What do you think Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 9:27, if not salvation?
It is talking about salvation. But we are prone to read our Bible atomistically, meaning taking individual verses and isolating them like a scientist might isolate an atom from a molecule or tissue. To understand what Paul is saying in 9:27, we must consider the context, and it begins at 8:1. In that section, he’s thinking about their question – previously written to him – of whether one should eat food that had been previously offered to idols. Imagine if every Texas Road House and Outback Steakhouse in our town was located right next to a pagan temple. Paul’s base point: you are saved by grace – you thus are free to eat that meat, because that idol is nothing. However, if your freedom causes your brother to sin, then give up the right given you by grace, and don’t eat at Corinthian Road House.
Then he expands on this theme of giving up our rights in chapter 9. He essentially says, give up your rights for your brother or sister in Corinth, because this is how I was with you. I’ve become a slave of all (9:19), that I may win some of them. He does all things for the sake of the gospel, that he may share with others in the gospel’s blessings (9:23).
So the immediate context is the sacrificing of our own rights given us in the gospel, for the sake of winning others. And he will pick up this same theme again in chapter 10, v. 15, and carry it all the way through to 11:1. When he says in 10:31,
“31 So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
the context is not letting the enjoyment of your freedoms in grace become a stumbling block to others. To do all things for the glory of God has as much as anything here to do with giving up our rights that others may be won – that God would be glorified in them, not us.
But more to your question: in the middle, in 9:24-10:14, it seems he is giving a parenthetical qualification. In shorthand, he’s saying, “I’ve given you the first ditch here – enjoying your freedom in grace with no regard for others. But there is another: Don’t you DARE think that by me saying that an idol is nothing, that I am saying that you can take idolatry LIGHTLY! Those are two different things! Shall we take idolatry LIGHTLY? Absolutely not!”
Thus in 9:27, he’s still thinking of HOW he does 9:19-23 – how he gives up his rights to win others. But now he’s also thinking about that other ditch. Again, the first ditch is enjoying my freedom from the grace that is in Christ will-nilly, disconnected from the mission of God, and disconnected from consideration for my brother or sister in Christ. But the other ditch would be to live a triumphalist mindset. “Triumphalist” meaning this thought: “Since Christ triumphed over the grave and sin and death at the cross and the empty tomb, idolatry can no longer touch me. Idolatry has no remaining potential effect upon me, and upon my very eternal trajectory.”
So Paul fights this triumphalist thinking in 10:11: after reciting the wilderness generation’s idolatry and rejection by God, he says, remember their example. Of course idolatry can still affect your eternal trajectory! So don’t let it. While you are enjoying grace, you must at the same time discipline your body (9:27) and take heed how you live (10:11), where you step, and what you desire, that the objects of your desires not be evil (10:6).
Those who are in Christ are in Him ALL by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ’s work alone. Yet in God’s infinite wisdom we continue to walk through a war zone of temptation and trials. And while we are saved by faith, we also endure by faith: we endure those temptations and trials by faith that God is faithful in His sovereign bounding of those temptations (10:13); and that He will sovereignly provide the way to endure through the temptation or trial. You darn well better take idolatry seriously, Paul says, while, ironically at the same time, treating it as nothing, in the victory of Christ.
So to your question, is he speaking of salvation, in 9:27? Yes. But what exactly about salvation? Clearly, he’s saying that it is possible to preach the gospel to others, and yet at the end hear Christ say, “Depart from me, I never knew you.” That’s possible. It’s also possible to live one’s life enjoying the grace of God with complete disregard of those around you, which could lead to the same result. Both are eternally destructive ditches. Both therefore require a life lived with discipline and self-control, lest we find ourselves disqualified for the imperishable crown (9:25), having lived aimlessly (9:26). But the question remains, where does this disciplined self-control come from? Are we capable of producing it.
Enter the grace of God, given as a gift (1:4), that enriches us, that we may walk in His ways. To see with new eyes, and want what we should want – that’s the saving miracle, and a work of God, received by faith. All that we need, and all that God requires of us, God is faithful to provide us, by grace (1:9). Yet all who have that saving miracle within them will demonstrate it by hearing Paul’s words here in chapters 8-10, and responding affirmatively to them. That is, they will enjoy grace, in joyful confidence that idolatry is nothing. And yet they will discipline themselves to freely give up their rights of freedom for others, as Christ did for us, that those other ones might not be lost to idolatry. But secondly, and concurrently, we will take idolatry in ourselves as seriously as our soldiers in Afghanistan took roadside bombs. We don’t want others lost, nor ourselves. The authentic Christian life is empowered by God’s grace to be lived for others and God, in disciplined self-control, in order to endure to the end.
Now, to the underlying question – can we get to the end and find out that you or I am disqualified – this requires more Scripture than this one. My larger point above is to show that 1 Cor. 9:27 does not carry all the freight one might ask it to. It carries the freight of what I’ve discussed above, not the question of “eternal security”.
The short of it, from the rest of Scripture: those who are called will endure to the end, because God in Christ holds them to the end:
John 6:39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40 For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.
It is all a gift, the giving of the offer, the receipt of the offer, and the holding until the end:
John 10:27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.
Now, it is important to note that God uses means to hold us until the end: those who are called will endure in part by hearing biblical exhortations like the one you’re asking about, at the end of 1 Cor. 9, and they will evidence their calling by responding accordingly. And those whom God does not call won’t, and they will evidence that by ignoring or disregarding these passages. Thus, God uses self-reflection also as a means to keep us. We should reflect on ourselves. But then look up again. Self-reflection is only a means to diagnose where we need to see Christ more clearly.
But the thing to note is how God doesn’t just make us robots – He transforms us and makes us want what we should want. Notice how Paul evidences this good desire in 1 Cor. 9:27, in how he desires to not be disqualified from Christ in the end. Consider the possibility that you even asking the question is evidence that you have the same desire as Paul. And I’m sure you would also echo with him Phil. 3:12. Note the order of logic there: we press on to take hold of the upward call of God in Christ, because, in confidence of, Christ has already taken hold of us – and He will not let go.