Running to Win
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Running to Win

Paul used the example of an athlete to illustrate the discipline required by a life of faith. Like training for a race, our spiritual progress requires discipline, training, and effort. Victory, teaches Alistair Begg, depends on the refusal to allow our eyes to wander, our minds to settle, and our affections to run after things that draw us away from Christ. Compelled by the love of Christ, we will run to win.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in 1 Corinthians, Volume 4

Christian Freedom 1 Corinthians 8:1–11:1 Series ID: 14604

Sermon Transcript: Print

I invite you to take your Bibles, and we’ll turn again to 1 Corinthians 9. And when you have your Bible open, then, before we turn to the Word of the Lord, we’ll turn in a moment of prayer to the Lord of the Word:

Father, thank you for the wonderful picture of Jesus, the Shepherd leading his sheep into the pastures necessary for them. May that be our experience now: that the Word of Truth may be the very food that we need for the journey we’re about to take. May the Spirit of God be our teacher. Save us from distractions, from indolence, from faintheartedness. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.

The focus of our study this morning is, as we read earlier, the final section of chapter 9 of 1 Corinthians, from verse 24–27.

Sermons without illustrations are essentially akin to houses without windows. It often takes a good illustration to crystallize in our minds the instruction that we have heard. I don’t want to draw attention to last Sunday as if congratulating myself, but a number of people throughout the week have said, “That was a great story about that man in San Francisco with the fellow who sat down beside him.” And it was obvious that the illustration registered the point that we were seeking to make in terms of a lesson in adaptability.

Jesus constantly illustrated the truth that he was teaching, and the apostles apparently followed his example. When we read the Pauline Epistles, we discover that he illustrates with frequency, and he has three pictures to which he returns more than to any others—namely, the picture of the farmer, the soldier, and the athlete. And it is this athletic simile which fills the mind of the apostle as he draws application to the principles he’s been laying down in the earlier verses that we’ve been reading in chapters 8 and 9. He has, as you will recall, addressed the issue of Christian freedom and has been particularly addressing the question of how important it is to curtail our liberties in order to achieve a grand objective. The grand objective, as we saw last time, was in order that by all means possible, some men and women may come to faith in Jesus Christ.[1] “There is a discipline involved in that,” says Paul. “I am free to do certain things that I choose not to do, and it demands that I exercise discipline in order to live my life accordingly.” And so he now uses this picture, a picture that is immediately familiar to his audience, in order to drive home the relevance of his instruction.

We have three points this morning that we will endeavor to cover between verses 24–27. There is an illustration, there is an exhortation, and there is an application. We’ll actually reverse the order, in part, but you’ll be able to follow along, I trust.

An Illustration

First of all, then, let’s consider this sporting illustration. A sporting illustration.

There can be little doubt that there would have been plenty of work for Bob Costas in first-century Corinth. ABC Wide World of Sports, who is another group, I think, would also have had plenty of challenge in settling their video cameras and television operations on multiple sites all over the city. Because it was a city, as we saw when we began our studies in Corinthians (which I was intrigued to find was on 19 January 1992), when we began our studies, we noted that the city of Corinth was not only a cosmopolitan city, not only a thriving cultural and commercial environment, not only the Vanity Fair of the then-known world, but it was also located in a strategic place for athletics. On this narrow neck of land on the southern tip of Greece, this little isthmus gave ground to the Isthmian Games, which were second only to the Olympics. Consequently, for Paul to talk about running, training, and winning was to make immediate contact with those who were his listeners and his readers. And in this application, we’re going to notice running and training and winning. If you want three subpoints under the heading “A Sporting Illustration,” those are the three points, which you will find right in the text before you, I hope.

First of all, then, to talk about running was to make immediate contact. The rhetorical question with which verse 24 begins expects and demands a “Yes” answer. “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize?” People would have said, “Yes, we know.” And that’s what he wants them to say.

