The apostle Paul testified that he always made efforts to “keep under”1 the lusts of his “body”2—so that it did not dominate him (1 Corinthians 9.24-27). In other words, Paul endeavoured to repeatedly reckon himself “dead to sin” (Romans 6.1-14; 7.21-25; compare Galatians 2.20)—he continuously resisted the enticement into sin. His reason for his keeping engaged in this internal struggle was: “Lest…I myself should be a castaway.”
Some critics of the doctrine of God’s preservation of his saints try to use this personal testimony of Paul to support their denial. They argue that even the apostle dared not believe that he was eternally secure in Christ. But does this verse imply that the apostle feared he could lose his salvation? And does it also imply that true Christians may end up not being saved after all? What does Paul mean by a “castaway”—cast away from what?
Before we address this matter directly, let us consider some alleged evidence from the present day, that eternal-security denying Arminians often point to in this connection. They say some people they know (or, know of) were Christians previously but they have since left the Church and departed from the Christian faith. They may even point to some people who were “Calvinists” but who have now returned to a non-Christian, Christ-rejecting life.
Our response to such supposedly-true Christians being cast away (or casting themselves away) from the state of salvation is as follows. First, we point to the obvious fact that we cannot know for certain what is in the mind or heart of another person. We can only listen to the words they use to describe what they say they believe (and, if they are a preacher, we can listen to their preaching), and we can look at the evidence of the way they live their life. In older language: we can hear their profession of faith, and we can observe whether they live according to their profession of faith. A modern way of putting it is, do they “talk the talk and walk the walk”?
In the times we spend with other people and get to know them, we can certainly be sure whether they are professed Christians or not, by comparing their words and life by how the Bible defines a Christian. But the question will remain: do they really have what is sometimes called saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ? Or are their beliefs about Christ merely tentative (not fully committed)? Are they believers in Christ—do they properly trust and hope in the Saviour for their own salvation, as only someone who has been born again can do (John 1.12-13; Ephesians 2.8; Philippians 1.29)?
We have no special insight into another person’s soul. All we can do is hope that a credible professor of the Biblical doctrines of Christ is a true Christian. By credible, we mean they “talk the talk” and “walk the walk.” And—assuming we ourselves are true Christians (reader, I don’t know your heart)—we ought to love them as a Christian brother or sister in what is sometimes called the “judgment of charity.” If a person says they are a Christian, claims to believe the Bible, and lives as a Christian as as far as we know, then we treat them as a fellow Christian.
Secondly, it is not always true that a professing Christian is a born-again, saved soul. Some people think they are Christians but they are not. Their concept of what a Christian is, is based upon a wrong understanding of Bible doctrine and Christian practice. (Here I’m referring to some people in Christian churches, not people involved in pseudo-Christian cults.) There are non-Christians who come to church, and for a while they may think of themselves as Christians because they enjoy the preaching and the friendship; and they don’t have grievous intent toward Christians or toward the name of Christ. Maybe they have been born to Christian parents and raised with a Christian education to a greater or lesser extent, so that they adopt the language and lifestyle of the Church and they maintain it for many years. We sometimes say that they are part of the visible Church —and, again, we should love them as though they are true Christians. But, though we don’t know this, they are not part of the invisible church that is only comprised of true Christians. If these outward professors later depart from the Church, that is not evidence that regenerate, true Christians can lose their salvation.
We also know that there are people who are self-consciously anti-Christian, anti-Christ and anti-God, who infiltrate churches in order “to steal, and to kill, and to destroy” (John 10.10). We have been repeatedly warned about such 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, expounding, and applying the Bible, which the Holy Spirit then uses for the saving and sanctifying benefit to true Christians—even while the “wolf” is not benefited in any way, but only further condemns himself. Sooner or later, however, there will come a time when his pretense of Christian faith and holiness cannot be kept up; and his mask cracks wide open and exposes the fact that all he has is a “desperately wicked” heart (Jeremiah 17.9). The truth will come out, sooner or later, for God will not be mocked (Galatians 6.7-8).
We do not believe Paul feared for himself, that he might after all prove to be a “wolf.” But he was assured that he would remain as he affirms 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.
Some true Christians entertain themselves for a while, perhaps many years, with secret sins—and some even entertain themselves with with non-secret sins that they justify to themselves. But the Lord knows all, 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 (Habakkuk 1.13). They will increasingly know, in their personal experience, what it is to have “grieved” the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4.30). And meanwhile, they will in some measure be “cast away” from the presence of God. Their spiritual life will be dull, dry, and withered—even though they may still crave God’s presence and pray to him to increase his sanctifying work in their soul (Psalms 1.1-3; 42.1-11; 63.1; 119.25). They may be in this dried-up state for many a long year before they eventually return to God with a proper and thorough repentance.
