No Apparent Middle Ground

1 Corinthians 9:24-27 (NKJV) Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air.  But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.

The above passage is fairly well know, especially verse 24b “Run in such a way to obtain it”.  This particular line has been the text of thousands of messages in the modern age.  I will apologize now for one more.  Why would I continue to massage a text, which has been massaged smooth over the years?  Because I believe we are missing something very important.  We are to be running our Christian race to win, but what we see in contemporary Christianity looks more like treading water or taking a leisurely stroll.  In our modern day “think tank” idea of faith, we talk a lot about our walk and how it is characterized, all the while applying little of it to any successful measure. 

To mitigate all the carnality and sin and backsliding among us, we have created different categories of Christians.  We have convinced ourselves there are those who have just been “saved” and those who have let Jesus be “Lord of their life”.  This seems a bit odd to me given Romans 10:9-10 “that if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead you will be saved.  For with the mouth one confesses unto salvation and with the heart one believes unto righteousness”.  It seems to me only those who confess Him as Lord are saved, having believed in His resurrection.  How could a saved person, with the leading of the Holy Spirit, not at least in heart, begin a life of surrender to His Lordship.  Salvation begins for us with the repentance, meaning our minds must first submit to the Truth about us, and God.  Repentance is seen as we turn away from our old life and unto God.  Repentance shows He is Lord of the saved person.  The creation of this theological “Texas Two Step” is merely another attempt to explain “carnal Christians” from “spiritual Christians”, like Paul was trying to define two categories of believer, those who merely get in and those who are rewarded.  The apostle was not doing that, but warning them of the danger they were in, for  remaining carnal; for the carnal mind is enmity (at war with God).  The whole point for this diatribe is to declare that I Corinthians 9:24-27 pretty much blows up these categories leaving no apparent middle ground.


Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it.”

Verse 24 is plain to understand.  Anyone who enters a race, is entering to do something that resembles running, in some form or shape.  Whether it’s a sprint or marathon, you enter in an attempt to run.  It is equally clear that only one person, unless it is a photo finish, gets the prize or winnings.  In the context of this scripture, the winnings are a laurel leaf crown and that person’s god being declared as supreme.  Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthian Church was that they all run to be the winner, not just participate.  Let me explain.  If I were to enter a marathon, I would not be entering it to win, in fact I may be entering it to kill myself, because that is exactly what would happen after about three and a half miles; a nasty, sweaty, massive heart attack leading to my death.  But say I was in a little better shape.  Would I have a shot at winning against the little nymphs that marathon runners are?  No! I would merely be participating, as I would probably run, walk, crawl, slide, beg for mercy and crawl across the finish line in an amazing time of three days.  I may cross the finish line, and although I participated, I would not be officially recognized as having completed the race; being I was not finished in the time parameters allotted.  Christians are not called to merely participate, hang on, tread water or limp to the finish in our time; we are called to win our race.

Philippians 3:12-14 (NKJV) Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Hebrews 12:1 (NKJV)  Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,

Because of the prize of our race (“the upward call of God in Christ”) is so important, we are to run with a heart that never quits, never stop running and never stops striving for victory.  We are to run knowing what trips us up and weighs us down.  We are to run making the necessary adjustments to win.   Believers are those who by nature are not satisfied with mere participation.  Mere participation is contrary to the Spirit of God with us and love commensurate to our Saviors eternal efforts on our behalf.  True believers desire to and learn to run a winning race.

And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown.”

Paul characterizes those who run to win a physical race as being “temperate” or self-controlled in all things.  It is fairly common to find accounts of championship athletes that practice meticulous and diligent self-control in their training regiments for their sport.  They control what they take into their body.  They control what activities they partake in that would adversely affect their abilities (social media, entertainment, news reports, even sex).  These athletes and runners have one goal, and that is to win.  Anything that would diminish their chances of victory is avoided at all costs.  As Paul says they do it “for an perishable crown”.  In the original context they were literally competing for a wreath that would wither in days if not hours.  It is true they were competing for human glory, but that lasted only till next year’s race.  Even today think of the dedication of the athletes who are champions, it is mind numbing how dedicated some of them are, all for that which will corrupt and rust and perish.  Paul reminds us of what we are competing for; to hold to the promise of eternal life with Christ.  We are running to bring Him glory now and forever.  In the running of our race for Christ do we exercise effort and self-control, as diligent as or exceeding the effort or self-control of a championship athlete, who is competing for a rusting reward?  This is not a hard question to answer, although the answer is a painful one.  The Corinthian believers were not and my opinion neither are we as a whole.    

