Run to Win

As we saw last time, a Christian is like a runner in a race in that he must run. Obviously, a runner doesn’t take a seat in the stands when the starting pistol goes off. He runs. How does a Christian run? By trusting and obeying the Lord Jesus. Paul equates finishing the race with having kept the faith (2 Tim. 4:7), and running well with obeying the truth (Gal. 5:7). Jesus says that to walk along the way that leads to life is to hear and do what he says (Matt. 7:12-27). The book of Hebrews makes it clear that living the Christian life involves trusting in the Lord and keeping his commands. By faith the saints of the Old Testament obeyed (Heb. 11). To run is to trust and obey.

A Christian is also like a runner in a race in that he runs to win (1 Cor. 9:24-27). There are many athletes in a race, but, as everyone knows, there can only be one winner. That is why people who take the race seriously will do what it takes to win. They will train hard every day, watch their diet, and leave it all on the track during the race in order to receive what Paul calls “a perishable wreath.” Likewise, we need to take the Christian life seriously. We need to do what it takes to trust and obey the Lord so that we might receive an “imperishable” wreath. We need to run in such a way as to obtain the prize.

Seeing ourselves as a runner dedicated to winning helps us to understand the active role we must play in our own salvation. Jesus said that we are to strive to enter through the narrow door so that we might be saved (Luke 13:24). Peter exhorted his audience to save themselves from their crooked generation (Acts 2:40), and wrote that we need to make every effort to add to our faith various virtues so that we might never fall (2 Pet. 1:5-11). Paul says that we need to work out, that is, to bring about or produce our own salvation (Phil. 2:12),[1] that we need to put to death the deeds of the body in order to live (Rom. 8:13), that we need to train ourselves in godliness, which holds promise for the present life and for the life to come (1 Tim. 4:7-8), that we need to pursue righteousness, and that we need to take hold of the eternal life to which we have been called (1 Tim. 6:11-12). He also told Timothy to save himself and his hearers by keeping a close watch on himself and on the teaching (1 Tim. 4:16). The author of Hebrews says that we need to strive to enter God’s rest (Heb. 4:11), that we need to persevere in doing the will of God in order to receive what is promised (Heb. 10:36) and that we need to strive for holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Heb. 12:14).

At the end of his life, Paul highlighted what he had done and the consequent reward he would receive, no doubt in part to encourage us to imitate him so that we too might receive the same outcome. He wrote: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day (2 Tim. 4:7-8).” Three times Paul says “I have…” He doesn’t say “God…God…God...” He says, “I…I…I…” Paul, not God, fought, ran and kept the faith, which will result in his being awarded on that day the crown of righteousness. Similarly, we need to fight, run and keep if we would enter into eternal glory. We need to run to win.

Unfortunately, this point is not always appreciated as it ought to be, and sometimes with disastrous consequences. This stress on our responsibility and role in salvation is occasionally perceived as Arminian, Pelagian or legalistic. We are warned not to try harder or resolve to do better, because that would be to obey legalistically. Rather, we are urged to stop trying and start resting in the Lord. In this view, we need only to work on believing that Jesus has loved us and saved us; the rest, including obedience, will take care of itself naturally.

This way of looking at the Christian life is wrong-headed on a number of fronts. We are runners in a race running in such a way as to obtain the prize, not children in a stroller being pushed to the finished line. To be sure, the reason we are able to trust and obey the Lord is because God has saved us in Christ. The Spirit is at work in us, transforming and conforming us to the image of Christ. However, God’s sovereign grace in salvation doesn’t diminish our responsibility to trust and obey. Both are true. God works in us, and we work out our salvation.  This is why emphasizing our role in salvation is not Arminian or Pelagian.

But is it legalistic? If we are, as Peter says, to save ourselves, then won’t that detract from Christ’s work of salvation and turn us into at least a half-savior if not a whole savior? Not at all! We need to distinguish between redemption accomplished, applied and exercised. Redemption must be accomplished, which Jesus did for us by his life, death, resurrection and ascension. Redemption must also be applied to us if we are to be saved, which the Spirit does by uniting us to Christ. Paul says that God is the one who begun a good work in us, and God is the one who will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. Salvation, therefore, is God’s work from beginning to end. He accomplishes it and applies it to you. In this sense, we don’t save ourselves at all.

However, redemption must still be exercised, because it is the way that leads to eternal glory. This is what the Bible means when it tells us to save ourselves and to bring about our own salvation. The work of Christ applied to us by the Spirit needs to be worked out in our own life. We, not Christ or the Spirit, must repent, believe and walk in new obedience. Redemption accomplished, applied and exercised.       

Exercising redemption won’t always be easy. After all, we struggle against the world, the flesh and the devil. Our adversary will seek to sift us as wheat by whatever means possible. He will use trials, temptations, false teachers, and anything else at hand to draw us away from the Lord. Trusting and obeying the Lord will be hard and tiring at times. We may falter and think about turning our back on the Lord. Like an athletic contest, it will definitely take discipline and effort. That is why it is so important that we don’t take a lackadaisical approach and that we endeavor to “serve [Christ] with all that is in [us].”[2]

John von Rohr said that “Puritan piety urged a good deal of human effort and participation in the pursuit of the evangelical goals.” He also noted that Willian Haller “described the Puritan path as involving ‘wayfaring and warfaring.’” The Puritans were clearly on to something good and biblical: Christians must run to win.

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. 

Related Links

Growing in Grace, ed. by Joel Beeke

Grace Alone: Salvation as a Gift of God by Carl Trueman

"The Gospel for Bruised Reeds" by Dan Doriani

Sanctification, a series at Place for Truth:

"The Spirit's Influence" by Jeffrey Stivason

"Different From Justification" by Tim Bertolet

"The Definitive Aspect" by David Smith

"Singing Praise to God" by Stephen Unthank

"Eschatology" by Stephen Unthank

"Glorification" by Martin Blocki

"Keep Advancing!" by Joel Wood


[1] The phrase “work out” is one word in Greek and the leading Greek dictionary places its use in Phil. 2:12 under the secondary meaning of the word: to cause a state or condition, bring about, produce, create. Moises Silva translates the verse thus: “I urge you to bring about with all godly fear your own salvation.”

[2] The fourth membership vow of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.