As we think of the endurance of the saints, of enduring to the end and finishing well, there is no better example in Scripture than that of the apostle Paul. As he sat chained in a Roman prison, anticipating an imminent execution, he wrote to Timothy:
“For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up 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 loved his appearing.” (2 Timothy 4:6-8)
Over the last few years I have given a lot of thought to how one finishes well. Although a number of things could be said, I have come to the conclusion that there are four fundamental actions we can take to help us finish well. There may be other issues that are important, but I believe these four are fundamental. They are:
*daily time of focused personal communion with God
*daily appropriation of the gospel
*daily commitment to God as a living sacrifice
*firm belief in the sovereignty and love of God.
Paul attributed all of his endurance, all of his faithfulness, to the grace of God.
“But by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Corinthians 15:10)
And so as we look at our responsibility, keep in mind that we are enabled to fulfill that responsibility only by the grace of God.
A Daily Time of Focused Communion with God
In my navy days before we had global positioning satellites we used a sexton to get our navigational position twice each day. At dawn and dusk we would “shoot the stars” and get a position. And invariably after doing that, we had to make a minor course correction. Obviously if we didn’t do that, not only daily but in our case twice a day, we would soon find that we were way off course.
You and I also need that daily course correction, and we do this as we have this focused time with God. And our time of daily focused communion with God is a time when that love of God and his love for us is refreshed in our hearts. Consider the words of the psalmist. In Psalm 63:1 he says,
“O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.”
Communion with God is meeting with him. It is asking God to speak to us. It is speaking to him as we read his word, as we interact with his Word in prayer, as we pray over what God is saying to us in his Word. God does not bless because we spend time with him, but he often blesses through that time.
A Daily Appropriation of the Gospel
The second essential is a daily appropriation of the gospel. I have put personal communion with God first to highlight its priority because that’s the absolute basic essential. But in actual practice I put my daily appropriation with the gospel first. That is, I begin my time with God by reviewing and appropriating to myself the gospel. Since the gospel is only for sinners, I come to Christ as a still practicing sinner. In fact, I usually use the words of that tax collector in the temple when he cried out, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). God has been merciful, and I’m quick to acknowledge his mercy in my life, but I say to him that I come in the attitude of that tax collector. “I need your mercy. I am still a practicing sinner. Even my very best deeds are sinful in your sight, and I am the object of your mercy and your grace.”
It’s important that we come, first of all, by appropriating the gospel because it’s through Christ that we has access to God the Father. Paul says in Ephesians 2:18, “For through him we both (Jew and Gentile) have access in one Spirit to the Father.” We cannot come directly to God. We must always come through the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. But God not only allows us to come; he invites us to come. The writer of Hebrews says, “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, but the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith.” (Heb. 10:19-22). And so, as we appropriate the gospel it gives us the confidence to come into the very presence of God to have communion with him. So we need to learn to live by the gospel every day of our lives.
And if you do not daily appropriate the gospel, you will drift toward a performance relationship with God. And when you do that, you lead yourself in one of two directions. If you have a superficial view of sin in your life—that is, if you think of sin in terms of the big gross sins that society outside of us commits—then you will tend toward religious pride because you’re not doing those things. But if you are conscientious and if you’re seeing some of these “respectable” sins, such as gossip and pride, jealousy and envy and a critical spirit and these kind of things, if you’re seeing those in your life and you do not live by the gospel, that can lead you to despair. And so oftentimes people in this second category just kind of slack off because they can’t handle the tension. They can’t handle the difference between what they know they should be and what they honestly see themselves to be. And what resolves that tension is the gospel, which reminds us that our sins are forgiven and that we are clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ. At the same time, that which keeps us from spiritual pride is the gospel, because again the gospel is only for sinners. But we are all sinners, still practicing sinners, even though we’ve been delivered from the guilt and dominion of sin. Yes, that’s true. And we are now called saints, separated ones. But we still sin in thought, word, deed, and most of all in motive because we often do the right thing for a wrong reason or for a mixed reason. We want to please God, but we want to look good in the process. And so we come to the Lord and we say, “Lord, I come still a practicing sinner, but I look to Jesus Christ and his shed blood and his perfect obedience, his righteous life that has been credited to me. And I see myself standing before you clothed in his righteousness.” This will get you out of bed in the morning. That will get you excited about the Christian life, when you see yourself daily clothed in his righteousness. And that will keep you from loving the world. You can’t love the gospel and love the world at the same time. So a daily appropriation of the gospel will keep you from getting off course.
A Daily Commitment to God as a Living Sacrifice
The third essential is a daily commitment to God as a living sacrifice. And for that I direct your attention to Romans 12:1 “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” As we daily reflect on the gospel and what God has done for us in Christ, this should lead us present ourselves as daily, living sacrifices.
