There’s an annual 10K road race in Atlanta each year on the fourth of July, the Peachtree Road Race. Most of the 60,000 runners run with one goal: not to win the race but to win the T-shirt. In other words, they’re running to finish. While running to finish is OK for the Peachtree, this kind of attitude won’t suffice for running the race of Christian faith, as Paul’s words in today’s scripture make clear.
Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 9:19-27
[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]
I know that some of you ran the Peachtree Road Race this year. Raise your hand if you ran the Peachtree. Did you win? Top ten? Top 50? Top thousand? Top ten thousand?
Did you finish at all? That’s good!
I’ve run it several times myself. Once, when my son Townshend was around four or five years old, I ran the Peachtree. And when I came home, he asked me, in complete sincerity, “Daddy, did you win?” Because it’s a race. And he rightly assumed that if you’re running a race, you should be running to win. The point of most races is to win—or at least it should be.
That particular year, not only didn’t I win, I finished in about 50 minutes—five zero—which would be about 21 minutes slower, for example, than this year’s winner!
So of course I had to explain to Townshend that the vast majority of people who run the Peachtree are not running to win the race. They’re running to finish. They’re running to win the T-shirt. And that’s fine… when it comes to running the Peachtree.
Now I know for many of us amateurs, it takes a lot of training just to finish the Peachtree. But suppose we were running to win the Peachtree. How different would our training look? We’d be up in the morning every day, for one thing. No sleeping in. In fact, we’d probably change our sleeping routine and other habits. We’d probably get ourselves a running coach. We’d probably consult with our doctor. We might invest in better shoes and training equipment. We might do some strength training. We would definitely want to run in other races leading up to the Peachtree. We would definitely watch what we ate and drank—take care of our diets, perhaps consult with a nutritionist.
Doing all these things still wouldn’t guarantee a victory—much less a top ten, top 50, top thousand, or even top ten thousand finish—but at least we could say were running to win.
Not many of us would commit the time, the energy, the money to do that… and that’s perfectly O.K. For the Peachtree.
But suppose we compare living the Christian life to running a race, as Paul does in today’s scripture. When it comes to running the “race” of our Christian life, running just to finish is not O.K. Running just to win the T-shirt is not fine.
So let me ask you: When it comes to your Christians life, are you running to win… Or are you running to win the T-shirt?
In last week’s sermon, we looked at chapter 8. If you’ll recall, Paul began dealing with the controversy surrounding church members eating meat that had been offered to idols. And he’s still on the same topic today. As I said last week, back then it was a common practice in a Gentile city like Corinth for people to go inside a pagan temple, where a priest would sacrifice a bull or goat or some other animal to a pagan god. The meat would be cooked, and as an act of worship, people would eat the meat in the temple. Any meat that was left over would then be sold in the marketplace. Either way, when people in Corinth ate meat, chances are it had been sacrificed in this manner. Some Corinthian Christians—the so-called “strong” Christians—insisted that they had the “right” to eat this meat—since of course meat was meat, and these gods weren’t real. Who cares what a pagan priest does? While other Corinthian Christians, the so-called “weak” Christians, who used to worship these same pagan gods, worried that they would be committing idolatry if they followed the example of their fellow believers. And so there was a fight in the church about this.
Paul agrees that the meat is just meat, and that these gods aren’t real. But he says, at the end of chapter 8, that for the sake of the consciences of these “weak” brothers and sisters—whom he rightly fears may fall back into idolatry if they see “strong” Christians going into the temple or eating this meat—he says that he’d rather give up meat altogether if it means preventing one of his brothers or sisters from stumbling.
He grants that while these “strong” Christians may have the right to eat this meat under some circumstances—as he’ll describe in chapter 10—their “rights” are beside the point. When we follow Jesus as Lord of our life, he says, we become Christ’s slave—which means we give up our rights. And in most of chapter 9, Paul talks about “rights” he has given up—in order to win people to the Lord. “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.”
