For the Sake of the Gospel — Part Two
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For the Sake of the Gospel — Part Two

From Series: The Pastor’s Study, Volume 5

1 Corinthians 9:1-27  (ID: 2511)

Today’s churches are in dire need of pastors who don’t just deliver impressive sermons from the pulpit, but also actually lead souls to Christ. Pastors must strive toward that end, realizing that doing so will require intense spiritual discipline. Alistair Begg encourages us to aim well, execute consistently, and finish strong in our mission to proclaim the Gospel to a lost world.


Sermon Transcript:

Well, I invite you to turn to 1 Corinthians 9 once again. And you can tell, as we read from verse 24 to 27, that I now have a third point. First Corinthians 9:24:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”

Just in case I forget or don’t get to it, let me say that I think the important cross-reference for that final phrase there in verse 27 is probably what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:15, where he’s talking about the nature of ministry and how “the Day will bring it to light,” whether it’s gold and silver and precious stones or wood, hay, and stubble. And he talks about it being “burned up,” that there will be that loss, but “he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.”[1] And he really does the same thing in 4:5: “Judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in [the] darkness … will expose the motives of men’s hearts. [And] at that time each will receive his praise from God.”

Later today, hundreds of millions of people around the world—and probably only about six of the company in this room—will turn their gaze towards an athletic stadium in Paris, because in Paris this evening, French time—the afternoon, East Coast time—the final of the Champions League will be played. The teams competing are Arsenal, an English team from London, and Barcelona. And by means of internet and television and radio, literally hundreds of millions of people will be fixed on this particular event—because soccer is the greatest game in all the world. Sorry, that’s just a little thing between John Dixon and myself.

In reading the prematch publicity, the pundits are suggesting that the whole event is going to come down to two individuals. I’m sure that’s an overstatement. But there are two outstanding players out of the twenty-two: one for Arsenal, Thierry Henry, who’s a Frenchman; and the other Ronaldinho, who plays for Barcelona. And the great question is, which of these two players will actually show up on this occasion and make the difference? What marks both of these men out is not that they are inordinately skillful. They are. If you’ve been watching the Nike commercials at all and you’ve seen some of those black-and-white scenes of the individuals playing with a soccer ball, Ronaldinho is on there, and some of things that he actually does with that ball in that commercial are truly unbelievable—that he is able to control the soccer ball in that way. But that’s not what marks him out, nor is it what marks Henry out. What marks them both out is that they are possessed of the ability to score goals, to get the ball in the back of the net.

Arsenal played their final game at their stadium just a couple of weeks ago, before they moved to a new stadium, just a stone’s throw away from where they are in London. And it was fitting that Thierry Henry in the final game scored three goals—as it were, kissing it goodbye and saying, “There you are, we’ve left our stamp on the place,” and he marked himself out again as someone who can get the ball in the net. Now, obviously, I’ve chosen to illustrate it in this way. We could talk about going to the hoop; we could talk about it in a whole series of sporting pictures. But this is the one that I know best.

My thought is this: in light of that, and in light of the verses before us, in pastoral ministry, our churches are in severe need of individuals who can get the ball in the net, who can score goals. We need preachers who can get the ball in the net—not in press in midfield, not wander around and perambulate, but can take a direct line and put the ball in the net. And it is not an illegitimate thought on the part of every one of us that has an opportunity to mount a pulpit to say, “Dear Lord Jesus, please help me to score a few goals. I’m getting old. The time is passing.”

How about you? We don’t need anybody else with clipboards. Nobody else wandering around explaining things: “This is how this works, and this is how this works, and that’s how you do this, and that’s how you go there.” Put the ball in the net.

Paul is very straightforward about this. I think he would’ve been perfectly happy with this kind of observation. How else do we explain verse 19?

“What are you doing, Paul?”

“I’m trying to win as many as possible.

“‘As many as possible’? That doesn’t sound very Calvinistic, Paul. ‘As many as possible’? You sure you want to use that kind of terminology?”

“You bet your life I want to use it. I want to win the Jews. I want to win those under the law. I want to win those who are not under the law. I want to win the weak. I want to win! I want to win!”

And his motivation isn’t personal acclaim. His motivation isn’t some kind of successful track record, so that people will say, “Here comes the mighty apostle Paul. He’s a winner, you know. He is a goal scorer. He does everything terrifically well.” He’s not motivated by that. We know his motivation. It’s our theme for the two expositions. Verse 23: “Why are you doing all of this? Why do you want to win as many as possible? Why are you prepared to take all possible means to see as many as possible come to saving faith in Jesus Christ?” Answer: “I’m doing it all for the sake of the gospel.”[2]

Is it Grantland Rice—the man from Tennessee of old, the sports journalist—who reached in and took some lines from another poem and made them his own? And every so often in a sporting event, this little stanza comes up. You know it well, don’t you? “When the One Great Scorer comes…” It’s usually said in a Southern accent, with violin music; sorry I can’t oblige. But, “When the One Great Scorer comes to write against your name, He [marks]—not that you won or lost—but how you played the Game.”[3]

Tell that to the losing team tonight in Paris. That’s rubbish. That’s a cop-out for everybody that can’t score goals. Nobody says that before the game begins; they always say it at the end: “Well, it matters not whether you won or lost, but how you play the game.” Tell that to the average boy, with the tears running down his face. He’s not out there for the good of his health. He’s out there to win! He’s out there to score! He’s out there to get the ball in the back of the net. That’s why all the great athletes in basketball, they’re all saying… Jason Kidd said, “Give me the ball.” Jordan says, “Give me the ball.” LeBron James says, “Give me the ball.” Isaiah Thomas says, “Give me the ball.” “When the chips are down, give me the ball. Why? ’Cause I’ll take it to the hoop. I want to score!”