A.W. Tozer speaks about what this looks like at times and how we find the exertion necessary for a championship run, “When you leave the old life, there must be a renunciation, and that is always a negative thing.  But remember, you are not saved by what you renounce; you are saved by what you embrace”.  Temperance does dictate we repent and turn away from our old life, renouncing the ways of the world we are embroiled in.  There is no escaping that fact, believers must leave their old life behind.  What makes that more than tolerable and even downright joyful is to embrace the Lord Jesus Christ.  This is why we often fail to run to win.  Too often equate winning with getting rid of the old, without having a motivation in front us.  For the winning athlete, that which drives their temperance is the glory of their crown, the fame that goes with it.  What is to drive our efforts for temperance is the glory and joy of Christ’s manifest presence now and His face before us for all eternity.

Let face it, there is no prize for just participating.  In Romans 14:10, I Corinthians 3:11-15, II Corinthians 5:10 we understand all will face the judgment seat of Christ.  No one at this point will lose their salvation, but if any of their works are found to be not of the Lord, they will suffer loss.  We tend to see those who suffer loss as the poor and pitiful participant, who is carnal maybe “saved” but not existing with Jesus “as Lord”, but that is a stretch.  The scripture makes little if any provision for a person being saved who lives their lives for themselves and not for Christ (This is not to rule out eleventh hour confessions as God is merciful). The scriptures makes no provision for people who profess they follow Christ, yet don’t actively embrace  “the will of the Father” (Matthew 7:22-23).  In order to run a winning race we must be temperate in all things.  In order exercise temperance we must have a desire for the prize God gives more than anything else 

Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty“.

With great clarity the apostle expresses that those running to win,  run with certainty.  What is being communicated here is the absolute faith of the runner that all the blood, sweat, tears, and denial will be worth it, based on God’s faithfulness to provide what He has promised in our prize.  This certainty cannot be underscored, because human athletes will put themselves through personal deprivation for the sake of something that will corrupt in a short while after they receive it.  To them the temporary human glory and the certainty of receiving it mitigates what they  must do to attain it.  In the realm of our faith this certainty can be seen in Paul’s own communication to the churches… “I am confident of this very thing, that He which began a good work in you will continue it until the day of the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6) or, “For this reason I also suffer these things; nevertheless I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day”(II Timothy 1:12).  Paul was convinced that “absent from the body is present with the Lord” (II Corinthians 5:8) and that “there is a crown of righteousness laid up for me, the righteous Judge will award me on that day” (II Timothy 4:8).  The question for us, is are we certain and do we live in lifes difficulties, in light of that certainty? 

The simple answer is not really.  If we truly lived in light of this certainty about what our reward is for running a winning race, would we be so bowled over when things don’t line up with our human sensibilities?  Would be panic stricken in the face of this nation’s government trampling on “our” civil rights?  Paul was able to endure all things because the prize and its tangible closeness was more real and certain than his circumstance (II Corinthians 4:17-18).  When considering the Corinthian believers they were miserable at being certain and it can be seen by how they conducted themselves as a church.  They were bent out of shape about everything (legal disputes, disagreements over teachers, who was getting more attention, sin) and they were struggling to live in the reality of the resurrection, to which some were preaching it was a lie (I Corinthians 15).  Whenever we followers of Christ are sweating material and temporary stuff, live long in naked fear or begin to try to hold onto something we are about to lose, we are no living with certainty in the prize.  Jesus tells us not to sweat the small stuff but be certain God will provide.  Jesus tells us not to fear what man can do to us, for to live is to live for Christ, and to die is gain.  Jesus tell us not to hold to that which can be taken away but to be certain to hold to what cannot be taken away.  All this is based on running real faith that God will do what He has promised.  We are not the fearful, the weighed down, or the undisciplined, because we are certain, He is coming and our reward is in His hand.

Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air“.

Interestingly, the word of God shifts the metaphor from running to fighting a fight.  This does not divorce this characteristic from the previous one but more clearly illustrates what is necessary to attain the prized we desire.  This will become clear in a moment, but when Paul speaks “Thus I fight:, not as one beating the air” he is being specific.  Many have thought this is referring to shadow boxing in the sense of training for a boxing match, but that does not fit the context of running a race to win.  It is necessary to practice our faith, but that is not done on a practice field, but in the midst of the battle.  What is being referred to here is that the apostle, and subsequently the runner, strikes intentional real time blows at anything that hinders them attaining the prize.  Following the call to temperance in all things, we can see this easily. 