In Greece, at the age of seven, children were immediately introduced to the world of athletics and specifically gymnastics. They were put through their paces on a daily basis. Their exercises were graded in terms of difficulty and importance. They were performed within the whole overall framework of an upright life, and they also took place, along with swimming, in cold river water. The purpose was to see if they couldn’t produce within Greek culture a noble soul within a beautiful body. That was what they longed for. Moms and dads wanted that: “I want a lovely boy on the inside and an excellent looking son on the outside—and the same for my girls.”

Indeed, in Sparta, where the gymnastic exercises were ordered more with a view to preparing people for military service, the girls were also developed. And in the developmental process of the daughters of Sparta, there was running, spear throwing, and wrestling. So when you were driving around, as it were, in your chariot, hastening from picking them up from school, and you met somebody at the corner, you said, “Where are you going now?” “I’m going to wrestling.” “But don’t you have your daughter in there?” “Yes, of course I do. She’s going to wrestle.” And the objective was—and it was clearly stated—so that these girls would become healthy mothers of a race of soldiers. That was the purpose: to raise girls that would be good moms for soldiers. Good stock, if you like.

Now these competitive exercises were expanding all the time. They gave rise to local competitions and eventually were flushed out and fleshed out in Olympia, in the Olympic Games and, of course, in the Isthmian Games, which we’re referring to here in Corinth. The Isthmian Games were dedicated to the god of the sea, Poseidon, whom, of course, you will remember from The Poseidon Adventure, and the site of the games was a spruce grove dedicated to him. No one in Corinth would have been in any doubt when Paul said, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, [and] only one gets the prize?” Nobody would have said, “What in the world does he mean by that?” Which is, of course, a test of a good illustration. The illustration’s effectiveness is directly related to it making a point for the people. It’s not a means whereby you get the chance to tell a funny story to break the boredom that is in the minds of individuals. At least it shouldn’t be.

One writer describes how consumed the culture was with sports, writing in this way: he said that the masses demanded only two things of the political establishment of their day—bread and games. I quote, “By day they stood about idle. In the evening they watched sports.”[2] Some things just don’t change.

Now, in this illustration, Paul talks not only about running the race but also the preparation that is necessary. So the running is understandable, and the training is also understandable. Look at verse 25: “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training.” The standard of these contests was such that only those who could give evidence of their training were allowed to participate. And the training was often conducted over a preparatory period of ten months. And there had to be indication of the fact that these individuals had been present for all those events during those months. Only those who had practiced in the gymnasium were admitted. And to this rigorous training program was added a general outward, sober approach to life. And again, the readers in Corinth understood, in much the same way that we understand today when we watch athletics on the television: we realize that those individuals who are masters in their field did not become that simply by sitting around watching television. They did not become that simply by dreaming of it at night. But they became that as a result of rigorous training.

Incidentally and in passing, this has something to say to the soft, anemic approach that is being taken in the average school today which pooh-poohs the notion of training for our children. And if we spent a little more time doing math, science, and gymnastics, we would be better off in our contemporary world. But we have given up on science, we’ve given up on mathematics, and we have given up on exercise. It staggers me to learn how little exercise is done by our children, not least of all our boys, in the average school curriculum. It’s actually a crime. It’s going to produce little fat guys and an effete generation, and it is a bad idea. So, schoolteachers, that’s just a little word for you in passing. But anyway…

Running, training, and winning. Running, training, and winning. The prize is important. There’s no egalitarianism in this. It’s not “Oh, well, we’re all in it because we like to run.” No, no. We are in it for a prize. There is a victory that is anticipated. In the smaller contests, more than one prize was given out. In the larger context, only one prize was presented. The prize to which he refers was a crown.