Now, what I want to suggest to you is that there’s nothing illegitimate about that when it comes to being ambitious in pastoral ministry. And some of us have been seduced into the kind of Grantland Rice philosophy, and it’s frankly a cop-out. It’s a cop-out! The one way we can make sure that nobody knows whether we can take it to the hoop is never take it to the hoop. Just make them think you can. Put it behind your back, and put it all over the place. “Boy, is he good! But he can’t get it in the thing, you know. We’ve been watching this for forty-two Sundays!”

And now, some of you fish. For the life of me, I do not understand that. I understand that you have to have a certain intellect to do it, which is why I’m not there; I’m too dumb to understand the majesty. Go to great lengths—big rubber Wellingtons, jackets, hats, fly holders, things, everything. Look at him go! The baskets coming down the road. And the one question he doesn’t want to be asked is, “Did you catch any?” Guy says, “No, but I influenced quite a few!” Yeah, very good. Very good. Hopefully your wife wasn’t thinking you were bringing the dinner home. No, it was just an idle pursuit. No wonder they have little hip flasks for whiskey in those baskets. I think there’s a direct correlation there somehow. That’s what gives them that very peaceful look.

Well, we should turn to the text, because to quote my new best friend from Australia, “All the good stuff is right there in the text in front of you.”

Okay, Paul, we’ve been paying attention; we’ve listened to your explanation here about the freedom factor, the rights, the privileges, the idolatry, and the issue of food, and everything else. What’s your punch line? Well, it’s right there in the second half of verse 24: “Run in such a way as to get the prize.” That’s the only exhortation that actually comes in chapter 9—the only exhortation that comes. I pointed out yesterday that between 8 all the way through 10, there are just three words of exhortation: a “be careful,”[4] and then a “run,” and then a second “be careful.”[5]

J. B. Phillips paraphrases it, “Run with your minds fixed on winning the prize!” Peterson, in The Message, reduces it to three words: “Run to win.” “Run to win.” In fact, let me read me Peterson for you. This is how he puts it. I’m not a huge fan of The Message, but every so often, I think it gives you a little slant on things:

You’ve all been to the stadium and seen the athletes race. Everyone runs; one wins. Run to win. All good athletes train hard. They do it for a gold medal that tarnishes and fades. You’re after one that’s gold eternally.

I don’t know about you, but I’m running hard for the finish line. I’m giving it everything I’ve got. No [sloppy] living for me! I’m staying alert and in top condition. I’m not going to get caught napping, telling everyone else all about it and then missing out myself.[6]

Boy, that gets it across fairly well, doesn’t it? “Telling everyone else all about it and then missing out myself.” See, it’s very easy for us to think that when we’ve preached it, or when we’ve taught it, or when we’ve attempted to teach it, that that’s our part over. But we haven’t yet done it, because we are the listeners to our own sermons. It’s a strange life. But it’s our life.

If we’re going to share in the blessings of the gospel, that is not in isolation from the intensity, the commitment, the agonizing application of truth to our own hearts and lives.

Aimless churches are the product of aimless pastors. The church will never rise beyond its leadership. Now, sometimes you have a pastor that’s full of zeal, and he is inhibited and thwarted by the people who are around him. That’s a different subject. All of us, I’m sure, have got little phrases already in our minds as a result of being able to listen to these talks. And I fastened immediately on “chug along.” In fact, I created a person; he’s called Chug-Along Charlie. And I said, “Lord, I don’t want to become Chug-Along Charlie. I’ve been here for twenty-three years. I don’t want to be chugging along at this point. I don’t want to be a preserver of the status quo. I want to understand what it is that Paul is saying here as he makes application of the principles that he’s been laying down.”

And it is quite striking, actually, that verse 24 follows as it does. It’s all been going along fairly straightforwardly, the balance of the argument. He’s laid down that he doesn’t use his rights in verse 15: “I haven’t used any of these rights, I’m not hoping for you to change in any way at all, I’m offering the gospel free of charge, I don’t belong to anyone, I make myself a slave,” and so on, “and I’m doing all this for the sake of the gospel.” And then all of a sudden he says, “Don’t you know that in a race all the runners run?” It’s actually quite encouraging, isn’t it? Sometimes our people say, “How did he get from there to there?” Say, “Well, it’s obviously logical in his mind; it’s not making a lot of sense to me.”