While the Lord isn’t calling us to do exactly what the apostle Paul did, he is calling us to live our lives with the same devotion to the Lord, the same self-sacrificial love, the same commitment to reaching the lost with the gospel of Jesus Christ. And in verses 24 to 27, Paul describes what it takes to live in this way. And here’s the part I mentioned at the beginning: Paul compares living the Christian life to being a world-class athlete.
Like a good preacher, Paul is using an analogy that his congregation can relate to: Every two years in the city of Corinth, athletes from all over the Roman Empire gathered to compete in the Isthmian Games. This was the the second most popular sporting event behind the Olympics. He talks about the self-control and discipline it takes to be a successful athlete: You don’t run to merely finish the race, or win the T-shirt; you run to win the prize—in this case a garland they wore on their heads, a wreath of flowers and leaves.
If athletes are willing to go to these great lengths to win a crown that won’t last, Paul asks, what lengths will we Christians go to in order to win a crown that lasts for eternity?
If athletes are willing to go to these great lengths to win a crown that won’t last, what lengths will we Christians go to in order to win a crown that lasts for eternity?
Well, many of us Protestants—not to mention us Methodists—we know the answer to that question, right? We don’t often go to great lengths to win a crown that lasts for eternity because we know that whether we finish in first place, or whether we finish in last place, it doesn’t matter—we’ll get the eternal crown either way. We may think: “I won that crown when I accepted Christ at age 13 and went through confirmation class. So I’m good!” Or “I won that crown when I walked down the aisle and accepted Christ at a revival when I was 11, so I’m good!” Or “I won that crown when I was baptized and raised by Christian parents, in a Christian family, in a Christian culture, in a Christian nation—so I’m good!”
Friends, if that’s your attitude, please hear the startling words that Paul writes when he compares living a Christian life to running a race: “But I discipline my body and keep it under control lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”
Whoa! Did you hear that? Does Paul really believe that it’s possible that even he—after having that dramatic conversion experience on the Damascus road, after answering God’s call to be a missionary, after doing more than anyone to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ around the known world—even he could backslide and lose his salvation unless he continued to live his life with discipline and self-control? Is that really possible?
John Wesley, when commenting on this verse, certainly thought so. He wrote, “St. Paul was certainly an elect person, if ever there was one; and yet he declares it was possible he himself might become a reprobate”—in other words, condemned to hell. “Nay, he actually would have become such, if he had not thus kept his body under [this kind of discipline and self-control], even though he had been so long an elect person, a Christian, and an apostle.”
I agree with Wesley. This is what Paul is saying here: even after we accept Christ as Savior and Lord, it’s possible to fall away and lose our salvation. I don’t think a lot of modern Methodist preachers—many of whom don’t even think God will send anyone to hell—talk a lot about the danger of backsliding. But this is in the Bible. We can be upset that so many Methodist clergy are happy to disregard the plain meaning of scripture when it comes to homosexual behavior and marriage while we ourselves disregard the plain meaning of scripture when it comes to these verses! May it not be so!
And it’s not just Paul who says these things! We remember Jesus’ sobering words: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.”
Jesus and Paul aren’t saying you need to do these good works in order to be saved. Rather, because we’re saved we need to do these good works. If our lives aren’t bearing the fruit of repentance, the fruit of the Spirit—if people can look at our lives and not see the difference that Jesus makes in our lives—but rather imagine that we’re just like them—then that could be a sign that we’re not saved. And whether we were at one time or not, only God knows. But it doesn’t matter.
One of these good works that we ought to do, Paul says, is to run the race of Christian life to win.
And I want to talk about the two most important things that we need to do in order run this race to win. First, we need to get serious about God’s Word, the Bible.
There’s a brilliant man I admire—an Irishman—named John Lennox. He is a mathematician at Oxford University and a world-renowned Christian apologist and author on the side. He is famous for debating some of the fiercest skeptics and atheists around—including, most notably, a debate against his colleague at Oxford, the best-selling atheist author Richard Dawkins. And when he debates, he does so with a big smile on his face; he so happy and cheerful; he looks like he wants to give his opponent a big bear hug. Anyway, he’s written a new book about the Book of Daniel, and he recently gave a lecture about Daniel. And I was deeply convicted about something he said.
