What makes Christianity unique relative to other religions of the world is the agency of Jesus Christ. Everything the Christian has comes THROUGH JESUS. “IN HIM (Jesus) we have redemption – deliverance and salvation THROUGH HIS BLOOD, the remission, forgiveness of our offences, shortcomings and trespasses, in accordance with the riches and the generosity of his gracious favour…” (Ephesians 1:7 AMP)
Now, all other religions accept the historicity of Jesus. But they do not accept his deity or recognise his agency. Only Christianity preaches salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. Other religions preach salvation by morality and good deeds – works. Unfortunately, some Christians also insist salvation is by morality and good works. And to make their point they resort to IMPLIED meanings of certain passages of scripture, totally ignoring the many explicit and direct scriptures on salvation by grace. In the bid to point out certain passages IMPLY salvation is by works, they forget they haven’t explained away or resolved scriptures like Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works lest any man should boast.” How is anyone going to explain away such a brutally direct scripture!
Some of the confusion about interpretation of scriptures stem from the fact that many people take passages of scripture out of context. They ignore what comes before and after. And some do not even understand what they’re reading. They don’t understand the 17th century English of the popular King James Bible. One passage in the Bible that has suffered both fates is 1 Corinthians 9:27 – the “cast away” scripture. In that passage Paul wrote: “I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: but I keep my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.”
Notice this is not a direct or explicit scripture on salvation but one from which an inference has been drawn – that Paul was afraid of the possibility of hell. Hell is never mentioned in the scripture, and loss of salvation is never mentioned. These are just assumed. But what was Paul really talking about? For if Paul in this passage implies that salvation is by works, and that one can lose his salvation then he will be contradicting the content of several of his other letters and his gospel – in particular his letter to the Galatians: “You crazy Galatians! Did someone put a hex on you? Have you taken leave of your senses? Something crazy has happened, for it is obvious you no longer have the crucified Christ in clear focus in your lives. His sacrifice on the cross was certainly set clearly before you clearly enough. Let me put this question to you: How did your new life begin? Was it by working your heads off to please God? Or was it by responding to God’s message to you? Are you going to continue this craziness? For only crazy people would think they could complete by their own effort what was begun by God.” (Galatians 3:1-6 MSG) How can Paul tell the Galatians they’re crazy for trying to complete their salvation through human effort, yet tell the Corinthians salvation is by self-effort and human morality?
1 Corinthians 9:27 in fact has nothing to do with the question of salvation. In other to understand what Paul was saying, we need to back up a bit, to see what he had said. Remember Paul was writing a letter. He never knew he was writing the Bible. We can’t just pick a paragraph from his letter out of context. Paul wrote in an organic free-flowing form.
The thrust of Paul in 1 Corinthians 9 were his rights as an apostle, as well as his motivation for preaching the gospel. As an apostle, he argued, he had a right to demand upkeep from the church at Corinth: “We who are on missionary assignments for God have a right to decent accommodations, and we have a right to support for us and our families.” (1 Corinthians 9:3-7 MSG) These were rights enjoyed by the other apostles and the brothers of Jesus, as well as Peter Paul wrote. Unlike other apostles Paul and Barnabas worked and paid their way through even though they were on missionary work. “Are soldiers self-employed? Are gardeners forbidden to eat vegetables from their own gardens? Don’t milkmaids get to drink their fill from the pail?” (1 Corinthians 9:7) “The Lord ordered that those who preach the Good News should be supported by those who benefit from it.” (1 Corinthians 9:14 NLT) And so the thrust of his letter was not salvation but his rights and his work as an apostle. Paul wrote that he had never exercised these rights: “Yet I have never used any of these rights. And I am not writing this to suggest that I want to start now. In fact I would rather die than lose my right to boast about preaching without charge.” (1 Corinthians 9:15 NLT) So what was he really getting from preaching the gospel? What was his pay? “It is the opportunity to preach the Good News without charging anyone. That’s why I never demand my rights when I preach the Good News.” (1 Corinthians 9:18) Preaching the gospel without charge he says gave him freedom. “I am free of demands and expectations of everyone.” (1 Corinthians 9:19) Nonetheless he voluntarily chose to “become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, non-religious, meticulous moralists, loose living moralists, the defeated, the demoralized – whoever.” (1 Corinthians 9:19-20 MSG) “I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22 NLT) But he was rather careful about mingling with the world, he said: “I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ – but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view.” (1 Corinthians 9:22 MSG) This approach of his as one can imagine is rather risky, just as he intimated. It requires enormous discipline. In other to cope with the temptations associated with this approach to evangelism Paul adopted a strict regimen of discipline, like an athlete, and like a boxer.
And so we see Paul talking about coping with massive exposure to temptation. This becomes obvious in the next chapter, 1 Corinthians 10. It’s a continuation of the discourse began in 1 Corinthians 9. It’s why he wrote: “No test or temptation that comes your way is beyond the course of what others had to face. All you need to remember is that God will never let you down; he’ll never let you be pushed beyond your limit; he’ll always be there to help you come through it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13 MSG)
Paul says he disciplined himself like an athlete and like a boxer. As an athlete he kept his goal in focus. As a boxer he subdued his body. (1 Corinthians 9:27) “Like a boxer I buffet my body, handle it roughly, discipline it by hardships and subdue it, for fear that after proclaiming to others the Gospel and things pertaining to it, I myself should become unfit, not stand the test, be unapproved and rejected as a counterfeit.” (1 Corinthians 9:27 AMP) The Greek for “cast away is “adokimos.” It means unapproved, unworthy, rejected. In Ancient Olympics those too old or considered unfit were disqualified. The athletes were actually required to take an oath saying they had been in training for ten months. “To be in the games, the athletes had to qualify and have their names written in the lists.” (Wikipedia) Paul used that list as analogy. Athletics and boxing were two main events at the Olympics. Champion athletes were awarded an olive wreath crown, the kotinos. The kotinos of course withered with time. Paul called it perishable. But he says his focus was winning a crown of righteousness – “an imperishable crown.” (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:25, 2 Timothy 4:8)
What Paul was saying was, he was mindful of his reputational asset. His message was as good as his reputation. He didn’t want to be rejected as a fake preacher. (The Corinthians were particularly targeted by fake preachers cf. 2 Corinthians 12:13-15) The King James edition renders that passage as: “But I keep my body, and bring it to subjection: lest by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.” (1 Corinthians 9:27 KJV) The phrase “castaway” references both the Olympics and Homer’s Odyssey. To quote from Olympic Ethics and Philosophy, edited by Mike McNamee (2014), “The success of these athletes, in so far as it depended on training, grated on traditional aristocratic sensibilities. The belief had been that true aristocrats didn’t need to train to become athletes and they didn’t need to study to become intellectuals. In Homer’s Odyssey, the hero proves his nobility through untrained athleticism. Washing up a WEAKENED CASTAWAY on the shores of Phaeacia, Odysseus responds to the insulting implication that he may be a businessman rather than a king by slinging a discuss farther than all the locals. (Homer, Odyssey 8.100-233). Back in Ithaca, his queen and subjects failed to recognise him until he levels a low class rival in boxing…”
It’s important for a Christian to be well read across many disciplines – ancient history, philosophy, anthropology, cosmology etc. It’s the advantage Paul and Apostle John had. A study of ancient Greece and Greek philosophy for example helps us understand the context in which the apostles wrote, just as the Book of Acts gives us a lot of context for early Christianity.
Paul would maintain his athletic and boxing analogy in his letter to Timothy: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful. And now the prize awaits me – the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on the day of his return. And the prize is not just for me but for all who eagerly look forward to his appearing.” (2 Timothy 4:7-8) Now, you understand why he says, “Run to win!” in 1 Corinthians 9:24 (NLT); or as the King James Bible says, “So run, that ye may obtain.” And so we know there’s a reward system for Christians in Heaven. No wonder Paul wrote, “No sloppy living for me. I’m staying alert and in top condition. I’m not going to get caught napping, telling everyone else about it and then missing out.” (1 Corinthians 9:27 MSG) He was talking about missing out on his reward, not salvation. Paul didn’t want to miss out on his reward having told others to aim for the prize. That’s what he meant by being a “castaway”. He was not talking about losing his salvation.
If you’ll like to give your life to Christ please pray this prayer: “Father, I come to you in the name of Jesus. I know that I am a sinner. I believe Jesus died for me and that you raised him from the dead. I confess with my mouth that Jesus is Christ is Lord and I receive him as my Lord and my Saviour. I am now born again. Amen.”
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