Well, I think the link, as best as I can understand it, is that sharing in the blessings of the gospel—which is the end of verse 23, “I do this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in the blessings of the gospel”—to share in the blessings of the gospel brings with it the challenge of consistency of life. If we’re going to share in the blessings of the gospel, that is not in isolation from the intensity, the commitment, the agonizing application of truth to our own hearts and lives, especially as those who’ve been entrusted with the message of the gospel. And so I suppose we have a lesson in integrity and adaptability, and I can’t get better than consistency. Maybe intensity; I don’t know.

But he uses a picture, and he does it so very well. He uses a picture that is immediately applicable to the people around him—providing a sporting illustration, making his own personal application, and then ending with a stirring exhortation. And those three words are helping me to get to the end of this talk before ten o’clock this morning.

A Sporting Illustration

First of all, let’s just pay a bit of attention to this sporting illustration. Corinth, as we know, was the Vanity Fair of the ancient world. Some of you have visited there. You know that it is located on a little isthmus about four miles wide. It used to be that before there was a canal, which is there now, they would bring the boats up on one side, they would drag them across the four miles and put them down in the water on the other side. Because of its unique position, it became a cultural center and a commercial center, and with the benefits of commerce and enterprise came the opportunities for relaxation and for sport. And so this little isthmus gave rise to the Isthmian Games, and they were second only to the Olympics.

And so, for Paul to say, “Don’t you know that in a race all the runners run?”—it’s not a reach for anybody in terms of the point of application. “Of course,” they’d say, “yes, we know that in a race all the runners run,” because they were familiar with people entering into the training programs and participating in their sporting events. For Paul to talk about running, then, was to make immediate contact with his audience. His rhetorical question in verse 24 assumes the answer yes.

If you read around the Bible, you will discover that in Greece, children from the age of seven were put through their paces every day. Not only were they instructed in the important issues of their minds, but their bodies were also challenged at the same time. And they were given exercises of graded degrees, various levels of difficulty; they had to swim in cold river water, and that was combined with the other instruction in order to create what the Greeks referred to as “noble souls with beautiful bodies.”[7] They wanted to produce a generation of those who had minds that were trained, whose bodies were sculpted, and whose souls were looked after.

In Sparta we’re told that the “gymnastic exercises were ordered more with a view to hardening” in the prospect of “military service.” This was something that not only boys did but girls did too, and “the girls … were developed by running [and] spear throwing [and] wrestling, so as to become the healthy mothers of a race of soldiers.”[8] And because these exercises were by nature often competitive, the contests were arranged, and some of them were large and significant like these games, and others of them were smaller. It was, in many ways, not dissimilar to our own time. One writer describes—speaking in really quite an unkind way about the proletariat—he says of the masses in the Corinthian context, “By day they stood about idle. And in the evening they watched sports.”[9] It actually proves that in two thousand years, not a lot has changed. And that was the context in which he pays attention to this.

He speaks not only about the running itself but also about the training that’s involved. “Everyone who competes,” verse 25, “goes into strict training.” The standard of the contest was such that in certain instances there was a ten-month preparatory period that had to be completed before anybody could even get their name on the starting list. Only those who had practiced in the gymnasium were admitted to the opportunity of the race. And this very rigorous training program was added to a rather general and sober approach to the living of life.

So he addresses the question of running and training and winning. Winning. In the smaller local contests there were perhaps a number of prizes, but in these large events there was only one prize. And the prize was in the form of a crown which was commonly made of leaves of some kind, either of laurel or of pine. “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last.”

Now, the point of application is just so straightforward, isn’t it? All of the readers know exactly where he’s going. If these athletes are prepared to practice this kind of self-control merely to obtain a disintegrating, fading crown, are we going to do less in the attaining of an imperishable crown?

A Personal Application

Now, let’s look at the application that he makes first in terms of himself: a personal application.

He explains what his concern is—and it’s a realistic concern, isn’t it? The way in which he is going to treat his own body and approach these matters is on account of the fact that he does not want himself to be disqualified from the prize: “I don’t want to find myself disqualified from the prize.” What a tragedy to be a recruiter and not a runner. It’s no fun, really, to be the person that reads out the rules for the competition but never actually competes, who sounds the trumpet for the beginning of the contest but actually never gets his own tracksuit off and runs in the race.

Now, all of the commentators jump around with this disqualification from the prize. And in some senses, we ought not to stop here, because the opening verses of chapter 10 give us the striking nature of the warning that is sounded by Paul in relationship to his own ministry. But we neither have time nor inclination for that this morning, but you will be rewarded by your own follow-on study.

And many of the commentators are at pains to, if you like, diminish the sense of the warning—to go very quickly to say, “Well, it’s a warning, but it’s not really, you know, a very strong warning. After all, Paul is okay, Paul is secure.” I don’t think that we ought to jump immediately to that side of the fence when we face the warnings about apostasy in the Bible. Because all of us know, this morning, individuals—apparently solid Christian individuals, and some of them solid, Bible-teaching, expository, national, international figures—who today, by any sense of observation, are apparently completely disqualified from the prize. They have by their sin taken themselves completely out of the race. Now, we don’t know their eternal destiny. We don’t know; we pray that they will come to their senses and be relieved from the grip of the one who holds them in his grasp.