Some of you may have seen the crowning of the Miss Universe, or whoever you call her, the other evening. Why in the world can they not get one of those things that fits the lady’s head? That crown—I’ve watched those competitions now for all my life. I mean, I don’t mean from beginning to end, but I see them, and never once have I seen one of those tiara things actually fit the head of the person. And if you saw it the other evening, it was unbelievable. It looked like a neck brace from the orthopedic department of the Cleveland Clinic, and it was going all over the place. First thing I’d do if I won that competition—which, of course, I never could—would say, “I refuse to wear your crown. It’s a piece of junk.”

Now, what they had was a crown that wasn’t really of intrinsic worth. It was made of laurel, or it was made of pine. But it was a real prize for a rigorous competition, and it was something that they really, really wanted. And they were prepared to strain every muscle and sinew, transform their lifestyle, give themselves to the task in order that they may be able to go home garlanded in pine or in parsley or in laurel or in a combination of all three. They were heading for a crown that was in itself passing away from the day that they received it.

An Application

Now, his application of this is immediately apparent. He says, “I’m speaking to you of running, of training, and of winning.” What he is about to say is this: “If these athletes practice such self-control merely to obtain a disintegrating, fading crown of wood, are we going to do any less, given the prospect of an imperishable crown laid up for us in heaven?” That’s his thesis. That’s his illustration.

Now, there is only one exhortation in all the verses, to which we’ll come as our third point. Let us make as our second point Paul’s own personal application of this principle.

Notice that he directs this to himself very clearly. He says in verse 26, “Therefore I do not run like this. I do not fight like this. I do this for this reason,” and he gives it to us. Paul recognizes that there is a unique danger to someone in his position. And this danger is expressed in two ways: number one, in the concern which he declares, and in the control which he displays. Those of you who are taking notes, those are the two subpoints. A personal application on Paul’s part.

Number one, the concern that he declares. What is his concern? Stated very clearly at the end of verse 27: “My concern is that I don’t preach to others and end up myself with no prize.” Now, this isn’t just humility on Paul’s part. This is a realistic understanding. Ultimately, he is not addressing the issue of the loss or securing of salvation, but rather, what he is saying is that a man, while heading for heaven, as it were, can so exercise his service for Christ that it is out of his own resources, it is for his own glory, and at the end of the day, he’s got nothing to show. Because although he apparently did what he was supposed to do, he did it from the wrong kind of motivation, he did it from the wrong kind of power, and he did it for the wrong kind of purpose.

So his concern is a realistic concern. What a tragedy to be a recruiter but not a runner! What a sadness to be the person who reads out the rules of the contest but never competes in the contest! What a bad deal to be the one who blows the trumpet announcing that the race is to begin but never, ever runs the race! What a sadness—to jump twenty centuries—to be the individual who fires the starting pistol, even dressed in the kind of requisite track clothing, and yet never ever strips down to the bare essentials and gets down in the starting blocks to run!

Richard Baxter, writing in an earlier century to the clergy of his day, chided them, he said, for offering the bread of life to others, a bread which they had never tasted themselves.[3] Paul says, “My concern in all of this is that after I have preached to others, I don’t want myself to be cast away from the prize and the crown and the glory.”

Let me cross-reference this in 1 Corinthians 3, first of all—remind you of what we saw in verse 12. “If any man builds on [the] foundation,” which is Jesus, he says, “using gold, [and] silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his 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,” note, “the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward.” There will be a crown. There will be a prize. “If,” however, verse 15, what he has built “is burned up, he will suffer loss”—namely, the loss of his prize. “He himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.” In other words, making it to heaven with singed trousers by the seat of your pants.

In contrast, turn to 2 Peter 1:11. One way you can get to heaven, says Paul, is by the skin of your teeth, losing all your reward. And the other way is described by Peter in 2 Peter 1:10–11. And it is obviously this latter way that Paul is concerned would be true of him in entering heaven. “Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

“That,” says Paul, “is my objective. I want to have a rich welcome. I want to have a prize. I want to have a crown. I don’t want to be disqualified. I don’t want to be known for my great conversion, for all the letters that I wrote, for all the exhortations that I gave, and find myself on the shores of heaven like a shipwrecked sailor.” Let me say one thing to you: If that was a realistic concern in the life of the apostle Paul, is it anything less than a realistic concern in every one of our lives this morning? How are we doing? How are we doing with the running? How are we doing with the training? What’s the prospect of our winning? If our epitaph were written as of today, what do you fancy for a crown? If it was over as of this morning, what’s there waiting for us? That’s the question. That’s the issue.

