RPM, Volume 13, Number 44, October 30 to November 5, 2011

1 Corinthians 9:24-27

A Sermon

By Scott Lindsay

This morning we are continuing with our study of Paul's first Letter to the Corinthians, picking up at verse 24 of chapter 9 and working through to verse 27 of that same chapter. If you have been with us in recent weeks, then you will know that we are in that section of Paul's letter in which he is responding to a number of questions that the Corinthian congregation have put to him, on a variety of different subjects.

Beginning in chapter 8:1, Paul began his response to questions they had evidently asked about the matter of eating food that had been offered to idols. And from the nature of what he says, it seems that there were a number of different aspects of this situation about which they were inquiring. And so, Paul takes a bit of time to respond to these things. As a result, his reply to them on this subject extends all the way from chapter 8 verse 1 to chapter 11 verse 1 - a fairly significant sized section compared to the rest of the letter.

The reason for such an extensive treatment of what may seem, on the surface, a fairly specific and even obscure sort of issue is simply because at the heart of this issue are some very significant matters related to freedom and rights and love and sacrifice and self-control.

So, after giving an initial response to them on the question of eating idol food in an idol's temple, Paul, in chapter 9, holds himself up as an example of someone who has done and continues to do the very thing that he wants the Corinthians to do in their treatment of one another - namely, to be willing to forego their rights for a greater good.

In the passage before us this morning - 9:24-27 - Paul is bringing his use of personal example to an end by appealing to the Corinthians to exercise the same sort of self-control that athletes must exercise in order to win. We'll have a closer look at that in a moment, but first, let's approach God together in prayer....

Lord of Heaven, we thank you that in your wisdom you have given us your word, in general, and this portion of your word, in particular. Even before we understand what it means, we know that it is good because it comes to us from a God who is Holy and Just. Give us an understanding of these things by your Holy Spirit, and help us to see the practical implications of them so they function as the sure guide that you intend them to be. And may all of these things be done to your glory, in Christ's name. Amen.
It is one thing to be IN a race. It is quite another to win that race, or even finish it. Paul knows this only too well. And because Paul knows that being IN a race does not guarantee winning, or even finishing, he calls the Corinthians to exercise self-control.

(Read 1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

Now if you had been sitting in the Corinthian congregation, listening as someone read to you this letter, then the moment you heard Paul talking about sports, and athletics and running, and things like that, you would have thought of the Isthmian Games, which occurred every two years in that particular region. They were a fairly big deal at the time and would have been a familiar image for anyone growing up in Corinth. Everybody had seen Isthmian athletes in training. Everybody watched the games. As a result, Paul's use of athletic imagery would have been readily received by them. But what is Paul's point here?

Well, let's think, firstly, about what is NOT Paul's point - what he isn't saying. Paul is not saying or suggesting here that only one person is going to "finish" the "Christian race", so to speak, or that living the Christian life involves some sort of competition between Christians. To be sure, he talks about winning, but only because it illustrates the value of something else he is going to emphasize in these verses.

So ,Paul's point at this stage is simply to say that entry into a race, being in a race does not guarantee any sort of outcome for the runner. A person could sign up for a race, show up for a race, and even be there when the "gun" goes off. But as soon as it does, that person might casually stroll ahead while others tear off as fast as they can. That person might stop altogether. That person might even turn around, and start walking the other direction. Entry into a race does not guarantee a prize, or even finishing - either in athletics or in Christianity. To put it another way, there is no automatic connection between being entered in a race and winning or between running and winning.

The reason Paul uses such a metaphor as this is because there were a number of people in the Corinthian church who were counting on some special experience - namely, baptism and the Lord's Supper - to save them. They looked upon these things not only as signs that they were "in" the Christian race - so to speak - but also took them as a guarantee that they were going to finish - and finish well, that in the end they were going to be found to have "won".

In other words, they had developed this strange idea that being or becoming a Christian was all about something that happened to you. Once it happened to you - once you had this sort of confirming experience - then you were in. What your life consisted of outside of these experiences was not important. The manner of your life, the pattern of your life was not a thing to be concerned about - only these certain experiences.

