A Call to the Potential Drifter
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A Call to the Potential Drifter

In our step-by-step journey toward heaven, steady commitment and devotion are essential. The apostle Paul even compared our daily lives to conditioning for a marathon. Such preparation entails strain and difficulty—but if we are not prepared for sacrifice, we will never know the joy of the prize. In this message on 1 Corinthians 9, Alistair Begg urgues us not to run aimlessly but instead to run for the goal of eternal life with Christ.

Series Containing This Sermon

Lessons for Life, Volume 1

Biblical Wisdom for Young Adults Selected Scriptures Series ID: 26701

Sermon Transcript: Print

First Corinthians 9:24: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown [of laurel] that will not last; … we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man [shadowboxing]. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”

A Striking Illustration

Sermons without illustrations are like houses without windows. They let no light in at all. However, the use of illustrative material has to be kept under careful guard. Because all of us, I’m sure, can remember messages on the basis of illustrations, although we haven’t got a clue what the message was actually about, and whether it came from a passage of Scripture seems almost irrelevant, because the illustration looms so large in our minds. Now, the apostles never would have fallen foul of that, and Jesus himself certainly never did, because they were masterful in the way in which they employed illustrative material to crystallize important truth in the minds of their listeners or their readers.

Paul has a number of favorites. He loves to talk about soldiers, he often refers to farmers, and he certainly makes much of athletes. And this morning in the time that I have, I want you to look with me at this sporting illustration. There certainly can be little doubt that there would have been plenty of work for Bob Costas if he had lived at the time in which Paul was writing, because Corinth was, in large measure, the Vanity Fair of the ancient world.

The apostles and Jesus himself were masterful in the way in which they employed illustrative material to crystallize important truth in the minds of their listeners.

Those of you who’ve studied it will know that Corinth was located on a narrow neck of land—an isthmus, actually—about four miles wide, and it was at a crucial point of intersection for the trade routes of the world. It therefore became a thriving cultural and commercial center, and there was everything going on there—not least of all, the hosting of the Isthmian Games, which were second only in size and significance to the Olympic Games. And so, when Paul asks this rhetorical question in verse 24, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize?” he wasn’t introducing a concept which would be alien to his readers or to his audience.

And he speaks to them in this illustration, first of all, about running. In Greece, children from the age of seven were put through their athletic paces every day. They had exercises of graded degrees of difficulty which were performed. Even from that early age, they were to swim in cold river water before doing their exercises. And what they were endeavoring to do in Greek culture was to combine this athletic prowess with a simple manner of life so as to produce, and I quote, “noble souls with beautiful bodies.”[1] And if you’d asked a Greek mom or dad what they hoped for their children, they said, “I want them to be noble souls in beautiful bodies.” In Sparta, where gymnastic exercises were ordered more with a view to hardening for military service, the girls were also developed. They had to endure, or enjoy, “running, spear throwing, and wrestling, so as”—and I quote—“to become the healthy mothers of a race of soldiers.”[2]

Because the exercises were by nature often competitive, contests were arranged and, over the course of time, grew into the Olympics and the Isthmian Games here in Corinth. Indeed, so all-embracing was this emphasis on athleticism that one writer describes that the masses demanded only two things: they wanted bread, and they wanted games. And the writer says, “By day, they stood about idle. And in the evening, they watched sports.”[3] So I say: So what has changed? Roaming around doing nothing during the day and waiting for the sports to come on in the evening. It sounds almost contemporary, does it not?

And so, when he speaks in this illustration about running, everybody understands. But he doesn’t speak only of running. He speaks also of training. You’ll notice verse 25: “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training.” Now, the standard of these athletic contests was such that those who were finally under starter’s orders in relationship to these events had to have given evidence of undergoing strict training over a minimal period of ten months. Only those who had practiced were admitted; only those who had trained would be allowed to start in the event. And this training was something that everybody understood. Nobody would anticipate taking off their tracksuit, as it were—stripping down for the race—without that they had put in the hard endeavor in the months prior to the event.

