Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. -The Apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 9:26-27Evidently, even Paul considered his own disqualification a live possibility. By this, he most emphatically did not mean the loss of his salvation. Instead, he seems to have in the mind the idea that the Christian life is like competing in the Olympics, where the best servants of Christ will be rewarded by God. But failure to master one's sinful passions can cause a person to be disqualified from reward. In other words, an inconsistent Christian life, which is only partially committed to Christ isn't worth rewarding in God's sight.
Which troubles me more than a little bit. In my life (and the life of every Christian I know, committed or not), there is always at least a little bit of a gap between the truths we believe and profess and the lives that we actually live. Even Paul, who was perhaps the greatest Christian to have ever lived, worried at least a little that he might not hear "Well done, good and faithful servant. Come! Enjoy your Master's happiness." If that is true for Paul, then what hope do I have of ever receiving "a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (2 Peter 1:11)?
Yet the more I contemplate it, the more I am struck by Paul's imagery. What he seems to be saying is that "yes, it is possible to live an unrewarded life as a Christian." But what he is also saying is that this possibility should not cause us to simply resign ourselves to a life of giving into our flesh and its lusts. Rather, that possibility should drive us to keep fighting, knowing that one day our fight will be over. The final bell will ring (or is it last trumpet sound?), and Christ will then hold up the hands of those who fought well and give them victory, a victory that was won not by their effort (though their effort is of course required), but through the power of His Holy Spirit working through them. In other words, as in all things, God's grace is over all, through all, and in all. Nothing I achieve that is worthy of God's reward will have come about through my power and effort, but through God's Spirit working His will out in my life. My job is to submit myself totally to Him, to be an open pipe through which Living Water can flow out to the world and to confess the clogs to Him. If I do that, God will be pleased to call me "good and faithful." And yet, if I am faithful it will be most like (as C. S. Lewis says) a boy who says to his father 'Give me sixpence to buy you a birthday present.' and the does so out of His love for His son.