Now, we're going to look at this issue a little more closely in chapter 10 of Corinthians but we see it here in chapter 9 as well. And if we fast forward the clock a great deal, it is not too hard to see how this situation that Paul addressed so long ago is still very much on the radar screen in our own day. Many people today have a very similar sort of outlook. They look back to the fact that they were baptized or "confirmed" at some point in their life. They look back to a time when they felt really badly or were broken and ashamed over something in their life and, in the midst of that shame, cried out to God. Or some look back to a meeting they once attended where they were asked to raise their hand "with every head bowed and every eye closed" (which, can I just say, is a deeply unbiblical practice and, in fact, a very harmful one) - but some look back to these such things as intense, emotional times when something happened to them. And they look back at these things and rely upon them as the ground of their assurance with regard to their standing with God.

But what does Paul say to the Corinthians? He says that all sorts of people run in a race, but only one wins. In other words, Paul is saying that it doesn't matter that you can look back at some point and say, "See, there is when I entered the race." What matters, says Paul, is not if at some point you entered the race, but rather whether you are STILL running like a person who intends to win it. Yes, you may have started well, but that is not the issue. The issue is: are you running well today? Don't tell me about some time in the past when you had this great experience, tell me: Are you running hard NOW?

Now why does Paul emphasize this? He does it because being a Christian is not merely something that happens to you, it is something that happens in you. He emphasizes it because Paul knows that those who are truly saved have a "resident alien" - so to speak - that comes to dwell within them known as the Holy Spirit of God. Paul emphasizes this because he knows that the Spirit of God will not enter a person's life and be content to simply let them stroll through the race, or stop, or turn around and leave it altogether. As John Piper says,

....the race of life has eternal consequences, not because grace is nullified by the way we run, but because grace is VERIFIED by the WAY we run....life is a proving ground for whether [a person's] faith is alive or dead...
Because being IN a race does not guarantee winning, or even finishing the race, Paul calls the Corinthians to exercise self-control and to run like a person who intends to win.

That's the first reason why Paul calls them to exercise self-control. The second reason why he calls for self control is because the prize for which they are running is not a temporary one, but is an eternal, imperishable one.

(Read 1 Corinthians 9:25b-26)

In the Isthmian Games the winner received a wreath made of interwoven pine branches, which is certainly a far cry from the prizes awarded to Olympic athletes in our own time. Within a matter of days, their wreath was drying out and, in a short time, would become increasingly fragile and brittle and would, eventually, disintegrate before their eyes.

Over against that sort of reward Paul says that what lies ahead for the self-controlled, disciplined Christian is a prize that never fades or crumbles; which is neither lost nor destroyed. What is this prize or reward? The context does not clarify or specify, but the Greek word here is typically translated "crown". And if you look at how that word is used by Paul in other places - and there are only a handful of them - then what you see is that in every other place he talks about crowns he is referring either to another person - or group of people - as his "crown" or reward OR he is talking about the full reception, later on, of something which he has already received from Christ, in part, like, e.g., righteousness.

Whichever way you go, it does not seem likely that he is referring here to a literal crown or to some sort of material prize. And, at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter. What matters is that, whatever it is, it is experienced and received AS a prize, as something far better than any material reward.

So, Paul's point to the Corinthians is simply that of lesser versus greater. If athletes will kill themselves and go through great hardship and exercise tremendous self-control to win a prize that lasts a few weeks, how much more willing ought the Corinthians be to exercise that same sort of discipline and self-control for a far greater prize?

This is the challenge for God's people today, isn't it? -- to exercise that same sort of self-control and discipline. And what will it take to do that? It will take faith - tremendous faith - won't it? It takes tremendous faith to persevere and strive for a prize that you cannot see, that is so far in front of you that you can't picture it. And yet we see this principle in operation all around us, all the time, don't we? Everywhere we turn there are examples after examples of people who a long time before they could see the reward were doggedly, steadfastly in pursuit of it. And for them to pursue it in that manner was an act of faith on their part to do so.

We see this illustrated in the field of sports. We see it illustrated in the field of science. We see it illustrated in the Arts. All over the place are examples of people who, in faith and hope, for a future reward that was so far away they couldn't see it, nevertheless persisted in self-control and discipline.