So the illustration concerns running, it concerns training, and it concerns winning. In smaller local contests, there were a number of prizes, but when they got to the major events, in these days there was only one prize presented. The prize was normally, as you know, in the form of a crown which was commonly made of laurel or pine. And so these people decided that they would spend months and months and months of their lives setting themselves apart from all that they might otherwise enjoy, all of the relationships that they might enter into, all of the food that they might eat, all of the leisure pursuits that they might share, in order that they may fix their gaze upon bending down and beginning to run or beginning to box or wrestle or whatever it was, and in the end, all that was in sight was a crown that they would put on their heads that was made of laurel or of pine.

Now, it’s not difficult to understand where Paul is going with this illustration, but that’s the illustration. It has to do with running, training, and winning. A striking illustration.

A Personal Application

In the verses, there is also a personal application—that is, an application personal to the apostle himself. You’ll notice how he applies this to himself. And you’ll notice, carefully, the concern that he declares. He says in verse 26, “In light of this,” or “Therefore I [don’t] run like a man running aimlessly; I [don’t] fight like a man [shadowboxing]. … I beat my body … [I] make it my slave”—and here’s his concern—“so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified from the prize.” In other words, Paul says, “I do this to ensure that when you have listened to my preaching, when you have heard my messages, when you have read my letters, I will be able to say at the end of my life, ‘I have fought the fight, I have kept the faith, I have finished the race.’”[4] He says, “And so my life, my constant endeavor to this end, is in order that I will not be disqualified.”

You see, what a tragedy it is to be a recruiter for races and never to run; to be the person who reads out the rules but who never competes—the one who sounds the trumpet, calling the participants to the starting line. The guy, if you like, in contemporary language, who fires the gun, but he never, ever runs himself. In the words of Richard Baxter, in the Puritan days in England, he writes to the ministers of his day, and he says to them, “What a tragedy to offer to others the bread of life which you yourselves have never, ever eaten.”[5]

Well, you say to me, “Surely, we’re not suggesting for a moment here that Paul, somehow or another, after all of his great professions of faith, is considering the possibility that at the end of the day he’s going to lose his salvation.” Clearly not! The man in Christ cannot lose his salvation. But a man or a woman in Christ can find, and may not find till eternity’s gate, that their service for Christ has been fulfilled through their own resources and for their own glory. That’s why, you see, the New Testament talks about the fact that we will be judged for the motives of our hearts—not for the apparent success of our ministry, not for the eloquence of our tongues nor the usefulness of our hands nor the skill of our music, but for the motive of our hearts.

And in 1 Corinthians 3—and I hope it’s there now, after yesterday, but you’ll have to check—in 1 Corinthians 3, he speaks about the fact that one day, when the accounts are reckoned, there will be those who get into heaven like shipwrecked sailors. Because what they present won’t be gold and precious stones. It will be wood and it will be hay and it will be stubble, and they will arrive in heaven, as it were, scorched, and all that they offered in a life of ministry was burned up.[6] And it seems to me that what Paul is saying to his readers here is, “The reason that I am so rigorous with myself, the reason that I am so scrupulous, the reason that I pay such attention to these rules, the reason that I am so concerned to underline them for you, is not simply for your spiritual well-being, but it’s also to ensure that when I breast the tape, I will not myself have been disqualified from the prize.”

Do you want to make an abundant entry into heaven—2 Peter 1:11? Then “add to your faith goodness; and to goodness … kindness”[7]—and go through that list in the early verses of 2 Peter chapter 1. “And then,” says Peter, “having made your calling and election sure, you will receive an abundant entry into the kingdom of heaven.”[8] And the picture is again from the world of athletics, where the triumphant athlete, when he returned to his city, had a section of the wall broken down in his honor, and he didn’t just come through the gate out of which he had departed, but he came in a brand-new gate. And the city gathered and welcomed him with great acclaim. And that’s the picture of the entry into heaven which Peter says is possible for those who will run the race, who will endure the training, who will run to win.

The great thing about being a leader—and the great challenge—is not just talking the talk, it’s walking the walk.

So he has a concern that he declares, and he has a control that he displays. It’s one thing to talk about being concerned. It’s another thing to actually exercise the control. You go around, you hear all these people saying, “Oh, I’m so concerned that I put on an extra seven pounds.” And then the menu comes, and they order something that’s going to put on another seven pounds, if they’re not careful. Somehow or another, we think that if we just talk about our concern, somehow or another, it all just drains away. But concern without control is just a load of nonsense.

