Run the Race

I Corinthians 9

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
April 2024

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (I Corinthians 9:24-27 ESV)

Every four years, top athletes from all over the world come together to compete for a prize.  It is a popular event.  It is watched all over the world.  It is a time of national pride.

Not only do individuals compete but nations compete.  Countries compete with other countries in this event to see which one gets the most gold medals.

Today, we are going to look at four verses.  These verses are powerful. They are about faith. They are about sports.  They are about the Christian athlete.

Christians are also in a race.  Every Christian has a race to run.  Every Christian is eligible to win a prize at the end of his or her life.

This passage is about running a spiritual race. It is about running for Christ.  It is about a spiritual Olympics.  Paul uses a sports metaphor.  Paul uses the image, not just of an athlete but of an Olympic athlete.

The chapter was written by a man, so it uses a sports analogy.  Most men like sports.  The ancient Greeks loved sports.  They loved competition.  Greece is where the Olympics began. The Corinthians probably liked sports.  They were Greek.

Did you know that there are three sports mentioned in the Bible?  They are mentioned in the NT.  They are mentioned by the Apostle Paul.

Paul mentions three sports. He mentions running.  He mentions boxing.  He mentions wrestling.  Two are mentioned in Corinthians 9.

We don’t know if Paul or any apostles ever attended any of the Olympic games.  The Olympics two thousand years ago were very different from the Olympics today.

Greek athletes often competed in the nude.  That does not even sound comfortable.  They ran in the nude as a tribute to Zeus.  The Greeks worshipped the human body.

These events were dedicated to pagan deities.  The Olympics were held in honor of the god Zeus. The Isthmian Games were held in honor of the god Poseidon.

These were not just athletic events; they were religious events complete with sacrifices to Greek gods. Athletes had to swear an oath to these gods before the games even began.

Paul may not have attended these events but he must have liked sports. Most men do.  He liked some combat sports.  He liked some fighting sports.  He mentions them in Scripture.

There are both similarities and differences between the Olympic race and the Christian race.


1) Both are in a race.

2) Both have to train for that race.

3) Both can win or lose that race.

4) Both can be disqualified from the prize.


1) One is a physical contest.  One is a spiritual contest.

2) One involves physical training.  The other involves spiritual training.

3) One is a short event.  It does not last long.  The contest is short.  The other lasts an entire lifetime.

4) One has only one prize for first, one gold medal in our modern Olympics.  In heaven, many will get the first-place prize.

5) In one, athletes are in competition against one another.  In the other, there is no competition, because there is not just one prize.

6) In one, the prize is temporary.  It will fade away.  It was just a plant in Paul’s day.  The other prize is eternal.  It does not fade away.


This is an amazing passage.  It is a motivation in this passage for every Christian.  We can all receive rewards after we die for service to Christ.  These are incredible rewards that last forever.

There is also a serious warning in this passage.  Every Christian is eligible for a reward, but every Christian can also be disqualified for rewards.

We can be disqualified by lifestyle choices we make on earth and no one is excluded. Elders, and deacons can be disqualified.  Pastors and missionaries can be disqualified.  Even apostles can be disqualified.

This passage is controversial.  It is one of the most debated passages in I Corinthians. Christians argue about it.  It is a passage about the disqualification of ministers, but it applies to every Christian.  It is often misunderstood.

Paul is NOT saying that you can lose your salvation.  If you are part of the Wesleyan, Methodist, Nazarene or Pentecostal tradition, you believe that you can be saved today and lost tomorrow.  They use this passage to teach that you can lose your salvation.

There is not a hint in this passage of such an idea. Paul is not saying that he had a crown and lost it through sin.  He is dealing with the possibility of not getting one in the first place when he gets to heaven.


There are two main interpretations.  If you read the commentators, they are divided.  Some say it means one thing.  Others say it means something else.  We are going to look at the two views.

1. Paul is talking about salvation

The first view is that this is all about salvation.  Paul was worried he would not make it to heaven, according to this view.  It is not about losing salvation.

It is not about losing anything.  It is about not getting saved in the first place.  Some say this was “Paul’s greatest fear.”  There is some irony here.

But I discipline my body and keep it under control, LEST AFTER PREACHING TO OTHERS, I myself should be disqualified. (I Corinthians 9:27 ESV)

Paul had a passion for evangelism.  He loved to tell people how to be saved, but it is possible to show others the way to get saved and not get saved yourself.  You can bring others to salvation but not get saved yourself.  That would be embarrassing.

It is possible to do all kinds of good works and still be a reprobate.  You can join a church, get baptized, teach a Sunday School class, sing in the choir and still not be saved.

It is possible to be an apostle and not go to heaven.  Just being an apostle did not guarantee salvation.  Judas didn’t go to heaven.

He did not lose his salvation.  He was never saved.  Jesus called him “the son of perdition” (John 17:12).  Jesus called him “a devil” (John 6:70) and that was BEFORE he betrayed him.

