The city of Corinth was the site of the Isthmian Games. Hosted every two years (instead of every four, like the Olympic Games), they celebrated Poseidon, the god of the sea. Athletes trained for months to prepare for the competition, to prove their prowess before a hungering audience.

When the apostle Paul challenged the Corinthian church to “run in such a way as to get the prize,” (1 Cor. 9:24), he used an instantly recognizable image: the athlete. “They do it to get a crown that will not last,” Paul wrote. “But we do it to get a crown that will last forever” (v. 25). Paul challenged his readers to treat their Christian life like an athletic feat: to train, run, fight, and finish well.

Western Christians frequently meditate on the gift of salvation. But there is a difference between a gift and a prize. A gift is given freely; a prize is earned and won. The prize Paul references in 1 Corinthians 9 is not salvation, but the reward for the works we do as saved people of God. How we live out our salvation on earth has real ramifications, both in the present and eternally. Earlier in his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul expresses this through the metaphor of home-building:

“For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work” (1 Cor. 3:11-13).

Each follower of Christ receives a free gift of salvation by the grace of God (Eph. 2:8). How we build on that gift is the working out of our salvation (Phil. 2:12). If we build with hay and straw— worthless, temporary pursuits—there is little to be shown for our faith on earth. But when we build with the gold, silver, and costly jewels of a mature Christian life, of good works done for the world, the quality of our building will be revealed at the last.

To build in such a way, we have to be strong. Like an athlete training for the games, we must discipline our bodies and keep them under control (1 Cor. 27): not out of legalism, shame, or fear, but out of love for the God who saved us. Discipline—living a boundaried life—brings freedom. By saying no to unhealthy impulses and listening to the Holy Spirit’s leading, we are freed to have deeper relationships, better health, stronger faith, and a greater witness. The disciplined life is not aimless, but focused. We have set our eyes on the prize of “well done, my good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:21) and can run with his approval in mind.

We do not choose discipline in order to earn salvation; we choose it because we are saved. Because we are in Christ, a new creation, we must choose to say ”no” to some things and say “yes” to what is better—for the sake of our time, for rest, for connection, for discipleship, for health, and for growth. The season of Lent teaches us to say a temporary “no” so that we may experience a much deeper, more fulfilling “yes” to God. Any area in which we learn to delay gratification out of love for God (not out of legalism) leads us to a deeper experience of his affection and the profound impact of the Spirit-led life.

The crown of the Isthmian Games was made of pine. In Greek and Roman culture, pine represented eternal life. Still, the crown received by the winning athlete decayed within a few weeks. Those crowns did not last, but our prize will last forever (1 Cor. 9:24–25). The reward we receive for a faithful, disciplined Christian life is eternal and unchanging. The fruitful ways we build upon our salvation are seen and honored by our God, and when we stand face-to-face with him we can know every unseen effort, every hard-won trial, every painful surrender was worth the effort. May we be able to say with Paul: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7).

Phylicia Masonheimer is the founder of Every Woman a Theologian, the author of two books, and host of the Verity podcast.

This article is part of Easter in the Everyday, a devotional to help individuals, small groups, and families journey through the 2024 Lent & Easter season. Learn more about this special issue here!

[ This article is also available in español Português Français, and Indonesian. ]

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