The Christian Race
Adapted from a Sermon by J.C. Ryle
"Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus" Heb 12:1-2
In this past year, we have heard much about the character and experience of true believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, the men and women and children who are sowing for everlasting life.
We have heard about true repentance, and faith. We have seen how the Christian grows, what are his privileges and what are some of the dangers on the way; And how Christ is at the center of all he is and does.
However, before we continue in this vein, it would be good to be warned against forgetting the sure foundation; to be cautioned; strongly cautioned against losing sight of the root of the whole matter—a simple faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. To not stumble at the outset by supposing you are being instructed to set up a righteousness of your own.
Some think their own endeavours after holiness are to make up their title to salvation; some think that when they come to Christ, their past sins alone are forgiven, and for the time to come they must depend upon themselves. Sadly! there always have been mistakes on this point: men toil and labour after peace with God as if their own exertions would give them a right to lay hold on Christ, and when they find themselves far short of the Bible standard they mourn and grieve and will not be comforted and all because they will not see that in the matter of forgiveness, in the matter of justification in the sight of God, it is not doing which is required, but believing; it is not working, but trusting; it is not perfect obedience, but humble faith.
Now, once for all, let us understand, that all who have really fled for mercy to the Lord Jesus Christ are, as Paul assures the Colossians, complete in Him! In themselves they may be poor, shortcoming sinners, but seeing they have laid hold on Christ, God looks upon them as complete—completely pardoned, completely righteous, completely pure—no jot or tittle of condemnation can be laid to their charge.
They have nothing more to do with the law as a covenant of works, as a condition they must fulfil or die: the Lord does not say, “Be perfect and then you shall live,” but “Christ has given you life, and for His sake strive to be perfect.” But someone may want to ask: “Why do they hunger and thirst so much after holiness, since all their debt has been paid?” The answer is that they work for love’s sake—for gratitude; they do not work and strive after holiness in order that they may be forgiven, but because they are forgiven already, chosen and sealed and saved and redeemed and bought with a price, and they cannot help desiring to glorify Him with their bodies and spirits who loved them and gave Himself for them. They thirst after holiness because their Father loves holiness; they thirst after purity because their Master loves purity; they strive to be like Jesus because they hope to be one day forever with Him.
But seeing they have many a difficulty in doing the things that they would, and are continually warring with the world, the flesh, and the devil, and sometimes are so ready to faint that they doubt whether they really are of Christ’s family or not,—seeing these things are so, we have recently been given sure tests to try ourselves by, and as a further help, I purpose this morning to briefly lay before you the advice which the apostle gives believers in our text.
Now, we will look at five points which are contained in the text:
I. We all have a race to run.
II. Many have gone before us.
III. We must lay aside every weight.
IV. We must run with endurance.
V. We must be continually looking to Jesus.
May the Lord pour down His Spirit upon each of you, and bow the hearts of all here present, as the heart of one man, that you may seek the Lord while there is yet time, and set your faces towards Jerusalem, and not die the death of the faithless and unbelieving.
I. First, then, we have a race to run.
By this you are not to understand that our own right arm and our own strength can ever open for us the gates of everlasting life, and win us a place in heaven. Far from it: that is all of grace—it is another question. It simply means that all, all without exception, who take up the cross and follow Christ must make up their minds to meet with many a difficulty, they must calculate on labour and toil and trouble, they have a mighty work to do, and there is need for all their attention. From the outside there will be opposition; From within there will be fears; there will be snares to be avoided, and temptations to be resisted; there will be your own treacherous hearts, often cold and dead and dry and dull; there will be friends who will give you unscriptural advice, and relations who will abandon you, discourage you and even war against your soul; in short, there will be stumbling-blocks on every side, there will be occasion for all your diligence and watchfulness and godly jealousy and prayer,—If the Bible is true, you will soon find that to be a real Christian is no light matter.
