A Roman amphitheater  - Paul trained himself as an athlete

24 Do you not know that those who run in a stadium all run BUT ONLY ONE RECEIVES THE PRIZE? Run in such a way that you may win. 25 Everyone who competes in the Games exercises self-control in all things. Whilst they do it to obtain a perishable crown, we (do so)  for an imperishable. 26 Therefore I run in such a way as not to do so aimlessly; I box in such a way as to avoid merely hitting air; 27 rather I strictly discipline my body and make it my slave, SO THAT, AFTER I HAVE PREACHED TO OTHERS, I MYSELF WILL NOT BE DISQUALIFIED. (1Cor9:24-27)

What prize might that be for which Paul is competing? “I press on toward the goal being the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Phi3:14}. And does the apostle regard this prize as a foregone conclusion? On the contrary, speaking of it in the previous verse: “Brothers, I do not regard myself as having taken hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead”. And in the chapter under consideration: “I therefore strictly discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified (1Cor9:27). Only when he was virtually on his death-bed was the apostle able to write: “The time of my departure has arrived. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith;in the future there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to meon that day(2Tim4:6-8).

Paul clearly regards himself as God’s athlete. He utilizes the language of the race-track – sporting analogies abound. And not for the first time, the picture Paul paints of Gospel salvation is about as far removed as it could be from what I believed during the first 25 years or so of my Christian pilgrimage. But what Paul is teaching follows on very logically from the points made in the previous post. In particular, that those who do achieve the prize or “the crown of righteousness” to which Paul refers shall be proportionately speaking few in number. Those outside the Judeo-Christian Covenants of Promise (i.e. the bulk of people who have ever lived) have not even embarked upon the race, let alone been able to win the prize. Those who do embark were enabled to do so through divine intervention (Jn6:44). Christ teaches in that verse that man is innately incapable of turning to Him as Lord and Savior and this reality is backed up by Paul. Election to the Covenant of Promise (Eph2:12) is on the basis of free and unmerited grace, even one’s faith in Christ being a gift of God (Eph2:8).

However, the “all of grace” paradigm pertains to election, not to completing the course, which, though dependent on divine grace (for sure) also requires an effort from the participant, especially in the area to which Paul repeatedly returns: defying the concupiscent instincts of the bodily senses which conflict with the  nobler aspirations derived from the God-given spirit or “inner man” (Rom7:23 & 8:13). So Paul as God’s athlete summarizes his Roman amphitheater analogy with this statement: “I strictly DISCIPLINE MY BODY and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified” (v27)).  Jesus said of those who would gain the prize to which Paul refers “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Mt16:25). Do not be deceived as I was by simplistic conversionism: the notion of “getting saved” by reciting a prayer of faith, believing Jesus died for ME, resting in the Savior’s merits and suchlike. Such dispositions in themselves shall gain no prizes: Christians have been set a course to run; and as Paul and (still more) the writer to the Hebrews make clear, by no means all shall complete it. Likewise, in Revelation, few within the churches were found worthy to partner Christ through eternity (Rev3:4).  

This may be a reality check but should dishearten no one, for the above does not relate to whether or not the soul goes to heaven when one dies. That is determined by what many refer to as “natural law”, the outworking of which is summarized in the New Testament’s definitive passage on final judgement in which those who have exercised compassion are accepted whilst those utterly devoid of it (and a compliant conscience to motivate such responses) go on to receive post-mortem punishment (Mt25:31-46). As I have previously explained “natural law” in the anthropological context is something of a misnomer, for essentially it relates to God’s Law written in the heart, innate God-given spiritual faculties and the saving work of Christ.  In other words, it relates to the conscience and the Cosmic Christ depicted in my previous post,

Be assured, God desires that ALL should ultimately have the opportunity to be soul-healed and come to a knowledge of the truth (1Tim2:4). And He who is Love personified sent His only begotten Son to die as an atonement for sins in the flesh (Rom8:3). This was for a dual purpose: to purchase “a peculiar people and royal priesthood (1Pet2:9) who give their lives in devotion to His Son, but also to provide pardon and final acceptance for the many more who, although unempowered to defeat the corruptions of the flesh nevertheless respond positively to the Light of conscience, effectively serving “Christ” through the kindness and love they have shown to others (cf. Jn1:9KJV; Mt25:40, 1n4:7). This is not mere wishful thinking – it is, I believe, a revelation of the Spirit resulting in a systematized  reinterpretation of the whole bible set out in “The Little Book of Providence”.

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