In using the word sacrifice Paul was obviously drawing from the Old Testament sacrificial system. Whether or not Paul had in mind a particular sacrifice, one of them, I think, best helps us understand what Paul is saying when he says to present our bodies as living sacrifices. This is the burnt offering. Of all the animal offerings, the burnt offering was the only one in which the entire animal was consumed upon the altar. It signified not only atonement for sin but also consecration or dedication of the offerer to God. There was always a burnt offering being consumed upon the altar. The burnt offering would signify that we are to consecrate our entire being, not only ourselves but all that we have. Everything about us we are to consecrate, to dedicate to God, to present to him as a sacrifice. Then the word continually (Lev. 6:13;Heb 10:1) says to us that this must be repeated constantly. Often in a moment of high spiritual emotion we might sincerely say, “Lord, I give my whole being, my body, my mind, my service, my money, everything about me, Lord, I consecrate it all to you.” And then we go out and in a few weeks we’re confronted with some issue, and we tend to draw back, and we realize that we’re not as consecrated as we thought we were. Daily renewal of this consecration helps us to keep from doing that.
Presenting our bodies as living sacrifices is not something that we check off and say, “Well, I’ve done that; it’s my duty to do.” It should be a spontaneous response to our appropriation of the gospel. We are talking about communion with God. We are talking about being embraced by his love and his mercy and grace. As we daily appropriate the gospel, we bask in his love, and genuinely basking in his love will lead us to present our bodies as living sacrifices. But that has to be renewed daily. We can’t live today on yesterday’s commitment.
A Firm Belief in the Sovereignty and Love of God
The fourth essential is a firm belief in the sovereignty and love of God. This essential doesn’t have the word daily in it, but it must be practiced continually. Years ago M. Scott Peck wrote a book (The Road Less Traveled) that began with a three-word sentence; “Life is difficult” Most people would agree with that. If you’ve lived very long you realize life is difficult, or at least it’s often difficult, and sometimes it’s even painful. And over time you will experience both difficulties and pain. So if you want to endure to the end, if you want to stand firm in the face of life’s difficulties and pain, then you must have a firm belief in the sovereignty and the love of God. You must not only believe that God is in control of every event in his universe and specifically every event in your own life, but that God, in exercising that control, does so from his infinite love for you.
Many passages show us the sovereignty and love of God, but I have chosen Lamentations 3:37-38 “Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it: Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?” I’ve chosen this particular passage because verse 37 (“Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? ) affirms God’s sovereignty over the actions of other people. So much of life’s pain is caused by the sinful actions of other people. And if you do not believe that God is sovereign and in control of those actions, you will be tempted to become bitter. And if you become bitter, you begin to turn aside from God, and you will not stand firm. You will not endure if you let other people’s sinful actions cause you to become bitter. And one of the ways we can keep from becoming bitter is to realize that God is in sovereign control even over the sinful actions of other people.
Secondly, Lamentations 3: 38 says to us “Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?” That is, God is in sovereign control over the difficulties and the pain just as much as he is in control over what we would consider to be the good things, the blessings of this life. Now we should thank God for the good things of life. We are to be thankful people. But what about the bad things, the things that we would not choose to have in our lives? Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians 5:18 to “give thanks in all circumstances,” and then he adds “for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” That is to say, it is the moral will of God that we give thanks in all circumstances. In 4:3 he said, “This is the will of God . . . that you abstain from sexual immorality.” Obviously that’s speaking of the moral will of God. And Paul uses the same phraseology in 5:18 where he says, “For this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” It is the moral will of God that we give thanks in all circumstances.
How do we do this? We do it by faith. We do it by trusting in the promises of God. We do it by faith in the words of God through Paul in Romans 8:28-29 where he says “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love him.” And then he defines the good in verse 29 as being conformed to the likeness of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is what God is after. He wants to conform us to the likeness of Christ; so he brings or allows these various circumstances, circumstances that we ourselves would not choose. And so, by faith we can say, “Lord, I do not know what particular purpose you have in this difficulty or this pain, this trial. But you said that you will use it to conform me more and more to Jesus Christ, and for that I give you thanks.” So we give thanks by faith.
We also do it by faith in the promise that he will never leave us or forsake us. The writer of Hebrews quotes from the Old Testament when he says, “For he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (13:5). That word never is an absolute word. You can count on God, who cannot lie, who said, “I will never leave you or forsake you. I may allow or put you in this very difficult and painful situation, but I will not forsake you.”
It’s possible that sometime in your life things will totally fall apart and you will feel that you have nothing left. Let me tell you, there are two things that God will never take away. God will never take away the gospel. In the most difficult days of your life you still stand before God clothed in the righteousness of Christ. Your sins are forgiven. Even your doubts are forgiven because Christ fully trusted the Father on your behalf. And second, God will never take away his promises. These two assurances will remain even if everything else is stripped away.
Then finally I want to inject another word for our consideration in the subject of standing firm or enduring to the end. That’s the word perseverance. The word perseverance is very similar in meaning to the word endurance, and often we equate the two. But there can be a subtle difference. The word endure means to stand firm, and that is the theme of this book. We are to stand firm. We’re not to be carried about with every wind of doctrine theologically. We’re not to go off to this and that and the other. We’re to stand firm. But we need to do more than stand. We need to move forward. When Paul says, “I have finished the race” (2 Tim. 4:7), obviously he was talking about motion. And perseverance means to keep going in spite of obstacles. So, when Paul says, “I have finished the race,” basically he was saying “I have persevered.” We do need to stand firm, and Scripture over and over again exhorts us to stand firm. But remember, that’s more than just standing still. If we get that idea, we’ve missed the point. We must move forward. We must persevere. We must be like Paul and say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” May you and I be like the apostle Paul.