But I think that one of the best antidotes to finding ourselves ever in that position is to be afraid of our own selves, to be skeptical about our own hearts—not immediately to say, “Well, of course, I won’t be disqualified from the prize, I mean, whatever it is,” or “I couldn’t possibly be one of these people described in Hebrews chapter 6 or in Hebrews chapter 10. I mean, I’ve been able to exegete that passage a hundred times.” Yes, but do you know the sinfulness of your own heart? Are you prepared to say with Murray M’Cheyne that every seed of the sins known to men dwells within your own wicked heart?[10] Have you not, even this week, in the context of a conference like this, been confronted by impure thoughts? By the temptation to jealousy? Perhaps even to the possibilities to chuck the whole thing in and make a run for the border—buy yourself a motorbike and head for San Diego or somewhere nice, but get out of here? They say if you listen to somebody preach for any length of time, he’ll preach about his own sins and his own desires. I have no interest in a motorbike. But I understand all the rest of what I just said.

Richard Baxter, when he wrote The Reformed Pastor, you will remember, said to his English friends and brethren in the gospel, he said, “Make sure that you do not offer the bread of life to others, a bread of life that you yourselves have never actually eaten.”[11] “No,” he says, “my concern is that I don’t want to make it to heaven like a shipwrecked sailor. I don’t want to go in there, as it were, with the seat of my pants on fire. I want to go in there à la Peter’s picture, with a breaking down of a whole new entry, with an abundant entry into heaven—one who has added to his faith goodness and kindness and all these things.”[12] But you know what? It’s only in a dictionary that success comes before work. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God [who is at work] in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.”[13]

One of the best antidotes to finding ourselves ever in apostasy is to be afraid of our own selves, to be skeptical about our own hearts.

Now, his concern is what gives way to the control that he exercises. He says, “I’m going to control certain things. God being my helper, I have to make certain decisions, and here’s what I’m going to do. This, in fact, is what I do,” he says. “In light of my concern, I do not run like a man running aimlessly.” He says no to aimless running. “I don’t run as one who has no fixed and certain goal.” I think that’s J. B. Phillips. This is in keeping with what he writes elsewhere, isn’t it? Philippians 3:14: “Forgetting those things which are behind, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”[14] Paul was a goal setter. Paul was a goal getter. At what point in the journey did we decide that our theological predilections prevent us from being obvious and purposeful and humble and devoted to reaching the goal?

For those of you who play golf, you’ll have enjoyed Harvey Penick’s little books—definitely the Red Book. I think the publishers got a little cheeky after that and said, “If we can make this much money with a red one, why don’t we try a green one?” And the green one’s good, but not as good as the red one. The red one is just full of gems, isn’t it? And Harvey Penick was a gracious and kind man, and obviously a wonderful teacher, but he didn’t tolerate fools gladly, and so he includes in that the advice that was given by other people who were equally straightforward in their approach. And he has one memorable little section where he describes how someone came to Ben Hogan and asked Hogan how was it that he got the ball to spin back on the green. When he hit an approach shot, how did he make it back up? And Hogan said, “I just hit down on it very hard.”

“Oh, come now,” said the man, “there must be some greater secret than that.”

Hogan said, “I told you: I hit down on it very hard.”

The man came back another time.

Hogan now was fed up. He said, “Sir, when you hit an approach shot to the green, how many times do you hit it past the pin?”

“Oh,” said the guy. “I never hit it past the pin.”

“Then,” said Hogan, “why do you need to know how to make it back up?”[15]

That’s just a waste of energy. It’s a kind of aimless approach to things.

“I say no to aimless running. I say no to shadowboxing. I don’t fight like a man beating the air.” Did your grandfather, when he was shaving, box in front of the mirror? I always thought that was so funny, ’cause he didn’t look like he could punch anybody at all. But every so often, he would go like this. No point in me doing that. I’m in such a predicament now that I have to shave with a T-shirt on because I embarrass myself. It’s absolutely true!

But Paul says, “No, when it comes to my own personal approach,” he says, “I’m not gonna just beat the air.” In fact, the phrase that he uses is a graphic phrase; it’s essentially, “I give my body a black eye.” I think the cross-reference, if we’d said to Paul, “Is there something else that you’ve written that would be a good cross-reference here?” he’d say, “Well, maybe you could try Romans chapter 6. I did a nice passage there.”

Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do[n’t] offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who[’ve] been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be your master, … you[’re] not under law, [you’re] under grace.[16]

That doesn’t call us to a life of nothingness; it calls us to a life of activity.

And the volitional aspect of this is unavoidable. This isn’t some kind of emotional diatribe on Paul’s part. He’s not saying, “You know, every so often I just feel like going out for a run. I just, sometimes, I just… you know.” No, Paul wouldn’t have liked that kind of talk.

There’s no shortcut, Paul is saying, to a life of usefulness. There’s no shortcut. And yet all the time, every day, when it comes to physical things, people are offering shortcuts. It’s impossible to watch sporting events without somebody telling you that if you get this stuff and rub it on your head, something’ll happen to you, or rub it on your somewhere, on your chest, or—I don’t what you’re supposed to do with the stuff, but I do know it’s bogus from start to finish. And it’s masterful marketing isn’t it?