We can make commitments at ten o’clock at night that we’re gonna get up early tomorrow morning to read our Bible and to pray. That can be a major resolve. We can do that, we can have the stereo plugged in and some great gospel song stirring our hearts and a great wellspring of enthusiasm rising within us: “Tomorrow morning’s the time!” That’s concern. Then we act on the concern by saying, “And furthermore, I’m gonna set my alarm.” That’s good. And then you set your alarm—six, five forty-five—then you go to sleep. Then it rings. It’s when it rings that concern may issue in control. And sadly, most control that I know is the control of the snooze button, that gives you an extra fifteen minutes … “Five forty-five was too early; I don’t know what I was thinking about” … “Six o’clock’s ridiculous” … Ting! “Hate alarm clocks! I never wanted breakfast anyway.” And so it goes.

But notice Paul. See, the great thing about being a leader is—and the great challenge about being a leader—is not just talking the talk, it’s walking the walk. Or in this case, it’s running the race. So people would have been able to listen to Paul, and then they would have been able to observe him and notice the control that he displays.

First of all, he says no to aimless running: “I do not run like a man running aimlessly.” In other words, he says, “I don’t just set off to run, and someone says, ‘Well, where are you running, how far are you running, and how long are you running?’ and I say, ‘I don’t know. I’m just running.’” Or he doesn’t just run on the spot; he is running towards a goal. Philippians 3:14, right? “I press on,” he says, “toward[s] the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” And if we could ever have spent time with the apostle Paul, his very lifestyle—the way he spent his time when he rose in the morning, how he spent his money, the way in which he engaged in friendship—everything would have spoken to us of the fact that this man had a goal in view. And he was pressing towards the goal.

I remember when I ran cross-country at school in Yorkshire. I first of all had to run it because I had to. I later came to run it because I wanted to, but in the intermediate stage, I thought it was about the stupidest thing that ever had been invented. And we would all get in this great mass of humanity and set off, and you came quickly to gates and hedges and walls and trees and small streams, and you got totally filthy, and it went up hills, and you know what it’s like. And a few stalwart chaps went off early on—or girls—and you looked at them and thought about what you might be, and then you said, “Ah, let them go; they’re fanatics!” And then you said, “There’s safety in numbers here. You know, I’m with the kinda middle group, who are… we settle for mediocrity, and it’s safe, you know, in the mediocrity.” And then the mediocrity started getting a bit heavy-duty, and then you started drop back. You find yourself in the kind of scuzzwad group; there’s about seven of you. You don’t have to worry about breathing hard or anything, ’cause you’re down to about a walk already. You’ve only gone about 450 yards, and you’re saying, “Ah, who cares?” and “What does it matter?” and “We’ll get there in the end,” and so on.

I remember, when I went to Bible college, it was a bit like that as well. It was a small group went for gold; the great mass in the middle went for just okay; the small gang hanging behind, cynical, disruptive, disillusioned, sorry souls. In eighteen years in pastoral ministry, I think it’s the same: small group goes for gold; big group settles for mediocrity; small group of grumblers and complainers figure they’ll get there somehow and in their own way. They run aimlessly.

Do you know the Oxenham poem? I hope I do, ’cause I just mentioned it:

To every man there openeth a way, and [a] ways, and a way,
And the high soul [treads] the high [road],
And the low soul gropes the low.
And in between, on the misty flats, the rest drift to and fro.[9]

This passage here is a call to the potential drifter to exercise control, so that we do not run aimlessly.

So he says no to aimless running, and he says no to shadowboxing. “I do not fight like a man [shadowboxing].” In fact, the literal translation here has to do with giving myself a punch below the eye. We could translate this phrase, “I give myself a black eye.” He is referring to the knockout punch, which, in the boxing events of the time, if a blow was rendered at that particular point with force, it would end the competition; it would neutralize it, and the bout would be over.