Now, that’s the concern that he declares: “My concern is that after I preach to other people, I myself would not be disqualified for the prize.” So, the concern he declares is then matched by the control that he displays. Because he is concerned that this would not happen, he then changes the things that he does in order to ensure that what he hopes will be true will actually be true. Makes a lot of sense: “I want to get there and get a prize. I know that if I do certain things, it limits the prospect of the prize. Therefore, I’m going to have to deal with these things.” What is he saying?

Well, the control he displays is found, number one, in the fact that he says no to aimless running. He says no to aimless running. Verse 26: “Therefore,” he says, “I do not run like a man running aimlessly.” “I don’t run around,” he says, “like somebody who has no fixed or certain goal.” This is in keeping with what he says when he writes to the Philippians. Philippians 3:14, he says, “Forgetting [those things which are] behind … I press on … to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” He’s unashamed about it.

“Paul, what are you doing?”

“I’m heading for the tape.”

“What do you expect at the tape?”

“I expect a prize.”

“What are you prepared to do in order to ensure that that’s the case?”

There’s no shortcut to the life of usefulness or holiness.

“I’m prepared to make sure that I’m not just running around aimlessly. I’m not going to content myself with the fact that I’m stripped down, wearing the suit, and I’m kind of wandering around in the track meet, and everybody knows that I must somehow be involved in it, because after all, I’m wearing the gear, and so, presumably, ‘he has a number on his back, and therefore, he’s involved in something.’ But no one has any notion of whether I’m actually enlisted in the race, whether I’m under starter’s orders. They would never know by watching me.” Paul says, “I won’t do that. I refuse,” he says, “to run aimlessly.”

He also says no to shadowboxing. “I say no to aimless running. I say no to shadowboxing.” He introduces one of the other elements of the Isthmian Games. There was wrestling. There was boxing. There was actually a combination of boxing and wrestling, which was a perilous sort of activity, as it is today. And again, he would be identifying in the minds of people what he was saying.

The literal statement where he says, “I beat my body” (it may say “I buffet my body” in your version)—when he says, “I beat my body,” he says this: “I give my body a black eye.” That’s what it literally says in the Greek: “I punch myself underneath the eye.” It’s a very graphic statement from the boxing competitions of the Isthmian Games. Because they boxed sometimes with protection, but they boxed until such a time as the individual would raise his hand and declare himself vanquished. And the one thing that was most likely to bring that about was to make sure that you finally got the guy right underneath the eye, and you neutralized him once and for all. He held up his hand and he was a goner. Paul says, “That’s what I do to my body. I punch myself.”

Does this sound like self-help? Does this sound like self-esteem? No, this sounds like something different. That’s because it is something different! He says, “I recognize I’ve got a problem. I’m the biggest problem I’ve got. The biggest thing that prevents me ever from getting the prize is me, not somebody else. Therefore, I’m going to have to take me under control. I’m going to have to beat me up.” It doesn’t sound right, does it? That’s because we’ve spent thirty years being told it isn’t right. It’s not just right; it’s vital.

“I don’t shadowbox,” he says. Why would you go into a ring and shadowbox with somebody? That wasn’t Muhammad Ali’s way. “I fly like a butterfly, I sting like a bee. Hey!” Bam! “You’re gone, mister.” What a man! What a great boxer! That’s an aside. Unbelievable! Dancing, fluttering, jumping, fading, faking. I lived to see the best. He was in no doubt: “You’re out of here.” Now, this is his point.

