Running the Christian Race: Is salvation a gift or a prize?

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running the christian raceRunning the Christian race – Why it is it necessary?

What does running the Christian race mean exactly? Do we run to be saved or do we believe to be saved.  Is salvation a gift or a prize?

In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 we read:

“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.”

There are several passages similar to this one in the New Testament that teach us some important things about the life of God’s children.  The life of a Christian is like a race and the Apostle Paul was perfectly correct to claim that the Christian life is like a race.  In fact, not only is it like a race, it is a race.  It is a race against time.  It is a race with an objective.  It is a race that demands preparation and it is a race that brings reward to those who finish it victoriously.  But wait a minute . . . Is salvation a gift or a prize?  We can answer this question by recognizing the error in imagining that salvation is like a race.  Salvation is neither a race nor is it like a race. Running the Christian race is not related to our salvation.

Running the Christian race – a misunderstood metaphor

How silly it is to imagine that the all-knowing and wise God could be capable of choosing metaphors that defy common understanding.  Who in their right mind would think of participating and winning a race as a valid metaphor to describe salvation.  The only possible application would be in the case of some cruel sadistic predator who would take a group of people and line them up side by side and explain that upon hearing the starting gun shot all of them should run as fast as possible because all of them would be gunned down except the person who crossed the finish line first.  To equate salvation with winning a race is to accuse God of threatening us with eternal damnation unless we finish in first place.  Salvation would be a win or burn proposition.  Honestly, what other kind of accusation could a person be leveling against a god who would do that?  No, salvation is neither a race nor like a race.  Nevertheless we as God’s people are in a race so it is expedient that we understand exactly what the race is and why we should run to win it.

Running the Christian race – no Christians exempt

The apostle’s exhortation is for us to first of all recognize that no one, not one person in the church can legitimately exclude himself from this race.  He asked the question: “. . . Do you not know . . . that all run?”  This means that every child of God, every born again member of the church is expected to be running.  You my friend are in this race!  Are you running?  If you don’t understand how this applies to you right at this minute, you are in danger of making a grave mistake!  All run!  All are in the race!  There is no question about whether you need to be running or not, for all run!  Can you imagine a race of twenty athletes after the starting gun has already fired and only two or three runners started running?  Five or six gaze in the direction of those who left the starting blocks, some stare up at the clock already counting down the seconds of the first few minutes of the race.  Some are tying their shoes, some are sitting on the track, some are still doing their stretching exercises and a few even decided to take a nap.  Yet others are giving each other high fives but they are not running!  Ridiculous!  What do you imagine the organizers of the race would be thinking?  What about the fans who come to cheer-on their favorite runner?  This scene would be a total and complete scandal!  But this is a glimpse of the state of the church!  Many have heard of this race, but they are ignorant of the fact that they are on the race track at this very moment!  You, are on the race track.  Are you running?  Why not?  All run!  Besides the fact that all run, all are exhorted to run the fastest.  Not just as fast as they can, but faster than all the others can.  The imagery that the apostle is trying purposely to invoke upon his readers is not that of a friendly jog where no one is keeping score.  No!  The example is of a number of runners all of whom have trained and prepared to win the race, to beat all the other participants, not only to run as fast as they can, but to run faster than all the others.  All run!  And all run to win!  This is what the Christian life is: Running the Christian race . . . to win!  But, again, is salvation a gift or a prize?

Running the Christian race – the cost of running

Then the apostle Paul explains what this means for each athlete.  Every runner strives for the mastery and is temperate in all things.  An athlete either needs to learn tremendous self-discipline or he needs to find a competent and demanding trainer and submit himself to the rigors determined by his trainer. This means that the Christian life is a life of discipline, of hard work and training and exercise. Athletes learn to limit even their social lives and hobbies. Their purpose as an athlete must spill over to each and every area of their lives. Their sleeping habits are affected. Their eating habits are affected, their leisure time is affected, their relationships are affected. Their entire existence is molded by their purpose as an athlete.  And just what is that purpose? To receive a crown, or more specifically in Paul’s example, a garland of flowers placed on the winner’s head and a victory ceremony.  In other words their purpose for all the effort and discipline is glory and recognition. In the case of Paul’s example in the text last mentioned the crown was a glory and recognition that quickly faded with the drying up of the garland that symbolized the glory of the victory. But in the case of Christians, the apostle taught that the purpose was to receive an incorruptible crown.

The objective of running the Christian race: a crown

I know that this may sound strange to many, but the apostle Paul taught that the motive for running the Christian race is to receive a crown. In the worldly system of secular society the crown quickly fades. Paul argued however that the crown that awaits the Christian who runs and runs to win, paying the price to take first place is a superior crown, a crown that will never fade away, a crown that will endure the passing of time. A crown is a symbol of recognition and glory and that is exactly what Paul was teaching: that athletes go through all their discipline and sacrifice to receive a corruptible crown.  The motive is recognition and glory. Some achieve it through athletics, others through academic degrees. Some achieve honor, recognition and glory through music or song. Others are idolized (glorified) through the recognition of Hollywood through film and television.  Some people excel in business and investments and receive recognition and praise for their productivity and business acumen.  All of this recognition is but a corruptible crown however. Athletes grow old and their records are broken by newer generation of athletes.  Academic leaders also fade away and are forgotten as younger prodigies take their place. Movie stars and pop sensations lose their charisma, and beauty and are replaced by newer sensations.  Successful business entrepreneurs also lose their position of prominence as younger professionals rise up to prominence and eventually dwarf them.  Someone better will always come along.  In this life crowns just don’t last very long.

The prize of running the Christian race: recognition

The desire for recognition is something that God has placed within us. We should not imagine that the desire to win and excel is something that didn’t have its origin in God.  It is a mistake to think that this is something that Satan has placed within us.  Satan can’t create anything, he can only corrupt and twist, pervert or suppress that which has been placed in man by God.  More often than not the desire to excel is a drive that Satan seeks to suppress in man.  He convinces millions of Christians that they will never amount to much of anything and shouldn’t even try.  It is also true that he perverts this desire and makes monsters out of some people but the fact is that the desire to win and receive recognition is a God-given trait.  God placed an interest in glory even in His angels.  Otherwise the fall of Lucifer would not have been possible. Satan’s problem was that he didn’t submit his desire to be glorified to God. God was very generous with Lucifer and gave him tremendous honor and glory.  His error is that he wanted God’s glory as well.  The problem of fallen mankind is not his desire to be crowned, or to be recognized since that is the point of being human (Romans 8:30). The problem is the pursuit of glory and recognition through illicit and carnal means, which only lead to corruption.  The fundamental truth behind this whole argument about rewards is that God’s rewards are superior, and the path to those rewards is not the path that fallen man ever chooses.  Only those children of God with a renewed mind understand and take the path to God’s infinitely superior rewards.  But make no mistake, rewards are from God, and every Christian would do well to recognize the surpassing value of striving for God’s best and His accompanying rewards.  So in answering the question is salvation a gift or a prize?  Make no mistake, we are running the Christian race for sure, but we run for a prize, not for a gift.  Salvation is a gift, but the prize must be earned.

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