You Have To Learn How To Persevere
Text: 1 Cor. 9:23-27
Now this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I may be partaker of it with you. Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.
Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan ‘til they get punched in the mouth.”
Tyson was a colorful character, but he has a point. We often think we have it all figured out, that we know what we will do, but when reality strikes and things get complicated and painful, we tend to throw our plans out the window. We panic and go back to instinct. This was actually part of Tyson’s game plan, by the way. He wanted to get his opponent to panic, or if that didn’t work, to get angry and so that they would get off their game plan and start brawling. Then Tyson could overwhelm them with power. But over the years, Tyson lost his own discipline, and he started to assume that he could just brawl away as well. This cost him, and he suffered a dramatic and surprising loss. Shortly afterwards, he got into trouble in his personal life and went to prison. He was never the same. Discipline, as it turned out, was Tyson’s great weakness.
Here in 1 Cor. 9, the Apostle Paul tells us that discipline is necessary for completing the Christian race. He even compares a lifetime of faithfulness to a marathon race and a sort of boxing match. He says that just like a runner or a fighter, the Christian must discipline the body in order to persevere. This is important because life is long, and sometimes, it hurts. We need a plan for those times when our plan doesn’t work. How are we going to finish the race and go the distance?
What we are going to see is that persevering through life’s challenges requires discipline, and surprisingly, the main discipline Paul highlights is the proper use of Christian liberty. Why is this the case, and what does it mean? Let’s take a look.
You Have To Persevere
Before we get too far into this, however, we need to make thee obvious point. You have to persevere. Paul is clear about this in this section. “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it” (1 Cor. 9:24). He’s going to come back to this in the next chapter, where he says, “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). Paul even says that he has to persevere, “But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:27). In order to avoid “disqualification,” Paul practices discipline.
The fact that Paul has to warn his audience against falling away and instruct them on how to persevere shows us that perseverance is not automatic. No, it’s something that has to be taught and applied. There’s no point in warning folks against things that are a non-issue. And, perhaps surprisingly, the New Testament gives a lot of warnings. It would take us too long to work through every passage in the New Testament which calls for the need to preserver or “abide” in the faith and to beware of falling away. We will just mention a few. In John 15, Jesus says that He is the vine, and He says that any branches which do not “abide” in Him will be cast into the fire (John 15:4-6). There’s the passage in Hebrews which say to, “Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord…” (Hebrews 12:14). It goes on to warn against the dangers of falling away. You probably know of a few more passages, as well.
Immediately after reading these passages, you are probably thinking that I need to balance them out with those other passages which teach eternal security. What about, “of all that the Father has given me, I will lose none” (John 6:39), or nothing “is able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39)? Yes, those are there too, and so we believe and confess that God protects His elect until the end. However, this never leads Paul or the other New Testament writers to tell us, “Don’t worry about it.” They never say, “Relax, you’re going to be fine.” No, they continue to warn us against pride, complacency, and falling away through sin.
What do we make of this? Well, it means this: the doctrine of “the perseverance of the saints” is not quite the same thing as “once saved, always saved.”
“Once saved, always saved,” means that God gives us some thing called “salvation,” and then we simply cannot lose it, no matter what. It’s sort of a one time thing, and that’s it. But the perseverance of the saints is actually a little different. It is the perseverance of the saints, the teaching that true believers will, by God’s grace, persevere through the various trials and hardships in life. They will go through trials, and those trials will be difficult, but God will not allow them to fall away. Perseverance is a movement over time, and it is a movement that is not finished until death. And even though we trust in God’s grace and take comfort in the knowledge of His sovereignty, we still have to experience the trials, temptations, and dangers of remaining sin in this life.
The means of this perseverance is our own sanctification. This is done by God, make no mistake. But it is still how God accomplishes the work. He grows us in holiness, and He purifies our heart. This is why we have to pay attention to our heart. We have to be on watch. We need to make sure that we really are trusting in Christ along the way and that we have not fallen back into our old worldly ways. To do this, Paul says that we need to practice discipline.
To Persevere, You Have to Be Temperate
You might think that this perspective on perseverance takes away assurance. After all, if you might “not obtain” the prize, and if you might be “disqualified,” then won’t you be constantly trapped by spiritual anxiety? Paul says no. He says that you can run with certainty. How? By disciplining his body:
Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified. (1 Cor. 9:24-27)
Paul compares the Christian life to an athletic event. Specifically, he compares it to a race and to a “fight.” He says that those who compete have to be “temperate.” Temperance means, balanced. Athletes have to plan for the long-term. They have to know how hard to push at the beginning, and they have to know how to be careful with their punches.