Consider what a condemnation there is here for all those easy-going people who seem to think they may pass their time as they please, and yet be numbered with the saints in everlasting glory! Are those who show less earnestness about their souls than about their earthly amusements, and those who have much to tell you about this world’s business but nothing about heaven, and those who think nothing of neglecting the commonest helps towards Zion, (bible reading, prayer, communion with fellow believers) and consider it a big sacrifice to give religion a few Sunday thoughts,—are these men and women and children running the Christian race, and straining every nerve after the prize? I let you answer this for yourselves: judge for yourselves if that is running the Christian race.
And those who profess to have entered the course, and yet find time to rest by the wayside and trifle with temptation, and find fault with the earnestness and anxiety of others,—and those who stop to take breath and boast of their attainments, and look behind them,—are such running the race set before them as if it was a matter of life and death? No, obviously not! They may wear the name of Christians, but they are not so running as to prove their faith is real.
But those who are taught and called of God may soon be distinguished from the sleeping children of this world. These have no time for vain amusements; their eyes are fixed and their thoughts are engaged upon the narrow path they have to walk on and the crown they hope to receive; they have counted the cost, and come out from the world; and their only wish is that they may finish their course with joy.
II. The second thing you may learn from the text is this: Many have gone before us; we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.
The witnesses here spoken of are those patriarchs and prophets who are mentioned in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, and the apostle calls upon us to remember them and their troubles and take courage. Are we frail earthen vessels? so were they. Are we weak and encompassed with infirmities? so were they. Are we exposed to temptation and burdened with this body of corruption? so were they. Are we afflicted? so were they. Are we alone in our generation, the scorn of all our neighbours? so were they. Have we trials of cruel mockings? so had they. What can we possibly be called upon to suffer which they have not endured? What consolations did they receive which we may not enjoy?
You may talk of your cares and business and families, but their portion was just like yours; they were men of like passions; they did not neglect business, and yet they gave their hearts to God. They show the race can always be run by those who have the will. Yes, they were all flesh and blood like ourselves, and yet by grace they became new creatures; and so by faith they “received their commendation;” (Heb 11:2) by faith they confessed themselves strangers and pilgrims on the earth; through faith they “conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated.” (Heb 11:33-37)
But grace exceedingly abounded, and all fought a good fight and finished their course and kept the faith, and to the God of gods every one of them appeared in Zion. Take courage, fainting Christians: you are encompassed with a great cloud of witnesses; the race that you are running has been run by millions before. You think that no one ever had such trials as yourself, but every step that you are journeying has been safely travelled by others. The valley of the shadow of death has been securely passed by a cloud of trembling, doubting ones like yourself. They had their fears and anxieties, like you, but they were not cast away. The world, the flesh and the devil can never overwhelm the weakest woman who will set her face towards God. These millions journeyed on in bitterness and tears like your own, and yet not one did perish—they all reached home.
III. The third point to be considered is the apostle’s advice, to “lay aside every weight.”
By this he means that we must give up everything which is really hurtful to our souls. We must act like men who throw off all their long and flowing garments, as an encumbrance, when about to test their speed in running. We must cast away everything which hinders us on our road towards heaven—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life; the love of riches, pleasures, and honours, the spirit of lukewarmness and carelessness and indifference about the things of God, all must be rooted out and forsaken if we are anxious for the prize.
We must mortify the deeds of the body, we must crucify our affection for this world. We must look well to our habits and inclinations and employments, and if we find anything coming in as a stumbling-block between ourselves and salvation, we must be ready to lay it aside as if it were a millstone about our necks, although it cost us as much pain as cutting off a hand or plucking out a right eye. Away with everything which keeps us back. Our feet are slow at the very best, we have a long race to run, we cannot afford to carry weight, if we are really contending for everlasting life.
But above all we must be careful that we lay aside the sin which most easily besets us, the sin which from our age, or habit, or taste, or disposition, or feelings, possesses the greatest power over us. I know of two which are always at our elbows, two sins which try the most advanced Christians even to the end, and these are pride and unbelief—pride in our own difference from others, pride in our reputation as Christians, pride in our spiritual attainments: unbelief about our own sinfulness, unbelief about God’s wisdom, unbelief about God’s mercy. These are heavy burdens, and sorely do they keep us back, and few really know they are carrying them, and few indeed are those who will not discover them at the very bottom of the chamber of their hearts, waiting for an opportunity to come out.
