We believers are taught that our earthly life in Christ Jesus is a race to be finished after which we go home to our reward. But rarely are we taught that even if we win the race, we can still be disqualified for the prize.
1 Corinthians 9:23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. 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. 25 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. 26 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. 27 No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
Paul here desires to share in the “blessings” of the gospel. What blessings is he referring to, and how are they to be acquired? In this passage Paul also refers to the blessing as “the prize” and “a crown” awarded to the winner of the race.
But in verse 27, Paul warns of the possibility of being “disqualified” from the race. This word in the Greek means literally “unapproved” or “rejected”.
Paul is not referring to salvation
First of all, we must emphasize that Paul is teaching about the believer’s reward in the next age—which is apart from and in addition to salvation.
2 Corinthians 5:10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.
1 Corinthians 3:12 If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. 14 If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved–even though only as one escaping through the flames.
From the above scriptures we understand that while salvation is by grace through faith, eternal reward is related to the quality of our works for the Lord and what we do while in the body—whether good or bad—during our time on earth.
Finishing the race first does not guarantee the prize for us
We understand that athletes competing in a race can be disqualified even though they finish first. For example, if someone is found to be taking prohibited steroids he or she can be disqualified even though they may have won the race. According to Paul this also holds for the lifelong race which every follower of Jesus Christ is running. What might disqualify us for our prize—our eternal reward?
We only need to go on and read what Paul wrote in the very next breath.
1 Corinthians 10:1 For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. 2 They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. 3 They all ate the same spiritual food 4 and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. 6 Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. 7 Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.” 8 We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did–and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. 9 We should not test Christ, as some of them did–and were killed by snakes. 10 And do not grumble, as some of them did–and were killed by the destroying angel. 11 These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. 12 So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!
It should be clear from this that just as sin kept most of the Israelites from entering the Promised Land, sin can also result in the disqualification of a believer from the race. Paul lists the sins of idolatry (or greed for New Testament believers according to Colossians 3:5), sexual immorality, testing the Lord, and grumbling. Although sin of course can be forgiven through Christ’s death on the cross, it can nevertheless result in disqualification from our race and subsequent loss of the prize—which is eternal reward in the next age. (We repeat that this reward is apart from and in addition to salvation which is by grace through faith.)
How can we avoid being disqualified?
Paul teaches in verse 27 of 1 Corinthians 9:
No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
Paul “strikes a blow to his body” and puts to death the works of his flesh.
Colossians 3:5 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.
By what power does Paul put to death his earthly nature?
Romans 8:13 For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.
It is by the power of the Holy Spirit who lives in us that we can put our earthly nature to death so as to avoid sinning against the Lord—and not be disqualified from our reward after finishing our earthly race.
This is the true grace of God
Titus 2:11 For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. 12 It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, 13 while we wait for the blessed hope–the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ…