And I do all things for the sake of the gospel, that I may become a fellow partaker of it. Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. And everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:23–27 NASB)
What we saw from this text last week was that the Christian life is like a race and like a fight. It is like running and boxing. Even more important we saw that the way we run and the way we fight make a difference in whether we have a share in the gospel (verse 23; see Romans 1:16), and whether we seize the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (verse 24; see Philippians 3:14), and whether we gain the crown of righteousness and life (verse 25; see 2 Timothy 4:7–8), or whether we are disqualified from the race (verse 27; see 2 Corinthians 13:5).
Hanging in the Balance
In other words, life is not a game with no lasting consequences. The way we live our lives has eternal consequences. Life is a proving ground where we prove who we are, whom we trust, and what we cherish. Eternal life, the upward call, the crown of righteousness — all these hang on what our life says about who we are, whom we trust, and what we love.
“Life is not a game with no lasting consequences. The way we live our lives has eternal consequences.”
Make no mistake here! Life is not a place for proving to God or anybody your strength. Life is a place for proving whose strength you trust — man’s or God’s. Life is not a place for proving the power of your intelligence to know truth. It’s a place for proving the power of God’s grace to show truth (Matthew 16:17). Life is not a field for demonstrating the force of our will to make good choices. It’s a field for showing how the beauty of Christ takes us captive and constrains us to choose and run for his glory.
The race of life has eternal consequences not because we are saved by works, but because Christ has saved us from dead works to serve the living and true God with Olympic passion (Hebrews 9:14).
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. “By the grace of God I am what I am and his grace toward me was not in vain, but I labored [I ran, I fought] more exceedingly than all, yet it was not I but the grace of God which was with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10). Paul’s running did not nullify the purpose of grace; it verified the power of grace.
Eternal life hangs on the way we run and the way we fight not because salvation is based on the merit of works, but because faith without works is dead (James 2:26). Life is a proving ground for whether faith is alive or dead — a proving ground for whom we trust.
The Power and the Prize
Let me drive this home with the way Paul describes how he runs his race in Philippians 3:12. This is utterly crucial for how you run for the prize of the upward call of God. Here Paul makes explicit the relationship between running in order to obtain (which makes life serious), and running because we have been obtained (which makes life secure).
Not that I have already obtained it [the resurrection], or have already become perfect, but I press on in order that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus.
This is the utterly unique thing about the way a Christian runner runs: we run not as though we see Jesus the judge at the end merely scrutinizing while we rely on ourselves for strength; but we run as those who have already been taken hold of by Jesus for the prize. We run to win the prize in the power of having been taken hold of for the prize.
Hebrews 12:2–3 puts it like this:
Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus [in what sense?] as the author and perfecter of our faith [as one who is involved in the race, creating and completing the race of faith], who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
In other words, we run to obtain eternal life (1 Timothy 6:12) because we have already been obtained for eternal life. And our running for it is the proof that we have been obtained for it.
God’s Foundational Work
Remember all of last spring’s messages on the foundations of full assurance. We have been obtained by God’s sovereign election before the foundation of the earth (Ephesians 1:4). We have been obtained by his predestination to adoption (Ephesians 1:5). We have been obtained by the reconciling death of his Son while we were still sinners (Romans 5:6–10). We have been obtained by regeneration and effectual calling (1 Corinthians 1:24; 1 John 5:1). We have been obtained by the indwelling, sealing work of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13; 4:30).
“Our running for eternal life is the proof that we have been obtained for eternal life.”
On the basis of this massive work of God in Christ to obtain us apart from any initiatives of our own, Paul now says here in 1 Corinthians 9:24, “Run that you may obtain the prize,” namely, the prize for which you have been obtained. God has not saved you to sit in the stands. God has not saved you to lie on the track. God has not saved you sit on the edge of the pool with your feet in the water. God has saved you to spend yourself for the glory of his Son (Philippians 1:20). “You are not your own. You were bought with a price. Glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19–20). The point of salvation is to make the glory of God visible in the universe.
That’s what this text is about: the running and fighting that glorifies God — that demonstrates that he is real and worthy and precious and powerful and pure and loving and holy and satisfying. Running and fighting are all about revealing who Christ is for us and who we are in him and how precious the prize of eternal life with him is to us.
Racing to Victory
So let’s look briefly at how then we should run.
First, Paul says in verse 24, “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win.”
The point here is not that only one Christian wins the prize of the upward call of God. As a matter of fact in the Christian race one of the rules is that you must help others finish (Hebrews 3:13). Finishing the race is a community project. The point is not that there is only one winner. The point is: run the way the winner runs.
How does the winner run? He runs hard. He gives the race everything he has. In another place Paul says, “Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord” (Romans 12:10). This is the way we are to run in our service for Christ: with zeal and fervent in the Spirit. Not lazy or idle or sluggish or unconcerned.
All Your Strength
When Jonathan Edwards was a student at Yale 270 years ago he wrote seventy resolutions to stir him up to run his race. One of them catches the spirit of verse 24. He wrote: “Resolved: to live with all my might while I do live.” “With all my might.” It’s the practical outworking of the great commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” (Deuteronomy 6:5). “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might” (Ecclesiastes 9:10).