The cross-reference that you need—that I need, too—is Romans 6:13. Romans 6:13. Paul has already explained what it is to be justified by faith. He then says, “Since our sins have been forgiven, how should we live? Should we go out and be sinners? No,” he says, “that’s a bad idea.”[4] So, in order to bring our lives into line with what God intends, he says, in Romans 6:12, “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires.” Then he tightens it up a little more: he says, “Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness.”[5] Does this sound like legalism? No! He explains, verse 14: “For sin shall not be your master”—now, he doesn’t say “because you are under law” but “because you are not under law, but [are] under grace.”

“It’s because Jesus loves you and you love Jesus that you’re not going to do that stuff with your body,” he says. But your body has got a propensity within itself, driven by the seat of our emotions and our desires, to do its thing in a way that is displeasing to God, even after we become Christians. So how in the world are we going to be able to take it in check? Not by boxing the air, not by running aimlessly, but by beating on our desires in a way that brings them into line with what the Scriptures say.

Now, I wonder: Do you get the impression here that this is a kind of emotional thing? There’s no sense of emotion in it, is there? There’s nothing here about how he feels. If he was to express how he felt, then he would be speaking in a different kind of language and tone. No, he’s speaking about what he knows he ought to do. There’s no suggestion here of a shortcut to the life of usefulness or holiness. And yet we live in a world, loved ones, where it’s held out to us all the time: “Don’t buy that running stuff and the boxing stuff. I’ve got the answer here for you. You read this, and you memorize this, and you can be holy in twenty-five minutes without all the pain and the agony of the Romans 6:13, 1 Corinthians 9.”

Is that appealing to you? Of course it is. That’s how they sell all those Abdominizers—stupid plastic buckets that they are. What’s the point of that? Everybody’s spending twenty-five dollars to get it sent to their home. They get it to their home, and they say to their wives, “This is just sit-ups! I mean, I could do this on the floor! What do I need this plastic thing for?” The wife goes, “Mm-hmm!” But some guy is down in the South of France on a yacht, laughing about all us sitting with the plastic things, going, “This isn’t what I thought it would do.” ’Cause we thought there was a way that you could get a plastic thing and somehow or another it was absorbed through somewhere and it did something. No!

Now, I want to tell you that if you read books and you read contemporary Christian books, you’d better be careful, for this reason. ’Cause there are enough books out there that will tell you that there’s a way to get the way Paul says you need to get without any of the effort. And they don’t work, and they won’t work, and they’ll make you a liar or a loony. You need to read good books—books like J. C. Ryle’s Holiness, in which he says this:

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 [their] 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 … passionate feeling[s] of attachment to our … favourite preachers and our own religious party, and a readiness to quarrel with every one who does[n’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, [in our] habits, [in our] character, and [in our] doings.[6]

And it is to this end that Paul says, “Making the application to myself, I say no to aimless running, and I say no to shadowboxing.”

An Exhortation

That brings us finally, then, to the exhortation which he gives to those who are his readers. And the exhortation is in verse 24. It’s a striking exhortation—clear, concise; no child here can misunderstand it this morning: “Run in such a way as to get the prize.” That’s the message. Phillips paraphrases it, “You ought to run with your minds fixed on winning the prize!”

Now, there is an obvious discrepancy between the illustration that he uses and the application that he makes. In the illustration that he uses, there was only one prize. For the Christian running in the life of faith, there is not simply one prize; otherwise, we would all be vying with one another as to who was going to get it. In 2 Timothy 4:8, Paul says—verse 7—“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me,” he says, “the crown of righteousness … and not only to me [will it be awarded], but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” So we’re not all running trying to get one crown. That would be a tyrannous thought. And most of us would assume right from the beginning that there’s little likelihood of us getting the one crown that was going. So God has prepared crowns for those who will run in the way that he says we ought to run.

If you have a King James Version, the sense of it comes out clearly. The King James Version says, “So run as to get the prize.”[7] “So run.” Paul says the same thing: he says, “So I run,” or “I so run.” “I run houtōs,” “in such a way.” “I run like a prizewinner. I don’t run like a straggler. I don’t run like a wanderer. I don’t run like a half-hearted participant.”