“So,” says Paul, “I don’t just stand in the mirror and pretend that I’m Muhammad Ali”—well, he doesn’t say that; I’m saying that, all right?—but “I don’t just stand there and imagine that I’m a great boxer.” Says, “No, I actually box myself, so that I may present my body as a living sacrifice, wholly acceptable unto God, which was my reasonable service of spiritual worship.”[10]

It really is—if we would cross-reference it—what he’s referring to, I think, in Romans chapter 6, where he says, in verse 11, “In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. … Do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have [returned] from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be your master, because [you’re] not under law, but [you’re] under grace.” The great expulsive power of a new affection in Jesus Christ which stirs him to this kind of activity.

Now, let me ask you something: Does this sound emotional, or does it sound volitional? In other words, does this sound as if Paul just had a funny feeling in his tummy, and he determined he would do this? Or does this sound like a man sitting down, making a conscious, willful decision about the way he programs his time, about the way he apportions his affections, about the totality of his life?

As I have lived my life through these years, I’ve had all kinds of people tell me at all sorts of times along the journey—and they still do—that if only I would get the “X” package—whatever the “X” package is, and it always changes, but there are a whole host of them out there—“If, Alistair, you would get the ‘X’ package, then you could become a ‘super Christian.’ If you’ll only take the new, improved version of whatever it is, you will be lifted up to a whole new dimension, and you’ll never look back.” And people will offer it to you at all times.

The longer I’ve gone—and some of those roads I’ve gone down in my youth and in my early years—the more I’ve come to conclude that Bishop J. C. Ryle, in his book Holiness, is tremendously helpful. And I want to give you this quote, and then I’ll move to my concluding point. This is Ryle, writing in the nineteenth century:

When people talk of having received “such a blessing” and of having found “the higher life,” after hearing some earnest advocate of “holiness by faith and self-consecration,” while their families and friends see no improvement and no increased sanctity in their daily tempers and behaviour, immense harm is done to the cause of Christ. True holiness … does not consist merely of inward sensations and impressions. It is much more than tears, and sighs, and bodily excitement, and a quickened pulse, and a passionate feeling of attachment to our own favourite preachers and our own religious party, and a readiness to quarrel with everyone who [doesn’t] agree with us. [True holiness] is something of “the image of Christ,” which can be seen and observed by others in our private life, and habits, and character, and doings.[11]

A Stirring Exhortation

That leads me to the final point. What we had in these verses, I said, was a striking illustration, a personal application, and now a stirring exhortation. Indeed, the exhortation came first; I just turned it around. It’s in the second sentence of verse 24: “Run in such a way as to get the prize.” As Phillips paraphrases it, “You ought to run with your minds fixed on winning the prize!” We understand that the illustration, as will always be the case, breaks down; Paul knows that there’s not only one prize—as if we were all going for one, and only one person would eventually get the prize in heaven. He’s going to mention when he writes, later, his second letter to Timothy—in 2 Timothy 4:8—that there is a crown laid up for all who long for his appearing. But the point of application is clear. In the King James Version, I think it reads, “So run.” “So run.” Houtos is the word: run “in such a way” that you declare yourself to be a prize winner, not a straggler, not a wanderer, not a half-hearted participant.

Run in such a way that you declare yourself to be a prize winner, not a straggler, not a wanderer, not a half-hearted participant.

Every so often, they have these ten-kilometer races all around the Chagrin Valley, where I live. And they usually are on Sunday mornings, and so it’s impossible for me to run—and not because I preach on Sunday mornings, but just because I believe the Lord’s Day is the Lord’s Day, so I wouldn’t run even if I didn’t preach. But I am tempted to get the T-shirt. Then I could just wear the T-shirt and make it look like I ran. “10K.” Wear it around. And people say, “What was your time?”

“What? How long did it take me to buy the T-shirt?”

“No, how long did it take you to run the 10K?”

“Oh, no, no, no. I didn’t run it. I just like the shirts. In fact, I have a number of these shirts. I got them for the last four years—‘10K.’”

So what he’s saying is, you don’t want to be the kind of clown that just wants the T-shirt. If you wear the T-shirt, make sure that there’s some sweat on the T-shirt. Because, he says, “Everyone who competes in the games…” “Competes.” You know what the word there is? You know what the word is there? Agonizomai. What does that sound like? Agony. “Everyone who agonizes in the games goes into strict training.” There’s an agony involved in this—the agony that Jesus referred to: “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for [my sake] will find it.”[12] And when we are not prepared to sacrifice, when we are not prepared to give in, when we are not prepared to let go, we will never know the joy of discovering the prize.