The New Testament is full of ways to say this. “Strive to enter by the narrow gate” (Luke 13:24). “Labor for the food that endures to eternal life” (John 6:27). “Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the word of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 15:58). “Let us not be weary in well-doing, for we shall reap if we do not faint” (Galatians 6:9). “Redeem the time, for the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15). “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). “Christ gave himself to purify for himself a people zealous for good deeds” (Titus 2:14). “Show earnestness in realizing the full assurance of hope to the end” (Hebrews 6:11). “Love one another earnestly from the heart” (1 Peter 1:22).
Strive, labor, abound, be zealous, be earnest. Run like the winner runs. Be done with half-heartedness and laziness and lukewarmness. Christ has laid hold on you for this very thing. You do not do it in your own strength. You strive and labor and abound and love in the strength that he supplies so that in everything he gets the glory (1 Peters 4:11).
I think that’s the gist of verse 24. It’s a call for Christian zeal. Now Paul gets more specific about the way a winner keeps himself in condition for running.
Verse 25: “And everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.”
“The serious athlete asks, ‘What will bring about maximum performance?’ So the mature Christian asks, “What will make me most useful for the kingdom?’”
In Galatians 5:22, Paul tells us that this discipline of self-control is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. So “self-control” is not ultimately control by the self but by the Spirit. We experience it usually as control by our own will, but in fact it is God in us willing and working his own good pleasure (Philippians 2:13). The spiritual power of self-control happens when we believe the promise of the word of God that greater joy will come through self-denial, and when we trust the Spirit of God to give us strength, and when we seek the glory of God as the outcome of our victory.
What Paul is saying here is that there are impulses that we have to control if we are going to run like a winner and receive the crown of righteousness. The impulses we have to control are the impulses to do things that will weaken our zeal for God, our earnestness in prayer, our hunger for Scripture, our longing to love, our passion for holiness.
The serious athlete doesn’t ask about how to just get by in his training. He asks about what will bring about maximum performance. So the mature Christian asks, what will make me most useful for the kingdom? What will stir up my zeal for God most? What will intensify my earnestness in prayer? What will trigger more hunger for God’s word? What will strengthen my longing to love? What will fan the flames of my passion for holiness?
And then the Christian takes note of all the impulses and all the habits and practices of his life that weaken his zeal for God and his joy of faith, and he sets about to take control of them and put them out of his life.
Battling Your Body
Paul communicates the severity of this self-control in verses 26 and 27. Here he could hardly be more out of sync with contemporary American life: “ . . . I box in such a way as not beating the air, but I buffet my body and make it my slave.” The body is not evil in itself. God created it. And he will raise it from the dead to exist forever. But the body is the base of operations for sin, and sin uses it to give rise to many impulses that are destructive to spiritual life.
Therefore, Paul says that when he exercises self-control, it is like boxing, and the enemy to be struck is the body, and when he swings, he does not miss and hit the air. He connects, and pommels his body, and makes it his slave. He will not be mastered by the appetites and impulses and cravings and lethargy of the body. “The body is for the Lord” (1 Corinthians 6:13). So Paul means to make his body serve the glory of the Lord.
This is exactly the spirit of Jesus when he said, If your eye leads you to sin, pluck it out, or if your hand leads you to sin, cut it off. For it’s better to enter eternal life blind in one eye and maimed in one hand than to go to hell with both (Matthew 5:29–30). Paul said, It’s better to beat my body into submission than to be disqualified from the race.
Now gouging out the eye does not overcome lust, and cutting off the hand does not conquer theft or battery. The point is: fight these impulses with that kind of seriousness. Both Jesus and Paul mean, There are impulses that must be put to death. And the fight to put them to death is like a boxing match with direct blows to the face.
The Church’s Mission
Now all this is tremendously relevant to the mission of this church and your part in it. There are days of suffering ahead for the confessing church in America. The price of faithfulness to God’s word in a hostile society and worldly church is increasing almost daily. Not only that, the price of taking the love of Christ to the unreached peoples of the world in the midst of centuries of Satanic darkness will not be without persecution and martyrdom.
“We will not love each other the way Christ loved us until we learn to buffet the body the way he did in the garden of Gethsemane.”
And one thing is certain: the human body will say no to this suffering. The body will say, “I will not pay the price!” Imagine Paul ready to enter a hostile town with the gospel. He has been beaten four times already with 39 lashes during his ministry. He knows it could happen again. For a moment he wavers in his race when the body says, “No, I won’t go. It’s foolish to go. It’s painful to go. No!”
Then Paul calls to mind the promise that the one who loses his life for Christ will find it. He calls on the Holy Spirit for help. He considers the glory of God in the salvation of lost sinners. And he turns as it were and hits his body right in the face and says, “You be quiet, and submit yourself now as an instrument of righteousness. You are going in there for Christ and for his kingdom.”
The same thing is true on a lesser level for how we care for each other in this church. We will not love each other the way Christ loved us until we learn to buffet the body the way he did in the garden of Gethsemane. His body cried out, “No, I will not be crucified!” And Jesus wrestled with his body to the point that blood dropped from his face. And he made his body a servant of love.
Unless we learn that kind of self-denial, in this day of self-gratification, we will drift away from the painful pathway of love and away from the costly course of missionary obedience, and God will bypass us on his way to triumph in the world.
But if we keep our eyes on the prize, if we exult in the truth that Christ has already obtained us by his own blood, if we bank on the promise of his help and his sustaining grace, then we will run with power in the path of love. The mission will be completed and people will see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven.