The apostle Paul testified that he always strove to “keep under” the lusts of his “body” (his old man, or sinful nature)1—so that they did not dominate him (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).
In other words, Paul was constantly reckoning himself “dead to sin” (Romans 6:1-14; 7:21-25; compare Galatians 2:20), refusing to allow himself to be enticed into sin.
The reason for his being engaged in this internal struggle is: “Lest…I myself should be a castaway.”
Some critics of the doctrine of God’s preservation of his saints use this testimony of Paul to argue that even he dared not believe that he was eternally secure in Christ. But does this verse really indicate that the apostle feared he could lose his salvation, or imply that true Christians may end up not being saved after all?
Wolves in sheep’s clothing
Some people think they are Christians but are not, based on a wrong understanding of Bible doctrine. They may come to church without deliberate grievous intent to Christians or to the name of Christ. But others are deliberately anti-Christian and anti-Christ, and they infiltrate churches in order to steal, kill and destroy (see John 10:10).
We have been warned repeatedly about wolves in sheep’s clothing (see Matthew 7:15; Acts 20:28-30).
Some un-Christian men may possibly convince a presbytery or church that they are both saved and called to the pastoral ministry. From their pulpits they may preach many sermons quoting the Word of God, which the Holy Spirit uses for the saving and sanctifying benefit to other people—even while the wolf himself is not benefited in any way, but further condemns himself.
Sooner or later, however, there will come a time when his pretence of Christian faith and holiness cannot be kept up; and his mask cracks wide open and exposes the fact that all he has is his desperately wicked heart (compare Jeremiah 17:9).
Maybe sometimes the public exposure of a ravening wolf does not happen until he appears before Christ’s judgment throne (Matthew 7:22-23; see also 2 Corinthians 5:10). But the truth will come out, for God will not be mocked (Galatians 6:7-8).
We do not believe Paul was saying that he himself might, after all, prove to be such a man. As he says in 2 Corinthians 13:6, “But I trust that ye shall know that we [i.e. Paul himself and those with him] are not reprobates.” (Here the word “reprobates” is the same Greek word as was translated as “castaway” in 1 Corinthians 9:27.)
Evil among the Lord’s people
Some true Christians entertain themselves with secret sins—but the Lord knows, and he will not be mocked. Sadly, they will find in their own experience that what the prophet Habbakkuk said of God is true: “Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity” (Habbakuk 1:13).
They will know what it is to have “grieved” the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30). And therefore, they will in some measure be “cast away” from the presence of God.
Their spiritual life will become dull, dry, and withered—even though they may still crave God’s presence (Psalms 1:1-3; 42:1-11; 63:1; 119:25).
They may have been in this dried-up state for many a long year before their sins became public knowledge.
We may all be sadly aware of catastrophic immorality among true Christians—including among genuinely called and ordained Christian ministers.
Such sinners must then be subjected to church discipline; they must be excommunicated (1 Corinthians 5:1-13)—“cast away” by the church as unworthy of membership because of their scandalous behaviour.
Both secret and open sins may result in a Christian losing his or her close communion with God. They may also find that, in order to bring them to repentance, God chastens2 them in their bodies or circumstances (Hebrews 12:5-11; see also Ruth 1:21).
Yet have they lost their salvation, whether by their sin, or by their being excommunicated by the church, or by these internal and external chastisements? No. For if they are true Christians, then God will inevitably bring them back to a full repentance—same as he did with king David (see Psalms 51:1-12).
Such repentance must be recognised by the church (Matthew 6:14-15; 2 Corinthians 2:5-10; Galatians 6:1).
True Christians are—or should be—distinguished by their faith, humility, repentance and good works. This must include “works meet for repentance” (Matthew 3:8; Acts 26:20).
We who believe that God always saves, delivers, preserves, and keeps his people, understand that the Bible does not allow the possibility that true Christians may, through some total abandonment of their faith or through some particularly wicked sin, provoke God to withdraw his Holy Spirit from them and slay their quickened spirit, so that they become unregenerate again.
We also understand that in order to admit that this is possible, then we would have to ignore, suppress or “explain away” all those precious promises in the Bible that true Christians have eternal life, and they will never perish, or ever be removed from Christ’s and the Father’s hands (e.g. John 3:16, 36; 5:24; 6:47; 10:27-29; Hebrews 10:24; 13:5; 1 Peter 1:3-5).
In appealing to 1 Corinthians 9:27, eternal security deniers are asserting that the apostle Paul was striving to maintain himself in that state of salvation out of fear of losing it. But Paul himself considers this same idea “foolish”. He writes to the church in Galatia, “Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?” (see Galatians 3:1-3). Of course, they should answer no—and so should we!
Therefore where Paul says, “lest…I myself should be a castaway,” we believe he is saying that he must strive to “keep under [his] body” so that he will not give in to temptations and so, falling into scandal, need to be cast away from the church through excommunication, cast away from that close communion of the Holy Spirit which he had in his heart, and chastised by God.