It is also possible to be a certified apostle of Jesus Christ, work hard, preach the gospel all over the world, do stupendous miracles, cast out demons, raise people from the dead, write scripture, start churches and still not go to heaven.

Jesus said that some people will be rejected on the last day.  He will say to some “I never knew you.”  He said that many will think they are going to heaven but actually end up in Hell.  He said this in a passage that some have called “the scariest verse in the Bible.”

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy IN YOUR NAME, and cast out demons IN YOUR NAME, and do many mighty works IN YOUR NAME?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matthew 7:21-23 ESV)

You would expect Jesus to say that all who do not call him Lord will not enter the kingdom.  That is true but what He says here is something else, something more shocking.  Many moral people will not enter heaven.

Many professing Christians will not enter heaven.  Many who call Jesus “Lord” will not enter heaven.  Many Baptists will not get in.  He even says some charismatics will end up in Hell.

He says that some who prophesy, cast out demons and perform miracles will not make it to heaven.  In fact, Jesus said that these did not just perform some but MANY mighty works.

This is the first view of our passage in I Corinthians 9.  Many hold this view.  It is the view of the Zondervan Study Bible.  It is the view of some of the church fathers (Chrysostom).

It was the view of some old writers and commentators (Charles Hodge, Matthew Henry).  It is the view of some modern scholars (Tom Shreiner, John Piper, David Garland).

It is the view of some Greek scholars (A.T. Robertson).  It is probably the majority view but is this view correct?  All of these things may be true but is this what the verse is saying?

Biblical Evaluation

It couldn’t be talking about salvation because Paul was already saved.  The Corinthians were already saved.

He said that in the first chapter.  He called them “saints of God” (I Corinthians 1:1).  He said that they were washed sanctified and justified in the name of our Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God (I Corinthians 6:11).

Paul was saved.  He did not have to beat his body to get to heaven. He did not have to discipline his body to get to heaven.  He was not running to obtain life.  He was not running the race to get saved.  He was already saved.

So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy. (Romans 9:16 NKJV)

That view would contradict everything else Paul said.  Salvation is not by works.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 NOT A RESULT OF WORKS, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9 NIV)

who saved us and called us to a holy calling, NOT BECAUSE OF OUR WORKS but because of his own purpose and grace (II Timothy 1:9 NIV)

he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy (Titus 3:5 NIV)

And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness (Romans 4:5 NIV)

You can’t earn salvation.  You can’t work for salvation.  Paul said it is by grace (Ephesians 2:8).  Paul said that salvation is a gift of God.  It is not just a gift but a free gift.  Salvation is free.  All you have to do is to receive it.  You have to accept it.

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23 NIV).

The first view, which is very popular, is based mainly on the KJV says here.

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” (I Corinthians 9:27 KJV)

Everyone agrees that the KJV gives a terrible translation of the verse.  The KJV was simply following some earlier English translations of the verse.[1]

A castway is someone stranded on a shore after a shipwreck.  Paul knew about shipwrecks.  He was shipwrecked.  He said that he was shipwrecked three times (II Corinthians 11:25)

Paul does talk about some who shipwreck their faith (I Timothy 1:19) but that shipwreck not what the Greek adjective ἀδόκιμος means.  Nor is is translated “shipwreck” any other time in the KJV.

The word ἀδόκιμος is used eight times in the NT (Romans 1:28; I Corinthians 9:27; II Corinthians 13:5, 6, 7; II Timothy 3:8; Titus 1:16; Hebrews 6:8)

One preacher, Jerry Vines, says there is a difference between being a “castout” and “a castaway.”  Paul did not say that he would be a castout.

Vines said, “If you are saved you are not going to ever be a castout. In John 6:37 Jesus said, “Him that cometh unto me I will in no wise cast out.” The Bible teaches that, when you come to Jesus Christ, He will never kick you out.[2] There is another view of this passage.

2. Paul is talking about rewards

Paul was NOT afraid that he would lose his salvation.  He was afraid that he would lose his reward in heaven.  He was afraid that he would not receive the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Paul is not talking about being disqualified from the kingdom but being disqualified from a prize. Paul here is not dealing with losing salvation but losing a crown. The Bible often describes crowns in the Bible as rewards.

We will receive rewards in heaven for how we lived on earth.  Some will receive more rewards than others.  Everything we do for Him will be rewarded.  They are represented by crowns.

Paul said, “Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” (II Timothy 4:8 NIV)

Paul said this about getting a crown in heaven AFTER what he said in I Corinthians 9.  II Timothy was written at the end of his life.

The Book of Revelation describes the twenty-four elders around the throne.  They wore white robes and had crowns of gold on their heads (Revelation 4:4).

The Bible teaches that we don’t earn our salvation, but we earn our rewards in heaven.  Salvation is not by works but rewards are by works.

