There is a curious difference between modern and ancient views of the Christian life. Today we emphasize the New Birth; the ancients emphasized being faithful to the end. We moderns talk of wholeness and purposeful living; they spoke of the glories of the eternal kingdom.
This is not to say the early saints ignored initial conversion, nor does it mean that we today have forgotten about the eternal kingdom. But the emphasis in our attention has shifted from the completing of the Christian life to the beginning of it.
The heroes in modern evangelicalism are contemporary Christians: the famous pastors, authors, evangelists, Bible teachers—or born-again athletes and politicians who are in the limelight with stirring testimonies of dramatic conversions. But in days gone by, it was those who had finished the course, those who—living still, to be sure—had gone on to glory, who were counted as heroes of the faith. The classical biblical passage describing how the early church viewed its heroes is Hebrews 12:1–2. Note the sense of the presence of both these mortals and their immortal Savior:
“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus the author and perfecter 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” (all Scripture references quoted are from the NASB).
Also, recall that in Hebrews 11, no contemporary believers are singled out for accolades. Everyone in that august assembly had completed the earthly pilgrimage in faithful holiness and had been enrolled in heaven. In the ancient church, living persons were not sainted. This is not to say that living Christians are not saints—the Scriptures call them such—but it is to point out that the early Christians designated their godly heroes from the ranks of those who had finished the journey successfully. Simply starting well with the Lord was not enough.
Do we not begin to get a message here? It is remaining faithful to Christ that is essential to true spirituality, and it is of eternal importance in his sight. It is not adequate merely to have a spectacular conversion or a glowing story of deliverance. God calls us to be on our feet and in the fight at the final bell.
Finishing The Race
I learned a lesson in my sixteenth year that has stayed with me all my life.
I went out for the high school cross-country team—a sport I consider to this day as the worst one in all the world in which to earn an athletic letter! On the first day of practice, the coach took us by bus to a course that ran up and down several hills over four miles. The prospects for those of us who were not in good shape, or who had never run distance races before, were particularly dismal on that late afternoon.
Before he fired the starting gun, that coach said something I have never forgotten: “What I am asking you to do today is to finish the race. If you don’t plan to finish, then I do not want you to start. Simply stay where you are when the gun is fired. But if you start, then you will finish. You may slow down, or even stop for a bit, but you will not quit. Once you start, I want you to cross this finish line—no matter what.”
The first mile was almost euphoric. The cool, fresh autumn air was a natural boost to my dogged determination to run a good race. But after a mile and a half or so, the joy began to fade. By two miles, whatever pleasure there had been in all of this was totally gone. From then on, it was sheer drudgery. Some of my teammates deposited the sandwiches they had eaten that noon at the school cafeteria in the tall grass and bushes at the edge of the course. Some would stop for a bit, find relief, and then fall back into the panting procession.
My legs started to cramp. I did not know thigh muscles could ever be tired. I felt my breath would leave me forever. My lungs and chest cavity were in almost unbearable pain as I approached an enormous upward hill near the 2½-mile mark.
There is one thing and one thing only that kept me going: before I started, I had agreed to finish. My body was spent, my mind screamed, “Quit!” But the choice had been made back when the gun went off. The issue was not open for renegotiation. There were no options, no short cuts. In inexpressible agony, I kept on running.
I can barely remember crossing the finish line. I was told I came in fifth or sixth, but even that was not of first importance. Every ounce of energy I knew had gone into finishing. I really could not believe I had made it.
Over the years, I have thought back to that experience as being an incredible picture of what it is to live the Christian life. In fact, the Scriptures more than once use a race as a metaphor of our life with Christ. And it is not a mere sprint, mind you—it is a marathon.
In any race, there are three basic and essential components: the start, the race itself, and the finish. And you need all three to win. You can have the fastest time out of the starting blocks known to man, but if you are slow on the turn or sloppy in the stretch, your record start will not be sufficient for victory. Or you can be unbeatable on the open track, but if you drop out 50 yards short of the goal, the rest of the effort is for nothing. In any race, it is the first runner across the line who wins. There will be varying degrees of speed and ability. But when we are set apart to the Lord, his word to us is finish.
For the Christian, the obvious start of our faith is the New Birth. We come to Christ by faith. We have to remember that while saving faith is the all-important beginning of our life in Christ, we do not stop with faith. Paul writes, “Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:1–2, italics mine).