You know, the Abdominizer. Do you remember that? That’ll be in a museum already. That little plastic thing, royal blue with two handles, and you could get it for $29.95, and you put it on the floor, and now you were able to do sit-ups in a way that was remarkable if you got the blue bucket. And so poor souls got the blue bucket, they laid it on the floor, they got down on the floor, they sat in the bucket, and their wife watched to see what would happen. And nothing happened. And the man got up and he said, “But that’s just sit-ups!” And his wife said, “Exactly!”

One thing I’m thankful for is our bookstore doesn’t have a lot of theological blue buckets in it. We’re working hard. If you’ve found any, tell me, ’cause we’ll take them out immediately. No short journeys to usefulness. No slick methodologies. No clever little tricks. No, a life of steady, consistent progress in holiness. Sixty seconds a minute, sixty minutes an hour, facing the ugliness of our own hearts and the challenge of a world that militates against us, that says, “Why don’t you just go and run around for a while?” or “Why don’t you just pretend about things?” Paul says, “No, I’m not going to do that.” There is no new formula—never will be—to lift us to a level of holiness that does not come by means of our own dependence upon the Spirit and our commitment to do as God intends.

Bishop Ryle, in his classic book on holiness, all these years ago wrote,

When people talk of having received “such a blessing,” and of having found “the higher life,” after hearing some earnest advocate of “holiness by faith and self-consecration,” while their families and friends see no improvement and no increased sanctity in their daily tempers and behaviour, immense harm is done to the cause of Christ. True holiness … does not consist merely of inward sensations and impressions. It is much more than tears, and sighs, and bodily excitement, and a quickened pulse, and a passionate feeling of attachment to our own favourite preachers and our own religious party, and a readiness to quarrel with everyone who does[n’t] agree with us. It is something of “the image of Christ,” which can be seen and observed by others in our private life, and habits, and character, and doings.[17]

A Stirring Exhortation

Now, that brings us, helpfully, to our final point. Paul says, “This is what I want you to do: I want you to run in such a way as to get the prize. I want you to know that in my own life I am concerned lest, having become the teacher that I have, I would be disqualified from the prize. My concern then leads me to make sure that I don’t just run around aimlessly and I’m not simply shadowboxing. I am bringing this body of mine under subjection.” And so, run to win. Run with your mind on getting the prize.

Of course, you know your Bible well enough to recognize that Paul isn’t suggesting that there’s only one prize. The crown is there for all who love his appearing, the appearing of Jesus—2 Timothy 4:8.

The point of application is just very straightforward. In the King James Version, the Authorized Version, it is, “So run.” “So run.” That’s what it says: “So run.” It doesn’t mean, like, “Go ahead, run.” It means, “Run in such a way. Run in this particular way.” Run like a prize winner not like a straggler, not like a wanderer, not like a half-hearted participant, not like somebody who says, “Well, I don’t really want to be in the race, but I do want to get the T-shirt,” so they can have the thing that says, “I ran in the Boston Marathon.” Well, yeah, you started, but we never, ever saw you finish. And you slipped off after a mile and a half and went into Starbucks and walked around and let everybody look at your shirt: “I ran in the Boston Marathon.” And people said, “The Boston Marathon? I don’t think that finishes for about another two and a half hours—in your case, about another twenty-four and a half hours. What are you actually doing in here?” “Oh, I just got the T-shirt.” That’s not the perspective that is here. The word for “competes”—“everyone who competes in the games”—is actually the word and the phrase that gives to us our English word agony: agonizomai. Everyone who agonizes. Everyone who “goes into strict training.” That is it right there, I should say.

Now, of course, that’s in keeping with what Jesus said: “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it; whoever wants to lose his life for me will find it.”[18] Erich Sauer, in a remarkable book—an old book now—called In the Arena of Faith, he says, “He who is not prepared to sacrifice will not be honoured to gain the crown. He who has regard to his Ego, will one day, when Christ appears, have a great disappointment.”[19] “One day, when Christ appears, have a great disappointment.” See those of us who have big egos now, we may get our egos stroked. We may get a lot of things happen to us that make us feel that we are in the realm of gold and silver and precious stones. But when Christ appears on the day of reckoning, when the Day brings it to light, when we’re examined not for our articulation but for our motivation, those who have regard to their ego will have a great disappointment. “He who holds fast [to an earthly mind, to his own convenience], to enjoyment of sin, to pride, renders himself unequal [for] racing. Only serious training in practical holiness, in self-denial, in true discipleship, can strengthen spiritual muscle.”[20]

This sounds anachronistic, doesn’t it, almost? I mean, you read something like this at this point in the twenty-first century, in relationship to common literature? Books out there telling the men of our congregation that the real problem that confronts them is a call to duty, and what they really need is an adventure—“and we’d like to give you an adventure!” There’s no greater adventure than walking in the path of obedience to Jesus. There’s no greater adventure! And any adventure that, in order to have the adventure, takes you out of the pathway of obedience to Jesus is no adventure that is legitimate to us and no adventure we ought to desire. But that’s best-selling material. You want to know the state of the American church? Look at the books that sell most. That’s the answer. That’s where we are.

