I Got this Tattoo to Share the Gospel

The following might be a familiar scenario: After noticing a new addition to your Christian friend’s arm, you couldn’t help but ask what inspired him to pay money to a stranger to stain his skin with a tool forged in the pits of Mordor.

(Can you tell I hate needles?)

The response might have gone something like this, “I got this tattoo to share the gospel with other people that have tattoos.”

It’s important to state that not every believer that gets a tattoo does so for this reason, but many do. And some believers do other things in order to “share the gospel,” like attend certain parties, drink certain beverages, abuse certain substances, or even talk in certain ways. It’s all “sacrificial,” some argue, in order to reach people with the gospel. After all, Paul said, “I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. I do all things for the sake of the gospel” (1 Cor 9:22-23).

The question must be asked, however, “Are there things a believer shouldn’t do in order to reach people with the gospel?” In other words, is there some kind of limit to the phrase “all things”?


Contextually, it’s important to know that Paul’s statement has limits. This is to say that, while Paul’s declaration of becoming “all things to all people” cites various lengths he has gone in order to share the gospel with unbelievers, it also cites lines he was unwilling to cross.

Since Paul’s statement is a reflection of his missionary journeys, it’s best to consider some of his experiences as described in Acts. Doing so will help us understand how far we should and shouldn’t go in order to share the gospel.


Towards the end of Acts, Paul has stirred up a reputational controversy concerning his opinion of the Jews. This is to say that many of the Jews, especially those in Jerusalem, were extremely upset at Paul because of the rumor that he was bemoaning their practices. In fact, they were so upset that if they ever happened to see him, they would not hesitate to harm him. This is why he was consistently warned that “bonds and afflictions await [him]” in Jerusalem (Acts 20:23). The Tyre believers warned him of this (21:4). The prophet Agabus warned him of this (21:11). The Jerusalem believers warned him of this (21:20-21). And the Holy Spirit himself warned him of this (20:23). Thus, when Paul arrived in Jerusalem, he was greeted by a group of believers eager to help him cultivate a better reputation among the Jews.

This is where we begin to learn an extraordinary lesson as to what it means to be “all things to all people.”

The Jerusalem believers encouraged Paul, in order to demonstrate his reverence for the Jewish Law and spare him of a potential beating, to associate himself with four men under the Nazarite Vow (Num 6). Paul obliged, revealing the fact that, “To the Jews [he] became as a Jew … to those who are under the Law, as under the Law” (1 Cor 9:20).

However, it’s vitally important to note that, although acting as a Jew “under the Law,” that Paul himself states that he was not “under the Law” (1 Cor 9:20). In other words, in this particular situation he was able to participate in a vow that honored the Jewish Law, but at the same time didn’t threaten the integrity of his relationship with Jesus, the one who is “the end of the Law” (Rom 10:4).

This is an important lesson, because it shows that Paul made sure that, in sharing the gospel, he didn’t alter the gospel.


Unfortunately, the act didn’t work. The Jews recognized Paul and stirred one another up to do exactly what the Spirit had warned–bind him. Eventually a Roman soldier intervened and pulled Paul from the mob. Just when he was about to be taken into the barracks, Paul spoke to the commander, asking, “May I say something to you.” The catch is that he did this in Greek, the commander’s language. The commander was obviously impressed, asking, “Do you know Greek?”

Paul informed the commander that he was a Jew of Tarsus in Cilicia. He then requested that he have an opportunity to speak to the people. The commander granted it, and Paul begins speaking, but this time in a Hebrew dialect. The response is interesting, for the crowd, after hearing him speak in a Hebrew dialect, “became … quiet” (Acts 22:2).

This is all to say that Paul was wisely keyed in to his audience. He spoke Greek to the Romans and Hebrew to the Jews. Thus, when each of the audiences heard him speak, they were more eager to listen than if he spoke in a foreign dialect, not necessarily because they wouldn’t have understood it, but because they appreciated and respected the hearing of their own language.