Sadly, there may be cases of catastrophic immorality among true Christians (not merely professors)—including among genuinely God-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 disqualified for or 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. And they may also find that, in order to bring his people back to repentance, God chastises them in their bodies or circumstances (Hebrews 12.5-11; see also Ruth 1.21).3
Yet do true Christians lose their salvation, whether by their sinning it away, or by being excommunicated by the church, or by falling under internal and external chastisements? No. For they are true Christians, and God will inevitably bring them back to a full repentance—the same as he did with king David (see Psalms 51.1-12). And 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). Christians lay aside their besetting sins—Christians! lay aside your besetting sins—and walk the walk.
Run the race. “Let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12.1-2). Run the race with the perseverance of a saint.
We who believe that God always saves, delivers, preserves, and keeps safe 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 return to the unregenerate state again.
Order to admit that losing one’s salvation is possible, then we would need to ignore 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).
So now, to explain 1 Corinthians 9.24-27. Paul employs a number of athletic allegories here, multiple metaphors describing the same thing. What is the race, that the apostle encourages his intended readers to run? What is this crown—not, what is it made of, but what is it an accolade for? And for what cause does Paul wrestle down and “keep under” his “body” (his old sinful flesh) and so never become a “castaway”?
- It is not a race to become Christians, for Paul was specifically writing to people who were already saved: “Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours” (1 Corinthians 1.2).
- It is not a race to become sanctified, for the context of the preceding verses was not on the subject of sanctification. Besides, Paul himself considers that idea foolish, and so should we! As he wrote elsewhere, 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, we know the answer is no, we are not made perfect by the flesh. We do not sanctify ourselves by our own efforts, but by the Holy Spirit’s work within us.
- It is the race to share the gospel in fulfillment of Christ’s great commission (Mark 16.15), and to work for the building up of Christ’s church; the Christians’s service that can be jeopardized, compromised, ruined by sin.
This is the race that the apostle himself was running; a race for which he was holding down his old nature; a race and a prize (an incorruptible crown, or whatever that means in heaven) that Paul was on track to win. In his strenuous efforts to and “keep under” his “body” and so never become a “castaway,” Paul is not concerned about losing his salvation; he is concerned about falling into scandalous sins for which God would disqualify him and cast him out his apostolic, pastoral and evangelistic service to Christ.
Looking at the wider context of this passage in 1 Corinthians 9: The apostle had been defending his apostleship and his rights as a preacher of the gospel against his critics (vv.1-15). But in his own devotion to the gospel ministry, he had not taken up many of those things that were right and proper; e.g. he had not taken a wife with him on his missionary journeys; nor had he asked for personal financial support from the Corinthians. No, but in Paul’s commitment to his service, his ministry to Christ, this was his whole attitude: “necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel!” (v.16). In Paul’s own particular case, he was called to give so much of his life and resources to his apostolic, evangelistic, church-founding ministry. Yes of course, Christians should support their pastors and missionaries at home and abroad; and there were some churches and individual Christians that supported the apostle Paul on his missionary journeys. Yet Paul would not generally ask for support, even if it meant that he suffered poverty some times (see Philippians 4.11-13), and in this his all-important motivation in this was “for the gospel’s sake” (1 Corinthians 9.23).
This was now the all-consuming mission and goal of his life. This was the race Paul was running, and it was a race that he urged all his Christian readers to run with him, in their own places and callings: “Know ye not that they which run in a race [in the Isthmian games at Corinth] run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run [this race of service to Christ, to propagate his gospel around the whole world], that ye may obtain. And every man that striveth for the [games’] mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. [Follow my example, urges Paul:] I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway” (vv.24-27).
Paul would never be, so it turned out, a “castaway” from his gospel preaching ministry. This race to him was not a game, and he did not merely play at it. He did not disqualify himself, or get reprobated by God from his race, or lose his crown. Toward the end of his ministry, the apostle knew: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing” (2 Timothy 4.7-8).
Some have said that “keeping under” is perhaps an allusion to wrestling sports, with which the citizens of Corinth would have been familiar. But in the context (1 Corinthians 9.24-27), Paul’s whole allegory is of a running race. So, perhaps this “keeping under” refers to the discipline of maintaining the lifestyle and diet of a runner, and resisting the temptation to slack off. ↩︎