For me, the end of a year is like the end of my life. And 11:59 p.m. Wednesday night will be like the moment of my death. The 365 days of 1980 are like a miniature lifetime. And these final days are like the last hours in the hospital after the doctor has told me that the end is very near. And in these last hours, the lifetime of 1980 passes before my eyes and I face the inevitable question: Did I live it well? Will Jesus Christ, the righteous judge, say "Well done, good and faithful servant"?
I feel very fortunate that this is the way my year ends. And I pray that, at least for this morning, the year's end might have the same significance for you. The reason I feel fortunate is that it is a great advantage to have a trial run at my own dying. It is a great benefit to rehearse once a year in preparation for the last scene of your life. It is a great benefit because the morning of January 1 will find most of us alive, at the brink of a whole new lifetime, able to start fresh all over again.
Teach Us to Number Our Days
The great thing about rehearsals is that they show you where your weaknesses are, where your preparation was faulty; and they leave you time to change before the real play. I suppose for some of you the thought of dying is so morbid, so gloomy, so fraught with grief and pain that you do your best to keep it out of your minds, especially during holidays. I think that is unwise and that you do yourself a great disservice. For I have found that there are few things more revolutionizing for my life than a periodic pondering of my own death. How do you get a heart of wisdom so as to know how best to live? The psalmist answers:
Thou dost sweep men away; they are like a dream, like grass which is renewed in the morning: in the morning it flourishes and withers. So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom. (Psalm 90:5, 6, 12)
Numbering your days simply means remembering that your life is short and your dying will be soon. Great wisdom—great, life-revolutionizing wisdom—comes from periodically pondering these things.
Part of that life-changing wisdom that comes from numbering our days is humility and yieldedness to the sovereignty of God. James wrote to an arrogant group of people among the churches and said,
Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and get gain"; whereas you do not know about tomorrow. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, "If the Lord wills, we shall live and we shall do this or that." As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.
If we run away from the truth that we are a mist that appears a moment and then vanishes, if we try to keep this from our minds, then we will become arrogant and presumptuous. We will feel that we are the masters of our days and forget that every moment of life is owing to the free and sovereign will of God: "If the Lord wills, we shall live."
But, if we do not run away from this truth and instead, at least once a year (for myself it must be much more often), imagine that our death is near, then we will be humbled and moved to yield ourselves to God more fully and filled with a practical wisdom for how to live.
So here we stand at the end of our life—the life of 1980. How shall we judge it? What criterion of success shall we apply as we look back? I think we should use the same one the apostle Paul used at the end of his life. In 2 Timothy 4:6–8 he tells us what it was. 2 Timothy is probably the last letter Paul wrote. It has the flavor of finality about it. He gives Timothy a final admonition for his ministry in chapter 4, verse 5: "As for you, always be steady, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry." And then to inspire Timothy, Paul mentions his own endurance to the end and what reward it will have:
For I am already on the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord the righteous judge, will award me on that day, and not only to me, but also to all who have loved his appearing.
The criterion of success that Paul used to measure his life was whether he had kept the faith. This is what I want us to focus on this morning: What does it mean to keep the faith? The true measure of our life in 1980 is whether we kept the faith. And if we discover that we did not keep the faith in 1980, then we can be glad, as I am, that this year-end death is (we hope) only a rehearsal, and a whole life of potential faith-keeping lies before us in 1981.
Keep the Faith
So let's make sure we know what Paul meant by keeping the faith, so that we can assess 1980 for its true success, and so that we can start afresh in 1981. Paul uses three phrases in verse 7 to describe the life he lived: "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." I don't think we should view fighting the fight and finishing the race as different from keeping the faith. They are simply pictures that Paul used to describe what is involved in keeping the faith. The reason I think this is that when Paul commanded Timothy in 1 Timothy 6:12 to fight the good fight, he called it the fight of faith: "Fight the good fight of faith; take hold on eternal life to which you were called when you made the good confession." So when Paul uses the very same phrase of his own experience in 2 Timothy 4:7, followed by the phrase, "I have kept the faith," we have good reason to believe he meant: I have fought the good fight of faith.
The two pictures of a fight and a race illustrate what is involved in keeping the faith. But before we go into what is involved in keeping the faith I better say something brief about the nature of faith itself. The faith that Paul has kept is not faith in himself, or in any mere man. It is faith in Christ Jesus. In chapter 3, verse 15, he said to Timothy that the Scriptures "are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus." And when you have faith in somebody, it means you take them at their word, you count on them to live up to what they say, you trust their counsel, you have confidence in their promises. When Paul said, "I have kept the faith," he meant, therefore, "I have kept on taking Christ at his word, I have kept on counting on what he said, I have kept on trusting his counsel, I have kept on having confidence in his promises."