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. (II Corinthians 5:10 ESV)

Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done. (Revelation 22:12 ESV)

For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. (Matthew 16:27 ESV)

Just because you are disqualified does not mean that you go to Hell. Disqualification does not necessarily mean damnation.

You can be disqualified and still be saved. Moses did not get to go into the Promise Land.  He sinned.  He was disqualified.  That doesn’t mean that he went to Hell.   Moses was a believer.

We live in a day when many pastors fall into sin and are disqualified from ministry. The standard is high to be a pastor.

Any sin can be forgiven, no matter how bad it is, but there are consequences to sin. One of the consequences is disqualification. A man can be disqualified from the ministry but still make it into heaven.

Believers can suffer loss on the day of judgment BY FIRE but still be saved (I Corinthians 3:15).  They can be disqualified but still go to heaven.  Disqualification in the context refers to a prize.

There are people today who are disqualified in races. Races still have rules. When people athletes break the rules, they are disqualified.  We have had some recent examples of that.

Ben Johnson once had the reputation as the fastest man on in the world.  He was a Canadian.  He broke all of the records for the 100 meter and 60-meter race.

In 1988, he won the 100-meter race in South Korea but three days later he was disqualified.  He was stripped of his goal medal by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) when he tested positive for steroids.

The gold medal went to the American runner Carl Lewis instead.  There was a lot of rivalry between these two men.  Johnson was not only disqualified; he lost a fortune.  He lost millions of dollars in endorsements.

Marion Jones was a world champion track and field athlete.  At one time, she was the fastest woman on earth.  She was the fastest woman on the planet. In 2000, she was caught using steroids.

What happened?  She was disqualified and was stripped of five Olympic medals in 2000.  She was banned from the sport.  She got a divorce.

She spent some time in prison.  She served a six-month federal sentence and spent some time in solitary confinement, but she also met God in prison.

How to Win the Prize

1) Train to Win

Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. (I Corinthians 9:25 NIV)

To be an athlete requires intense discipline and training.  It requires diet and exercise.  People training for marathons can run forty to forty-five miles per week. Swimmers swim ten miles a day to be competitive. Gymnasts work out about six hours a day for six days a week.

In ancient Greece, athletes trained for at least ten months before the start of the games. The Christian life involves spiritual training, rather than physical training. Physical exercise is popular today. Everyone is talking about “getting into shape”.

Paul said in I Timothy 4:8, “For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come” (NIV).

Paul was not against exercise. He did NOT say that physical exercise had no value. He said that it has some value (builds muscle, relieves stress, helps with weight loss, good for the heart).

Paul goes on to say that spiritual exercise is far more valuable. Physical exercise will help in this life but that is all it will do. Spiritual exercise is good for this life and the life to come.

Godliness requires training. It doesn’t happen by itself. What are we doing to train ourselves to be godly?

What type of spiritual exercise program are we on (consistent prayer, Bible study, Scripture memorization, one-on-one accountability, small group, church attendance, fasting)?

2) Run to Win

Run in such a way as to get the prize (I Corinthians 9:24 ESV).

It is a passage that beings with a question.  There is one command in this passage, and it is the command to run and not just to run but run to win.

Paul does not say that this is bad. He was not against competitive sports.  He did not believe in the modern philosophy that everyone is automatically a winner.  He said, “Run in such a way as to get the prize.”  Running is good and that Christians should be the same way.

They were not just to run but to run to win. Don’t just run to finish but run to win. Some run in a marathon and do not try to win.  Some of those marathons are twenty-six miles long.  Their only goal is to finish the race.

That was not Paul’s approach to the Christian life.  The goal is not just to get to heaven.  It is higher.  Get saved.  Live for Jesus.  Put him first in your life.  Serve God and glorify Him.

To get the prize, you don’t just have to ENTER the race.  Getting in the race is not enough.

To get the prize, you don’t just have to RUN the race.  Hebrews 12:1 says Run with perseverance the race marked out for us (NIV).

To get the prize, you don’t just have to FINISH the race.  You don’t just have to stay in the race.  Some start the race but don’t finish.  You have to get first place.

Are you in the race?  Are you in the heavenly race or just an earthly race?  Is your life characterized by discipline and self-control?

Some like to run and some hate to run but Paul says that Christianity is a race.  Are you running in the race?  Are you running to win?

Paul said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Tim. 4:7 NIV).  Paul did not just start the race.  He FINISHED  it.  Where are you in your Christian race?

[1] The KJV (1611) followed the Bishop’s Bible (1568), which also translates ἀδόκιμος “a castaway.”  The Bishops Bible followed the Miles Coverdale translation (1535), which translated it “a cast awaye.”  Coverdale followed the Tyndale translation (1526), which read “a castawaye.”

[2] Jerry Vines, “Liberating the Captives” (sermon)

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