An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. 2 Timothy 2:5
As I’ve mentioned previously, I enjoy working out at my CrossFit gym and I enjoy CrossFit competitions. A competition typically involves lifting weights, push-ups, pull-ups, and other such things. For the competitions to be fair, there must be standards of movement and each athlete has his or her own judge to enforce those standards. If one athlete does push-ups, but only goes halfway down to the floor on each repetition, those who do it right would be at a significant disadvantage. So, the judge’s job is to disqualify every inadequate repetition, calling out No Rep! when an athlete fails to meet the standard. If an athlete fails often enough, there’s no chance for that athlete to win, or even finish the competition. You must follow the rules if you want to be rewarded. You can’t cheat and win.
Though he wasn’t speaking of CrossFit, Paul used the metaphor of athletics to describe the Christian life. In today’s passage, he said that an athlete cannot hope to win unless he complies with the rules of the game. As evangelicals, we sometimes don’t like to hear this. We believe (rightly) that we’re saved by grace through faith in God’s free gift of salvation. We don’t earn his love by our good deeds. Paul himself taught this (Ephesians 2:8), but in today’s passage, he also taught that we must follow the rules if we desire the life for which we were created.
I once understood grace and mercy to mean that I could live however I wanted. I thought I could simply follow my self-destructive appetite and then ask forgiveness later, suffering no consequences because I was a Christian. I saw my faith as a Get Out of Jail Free card. In Galatians 6:7-8 though, Paul taught that if we follow ourselves, we’ll find destruction. Conversely, he taught that if we follow God, we’ll find life. We can claim faith in God, but if we live only for ourselves, we’ll still lose in the end.
God’s love, forgiveness, and salvation are free. We can’t earn those things. We are however, expected to respond appropriately. There is always forgiveness in Christ when we fail, but if our so-called faith never impacts how we live, then it’s not a real faith. If we want to know the new life, we must follow the rules of the game, making some genuine attempt to abandon our way for God’s. We can’t claim faith, live for ourselves, and then expect to experience God’s blessing. If our faith is real, it must impact how we live. We can’t cheat God and still hope to win at life.