When one fights in a boxing match or a fight for their lives, they must exercise self-controlled in order to win.  One must not swing wildly in a blind effort to land a blow, but control their emotion and energy, and strike intentional, debilitating blows that will win the fight.  I can remember being in fights growing up, and the person who won, was not the person who swung their flailing fists as a windmill, but the one who struck blows that crumbled the opponent.  What the Lord is saying to us, is in order to run a winning race we must be intentional in where and how we expend our energy, effort and time; because we are in a fight from the first moment we say yes to Jesus.  Sadly many of us have been snookered into believing we are not, therefore we waste time, effort, intellect and energy on things outside of His will.  If we will run a winning race, we must intentionally wait on Him to instruct us when to swing, when to duck, when to run, when to block and with who we are to engage in warfare with.  Do we live our lives with that kind of intentionality?  Not as a whole, in fact most Christians living in America, wander about following what others expect, or distractions arising from carnality allowed to fester in their hearts. Do not the scripture command us to move only if the Lord wills?  Do not the scriptures call us to walk intentionally (circumspectly), not wasting time (redeeming the time).  Yes they do and runners who run to win learn to be intentional and love it rather than finding it restrictive.

But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified”.

With this twenty-seventh verse, we really gain a clear picture of how all the above characteristics necessary to a winning race are come into our life for Christ.  “But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection” limits the word picture the original Greek conveys.  This line literally means “I bruise my body and make it my slave”.  With a natural athlete, he must pummel his body in training, and deny his bodies’ appetites in order to make his body perform as the athlete intends.  By way of similarity, the Christian whose race is of eternal significance is to command his body, not be commanded by his body.  This was an issue for the audience being spoken to.  Corinth was an affluent society with culture and opportunity.  In simplicity, there were many elements to tickle our natural appetites and lead them away from taking up their cross and deny themselves in following Jesus.  By way of his own life the apostle was saying you need to get it together.  It does not take much to understand their dilemma as it is ours as well.  We are tempted in 1000 ways to not exercise self-control, forget our upward calling and fight without intentionality or not fight at all because in the words of that great American philosopher Ronald McDonald “You deserve a break today”. 

How did Paul deal with the myriad of encroachments into his race on Christ’s behalf? He beat his body into submission.  Make no mistake in the language, the word discipline means repeated bruising blows.  Our brother was not referring to the error of asceticism, where a person deprives themselves in order to gain revelation.  These misguide souls, will wear rocks in their shoes, whip themselves with riding crops till bloody, sit on elevated platforms for months, starve themselves, refuse to speak or wash in an effort to prove they are holy and receive a revelation from God.  Here’s a revelation… To do that is really foolish.  Paul was referring to deprivation of our old nature.  He was saying refuse to be led by it, whether it is physical, emotional, or spiritual, by taking up your cross, denying yourself and following Jesus

Romans 8:13 (NKJV)  For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

Paul employs similar language in Colossians 3:5.  What is he saying?  Don’t be driven by natural appetites, be led by the Holy Spirit.  In his world, this took for him to give his flesh a beat down, in order to use his life (body, soul, spirit) for God’s glory. This is an area we American Christians are out of control in.  With all the worldliness which surrounds us, we are the most out of focus, most undisciplined, and most over stimulated (by worldliness) Christians in the history of the world.  It is for this reason we lack the fullness of the Spirit, as individuals and a corporate body.  We need to eat, but only as much as needed.  We need to take care of our bodies, but will become obsessed unto narcissism.  We need to rest, but have perfected it unto sinful indulgence.   We live in the world but have followed our natural appetites until we are snookered into faith based alternatives, patterned after worldliness.  Paul told us the outcome if he had preached right, yet had not practiced what he had preached… I myself should become disqualified.

The word disqualified as we read it was used to describe what happens to metals that were not refined properly; they are cast off and rejected being reprobate.  Interestingly,  a race runner that does not follow the rules is cast off and rejected, being disallowed to continue.  What is Paul saying ultimately?  To not run our race to win with growing self-control, growing faith and growing intentionality is to be in a dangerous position.  No matter where one is on the theological spectrum of the security of the believer, a person who does not run the race to win, according to God’s outline is in danger of not finishing the race.  This is not to suggest we are saved by running as Paul instructs, but indicates those who are in Christ will find their way in this pattern of life to an ever increasing degree.  Let me ask the question, are you running your race for Christ with self-control and certainty and intentionality?  Are you by God’s leading in control of your body, or are your bodies appetites leading you?  These questions need to be answered if we are to run the race in a winning fashion.  The competition to stop us is increasing with each passing day.  With God there is no middle ground.

About Michael J Erdel

Mike is a pastor with The Assembly of God Fellowship. He is the lead pastor at Encounter Church in Fostoria Ohio. His desire is to encourage the Church of Jesus Christ, and declare God's hope through His Son Jesus, to a world which is long on excuses and short on hope. Mike has experienced the truth that when we kneel before Christ, surrendering to Him as Savior and LORD, being led and empowered by His Spirit. To Jesus Christ be all glory and honor.
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1 Response to No Apparent Middle Ground

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