When they give out the T-shirts on these 5k races or 10k races, they ought to prepare a number of T-shirts: on the front or on the back, it simply says, “I’m only in this to get the jolly T-shirt.” And presumably, there are some people who go, pay their entry money, get their T-shirt, and then walk around with it. They’re no more in the race than fly in the air! They’re stragglers. They’re wanderers. They’re not participants. They’re not running so as to get the prize.

That is not, he says, to be the perspective of the Christian. The Christian perspective is that he competes. The word there for “competes,” verse 25, is the word agōnizomai, from which we get our word agony. The Christian, he says, agonizes. The Christian is so committed to being there, he moves body, mind, soul, life, family, career, demands, money, girls, boys—everything! Because he is consumed with where he’s going. “There is a day when we will stand before the judge. He will give out the crowns, and that crown is so important to me that I will order all the rest of my life, all the rest of my time, be it short or long, in relation to that great objective.”

That’s what he says we’re supposed to do: we’re to run in that way. That’s how you go to job interviews. That’s how you choose a wife. That’s how you decide whether you remain single. That’s how you set up your career. That’s how you respond to disappointment: in the light of the fact that I’m running so as to get the prize. Prizewinners, in a world of egalitarianism. America of all places ought to know about prize winning—has led the world in establishing goals and objectives and showing how it can be done. Then don’t let’s miss the point. Don’t let’s fail to take our own medicine.

Isn’t this in keeping with the words of Jesus? Matthew 16:25: “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for [my sake] will find it.” Erich Sauer, writing in an earlier generation, in a book called In the Arena of Faith, says this:

He who is not prepared to sacrifice will not be honoured to gain the crown. He who has regard to his Ego, will one day, when Christ appears, have a great disappointment. He who holds fast [to an earthly mind, to his own convenience], to enjoyment of sin, to pride, renders himself unequal [for] racing. Only serious training in practical holiness, in self-denial, in true discipleship can strengthen spiritual muscle.[8]

Now, let me try and wrap this up for you. One of the key reasons, I believe, for the ineffectiveness of the church as a whole at this point in history—one of the explanations for the shipwrecked lives of so many—is that a whole generation of Christians has been growing up without an awareness of the necessity of running so as to get the prize; growing up without an awareness of the necessity of dealing with sin, without an awareness of what the Reformers called “the mortification of the flesh.” In other words, being prepared to deal ruthlessly with who and what I am. Being prepared to pronounce the death sentence on the sin which lingers within my life and to be in the process of putting that death sentence into daily effect, killing everything in my life that opposes itself to God’s purposes.

Now, that won’t necessarily be the same in my life as it is in yours. The sources of temptations in our lives differ according to our personalities, our backgrounds, our temperaments, our circumstances. Each of us has to determine at what point we are the weakest and then to give ourselves to discipline in relationship to those things.

Now, lest somebody misses this, I want to say it very clearly—and you’ll find it in Colossians [2]:23: external rules won’t handle this. External rules won’t handle this. You heard me say it, and you heard me say it here, and you heard me say it this morning. Don’t miss the point. Colossians 2:23. Verse 20, actually: “Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of [the] world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do[n’t] handle! Do[n’t] taste! Do[n’t] touch!’?” Da-da, da-da, da-da. Verse 23: “Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility … their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.”