The message here is this: Paul was willing to become a lawful Jew to the Jews and a Greek to the Roman military, and in both cases he operated within the parameters of the gospel. This is to say that he didn’t threaten the integrity of the gospel in order to share the gospel, which is the epitome of becoming “all things to all people.”

The difference is that he contextualized the gospel, instead of compromising it.


The word “compromise” means that, in order to settle a difference, both parties give up something imperatively valuable in order to reach an agreement. On the contrary, the word “contextualize” means that, in order to settle a difference, both parties give up something valuable, but at least one of the parties doesn’t give up something imperatively valuable.

The idea is that the gospel should never be compromised, only contextualized.

Paul was unwilling to compromise his faith in Jesus in order to reach people with the gospel. Thus, you never see Paul saying, “to the drunks, I became a drunk … to the drug addicts, I became a drug addict.” Instead, you see Paul operating within the confines of the gospel. Like Jesus, he went to the “sinners and tax collectors,” but also like Jesus, he didn’t participate in their sin. (You never see Jesus sitting beside Matthew helping him collect taxes.)

This is what it means to contextualize the gospel: You meet people where they are, but expect them to alter their lives towards the gospel, instead of altering the gospel towards their lives.

Paul provides a perfect example of what it means to reach the lost with the gospel, while operating within the bounds of it. He was willing to forfeit his personal pleasures and methods in order to better reach the lost. To the lawful Jews he became a lawful Jew, but he did so within the confines of a voluntary vow that didn’t threaten the integrity of Jesus’ fulfillment of the Law. To the Greeks he emphasized the fulfillment of the Law in Jesus, freely forfeiting the traditions of the Law.

And through it all you never see Paul participating in sin in order to reach people living in sin. He became “all things” while not participating in all things.

Compromising the gospel means that you move the gospel in order to get people to believe in it. Contextualizing the gospel means that you move people in order to get them to believe in it. The former results in a redefined gospel that saves no one. The latter results in upholding the gospel that can save everyone.

Disclaimer: This post is not designed to suggest that tattoos are sinful or not sinful, which is another topic, only to suggest that we ought to be mindful with what we do and how we do it when discovering ways to contextualize the gospel.


  1. says

    “Contextualize” I do not think that means what you think it means. ( I keep using that movie quote on this blog!) Actually, your definition is workable and I appreciate that it stands apart from compromise. But actually, one can compromise without compromising something “imperatively valuable.”
    But hey, you were providing definitions so that we might contextualize (or maybe conceptualise) what it means to be “all things.”
    While Paul didn’t participate in drunkenness and the like in order to ‘relate’ to others, it is a fundamental truth, that all of us, save Jesus, are in fact sinners, and are already in that set of humans called sinners. The largest classifying set of humans to be sure. But part of the problem, as I see it, is we sometimes forget we are part of that set. YEs I know we have been redeemed, we have been changed, we are more than just ‘sinners saved by grace.’ We are a holy generation, peculiar and all that. But, we still sin.
    I don’t have to get a tatoo to contextualise myself among sinners. Now that subset of humans/sinners that are ‘tattooed sinners’ may not accept me into their context. But what if I loved them enough to just be a gratefully redeemed sinner among them.
    Or am I being to naive? Jesus didn’t get tattoos, listen to Pearl Jam, participate in gay pride day, as far as I know, in order to contextualise himself.
    HOWEVER, what if someone does get a tat, or listen to PJ, or even say something like, ‘under the US constitution gays have rights, too.’ And what if they gain an audience with even one person, even for a short time, and in that time share the gospel. Can I fault that?

      • says

        I used that line the other day in another blog. It can work so well!

        So, how would you define “contextualize” as opposed to “compromise”?

    • says

      I draw a distinction between ‘contextualization as marketing’ and ‘contextualization as communication’. Contextualization as marketing means you’re trying to make the gospel more attractive. Contextualization as communication means you’re trying to ensure that you’re communicating the gospel clearly, given the background and culture of those you’re communicating to. The latter has to be given priority, lest the former slide into compromise.

  2. says

    One more little thing: “You meet people where they are”. I recall hearing Dr Mohler some years ago say, “Meet people where they are? Where else can you meet them?” Always loved that.