I must always apply this to my own heart. It’s easy, isn’t it, for us to cast around? I think the potential for making shipwreck of our faith is in part contributed to because we’ve grown up, at least in the last quarter of a century, largely without any real striking calls on the part of our teachers and leaders and mentors to deal with the issue of sin—if you like, the notion of the mortification of the flesh, the call of Scripture to pronounce the death sentence on our own sinful hearts. For while sin no longer reigns, it remains. We have been saved from sin’s penalty, one day we will be saved from sin’s presence, and at the present time we are being saved from sin’s power. And the way in which we are being saved from sin’s power is through the work of the Spirit of God through the Word of God into the heart of the child of God. And we as the children of God then take God’s Word as given to us, as prompted by the Spirit, and we are responsible for making application of that in our own lives. We are responsible for killing everything that sets itself against God’s purpose.

You want to know the state of the American church? Look at the books that sell most.

The sources of our temptations this morning differ according to our personalities. We’re different in our temperaments. We’re different in our circumstances. And each of us has to learn by ourselves and for ourselves—and often the hard way—the avenues of our own personal weakness. And when we identify the lines down which the attacks come, we must at the very outset of that recognize that externalism is insufficient to deal with it; that while all kinds of rules and regulations—monasticism, at its extreme form—produce the notion of being able to handle it, the reality is, they don’t. That’s what Paul is saying in Colossians, isn’t it? He said these things—“Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”—they all have “an appearance of wisdom,”[21] but they are absent any value in seeking to restrain our own sinful propensities. John Owen says, “Mortification from a self-strength, carried on by wayes of self-invention, unto the End of … self-Righteousness, is the Soul and substance of all false Religion in the world.”[22]

I hope that’s not what we’re saying to our people on Sundays. I hope that we are absolutely clear about this matter of God’s grace and goodness to us. I hope that the spirit of the Pharisee does not rise up and choke us on a Saturday night and give to us somehow or another the feeling that if we rage against these things and call these people to these external dimensions that we have concluded are so necessary for them, that somehow or another we’ve done them a favor. No. The only way that we can deal with it ourselves and help our people to deal with it is to bring them to the same place that Paul brings the Colossians in chapter 3 of Colossians, and he says to them, “All of this externalism, with the harsh treatment of the body and false humility, lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. But let me tell you what the key is: your union with Christ. Your union with Christ.”[23] “Since, then, you[’ve] been raised with Christ…”[24] And it is from that position of victory, it is from that position of God’s grace and intervention in our lives, that we fight the daily battle.

The Westminster Confession says, helpfully, that the Christian is involved in “a continual and irreconcilable war.”[25] I find that very helpful, because it means every day when I get up, I say, “Okay, battle stations again!” And the fact that we may have won a victory at three o’clock in the afternoon, walking through the mall, when we saw the most beautiful girl coming towards us, doesn’t mean that we won’t come a cropper at 3:10 when she comes back around the second time. Because Billy Graham taught us, didn’t he, that it wasn’t the first look at her legs that did it; it was the second look that did it. And you could, of course, go into a furniture store, get inside a wardrobe, and close the doors. And what would you be thinking about in your little box?

No, the only way in which we make progress is through the expulsive power of a new affection. Therefore, like David says, we refuse to allow our eyes to wander, our minds to contemplate, our affections to run after everything that will draw us from Christ. Sinclair Ferguson, who’s been with us and is so tremendously helpful both in his writing and his preaching, he says this

is the deliberate rejection of any sinful thought, suggestion, desire, aspiration, deed, circumstance or provocation at the moment we become conscious of its existence. It is the consistent endeavour to do all in our powers to weaken the grip which sin in general, and its manifestations in our own lives in particular, has [upon us].[26]

Now, Paul’s illustration—and we must draw to a close—Paul’s illustration is so tremendously helpful, because it isn’t a reach. Think about the level of commitment that was involved in these people gaining one of these rewards. Think of what’s involved for those who have been successful in gaining Olympic gold: their abstinence in diet; the changed patterns of their sleep and their rest; their willingness to put up with unbelievable hardship in training; the sacrifice of good things and relationships; the necessity of putting money aside in order that they can fulfill this goal. And all of this for the transient nature of a corroding medal and for the fleeting applause that accompanies victory. Paul says, “If they’re gonna do that for that, are you just gonna be a Chug-Along Charlie?”

Two Models from Church History

Now, models are helpful to us, aren’t they? We need examples; we need people who live it out. And let me finish with two, just two illustrations from church history.

Model number one—and they’re both Englishmen, as it turns out. I thought that would show a sense of deference towards Vaughan, after some of the dreadful things that have been said about him—about the English, I should say. C. T. Studd, those of you who’ve read missionary biography will know who he was. He was, like Vaughan, a cricketer. He did, like Vaughan, go to Cambridge; he went to Trinity College, Cambridge. He played for his county, and he played for England as well. He was part of a family that had significant resources—indeed, a huge fortune. He was famous as an athlete and tremendously wealthy, but God had grabbed ahold of his life, and he followed Hudson Taylor to China. He went to China in the footsteps of Hudson Taylor.