Now, understand: it’s the same guy who wrote 1 Corinthians 9:24–27 who wrote Colossians [2]:23. So for those of us who are immediately beginning to say, “I got the point; I know what you do: you have to do all these external things, and then it all fits,” Paul says, “Don’t make that mistake. It won’t work that way. You can’t do it.” John Owen, writing in an earlier generation, says, “Mortification from a self-strength, carried on by ways of self-invention, unto the end of self-righteousness, is the soul and substance of all false religion in the world.”[9]

Well then, what is the key to it? The key to it is actually in chapter 3 of Colossians, if your Bible is still open there. “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.”[10] “You’ve been raised with Jesus. You’re now seated in the heavenly places. Get your heart there. Get your mind there. Get yourself there.” “And,” verse 5, “chuck out all the garbage.”[11] Why? Because you’re now in tune with Jesus, and Jesus doesn’t like that stuff. He knows it’s no good for you. He doesn’t want you to have it. And you’ll never win the prize if you keep up with it. It’s as simple as that.

And we are breeding a generation of people who don’t understand it—who don’t realize that every day you live your life and every day you go to school or to college or to the office, it is a constant battle against sin that we fight. Victory depends upon the refusal to allow our eyes to wander, our minds to settle, and our affections to run after the things that draw us away from Christ.[12] What is involved is—and I quote—“the deliberate rejection of any sinful thought, suggestion, desire, aspiration, deed, circumstance or provocation at the moment [I] become conscious of its existence. It is the consistent endeavour to do all in [my power] to weaken the grip which sin in general, and its [manifestation] in [my life] in particular, has.”[13]

Think about the level of commitment involved in an Olympic gold. Yesterday afternoon, in Koenig’s, there was a young lady there, won an Olympic gold for United States in swimming. I happened to be there, and I saw her. I didn’t realize; the line was so long, otherwise I would have got her photograph signed so that I could have held it up today and said, “She told me she had to train like crazy to get it.” I never managed to get the quote, but I didn’t need it, because I know that you can’t get Olympic gold without that. It regulates your whole life—changes everything about you: changes everything you do, changes the way you eat, changes the restaurants to which you go, changes the time you spend, changes your views on marriage, changes absolutely everything. It is impossible otherwise. And why? All for the transient applause and the hurrah of a fleeting crowd with a short memory and for a piece of rusting metal that will sit in a velvet box somewhere which you can show your grandchildren but which they will only be marginally impressed with, because the world record—an Olympic record—will have been so soundly beaten since that day that it will be like, “Well, that was nice, Grandpa, but couldn’t you have tried a little harder?” And what he’s saying is this: “If they do that for that kind of crown, to what end are we prepared to go for a crown that will never perish?”

You know, in all of this, probably more than anything else, models are important, aren’t they? Models. We all have had them and have them. No one exemplified this spirit more to me than the memory of Eric Liddell—died in 1945 in the prisoner-of-war camp in China. I was born in ’52 but ushered into a Scotland that still remembered Eric Liddell. All of Scotland mourned the day he died. People lined the streets, although he was dead in China and they were thousands of miles away. Immortalized in his stand for principle in the 1924 Olympics in which he won the Olympic gold in the four hundred meters, despite the fact that he had been preparing, along with his Jewish counterpart, Abrahams, for the hundred meters, the key event in the Olympics as they were then understood. He trained not only in the last moments for that four hundred meters and won it, but he also broke the world and Olympic records in doing it. It was an unbelievable event.

Reading, in conclusion, from a little booklet I have on the life of Eric Liddell, it says this:

The newspapers called him a traitor, and it seemed as if the whole sporting world turned against him, even to the Prince of Wales trying to get him to change his mind. For Eric, the decision was final: it was God first. His own desires or those of his country would have to take second place. In the time that remained before the Olympics, he trained instead for the four hundred meters, although it was not at all his best distance. The four hundred meters final took place at 7:00 p.m. on the evening of Friday, July 11. He arrived a little late. As he arrived late, as he passed the cheering crowds, he glanced briefly…

And they changed this in the movie.

He glanced briefly at a note that had been pressed into his hand by one of the masseurs in his hotel who had worked on his body before he left.

It was not Scholz that gave him the note, as in the movie, but it was a masseur in the hotel. He’d never opened it. And as he walks into the stadium, he opens it up. And the message written on the sheet—so there was a message; they just changed its source—it said on the sheet, “In the old book it says, ‘He that honors me I will honor.’ Wishing you the best of success always.”