Have any of you ever run in a 5k race or longer? I don’t run very much these days, but my father does. He’s a very accomplished runner, who has set State records for his age group in Mississippi and even run in the Boston Marathon. When I was younger I would run with him, and I remember one of those races pretty well… because of how poorly I did. It was a 5k, and my plan was supposed to be to stay with my dad. We were going to run side by side. But when the starting whistle was blown, all of the other young folks took off as fast as they could. They left me in the dust. So what did I do? I panicked. I saw how far ahead they were, and so I began to sprint too. I had to catch up. But my dad kept to his plan. He was way in the back. That is, he was until about a mile into the race. By that point all of us sprinters were out of gas. We were huffing and puffing, and we were slowing down. Some of us were even walking. And then, don’t you know it, my dad came up from behind and passed us. If I had stuck to the original plan, I would have been in the lead. But I got off it. I wasn’t temperate. I wasn’t disciplined enough.
The same thing goes for boxing. A boxer that throws too many punches is not a good boxer. He gases early. He can’t throw anything powerful in the later rounds, and he probably won’t be able to keep his legs moving or defend himself from the other guy. He becomes something of a sitting duck. To go the distance, you’ve got to be balanced. You’ve got to be temperate.
And Paul says that the same thing is true for the Christian life. We don’t need to rush off overly-excited about some big idea or, in this context, some newfound right. We don’t need to max out all of our spiritual energy at the beginning, only to hit a hard patch and drop out of the race. We need to be disciplined. We need to be spiritually temperate.
Temperance in Christian Liberty
How are we supposed to practice this sort of spiritual discipline? What is the game plan? It is to be temperate, as we said, but it is specifically to be temperate in the use of Christian liberty.
Now, that’s a little bit of a strange thing to say. How can you be moderate with liberty? Liberty seems to be the kind of thing that you either have or you don’t have. Is it really possible for there to be “too much freedom?”
Let’s back up. Remember how this section of 1 Corinthians got started. Some Christians in Corinth were eating idol-food, believing that it was part of their freedom in Christ. Some of them were even doing this in the idol’s temple, and it sure seems like they were even engaging in pagan religious rituals in Corinth. Paul said “No way!”
But then there was the added layer to this about food sacrificed to idols in other contexts. Can you eat that? And Paul’s answer was “maybe.” You were free to eat the meat, but you were also free not to eat it. You had to weight the effects that your eating would have on your brother, and Paul proclaimed that helping your neighbor was the better good than simply using your right to eat.
This is the argument that Paul is now bringing to something of a conclusion. He actually isn’t simply warning against falling away from the faith, but against using your Christian liberty wrongly, in such a way as to fall away or to cause others to fall away. That’s the “disqualification” he has in mind, and that is what he wants us to avoid. And he says that we can do this by self-discipline.
So, you need to know that freedom works both ways. There’s a freedom to do something, and there’s a freedom not to do something. It’s not a matter of “too much freedom,” but rather selfish freedom vs. serving freedom. If you only talk about freedom when you’re talking about all of the things that you get to do, then you are not being temperate. If you only ever say, “Oh yeah, prove to me that I can’t do that!” and never say, “Why do I want to do this in the first place?” then you are not going to be well-trained for the hard parts of life. You won’t be able to persevere through trials and opposition.
“Everybody’s got a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Mike Tyson’s line works pretty well for sanctification too. Everybody loves Jesus until they have to love their enemy. Everybody loves the gospel until they have to forgive sinners. Everybody loves Christian liberty until their neighbor does something that makes them uncomfortable.
How are you going to persevere in the faith when you run into these challenges? Are you disciplined enough to finish strong, or will you panic and revert back to worldly instinct?
Also, how are you going to be able to give up certain rights, as Paul says we must, if we’ve never told ourselves “no” before? We have to practice what we preach, and Paul has to practice what he preaches. “I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:27). He doesn’t mean that he literally beats himself. No, he means that he tells his body “no” and denies certain desires, even permissible ones, so that he can be temperate in his use of Christian liberty.
Paul says that he does all of this that he might not be disqualified, and he says that he does it “for the gospel’s sake, that I might be a partaker of it with you” (1 Cor. 9:23). This means the big picture controls his decision-making. The long-race dictates what he decides to do or not do. This has to be true of us too.
And we might even say that practice makes perfect. Start now. Start turning down a few rights for the sake of others. Start considering how your freedom frees you to put others before yourself, even if you don’t think they are right. Discipline your body. Discipline your spirit. Discipline yourself in the Christian race so that you can finish victorious in Christ.
Let us pray.