Running to Win the Prize

2012-07-09 by . 2 comments

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1 Corinthians 9:24
Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it.

Jacobus Arminius began his career as a theologian and preacher in the Reformed (i.e., Calvinist) tradition in the late 1500s and early 1600s. Over time, Arminius found himself disagreeing with Calvinist theology on several key points of doctrine.

Arminius studied theology at the University of Leiden, in what is now the Netherlands, where most of the professors held an extreme form of Calvinism that included a doctrine known as supralapsarianism. According to this view, God decreed some people to be saved and others to be damned before God decreed to allow the Fall. Most of the professors at Leiden held this view, although one—Johann Kolmann—argued that it made God out to be a tyrant and an executioner.

After earning his degree from Leiden, Arminius went to Geneva to study under Theodore Beza—another supralapsarian—for six years, before returning to Amsterdam to become a pastor. As he studied the Bible for sermon prepration, he developed an understanding of grace and predestination that was increasingly at odds with the teachings of Calvin and Beza.

Running Aimlessly

Arminius never doubted the Calvinist doctrine of Total Depravity, the idea that human nature is so completely corrupted by sinfulness that we cannot be saved on our own merits, nor even choose to accept the salvation God offers.

Jesus himself explained God’s standard for righteousness.

Matthew 5:48
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

To put it in today’s language, God has a zero-tolerance policy for sin.

Paul, in his letter to the Romans, makes note of what percentage of the human population actually live up to this standard:

Romans 3:23
…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

To extend Paul’s race analogy from 1 Corinthians 9, if salvation is like running a race, then the sinful nature is like running aimlessly with no idea that the race course even exists.

In his understanding of humans’ sinful nature, Arminius remained true to his Calvinist upbringing. But during his years in the pulput Arminius discovered a number of areas where he could no longer agree with Calvinist teachings. The more he studied his Bible, the more Arminius encountered passages that he simply could not reconcile with the doctrines he had been taught at Leiden.

To the Starting Line

For example, two doctrines of Calvinism are Limited Atonement—the belief that God’s grace was made available only to a select group—and Unconditional Election—the teaching that before the foundation of the earth God made the final decision about who would be saved.

But a number of New Testament passages indicate that God’s will is for everyone to be saved.

2 Peter 3:9
The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.
1 Timothy 2:3-4
This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
Titus 2:11-13
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.

If God wants everyone to be saved, then Limited Atonement and Unconditional Election leave us with a God who subverts his own will.

But as Arminius discovered, the Bible contains a different teaching about election.

Romans 10:9-10
…because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.
Acts 16:30-31
Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”
John 1:11-12
[Jesus] came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.

If I can extend Paul’s race metaphor even further, God is not going to exclude anyone from competing in this race. However, we are so far off course that it takes an act of God to bring us to the starting line. We can let him lead us there, or we can continue going our own way and getting nowhere.

Running the Race

When we reach the starting line, what does God expect from us? A simple one-time confession, a recitation of the “Sinner’s Prayer”? Or does God want something more?

According to the Calvinist doctrine of Perseverance of the Saints, a person who is saved can never fall away. But once again the Bible appears to teach something different.

Matthew 24:10-13
Then many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
James 2:17-24
So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

So salvation depends on our works as well as our faith. Just as God does not drag us to the starting line without a response from us, God also does not run the race of salvation for us. Rather, this race is something we run in partnership with God. Because, as it turns out, our good works are not really our own.

Philippians 2:12b-13
[W]ork out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

What God expects of us is nothing less than a complete transformation of our entire being, so that we live for God’s will and not our own.

Romans 12:1-2
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Crossing the Finish Line

This transformation takes time. Paul recognized that even after he had converted from Judaism to Christianity and preached Christ throughout the Roman Empire, he had not reached the finish line of salvation.

Philippians 3:10-14
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

This is a marathon, not a sprint. We can’t quit the race in the middle, or leave the course to follow our own interests, if we want to win the prize.

1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.

In Summary

Salvation is like a marathon, and we are like runners who don’t even realize the course exists. But God has set conditions by which we can not only compete in the race, but win. God will even bring us to the starting line if we let him lead us. But the starting line is not the end of the race; it is merely the beginning. To win this race we must follow God’s course and not veer off on our own way. It is only by enduring to the finish that we will receive our eternal reward.

Next week, Peter Turner will bring us the Catholic perspective as he explains why God’s the guy with the gun.

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  • Jas 3.1 says:

    Nice! I love how you used the race analogy as a framework. You structured this very well.

  • Jon Ericson says:

    Yay analogies! The Christian life certainly isn’t a sprint.

    However, John Piper points out:

    This is the utterly unique thing about the way a Christian runner runs: we run not as though we see Jesus the judge at the end merely scrutinizing while we rely on ourselves for strength; but we run as those who have already been taken hold of by Jesus for the prize. We run to win the prize in the power of having been taken hold of for the prize.

    It’s a strange race in that the longer you run, the stronger you get; because it isn’t you that’s getting strong after all. It’s letting God be your strength.

    I need to read up on Jacobus Arminius and his work.

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