I am troubled by the unbalanced emphasis today on getting people to make a one-time “decision for Christ.” Don’t get me wrong: when I speak, I constantly call people to make decisions for Christ. But so often the implication is that simply by saying yes once, that decision in and of itself will see you through. Let us be very clear on this: you cannot even qualify for the Christian race unless you place your faith in Christ. But the goal is not reached by a one-time response to Christ. The race requires perseverence down to the wire: “For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end” (Heb. 3:14). If crossing the line is not our goal, we are only cluttering up the track.
There is nothing cuter than a six-month old baby. At this stage an infant develops eye contact, begins cooing, and generally learns to sleep all night. But if that is all the maturity someone shows at age 15, it is no longer cute. It is tragic. Let us have all the legitimate new births we can get. But let us be sure they are born again into a household, the church of God, where growth can occur and where they are given support to complete the race before them.
The Long Stretch
We obtain salvation by the grace of God in order to enter the race. And it is by the power of the Holy Spirit that we ran the course set before us. How crucial it is for us, as we are running, to keep our eyes fastened on “the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14). It is here we must resist the temptation to think that just because we have made a good start, victory is automatic and quitting is impossible. The warning Paul issued to the first-century Galatians applies to us moderns as well: “You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth?” (Gal. 5:7).
In 1 Corinthians 9:24–27, the apostle again uses a race to picture the Christian life. What a challenge he issues when he writes, “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 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.”
Note that everyone runs to win. All do not tie for first place, but all run with winning in mind. Paul is not saying that only the one who finishes in first place will make it to heaven, but he intimates that it is an eternal mistake for any of us to assess our own abilities, and then aim to finish second, or third, or fourth. It is plainly not our place to say, “Well I have only a few talents” or “The Lord made me a thirty-fold Christian.” We do not second-guess our spiritual equipping and run accordingly. Rather, we run to win.
Mark well that Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians also includes a personal concern as well. To me, this is one of the most sobering passages in Scripture, for in his own steadfast aim to run well in the long stretch of his earthly Christian pilgrimage, Paul does not discount the possibility that “after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:27). If the same one who writes, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38–39), issues this incredible warning to himself, we need to listen all the more carefully.
Many of us in contemporary evangelicalism have paid nearly exclusive attention to passages about the believers’ security—and they are there. The Lord has spoken clearly, “I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you” (Heb. 13:5). But we have tended to ignore the passages of God’s explicit warnings against apostacy, and they are there. We must hear and believe both the promise of glory and the warning of judgment. The fact is, if I quit the race, I will be disqualified. I cannot get around that truth in Scripture.
We must not sit around arguing security versus perseverence; I believe God is exhorting us to get on with this business of living as holy people, staying on track and finishing the race set before us. If Paul was not enamored with his past service and did not take for granted his faithfulness to the Lord, then by all means neither should we.
Crossing The Line
If our starting point in Christ is the New Birth, if the race itself is to walk in the Spirit, the finish line is the “crown of life” (James 1:12). Is this victory attainable? Of course it is. Do not forget that it is through faith that you have come into living union with the one who is author and perfecter (finisher) of the race. Our Lord Jesus Christ not only conceived of and designed the course we run, but in his humanity he completed it, and he gives us his strength to do the same. We take part in his mission. When he prayed, “I glorified Thee on earth, having accomplished the work which Thou hast given Me to do” (John 17:4), he stood before his Father as victor in the battle. It is in his victory that we enter the competition ourselves. The one from whom we draw our life is already in the winner’s circle.
Paul acknowledges in his last New Testament letter, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Tim. 4:7–8).
As I preach the gospel these days, I specifically call people to commit their lives to Christ, and to walk in the Spirit. But I have added something else: I am calling people to commit themselves, whatever the cost, to finishing the race. Not to quit. Ever.
Further, I do not mean deciding to do so in our own energy. Paul corrected those who tried such a thing when he wrote, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:3). No, we finish in faith, relying upon the strength and power of God. One reason we were granted that strength and power in the first place was that we might run and win. The ancient prophet Isaiah wrote, “Those who wait for the Lord will gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary” (Isa. 40:31).
The Scriptures are clear that salvation is holistic, and includes being born again, running well, and enduring to the end. The holy ones of God are called upon to participate in each phase.
It is when we commit ourselves to finish with Christ that we can know with confidence “that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6).
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