  3. Andy says

    While I agree with almost everything in your article…I believe you have weakened your argument by beginning it with the illustration of tattoos.

    You have argued, correctly, that we must not participate in sin in order to reach those in sin…but your illustration is one that the Bible does NOT condemn as a sin.

    It would be like calling someone’s methods into question who decides the best way to reach cross-fitters is to join a cross-fit gym, then proceed to argue that we must not compromise the Gospel in reaching unbelievers, then add at the end, “Oh by the way, I’m not necessarily saying it’s a sin to do cross-fit.” It would have been been stronger to either leave the specifics up to the reader, or use an example of something that is demonstrably sinful.

    Again, I thought the article had very good exegesis and application after the first few paragraphs. I’m just trying to be helpful.

    • says

      Thanks Andy. I knew that would be an issue of contention, which is why I included the disclaimer at the end. I guess I could have switched it out for something more widely acceptable as a sin, like, “I got drunk last night to share the gospel.”

    • says

      Let me also add, though, that if you read it, it is used merely to introduce the topic of what we should or shouldn’t do in order to share the gospel, so I think it still works within the context of the overall post, especially since it talks about sinful and non-sinful lengths.

      • Andy says

        I do think I can share the Gospel without a tattoo, but were I an army chaplain in a platoon that all got a tattoo to honor a fallen comrad, I would have to think carefully whether I could better witness to the gospel by joining them, or by explaining why I wasn’t.

        Perhaps a more common application would be situations in which we are not necessarily DOING anything sinful in order to reach sinners, but joining them in SITUATIONS that might tempt us to sin, whether by commiting an abviously sinful act, or by doing something allowable i excess…for examples:

        -Joining a friend to watch the latest thriller movie that has a few racy scenes
        -Joining a friend who is going out for the purpose of getting drunk, while not planning to get drunk yourself.
        -Joining a friend for a night at the casino.
        -Joining a friend for a night of “cruizin” (knowing that he tends to call out to attractive women on the side of the road)
        -Going to a “party” where sinful things are going on, while not planning to participate in any of them yourself. (This one is big with teenagers).

        Anyway, thanks for the replies…

  4. Andy says

    Also…how do I get a picture by my comments instead of the “power button”?

  5. Dale Pugh says

    I can tell you what I would witness if I got a tattoo……….

    I would witness my wife’s wrath, which is a sight to behold and a dreadfully powerful experience. I don’t think so, Tim.

  6. Chris Johnson says

    Brother Jared,

    Good Post…. And I might add that the a priori position of the passage you’ve cited is that the Apostle Paul is dealing with the position of his attitude of being purchased as a slave. Something he understood as a result of being in Christ, and then projecting that understanding into his mission with the Gospel.

    “Paul provides a perfect example of what it means to reach the lost with the gospel, while operating within the bounds of it. He was willing to forfeit his personal pleasures and methods in order to better reach the lost.”

    I would say that Paul is more forceful than “forfeit”, being a stepping back. I believe he was intent on becoming a slave to all, so that some might be saved. So the force of his argument goes back upstream to verse 8.

    ” I am not speaking these things according to human judgment, am I?”

    Paul’s attitude was a positive affirmation of slavery…. He was running a race he knew he would win, because the winning was already accomplish. He didn’t see forfeit, but gain. Becoming all things is not a temporal matter (like tattoos per se), it was an attitude of the joy of slavery. Being all things from that point of view was not forfeiting, but gaining.

    The last thing on Paul’s mind would be getting a Tattoo for instance, but he sure would love being with the folks that had them, because the Christ of his slavery knows how love is dispensed.

    The entire passage is rich!!!!

    Thanks again for the post,

  7. says

    Thought provoking, for sure…

    In the context of 1 Corinthians 8, 9, and 10 Paul is handling liberty. He’s assert that to preach the gospel he was willing to give up liberty in order to win more.