Paul sees the same process of striving toward a goal in action in the Christian life - only with far greater consequences and far more serious implications. Because the prize before the athlete is a perishable one, but the prize before the Christian is an imperishable one. And because of that, Paul calls the Corinthians to self-control.

Thirdly, and finally, Paul calls the Corinthians to self-control - not only because anyone can enter a race, but only one wins, and not only because the prize before them is an imperishable one, but also because, frankly, he does not want them to be disqualified in the end.

(Read 1 Corinthians 9:26-27)

In his closing remarks here, Paul uses a couple different sports images. I'm quite certain that if football had been invented Paul would have used football illustrations - but it wasn't so he uses images from two different sports - running and boxing. And the point he is making is fairly obvious. Using himself as an example again, Paul is simply saying that he too must exercise self- control and discipline in his own life. He is saying that he is purposeful and determined in his pursuit of God. He is not merely wandering aimlessly, he is not merely rehearsing or practicing - this is the real thing, and he knows it, and he goes for it like it IS the real thing.

The reason he gives for doing so is one which might surprise you a bit, given that Paul is, after all, an Apostle. But the reason he gives for running so hard, and for being so purposeful and determined and disciplined is because he does not want to personally become a living illustration of the very thing he is warning the Corinthians about. And in saying these things, Paul shows that, as always, his feet are firmly planted on the ground. Paul shows here that he has a firm, sane grasp of the waywardness of his own heart. Is Paul, then, suggesting that he might actually be "disqualified" from the Christian race? Is he suggesting that he might not persevere to the end? Does Paul see this as a real threat?

In a word, YES, I think he does. Why? Because Paul knows that even for him, even for one who was an apostle, the race before him is a race of self-control and discipline. In short, Paul highlights here the biblical reality that reformed theologians have summarized in various ways as "the perseverance of the saints" - the "P" in the infamous "TULIP" acrostic associated with reformed theology.

In other words, the thing that Paul will go on to warn the Corinthians of in chapter 10, verse 12, he first applies to himself here. Listen to Piper again:

Paul will warn the Corinthians in the next chapter, ‘Let anyone who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.' Now Paul applies it to himself. ‘If I do not take heed, if I give way to some of the impulses of my body, I could find myself on the slippery slope of disobedience away from Christ, and get to the end of my life and hear the judge of the race say, ‘Dis-qualified! Yes, you prophesied in my name. Yes, you cast out demons in my name. Yes, you did many mighty works in my name. But you left the race track of faith, love and righteousness....Depart from me....I never knew you...
Christians today need to take these realities to heart and understand them well because at the root of this whole matter is the issue of Christian assurance. Can a Christian be assured of their salvation? The short answer is, "Yes". The qualified answer is "Yes, but not in a vacuum." Because a deeper question is "What is the ground of the Christian's assurance?"

The answer to that is really a two-part answer. On the one hand, and ultimately of course, the ground of any Christian assurance is the Cross of Christ - the objective, accomplished work of Christ on the cross.

However, the knowledge of that alone will not bring assurance. Grasping that fact in itself will not tell me whether or not I, personally, am a beneficiary of what Christ has done. How does a person know that? What does Paul say? "I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified."

If all that a person can do is look back to a time when they intellectually grasped the significance of Christ's life and death, if all a person can do is look back to some emotionally intense experience but there is nothing in their life pattern or track record to show that it is a genuine and continuing reality today - it that is all a person has, then such a person has no right to feel assured and, indeed, may be found in the end to be "disqualified" - to use Paul's language.

Which brings us back to where we started. Because entering or running the race is no guarantee of finishing the race. It is no guarantee that one won't, in the end, be found disqualified. What is it that demonstrates a person's disqualification? The fact that they don't keep running the race, and running it hard.

We all know heart-breaking stories of people who seemed to have been in the race, who seemed to have been running for quite a long time. And some of these people were very involved, very active, even very influential. And then something happens. Some tragedy occurs, some un-expected turn in the road and they fall away and never return again. What are we to make of these things? Is that a sign that people can lose their salvation, that Christ's grasp upon them is perhaps not as firm as we thought?

Of course not. Paul is not suggesting here that a person can lose his/her salvation. But he is saying very clearly that for some people their apparent salvation is only that - apparent, but not real. He is saying that for some people their lack of genuine conversion takes a while to show up.