Faith in Christ Jesus, therefore, is most fully explained as faith in his word. Of course, this will include confidence that through his death he purchased the forgiveness for our sins, because he said, "The Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45). And, of course, faith in his word will include confidence that his resurrection gives us eternal hope, because he said, "I am the resurrection and the life, he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live" (John 11:25). And, of course, faith in his word includes confidence in his present power to work for us, because he said, "My grace is sufficient for you; my power is made perfect in weakness." If we were to focus on any of these—Christ's death, his resurrection, his power—and say, "This is what you must have confidence in, in order to be saved," we would be saying something true, but incomplete. Saving faith is a joining of ourselves to Christ as one who is wholly trustworthy, one who has infinite integrity and infinite power and who therefore will do all that he said. If we say that we have confidence in his death for the forgiveness of our sins but we continually act as though much of what he promised is untrue (e.g., the promise that if you seek the kingdom first, all other necessities will be added to you), then we are not trusting Christ.
Consider this analogy: Suppose your boss says to all his employees, "I will give you all a $250.00 bonus at the end of the year." Then at coffee break everyone discusses whether it is true or not. And you say, "I believe he will do it." Then later he says, "Everyone who comes in to work one-half hour early the rest of the year, I'll make sure you don't regret it." But at coffee break you say, "I don't think he could make it worth . . . my while," and so you don't come in. If the question is asked, "Do you have faith in your boss?" what is the answer? The answer is, "No." The fact that you believe he is going to pay that bonus at the end of the year is not based on your confidence in his integrity and power. It is based on the fact that it doesn't cost you anything to believe it (it is comfortable), and on the fact that he will probably pay, whether he is reliable or not, for tax purposes.
This is the very situation that many professing Christians are in today. They really believe that Christ will pay them the bonus of eternal life, but they live as if his counsel were unwise and his other promises were unreliable, or they don't even care to find out what his other promises are, which amounts to the same thing. That is not saving faith. Faith in Christ is faith in all his Word, because it is faith in his integrity and his power. So when Paul said he has kept the faith, he meant he has kept on taking Christ at his word.
The Way Is Hard
Now we can ask what these pictures of the race and the fight illustrate. What is involved in keeping the faith, if it is like a race and a fight? The first thing we can say is that keeping the faith must be hard. There must be some sort of stress and strain and discomfort involved. Boxers get hit in the face, and runners push themselves to the limit of tolerance, and both train for long, monotonous hours. Therefore, keeping the faith must involve some sort of stress and discomfort like this. It must be hard. Jesus put it like this:
The gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.
The way that leads to life, or to the crown of righteousness as Paul put it here in our text, is like a super marathon in the Himalayas, or fifteen rounds with a heavyweight champion. It is hard.
But how do we square this with Matthew 11:28–30, where Jesus says,
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
So, if you yoke up with Jesus, it is easy. How can it be easy and hard? The answer is that the thing required by God is intrinsically easy, but the contrary condition of the human heart makes it hard. What could be easier than faith? What could be easier than to stop trying to work our way to heaven and simply rest in the free grace of God and the power of Jesus Christ? What could be easier than trusting God to make us secure and happy, rather than rising early and going late to bed, eating the bread of anxious toil? And yet, all that assumes that our hearts are willing. But they are not.
Until the Spirit of God blows all unbelief out of our hearts, there remains a tendency in all of us to overcome the obstacles to our happiness by ourselves. It is humiliating to accept charity, even (perhaps especially) from God. We do not like to appear helpless, so we don't like to trust the mercy of God. As long as this tendency remains, faith will be a struggle. And to the degree that this proud tendency is strong, to that degree is faith in the promise of Christ hard and not easy. The easiest thing in the world is impossible for people who want to get glory for themselves by doing something hard. Which is harder: to make a fortune or to give it away? Well, to make a fortune, surely. But Jesus only asked that the rich young ruler give it all away and follow him. What could be easier? Unless you love the prestige and power of your wealth more than you trust the word of Christ who says, "Follow me, and you will have treasure in heaven" (Mark 10:21).
So when Paul says that keeping the faith is like a fight and a race, he reminds us that there remains in all of us enough of the old nature to make faith a struggle. It is not always easy to trust the word of Christ because there remains in us that old tendency to trust ourselves, to lean on our own understanding, and to seek our own glory. That is the first thing implied in the pictures of the fight and the race: keeping the faith, keeping on taking Christ at his word and trusting his promises is hard as long as our old self-reliant nature rears its ugly head.