For a moment, quick scenes flashed through his mind. Harold Abrahams is the first European to do so, winning gold for the hundred meters, just days before, in 10.6 seconds.

See what I mean, how quickly it goes past?

Bevil Rudd, the South African, won the four hundred in Antwerp in the 1920 Olympics. Could he be next? He mustn’t let his mind wander. He could only have one goal: to bring glory to God, to please him, was Eric’s highest ambition. He knew very well the words of 1 Samuel 2:30, “Them that honour me I will honour.”

His speed for the first two hundred meters was unbelievable, putting him an impossible ten feet ahead of the field. It was less than a second behind the 21.6 record time of Jackson Scholz in the two-hundred-meter final. “Surely, he is running the race like a madman,” someone mused. “He can never keep up such a pace.”

It then goes on to describe how he won. And in the Edinburgh evening news of that evening, here’s the quote: “It was the last fifty meters that meant the making or breaking of Liddell.” The last fifty meters! Nobody would know Eric Liddell because he ran the first two hundred one second inside the two-hundred-meters time. It was because he finished, and he finished well! Writing years later, as a missionary in China, when asked about how he won the four hundred meters, he said, “The secret of my success over the four hundred meters is that I ran the first two hundred as hard as I could. Then for the second two hundred, with God’s help, I ran it harder.”

I want to say to some of you this morning that have run, as it were, the first two hundred meters of your life—and I am one of them, in chronological terms—oh, good, if we had a great start! But here we are. There’s another two hundred to go. Are you prepared to go for the tape? Are you prepared to reorientate your life, your career, your future, your desires, your dreams, to give up everything for the cause of making the tape and winning the prize? There’s a teenager here this morning, and this kindles the passion in your heart. That’s lovely. You don’t need to stand up. You don’t need to do anything. Just in your heart, cry out to God, “God, I’ll be that guy! I’ll be that girl! If I work in a bank for the rest of my life, I’ll be that guy—whenever, wherever.” That’s the challenge. Everybody knows the Chariots of Fire stuff. Most people don’t know the other stuff.

Nineteen twenty-five, less than a year after he won that, he left Waverley Station in Edinburgh. Thousands of people came to Waverley Station to see him off. He was going as a missionary to China. He opened the windows of the compartment in which he was, and he spoke out onto the station platform there, underneath the scene of Edinburgh Castle and the scene of his university education and his rugby triumphs. And out of the window he said to the people who had gathered to see him off, “Let our motto be this: Christ for the world, for the world needs Christ.” And he then led them 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]

Run so as to win the prize!

Let us pray:

God, grant that as you look upon our lives this morning, you may find us enlisting in the race. We want to be under starter’s orders. We need help with the training. We thank you for the example of others who run alongside and before us. Remind us that there are others watching us run and others coming behind us, waiting to take the baton from our hands. Grant us grace that we may kneel down to the project, strength that we may endure the agony, and hope that we might anticipate the victory. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

[1] See 1 Corinthians 9:22.

[2] Erich Sauer, In the Arena of Faith: A Call to a Consecrated Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), 40. Paraphrased.

[3] Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor (1656; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974), 54.

[4] Romans 6:1–2 (paraphrased).

[5] Romans 6:13 (NIV 1984).

[6] J. C. Ryle, Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots, 3rd ed. (London: William Hunt, 1887), xv.

[7] 1 Corinthians 9:24 (paraphrased from the KJV).

[8] Erich Sauer, In the Arena of Faith: A Call to the Consecrated Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), 56.

[9] John Owen, The Mortification of Sin (1656), chap. 1.

[10] Colossians 3:1 (NIV 1984).

[11] Colossians 3:5 (paraphrased).

[12] Sinclair B. Ferguson, Know Your Christian Life: A Theological Introduction (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1981), 143.

[13] Ferguson, 143.

[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.