It's crucial that we understand these things. Because the biblical answer to the question, "How can I know that I am truly saved?" is not, "Because I took hold of Christ 15 years ago", or something like that, but rather, because Christ still has hold of me today. The biblical teaching is that all those who are truly his will give persistent evidence that this is so. The manner in which they run today is the way of the runner who intends to win - with self-control and discipline.

What disturbed Paul about the Corinthian situation - which is why he says what he says here - is that they were a people who were looking back at what had happened to them to confirm and assure them of their standing with God. And yet, in the midst of all their certainty, many of them were acting like people who did not know God. They were acting in very un- loving ways toward one another - especially in this matter of eating food offered to idols in an idol temple.

In their response to this matter, many of them were showing a hardness of heart and a lack of love that, frankly, alarmed Paul and which, the longer they persisted in it, would render their alleged Christianity more and more doubtful. And so Paul reminds them here, that it is not enough to be able to look back and identify some point, or some experience that shows where and when you started running the race. What is important is - does the manner of your running NOW, show that you are really in this race, that you are really running hard, that you intend to not only finish, but to win? Or does your manner now show that, in fact, you are disqualified. Paul asks himself these questions and applies these things to himself here because he wants the Corinthians to do the same.

This is what God's people today must do, when confronted by this text. This passage pushes us to ask the question whether we are merely looking back at something that once happened to US, or is their on-going evidence that something has happened not merely "to us" but in us? The issue is not, whether or not you had a good run once, but rather how are you running NOW? If the apostle Paul - an Apostle mind you - scrutinized himself in this way - ought we not do the same? Is this not the same Paul from whom we gather our understanding of the Gospel - and yet he asks himself these very hard questions, and maintains these genuine concerns about his own life?

Again, does this mean that we can't have assurance? No, it doesn't mean that at all. But it does mean that we cannot have cheap assurance. We cannot have assurance in a vacuum. Yes, God's people struggle, and will continue to struggle with sin. But that is the key word - struggle. It is not the person who merely falls who should be concerned, it is the person who falls and can't see any reason to get up, who should be concerned.

The person who is not persevering, the person who is not exercising self-control, whose appetites are not under control, but are controlling him, the person who can live comfortably with a state of sin, or has "made his peace" with that sin, who is content with a life of aimlessly running the race - Paul is saying here that such a person has no right to assurance and, indeed, should be greatly concerned. As Pratt says,

Paul....was aware that even he could fall away from Christ and prove that he had never truly been regenerated. Paul knew that the prize is received only by those who endure to the end....
Well, a person might say, "I am persevering now. But how do I know that I will persevere to the end." And the best way I can answer that, is to ask another question: Are you persevering today? The best clue, the clearest indicator, that you will persevere tomorrow, is the fact that you are persevering today. And persevering, doesn't mean a person has a perfect track record - far from it. But it does mean that a person continues to strive after holiness, continues to repent and believe the Gospel. Continuing in the struggle is a good indicator of genuine faith.

Well then, when Paul talks about thing like "being disqualified" is Paul saying here that he doubts God? Of course not. Doubting God is preposterous. But doubting your own heart is deeply sane and will serve you well as you run this race with self-control and discipline, with faith and in hope.

Father in heaven, I pray this morning, that the faith of your people - your church - would be strengthened. But I pray that the ground of that strength and assurance is not merely in some event that took place a long time ago, not merely in some ritual or experience, but that it would be bolstered by the evidence that we see - today - of your Spirit's on- going work with us. Father we see our own hearts, and the sin that remains within us, and it can often be discouraging. And yet we thank you for that fact - that it IS discouraging. That there is something within us that looks at the mess and is not content with it, that longs for something more, that hopes for something better. We thank you for this struggle that reminds us that we ARE in the race. And Lord would you continually spur us on, through our life, and through the encouragements of other believers, to pursue you, running hard, running with self-control. Would you draw us forward by the irresistible beauty of Christ - the beautiful lover that captures our hearts and causes all other appetites and desires to fade by comparison. Slay us by your love and grace so that we pursue you like a runner, running for the prize. And bring us safely to the end, persevere us until we find ourselves, one day, in your very presence. In Christ's name we ask this, Amen.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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