Twenty-one years later, he came back to England, having been in both China and India. He came back to England with his health broken and with a sense of discouragement on him. But at the age of fifty-three, he sensed the call of God to Africa. And leaving his invalided wife behind, he went to Africa and essentially buried himself there, both metaphorically and almost literally. A number of people were concerned about him, and when they questioned him and challenged what he’d done, his answer was as follows: “If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice that I can ever make for him can ever be too great.”[27]

It takes us back to where we were the other evening. In other words, this wasn’t an emotional answer he gave; it was a logical answer he gave. What he was saying was, the cause of world mission is not a predilection. The cause of world mission is not some kind of desire to interfere in the culture of other nations. The cause of world mission is driven by the identity of Jesus. “If Jesus Christ is God and died for me, then do you think I’m just gonna run around aimlessly? Shadowbox? Keep going to the church, open the door, do the thing, close the door?” On one other occasion he says, “Let us not slide through this world and then slip quietly into heaven, without having blown the trumpet loud and long for our Redeemer, Jesus Christ. Let us see to it that the devil will hold a thanksgiving service in hell when he gets the news of our departure from the field of battle.” It’s a wonderful picture, isn’t it?

Well, I’m not a prophet, nor am I the son of a prophet, but I have a sense that coming out of these few days, some of us really need to take it up a couple of notches. Some of us are hiding behind our temperaments. Some of us are hiding behind our circumstances. Some of us are just flat-out cowards. Who are these people you’re working with? Are you afraid of them? Are you afraid of their faces? Are you afraid to say, “Give me the ball?” Are you afraid to try and put it in the net? Are you afraid to take it to the hoop, in case when you jump up, you won’t have the ball still in your hands? What is it? It’s something!

Brutus says to Cassius… I went to see Julius Caesar last week in Stratford; it was absolutely horrible—the worst I’ve seen in my entire life! If I could have injected myself with something after act 1, scene 2, I would have done. It was unbelievable. It was unbelievable. And I was waiting for my favorite part, where Brutus says to Cassius, “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood,” but I was asleep at that point and missed it. What an irony! I’m waiting for him to say, “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood,” and I’m like, [snores].

Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea[, Cassius, we are] now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves
Or lose our ventures.[28]

Now, you’re not getting any younger, fellas. And you probably, if you are young, you’ve at least got the excuse of “I’m young, I’m an idiot, I’m sorry!” (I’d rather have a clever idiot than a stupid genius working with me.) But the fact of the matter is that you seize the moment.

David Lloyd George, who was a prime minister in England, said, “Don’t be afraid to take a big step when one is indicated. You can’t cross a chasm in two steps.” “Don’t be afraid to take a big step when one is indicated. You can’t cross a chasm in two steps.” You can’t! You can jump it, you can leap it in one, you may skin your knees, people may laugh, but you’ll get to the other side. But if you step out into the air, you’re finished!

Gentlemen, take it from me, as just your brother in Christ saying, “Come on, I need your encouragement; maybe I can encourage you.” Gentlemen, start your engines! Start the engines. Or prepare your coffins. One of the two.

Finally… ’Cause I know some of you are saying, “Oh, yeah, it’s okay for you, here with the thing, and all of these nice people giving us bananas all the time.” You get home, nobody gives you a banana. Let me know if we can help. We’ll send some down! But I know some of you look at this setup here, and you go, “Oh, well, you know, fine for you, but you don’t know where I am.” No, I don’t where you are, but I do know where I’ve been, and I do know where I am. And I’m not gonna take any time this morning to tell you of the journey here; maybe someday, when we both want to thoroughly depress one another, we can get together and talk on the phone.

But let me finish with a final illustration from another Englishman—no longer C. T. Studd but another Cambridge man, and that is Charles Simeon. In November 10, 1782, he preached his first sermon at Trinity Church in Cambridge. That was the morning sermon, but when it came to the afternoon sermon, which was the equivalent of the evening sermon in our times, the congregation said they didn’t want him. Now, for some of us, of course, that would have been a great relief, because we’d been hoping that somebody would shut the evening service down, because it is such an aberration. But that’s another subject for another day. But for him, he was deeply disappointed. And there was an assistant minister there—I think his name was something like Mr. Monahan—and they said, “We want him to do the services in the evening.” So the pastor who’s been called to the church gets to do the mornings, and they shut him out of the evenings. This goes on for five years. He tries to start an alternative evening service, and essentially, the church custodians and the clerk of session, or whoever it is, come and change the locks on the doors.

The assistant leaves after five years, and he thinks, “Well, after five years, maybe I’ll get the evening service back!” No. They decide that they still don’t want him to do the evening service; they don’t like him any better after five years. And so they hire another fellow, who for the next seven years does the evening service. So for twelve years now, here he is, working in this church. I think many of us might have said, “I think I’m feeling the call to move on.” We would have been hauling out the “cast not your pearls before swine”[29] and all that kind of stuff. He actually used the church; they threw him out of the church. They then locked the pews, so he couldn’t use the pews. So he had chairs and benches put in the spaces in between the pews, and they came in and took all of his benches and his chairs and threw them out in the church yard.