    It appears that Paul is about giving up liberty not picking up liberty. He’s at liberty to ‘get a tattoo’ (maybe) but willing to not get a tattoo so that he doesn’t alienate the weak. Isn’t this why he says he’s willing to give up his liberty to eat meat in the market place that had been used in idol worship? Eating meat or not eating meat is not the issue… it’s the preaching of the gospel.

    I think this text is wrongly applied many times as reason to do something… isn’t it really about giving up a liberty in order to reach more and not doing something in order to reach more.

  8. volfan007 says

    “Preachers are not salesmen, for they have nothing to sell. They are bearers of Good News… that ‘Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.’ Money can’t buy it. Man’s righteousness can’t earn it…”
    —Billy Graham

  9. says

    I remember to this day a story that i first heard less than a year after I was saved. And it is still one of the most powerful testimonies I have ever heard.

    This was in my “mega” church youth group (a non-denominational church…my pre SBC days) and the youth minister was showing a video. He had taken a camera down to the U-City Loop (if you are from or know about the St Louis area you know what I am talking about….for those who are not, think of the “hip” area of town where you are). His intention was to show the youth about street evangelism, and how to talk to people and ask them about Christ, but also to show how most people would react negatively, and thus prepare the youth for that when it happens. The first few conversations go by quickly but then something interesting happens.

    The camera picks up this big guy (6+ feet tall, over 300 lbs) decked out in leather biker gear. The youth minister, on camera, says something like, “this guy will be interesting, lets go get him!” They go up to this guy and just ask, “Excuse me, but do you know Jesus Christ as your savior?”

    The guy looks at them, says “DO I!?!?!” and then quickly pulls up his sleeve, and there on his “massive” bicep, is a full face portrait of Jesus. The guy breaks into a big smile, and with out giving the youth minister a chance to say anything, the man launches into his testimony.

    Apparently he was not always a “good guy”. He was a prototypical biker. Hard life, drugs, alcohol, violence, women, ect. But he reached a very dark place in his life, and just as he was about to kill himself, someone told him about Jesus. It turned his life around. He got rid of all his “bad” tattoos, and replaced them with Christian based messages, like the Jesus face. And he dedicated his life to going back with those same biker people he was apart of, and sharing the Gospel with them. I kid you not, this man’s smile did not leave his face the entire time the camera was on him.

    After the video was done, the youth pastor admitted that he had intended to approach the guy with the assumption and intent of showing what a real “bad” unbeliever was like. And this rocked HIS world.

    I think this gets to the heart of the contextualization debate. If I, a goodie-too-shoes type white city boy with a small streak of redneck country boy in me tried to get tattoos and go reach the biker crowd, I would fail miserably. BUT this man, who was apart of this crowd, who changed his tattoos to show his love for Christ, was a successful evangelist into that group. I think the biggest trick with contextualizaiton is honesty. People should not try to “fake” who they are. Unbelievers can spot fakes a mile away. But, for those who are truly called to reach certain groups, especially if they themselves are apart of that group (whether it is ethnic, socio-economic, cultural, ect) then “blending in”, whether it is tattoos, clothes, ect is not wrong.

    • Tarheel says

      Yep, Ben. If there were I’d hit it at least three times after that post!

      Thanks for sharing that, SV!

  10. says

    These days I generally just read the posts here at SBC Voices and don’t say much, but I wanted to touch on something from your post. I think you should reexamine your assessment of Paul’s actions in Acts 21. Paul didn’t go with the four other Jewish believers under the Nazirite vow to try and “hoodwink” the Jews into thinking he was still a faithful Torah-keeping Jew himself. He did it because he was in fact, fulfilling a Nazirite vow that he had made before he ever got to Jerusalem. Check out Acts 18:18

    After this, Paul stayed many days longer and then took leave of the brothers and set sail for Syria, and with him Priscilla and Aquila. At Cenchreae he had cut his hair, for he was under a vow.

    Your notion that Paul was no longer obedient to the Law and perhaps taught other Jews to do the same is what James says in Acts 21:21-24 is a “false charge” against Paul. Based on the evidence from Acts 18:18 that shows Paul undertook this vow long before heading to Jerusalem and the statement of James, I think you should take another look at your premises.