Endure to the End
The second thing implied especially in the image of the race is that we must endure to the end in faith, or we will not gain the crown. "I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is laid up a crown of righteousness for me." You can run five miles, ten miles, or twenty miles in a marathon, but if you don't cross the finish line, you don't get the crown. This is taught in many places in the New Testament. In Matthew 10:22 and 24:13, Jesus warns that his disciples will be threatened by persecution and says, "But he who endures to the end will be saved." Then John, when he wrote the Revelation, repeated this again and again: 2:7, "To him who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God." 2:10, "Be faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life." 2:11, "He who conquers shall not be hurt by the second death." 3:5, "He who conquers shall be clad in white garments and I will not blot his name out of the book of life." The writer to the Hebrews stresses more than anyone that in order to be saved, we must endure to the end of the race in faith. He says in 3:13, 14:
Exhort one another every day as long as it is called 'today', that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have shared in Christ if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end.
Also in 6:11, 12:
We desire each one of you to show the same earnestness in realizing the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.
And then finally, Paul himself teaches the necessity of enduring in faith to the end of the race of life. He says in Colossians 1:21–23,
And you, who once were estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death in order to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him, provided that you continue in the faith stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel.
And 2 Timothy 2:12, "If we endure, we shall also reign with him." That is the second thing implied in the pictures of the fight and the race: keeping the faith is a lifelong task. You can't give up at the halfway mark and expect the crown of righteousness.
The Enemies of Faith
The third and final thing illustrated especially by the image of a fight is that there are opponents who would defeat us and we must resist them. And the implication is clear from the last point that if we give up in this fight and take the path of least resistance, we will be defeated and not finish the race and not be saved. The Christian life is a fight, and if you sense no struggle in your life to trust Christ more, then it means either that you are perfect or that you have surrendered to the enemy.
Who are the enemies we fight? There are two main enemies of our faith in the word of Christ, but they can muster many neutral forces for their purposes. The two enemies are our own proud nature and Satan. And these two try to pervert all God's good creation into idols by alluring us to trust more in man and things than in God.
Concerning our great adversary the devil and our conflict with him Paul says,
We are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore, take the whole armor of God that you may be able to withstand in the evil day and having done all, to stand. (Ephesians 6:12, 13)
Satan and all his hosts have one main target, our confidence in God. Because as John says, "This is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith." If Satan can destroy that, he has all he wants.
Concerning our other enemy, namely, ourselves, our old nature or our flesh as Paul often calls it, the word is, "reckon it as dead" (Romans 6:11). Whenever it rouses its ugly head, chop it off with the sword of the Spirit. Romans 8:13 says, "If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live."
We have two great weapons with which to resist and assail the enemies of old self and old Satan: the Spirit of God and the Word of God. And these always fight together, for the Spirit uses the Word to do his mighty work. Paul says in Ephesians 6:17, "The sword of the Spirit is the word of God." The Spirit wields the Word. The fight of faith is fought with the Word of God. Happy is the man who has a promise of God ready to counter every satanic suggestion that life would be better if we stopped trusting Christ. What an armory we have in the Scriptures.
Several weeks ago, Tom Steller and I confronted a very unusual demonic manifestation. And God was very gracious to us and did a great work. But as I came away from that encounter one thing dominated my mind: I must know more of the Word by heart. Satan is helpless before the Word of God. So there is great power for our faith in knowing the Word. Therefore, the fight of faith is a lifetime of wielding the Word of God against the deceits of our own heart and against the wiles of the devil.
So, how did we do in 1980? If 1980 were the whole of our life, could we say with Paul, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness"? My guess is that there are people here who can give three different answers to that question. One will say, "I fought no fight because I felt no great desire to follow Christ's counsel and trust his promises. Satan and my own flesh got no resistance from me." Another will say, "I felt some desire to trust Christ and go his way, but whenever a conflict arose, I was defeated every time. I really didn't fight a very good fight." And a third will say, "Praise God, it was a hard but glorious year. The Word of God came alive for me and helped time and time again to overcome temptation and hold to Christ. It wasn't always easy, but thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord."
Whichever one of those groups you are in now, remember this: by the grace of God, this day is only a rehearsal of the end. His mercy is opening before you a new life in 1981, and you can enter it and finish as a victorious fighter if you will declare yourself from your heart as one who now renounces Satan's power and self-reliance and who trusts Jesus Christ for all his word.