When I was your age, I had determined who I was going to marry, what car I was going to drive, and what kind of law degree I was going to get. And how I’d be able to play golf most afternoons, ’cause I’d be so successful in my law practice that I’d be able to drive this car which I was looking forward to and I’d be able to take my wife out for dinner in the evening. I sent a fax to the Lord: the whole package laid out—car, wife, job, plan—up to heaven, as it were, metaphorically. Came back down; I’d sent it up seeking a signature, “Please sign this. I think it’s a wonderful plan for my life.” Came back down, trashed. Separate sheet of paper, and a cover note which said, “Please sign this.” I looked at it; it was a blank sheet of paper, with just a line for my signature. He said, “You sign your name on here, to a blank sheet, and I’ll fill in the rest.” I could keep you all day and all night telling you about this. I signed it, with the one proviso in the back of my mind: that I will never, never, under no circumstances, under the wildest stretch of imagination, of all the things I may become—I will never become a pastor! Look at the mess I got myself into.

I don’t know when the day will come for you—or whether it’s come—but you gotta reach that day where you decide, “I’m going for gold.” And I’m not talking here about mortifying yourself as a result of self-strength carried on by your own self-invention to the end of your own self-righteousness. All of that is the soul and substance of false religion. I’m talking about Colossians 3: “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, seek those things which are above.”[13] It is our union with Christ which provides the power and the potential for this change. And when it underpins a heart and a life, there is no saying to what extent you will go.

Eric Liddell’s name is immortalized, not only in Scotland but around the world, because he was prepared to live out that kind of principle. At the announcement of his death in 1945, they closed the schools in Scotland, and they stopped the public transport from running, and people lined the streets of Scotland to recall the life of Eric Liddell. Eric Liddell had become famous first as a rugby player internationally, first of all for his university in Edinburgh, and then as the man who refused to run on a Sunday because of his commitment to Christ. You recall it, perhaps, in the film: how he runs in the 400 meters, a race for which he had never prepared—1924 Olympics in Paris—runs in the 400 meters and runs to gold. Many years later, when asked how he won, Liddell replied, “The secret of my success over the 400 meters is that I run the first 200 as hard as I can. Then for the second 200, with God’s help, I run even harder.”

You don’t know how long your life’s gonna be. Neither do I. But I know for sure I must have run the first 200. If God gives me 200 more, by his grace, with his help, I’d like to run them harder. I don’t want to fizzle out.

What they didn’t show in the movie was that in 1925, when Eric Liddell left for missionary service in China, the whole crowd of people went down to Waverley railway station. And Eric Liddell boarded the train which would take him to London and on from there before he went to China and where he finally met his death, dying in a concentration camp, as you know. And he opened the windows of the train, and he led the group in the singing of two verses of

Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
Doth his successive journeys run;
His kingdom stretch from shore to shore,
Till moons shall wax and wane no more.[14]

And as the train pulled out, he cried to the crowd, “Let our motto be ‘Christ for the world,’ for the world needs Christ.”

So do not run aimlessly, but run for gold, for God’s sake and for his glory. Amen.


[1] Erich Sauer, In the Arena of Faith: A Call to the Consecrated Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), 30. Paraphrased.

[2] Sauer, 31.

[3] Sauer, 40. Paraphrased.

[4] 2 Timothy 4:7 (paraphrased).

[5] Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor (London: Robert White, 1656), 262–63. Paraphrased.

[6] 1 Corinthians 3:10–15 (paraphrased).

[7] 2 Peter 1:5–7 (NIV 1984).

[8] 2 Peter 1:10–11 (paraphrased).

[9] John Oxenham, “To Every Man There Openeth” (1930).

[10] Romans 12:1 (paraphrased).

[11] J. C. Ryle, Holiness (Zeeland, MI: Reformed Church Publications, 2009), 8.

[12] Matthew 16:25 (NIV 1984).

[13] Colossians 3:1 (paraphrased).

[14] Isaac Watts, “Jesus Shall Reign” (1719).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.