Run to the End
During my school days in Nova Scotia, Canada, I competed in cross-country ski races. Cross-country skiing is a relatively unpopular sport in Canada, and Nova Scotia is one of the nation’s smaller provinces. That combination meant that sometimes the competition wasn’t very stiff. In fact, in one race, I was the only skier in my age category. The good news was that I was guaranteed to come in first and win the medal. The bad news was that it wouldn’t mean all that much since I didn’t beat anyone to win. Nevertheless, I still had to ski the entire course in order to win the prize. If I had registered for the race but didn’t start the race, then I wouldn’t have received the medal. If I had started the race but quit three-quarters of the way through, then I wouldn’t have received the medal. In order to have that gold medal hanging around my neck, I had to ski the entire course, from start to finish. It didn’t matter how long it took me since I was the only skier, but I did have to complete it.
The Christian race is comparable to my ski race. We are guaranteed to receive the crown of life because Jesus has already accomplished the work of salvation and paved the way to eternal glory. In Christ we have been given everything necessary for life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3). Winning the race, therefore, is not in doubt. Nevertheless, we need to trust and obey the Lord until we reach the finish line to receive the prize. We need to run to the end.
The book of Hebrews emphasizes this point. The Hebrew Christians were not new believers. They had served Christ well for many years even in the midst of persecution (Heb. 6:10; 10:32-34). They were publicly slandered, robbed of their property, put in prison and risked their lives to help their fellow Christians who were imprisoned. They endured and loved the brethren joyfully because God had promised them a better and an eternal inheritance. Their faith worked through love and produced all sorts of good works. But now their exemplary faith was beginning to crack at the seams. They had lost their full confidence in Christ and had become sluggish in living for him. Their run had turned to a slow walk, with some having stopped going to church altogether (Heb. 10:25). The author of Hebrews was concerned for them because he understood that even though they had started out so well, they needed to finish in order to receive what God has promised them in Christ. This is why he wrote to them, underscoring the absolute necessity of persevering in the faith to the end (2:1-3; 3:6-14; 4:1-11; 6:4-8; 10:23-39; 12:15-17, 25).
If we drift and fall away from the living God, then we will lose out on the promised glory and die in our sins. It doesn’t matter what we have done or how much we have done for the Lord. If we turn our back on him now or sometime in the future, we will not be awarded the crown of righteousness. This is why we “have need of endurance (Heb. 10:36),” and why we are exhorted to “run with endurance the race that is set before us (Heb. 12:1).” Only those who persevere to the end will be saved (Matt. 10:22).
This is also why we ought to run with a healthy fear, that is, to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Heb. 4:1; Phil. 2:12). Even though God delivered Israel from Egypt and promised to give them the land of Canaan, many of them did not receive the promise and died in the wilderness because of their unbelief and disobedience (Heb. 3). Paul says that what happened to them was written down for our instruction to warn us about the danger of falling away. If we think that that could never happen to us, then we need to take heed, lest we fall (1 Cor. 10:1-13). We have the same promise that they were given (Heb. 4:2), and if God did not spare them because of their unbelief, then he won’t spare us either if we reject him as they did (Rom. 11:20-22). Therefore, we should not become proud or complacent in our walk with the Lord; rather we ought to “fear lest any of [us] should seem to have failed to reach [the promised rest] (Heb. 4:1).”
This doesn’t mean that we should be terrified of God. God has so loved us that he did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all (Rom. 8:32). But it does mean that we should have a healthy fear of doing that which will bring us great harm. Although drinking poison will kill you, there is no need to go through life terrified that you might die from drinking poison. Yet, when you see a bottle of poison, you should be afraid to drink it. And you should use that fear to keep from drinking it, regardless of how tempting it might be to take a sip. That is the kind of fear we ought to have when running the Christian race. There is no need to be terrified that we won’t make it because God is for us and not against us. However, we should have a healthy fear of the poison of an evil, unbelieving heart that departs from the living God; and use that fear to hold fast to Christ and run the race with endurance to the end.
That our salvation is conditioned on our perseverance does not undermine the wonderful truth that God preserves his people by his power (1 Pet. 1:5). The two truths go hand in hand. In fact, God keeps his people by means of his command to persevere in the faith. In Acts 27:24, an angel tells Paul that God will save everyone aboard Paul’s ship that is caught in the middle of a storm. Absolutely no one will die. Notwithstanding, Paul commands everyone that unless they stay on the ship they cannot be saved (Acts 27:31). How can Paul sincerely say that if God already told him that no one would die? The answer is that God’s sovereignty does not exclude man’s responsibility. Moreover, God uses means to accomplish his purposes. The means by which God saved the people was their obedience to Paul’s command to stay on the ship. Likewise, God’s elect will never perish. But this doesn’t mean that they aren’t required to remain faithful to Christ. If they “jump ship,” they must “get back on board” in order to be saved. We need to run to the end.
Patrick Ramsey (@dprmsy) is pastor of Nashua Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Edinburg, Pennsylvania. He and his wife, Rachel, have five sons. He earned his B.A. from Covenant College, his M.Div. from Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and his Th.M. from Westminster Theological Seminary. He is a co-author (with Joel Beeke) of An Analysis of Herman Witsius's The Economy of the Covenants and author of A Portrait of Christ. He is a contributor to A New Divinity: Transatlantic Evangelical Debates during the Long Eighteenth Century and Samuel Rutherford: An Introduction to his Theology. He has written for periodicals, including The Westminster Theological Journal, Mid-America Journal of Theology, Themelios, and The Confessional Presbyterian.
Growing in Grace, ed. by Joel Beeke
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"The Definitive Aspect" by David Smith
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"Eschatology" by Stephen Unthank
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