upon the material specimens of the Seven Sacraments on behalf of a person or group.
Clearly all four of these approaches to “things spiritual” are quite different and unique.
However, the issue behind each view lies in several places. Differences relate to what is believed to be the “power of God unto salvation” (Rom 1:16):
Rom 1:16-17, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith.’”
I argue that the gospel specifically, or the Word of God generally, entails all that is meant by things spiritual. So, if the power of God unto salvation is the spoken Word of God, then “things spiritual” concern the first referent on the list above.
The author of Hebrews explained that the sword of the power of God on this earth is inseparably interconnected with the very words of the Word of God:
Heb 4:12-13, “For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.”
Such a powerful weapon must-needs be wielded with humility and great care. This power of God found in the words from God can be annulled by one’s own self-aggrandizing “wisdom of words”:
1 Cor 1:17, “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect.”
So, how is this power of God communicated to others? Is it not by their first “hearing” it?
Rom 10:17, “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”
But, does “hearing” automatically produce faith in everyone who hears? No! For Paul explained another type of hearing in verse 16:
Rom 10:16, “But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our report?’”
So, it follows that “sowing things spiritual” means that hearing must be accompanied by a proper reception of the things heard:
1 Thess 2:13, “For this reason we also thank God without ceasing, because when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe.”
A great example of God both opening and not opening hearts is found in Acts 16. Paul spoke to “women” (plural) assembled at a place of prayer. Yet we find that only the heart of one woman, Lydia of Thyatira, was supernaturally opened by the power of the Holy Spirit working in, with, and by the words communicated by Paul:
Acts 16:13-14, “And on the Sabbath day we went out of the city to the riverside, where prayer was customarily made; and we sat down and spoke to the women who met there. Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us. She was a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira, who worshiped God. The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul.”
So, there are different types of hearing. Now, elsewhere, the proper reception of the gospel is described as the “hearing of faith”:
Gal 3:2, 5, “This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? … Therefore He who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you, does He do it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?”
Indeed, the author of Hebrews described this hearing as a hearing “mixed with faith”:
Heb 4:2, “For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them; but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it.”
So, this passage refers to another kind of hearing, not resulting in salvation. In fact, this other kind of hearing is a mere carnal hearing. Paralleling the distinction taught by God to Moses in Leviticus 10. Paul explained the blindness of those who cannot understand the gospel being communicated:
2 Cor 4:3-4, “But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them.”
God said the same in His calling of Isaiah the prophet:
Isa 6:9-10, “And He said, ‘Go, and tell this people: “Keep on hearing, but do not understand; Keep on seeing, but do not perceive.” Make the heart of this people dull, And their ears heavy, And shut their eyes; Lest they see with their eyes, And hear with their ears, And understand with their heart, And return and be healed.’”
But as to the “hearing of faith,” a clear result of this type of hearing upon the recipient is the reception of the Holy Spirit as a direct result of receiving the words of the Word of God.
That this line of reasoning is a contemporaneous topic of dispute (as noted in the four views listed above) is no surprise. This same topic was also the subject of a major dispute in the Apostolic Age:
Acts 15:7-9, “And when there had been much dispute, Peter rose up and said to them: ‘Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.’”
Therefore, in conclusion:
• The Holy Spirit is NOT granted via a secondary material source (e.g. a material Sacrament);
• NOR is the Holy Spirit is granted through the ordinance of baptism (1 Cor 1:17);
• NEITHER is the saving work of the Holy Spirit communicated through the good deeds of a Christian toward another person;
• RATHER, “things spiritual” are sown by speaking the Word of God, with the result that some are granted a hearing of faith, sealed by the reception of the Holy Spirit, and culminating in immediate salvation and the forgiveness of sins!
Eph 1:13, “In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise.”
So then, “sowing things spiritual” refers to individual Christians obeying the ordinance of Christ to evangelize, as is commanded in the Great Commission passages, and as is the primary context of 1 Corinthians 9.
Dr. Thomas Johnston serves as Professor of Evangelism at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. Born in Paris, France to missionary parents, Dr. Johnston’s heart for missions and evangelism was forged in the context of post-Christian Europe. His fluency in French and familiarity with European cultures have served him well in leading evangelistic teams in six countries across four continents. He also brings to his students sixteen years of pastoral ministry experience in the United States and Canada. Dr. Johnston received his Doctor of Philosophy degree from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the Master of Divinity from Trinity Evangelical Theological Seminary, and the Bachelor of Science from Wheaton College. He is married to Raschelle and they have three children and four grandchildren.