By Doug Potgeter
Some theologians today claim that the Apostle Paul was uncertain whether he would make it to heaven. The passage they use to support this claim is found in 1 Cor 9:24-27, where Paul wrote:
Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it… Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified (1 Cor 9:24, 26-27).
One leading Calvinist, in his commentary on this passage, explains the reason why Paul disciplined himself:
Such discipline is exercised because Paul, after preaching to others, does not want to be disqualified from receiving the prize of eternal life.1
Later on he comments…
The need to run the race to the end did not fill Paul with doubt or shake his confidence. Instead, the admonition to run the race stimulated him to continue in the faith, and his perseverance bolstered his confidence that he would receive final salvation. Those who do not persevere reveal that they were not genuine (11:19); thus perseverance is the mark of a true believer.2
It seems, in a very subtle way, this writer is claiming that the Apostle Paul was uncertain of his eternal destiny. In his view, the need to run the race to the end did not fill Paul with doubt. Apparently, he just had some doubts as to whether or not he would “receive the prize of eternal life.” And these doubts were meant to motivate him to continue running the race.
Another Calvinist theologian, in a sermon on 1 Cor 9:24-27, said:
If [Paul] quit running, if he said, “I’ve had enough of this life of service; I’m through with following the path of obedience to my heavenly call; I’ll try to hang on to Christ for the forgiveness of my sins, but I’m done with doing what he says”— if Paul quit like that, and never came back, he would be lost. He would not get the prize of salvation.”3
Clearly, this teacher believes that if the Apostle Paul did not persevere to the end, then “he would not get the prize of salvation.” But is that what Paul meant? Was he fearful of being eternally lost if he stopped running the race? Did he believe that his faithfulness was a condition for eternal life? Did Paul view salvation as a prize to be won?
Another scholar, in his commentary on 1 Corinthians, explains,
The immortal crown to be won (9:25) is not a good job-approval rating as an apostle, but salvation. It can be won only if one exercises self-control and abstains from many things that may bring physical delight but ultimately will doom success in the contest.4
According to this scholar as well, the Apostle Paul was striving to win salvation. He was exercising self-discipline so that he would make it to heaven. But is this what Paul intended to communicate?
I believe several considerations show the inadequacy of such an interpretation: the context, the word disqualified, and Paul’s faith-alone gospel presented in other passages.
THE CONTEXT ISN’T ABOUT THE PROMISE OF EVERLASTING LIFE
In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul began answering a question about eating meat offered to idols, and his discussion spans chapters 8-10. Some believers in Corinth wanted to exercise their “right” to eat meat offered to idols without any concern for the impact it could have on others. In chapter 9, Paul lists his “rights” (e.g., the right to be cared for materially by local churches) and then explains why he does not take advantage of those rights: that he might advance the gospel in every way possible.
Paul’s concern in chapter 9 is with advancing the gospel by refusing to take advantage of his rights and by adapting culturally wherever he can. There is nothing in the context about winning salvation from eternal condemnation.
THE WORDS DISQUALIFIED AND PRIZE
The primary word that causes some to think Paul doubted his eternal destiny is the last word of chapter 9: “disqualified.” What was Paul afraid of being disqualified (or disapproved) from?
Verse 24 tells us that the goal of running the race is to win the prize. In verse 25 Paul indicates that the prize is an imperishable crown. The word translated as prize is brabeion, which refers to an “award or prize for exceptional service or conduct, prize, reward.”5 It seems unmistakable that if Paul is talking about obtaining entrance into heaven, then salvation is dependent on enduring good works. But that contradicts the faith-alone message. Jesus said, “he who believes in Me has everlasting life” (John 6:47). He did not say, “he who serves me exceptionally to the end will win everlasting life.”
Paul is not talking about missing entrance into heaven if he fails to persevere; he is talking about missing out on eternal rewards due to a failure to endure. This is a completely separate issue from entrance into heaven, which is a free gift.
PAUL’S FAITH-ALONE GOSPEL
In many passages, Paul clearly demonstrates that a person is saved by faith alone (see Acts 16:31; Rom 3:28; 4:5; 5:1; Gal 2:16; Eph 2:8-9; 1 Tim 1:16) and that salvation is a gift (Eph 2:8-9; Titus 3:5). If in 1 Corinthians 9 Paul was suggesting that he was unsure of his eternal destiny because he didn’t know whether or not he would persevere, then he was plainly contradicting himself in the passages cited above.
Paul said he believed on Jesus for eternal life, and he viewed himself as an example for others who would believe (1 Tim 1:16). He was sure of his eternal destiny and that of all who believe on Jesus for eternal life (Acts 16:31; Gal 2:16; Eph 2:8-9; 1 Tim 1:16; 2 Tim 1:12). Since the Scriptures cannot contradict themselves, we know Paul was not expressing doubts about his eternal destiny. The uncertainty Paul was expressing in 1 Cor 9:27 was in regard to whether or not he would persevere in order to win the prize of ruling with Christ. But this has no bearing on his certainty of his eternal destiny.
While we cannot know if we will persevere to the end, our eternal destiny is something about which we should have no doubt—because Jesus promised that the one who simply believes on Him has eternal life.
Doug Potgeter lives in Holland, MI with his wife of ten years, Hannah. He loves to read and spend time with his wife and four boys.
1 Thomas R. Schreiner, I Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary (InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, IL, 2018), p. 181.
2 Ibid., p. 197.
3 John Piper, “Olympic Spirituality: Beyond the Gold,” Desiring God, 30 June 2022, https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/olympic-spirituality.
4 David E.Garland, “Paul’s Self-Discipline: An Example from the World of Athletics.” 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), p. 444.
5 BDAG, p. 183.