In 1807, after twenty-five years of ministry, his health failed. And he preached, essentially, as a broken man for the next thirteen years. Now, history records that when he finished his sermons, he was so completely trashed that he wasn’t worth a button. And in the back of his mind he’d determined that if he ever made it to the age of sixty, then he would enjoy what he said was “a Sabbath rest.” And at the age of sixty, he felt himself ready to quit, both in terms of his plan for life and also because of his physical and emotional condition.

But in 1819, he tells of visiting Scotland. And you’re gonna think I invented this. But this is what he said: as he crossed the border from England into Scotland, he says he was “almost as perceptibly revived in strength as the woman was after she touched the hem of our Lord’s garment.”[30] He had no explanation for why he felt as he felt, but he said it was perceptible, it was palpable, the sensation. He had promised himself an active life up until the age of sixty, then he was going to have his Sabbath evening; it was time for his Sabbath evening. But he said it was as though the Lord said—“he came to me and he said, ‘Now that you’ve arrived at the time of your life when you were planning on shutting it down, I want you to know that I’m planning on you winding it up. And I have doubled, tripled, quadrupled your strength so that you might continue.’”[31] And so, at the age of sixty, he renewed his commitment to the ministry of the Word and continued vigorously preaching in this same congregation for the next seventeen years—at the end of which time, he had been there for fifty-four years.

Now, the point is obvious, isn’t it? You’re all going to have to go to Scotland!

No, he preached right up until two months before his death—kept up his regime of rising early in the morning, of reading his Bible, and of praying. Those who loved him and knew him best came to him as he’s now moving into these diminishing days of his usefulness, and they came to him and they said, “Charles, you’ve been a great soldier. You’ve been here for fifty-three years. Why don’t you just back off and relax and let somebody else take care of things?” You know what he said? Some of you do. “Shall I not run with all my might, now that I have the finishing line in view?”[32]

We don’t know how close we are to the finishing line. But we do know this: we’re closer to it than we were yesterday.

I hope that you sense my heart in what I’m saying when I say to you, “Come on, guys.” Because I am the beneficiary of others coming alongside me to my elbow and saying, “Come on,” and also saying, “Come off it,” and saying, “Speak up,” and saying, “Shut up.” We absolutely depend upon one another. We are fellow foot soldiers in the army of the King. We face an unfinished task. Let us give ourselves to it with renewed zeal.

Father, thank you so much that you are such a patient and gracious God; that, as we saw in our study in 1 Corinthians 1, you do choose unlikely people to do unlikely things; that whatever it looks like on the surface, we know ourselves to be weak, that we know ourselves to be entirely dependent upon you. But we believe you’ve put your hand upon our lives, because we have something to offer, we have something say, we have a Bible in our hands. We pray, Lord, that you will renew in us a real fire for the truth, a real love for your people, and a real commitment to the gospel itself. Hear our prayer. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.


[1] 1 Corinthians 3:13–15 (NIV 1984).

[2] 1 Corinthians 9:23 (paraphrased).

[3] Grantland Rice, “Alumnus Football” (1941).

[4] 1 Corinthians 8:9 (NIV 1984).

[5] 1 Corinthians 10:12 (NIV 1984).

[6] 1 Corinthians 9:24–27 (MSG).

[7] Erich Sauer, In the Arena of Faith: A Call to the Consecrated Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), 30. Paraphrased.

[8] Sauer, 31.

[9] Sauer, 40. Paraphrased.

[10] Quoted in Andrew A. Bonar, Memoir and Remains of the Rev. Robert Murray McCheyne (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1844), 201.

[11] Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor (1656; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974), 54. Paraphrased.

[12] See 2 Peter 1:5–7.

[13] Philippians 2:12–13 (KJV).

[14] Philippians 3:13–14 (paraphrased).

[15] Harvey Penick, Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book, 20th anniv. ed., with Bud Shrake (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012), 61.

[16] Romans 6:12–14 (NIV 1984).

[17] J. C. Ryle, Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1952), x.

[18] Matthew 16:25 (paraphrased). See also Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24.

[19] Sauer, Arena of Faith, 56.

[20] Sauer, 56.

[21] Colossians 2:21, 23 (NIV 1984).

[22] John Owen, Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers, 3rd ed. (London, 1668), 5.

[23] Colossians 2:23–3:1 (paraphrased).

[24] Colossians 3:1 (NIV 1984).

[25] The Westminster Confession of Faith 13.2.

[26] Sinclair B. Ferguson, Know Your Christian Life: A Theological Introduction (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1981), 143.

[27] Quoted in Norman Grubb, C. T. Studd: Athlete and Pioneer (1933; repr., Harrisburg, PA: Evangelical Press, 1943), 145. Paraphrased.

[28] William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, 4.3.

[29] Matthew 7:6 (paraphrased).

[30] Handley C. G. Moule, Charles Simeon (1892; repr., London: Inter-Varsity Fellowship, 1952), 125.

[31] Moule, 125. Paraphrased.

[32] Charles Simeon to W. H. Mitchell, Cambridge, July 28, 1828, in Memoirs of the Life of Rev. Charles Simeon […], ed. William Carus and Charles P. McIlvaine (New York: Robert Carter, 1847), 364. Paraphrased.

Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.