He said—and I wish I could imitate his accent—but he said:
We’re playing religion, ladies and gentlemen, if we think that five minutes looking at scripture [each day] is going to get us through life when we’re spending hours and hours developing a professional career. I know there are times of pressure at different times in life, but I do believe we have to wake up and be serious. You cannot influence the world if you’re not inwardly convinced of the truth of these things [in scripture]. And the only offensive weapon we’ve got is the Word of God. But if we don’t know it; we can’t use it…
Many people in this audience [, he said,] are probably involved in one kind of Christian work or another. And I start talking to them, and things aren’t [going well], and I discover that husbands are not praying and reading with their wives—haven’t done it for years. And if there’s no reality of God in our family life, how can we expect to be attractive to the world? We can’t!
“We’re playing religion… if we think that five minutes looking at scripture [each day] is going to get us through life”—when we’re spending so many more hours doing so many other things. He mentions the time we spend with our careers. But it’s not just that! What about the time we spend on social media? What about the time we spend watching Netflix?
Do you spend as much time reading and studying God’s Word as you spend on Facebook, or Twitter, or Instagram? If not, then that may be a sign that you’re not running the race to win! If not, start there. Time yourself over the course of a day. Resolve that you’re going to spend at least as much time today reading and studying God’s Word as you are on social media.
The second thing we need to do to run the race to win is to pray—to make a prayer a priority each day. I was deeply moved by something that pastor and author Tim Keller wrote in the first chapter of his recent book about prayer. Keller admitted that he only made prayer a priority relatively late in his life and ministry—around the time that he was diagnosed with cancer many years ago. He found, like so many of us pastors, that preaching is easier than praying. He said his wife, Kathy, said something that helped to turn him around and to motivate him to pray with his wife every evening. She said:
Imagine you were diagnosed with such a lethal condition that the doctor told you that you would die within hours unless you took a particular medicine—a pill every night before going to sleep. Imagine that you were told that you could never miss it or you would die. Would you forget [to take it]? Would you not get around to it some nights? No—it would be so crucial that you wouldn’t forget, you would never miss. Well, if we don’t pray together to God, we’re not going to make it because of all we are facing. I’m certainly not. We have to pray, we can’t let it just slip our minds.[†]
Prayer is life-saving, soul-saving medicine for the lethal condition of human sin. Are we treating it like it is? We can’t “run the race to win” without it.
Paul warns us that by neglecting things like prayer and scripture, we will fail not only to win the race, we will fail even to compete. Worst of all, we might even fail to finish.
I began my sermon telling you about the time that my five-year-old son Townshend asked me if I won the Peachtree. The truth is, I could never win that race—no matter how hard I trained, no matter how long I trained, no matter how committed I was to the task.
And in the same way, we can never win this race of faithfulness to the Lord that Paul is talking about. Paul knows this better than anyone. If anyone ever tried to win this race through sheer effort alone, surely it was Paul. He describes this part of his life in Philippians 3, for instance. He said that when it came to following God’s law and doing all the right things, he was “blameless”—at least in comparison to others. But he knew it wasn’t enough. Far from winning the race, he said he was instead the “chief of sinners.”
Like Paul, we’re always going to fall short, too. Because of our sin.
But here’s the good news: Jesus Christ came so that he could win that race for us. Only he could win that race; only he could live a life of perfect obedience, perfect faithfulness, to his heavenly Father—a life we were unable to live for ourselves. And at the end of the race that Jesus ran, he even won a crown. Didn’t he? But it was a crown of thorns. That crown was the one that we deserved to wear. He wore it for us.
In fact, on the cross, he exchanged his life for ours—and suffered our punishment, died our death, experienced our hell. So that we could win an eternal crown, which awaits us in glory. Amen?
† Timothy Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (New York: Dutton, 2014), 23-4.