So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified (1Cor 9.26-27)
If Christians are called to be at war with the surrounding culture. If the gospel may be rightly viewed as a battle motif. Then, where does the war…where does the battle begin? In other words, if we are going to combat wrong by standing for what is righteous and true, then where should our focus be primarily?
The apostle Paul understood that in preaching to others, he had a responsibility before God and to his fellow man to make sure his life modeled his words. If he were to be an effective witness for Christ (1Cor 9.23), then he needed to run the race (1Cor 9.24) with the attitude of determination. This is why he said he didn’t run without a purpose, or merely shadow box the air. Everything he did, he did for the Lord who had saved him from sin.
By definition a Christian is one who follows Jesus Christ. That is to say the standard our Lord appealed to is the same standard that we are commanded to live by. This is the meaning behind the Lord’s words to His disciples on the sermon on the Mount: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5.48).
Now if you have spent anytime at all walking with the Lord you should be able to readily testify that as Christians we fall horribly short of this standard. Neither is our love for God or our fellow man perfect. If we are honest with ourselves we fail quite frequently in mimicking God’s Holiness back at Him and in His creation as a whole. However, our inability to be perfect is not an excuse. The requirement of obedience still stands.
Paul understood something that we “moderns” have a hard time grasping today. Before Christ we were slaves of sin. For example, he explained to his Roman audience the following truth: “Do you not know that if you present to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness” (Rom 6.16-18). Where did Paul get such an idea? From the Lord, naturally.
Jesus had explained this truth to the Jews during His earthly ministry. They assumed that it was their earthly status as members of the covenant by circumcision as the natural born children of Abraham that ensured they were truly children of God (His chosen; His elect). And yet, Jesus taught very clearly that it was not by means “of blood…[or] of the will of the flesh…[or] of the will of man” (John 1.13) that determined such things. He explained very clearly that every person who sinned was a slave of sin (cf. John 8.34), and the only hope of not continuing in that state of enslavement was if the Son set them free. For “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8.36).
Now you may miss the significance of this statement by our Lord (many Jews did), depending on the interpretative lens you are looking through. The essential point that Jesus is making in light of what the rest of the Scripture teaches is that there is not a single person on earth who can claim that they are not sinners for all men sin: “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins” (Eccl 7.20; cf. 2Chron 6.36; Rom 3.23; 5.19).
It was not until God knocked Paul off of his high horse and made the spiritual blinders fall off that he truly began to grasp the depths of his fallenness. The new birth opened the blinded eyes of Saul of Tarsus, whom we know affectionately as the apostle Paul1, which is demonstrated for the reader of Acts 9:18 when “something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. The he rose and was baptized…” (cf. 2Cor 4.3-4).
After Paul’s life was radically changed by our Lord Jesus Christ, he knew to be true what so many of his brethren did not that between Jew and Gentile there is no distinction of persons when it comes to being born a sinner; a slave of sin (Rom 3.9). Only through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit can a dead-person be changed to a living one. The exchange of old to new cannot take place unless granted from above.
Now my point today is that though this is true, the fact remains that putting on the new man (Christ) is at the same time a two-fold process. On the one hand we are immediately sanctified (set-apart) in Jesus, we have been given a new nature in Him. However, this transfer of a new Christ-like nature does not immediately remove in its entirety our sinful nature; the two are at war with one another as Paul taught on numerous occasions.
- “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have a desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (Rom 7.18-25).2
- “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Gal 5.16-17).
I would be remiss if I did not show how these passages relate to the conclusion Paul draws about the Christian life in general: “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” (Gal 5.25). What is meant by this statement of Paul is this: “If we have been granted new life by the Spirit—that is we have been born of the Spirit; we live because of Him (cf. John 6.63)—then we ought to walk in the manner to the newness of life we have been given.” In other words, we need to be consistent.
Therefore, this is the reason Paul says what he does in 1Cor 9:26-27. He does not aimlessly live his life in a fashion where he has no discipline or self-control. Rather, he disciplines his own life in order to align it with the Lord who has saved and redeemed him, and so that when he preaches and teaches others to conform their lives to the Word of God he is not disqualified for failing to do what is required of all Christians: “whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1John 2.6).
The battle then starts in our own lives. Make no mistake about it, Christians are called to war. The gospel of Jesus Christ is militant in that everyone is commanded to repent (Acts 17.30). Either we bow the knee to Christ and kiss him in humility or there will come a day in the near future when we will be forced to bow the knee in fear (Psa 2; Matt 28.18; Phil 2.10-12; Rev 20.10, 15; 21.8).
We cannot hope to engage the culture around us if we are unwilling to allow the sword of truth to slay us first. We must be willing to fight sin in our own lives, nailing them to the cross of Christ. And then, in accordance with our God we stand against all forms of unrighteousness in our home, our churches, and our nation (Psa 9.8; 22.31; 82.2-5).
Contrary to popular belief 3 Christians are called to judge, but they are called to judge righteously, not according to personal standards that are subjective to the individual in question, but according to eternal standards that are objective to the God in whose character they reflect. This action on the part of Christians is not possible if we are not willing to fight the sin that remains in us. We do not do this on our power alone—we cannot—but we do so because the Holy Spirit equips us. It is by the Spirit through His Word that we are enabled to conform to the life of Christ, but this is a daily battle—i.e. carrying our cross, suffering for His sake.
1 This was not a name change, as is sometimes supposed, but rather is Paul’s Greek name that he used to identify with his Gentile (Greek, etc.) audience.
2 The internal struggle that Paul is disclosing to his audience here, the two laws warring within his own heart as a believer is meant to be understood as a “governing principle.” As with any word the semantic range can be quite wide, but is limited according to the context in which the term is used. In this case, when Paul speaks of “law” he is not speaking of the Law of God as a set of precepts or commands, but the law of sin as a governing principle that desires to or is tempted to do evil, just as the law of righteousness is a governing principle of willing to do good from God’s vantage point; in accordance with His revealed Law-Word.
3 There is a world of difference between what is popularly held to as Christian practice versus what the Bible teaches as Christian doctrine.