But there are particular besetting sins, of which each separate Christian can alone furnish an account; each single one of us has some weak point, each one has got a thin, shaking spot in his wall of defence against the devil, each one has a traitor in his camp ready to open the gates to Satan, and he that is wise will never rest until he has discovered where this weak point is. This is that special sin which you are here exhorted to watch against, to overcome, to cast out, to spare no means in keeping it under and bringing it into subjection, that it may not entangle you in your race towards Zion.
One man is beset with lust, another with a love of drinking, another with evil temper, another with malice, another with covetousness, another with worldly-mindedness, another with idleness; but each of us has got in him some besetting infirmity, which is able to hinder him far more than others, and with which he must keep an unceasing warfare, or else he will never so run as to obtain the prize. Consider well these bitter besetting sins! How many have badly fallen, and given occasion to God’s enemies to blaspheme, from thinking lightly of them, from not continually guarding against them, from a vain notion that they were altogether cut off!—they have been over-confident and presumptuous. They have said “We are the temple of the Lord, and we cannot greatly stumble,” and they have forgotten that hidden root, that branch of the old Adam; and so day after day, little by little, shoot after shoot, it grew, it strengthened, it filled their heart, it ruined their few graces; and suddenly, without time to think, they have slipped and fallen headlong in the race, and now they are hurrying downstream amidst that miserable party, the backsliders, and who can tell what their end may be?
But what was the simple cause? They disregarded some besetting sin. Go, child of God, and search the hidden places of your imagination: see whether you can find there some seed of evil, some darling thing which you have tenderly spared up until now, because it was a little one; away with it—there must be no mercy, no compromise, no reserve. It must be laid aside, plucked up, torn up by the roots, or it will one day trip you up, and prevent you running your race towards Zion. The gates of heaven are broad enough to receive the worst of sinners, but too narrow to admit the smallest grain of unforsaken sin.
IV. The fourth point to be noticed in the text is the frame of mind in which we are to run: “let us run with endurance.”
This endurance stems from that meek, contented spirit, which is the child of real living faith, which flows from a confidence that all things are working together for our good. And it is surely a most necessary and useful grace! There are so many crosses to be borne when we have entered the course, so many disappointments and trials and fatigues, that, except we are resolved to endure, we will never persevere to the end.
But we must not turn back to Egypt, because some bring up an evil report of the promised land. We must not faint because the journey is long and the way lies through a wilderness. We must press forward without giving up, not murmuring when we are chastened, but saying, with Eli, “It is the LORD. Let him do what seems good to him.” (1 Sam 3:18) Look at Moses, in Hebrews 11: who “when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible.” (Heb 11:24-27)
Look at Job, when God permitted Satan to afflict him: “Naked,” he says, “I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” (Job 1:21) “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10)
Look at David, the man after God’s own heart, how many waves of trouble passed over that honoured head; how many years he fled from the hand of Saul, how much tribulation did he suffer from his own family; and hear what he says when he is fleeing from his own son Absalom, and a certain Benjaminite came out and cursed him. “Behold, my own son seeks my life; how much more now may this Benjaminite! Leave him alone, and let him curse, for the LORD has told him to. It may be that the LORD will look on the wrong done to me, and that the LORD will repay me with good for his cursing today.” (2 Sam 16:11-12) Mark too, as you read his Psalms, how often you come on that expression, “waiting for the Lord”: it seems as if he thought it the highest grace a Christian can attain to.
Look lastly at your blessed Lord Himself. The apostle Peter says, “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” ( 1 Peter 2:21-23) The writer of Hebrews says: “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” (Heb 12:2)
Believer, let be a settled matter in your mind that you must run with endurance, or you will never prevail. There may be many things we cannot understand, much that the flesh could perhaps wish otherwise; but let us endure to the end, and all will be made clear, and God’s arrangements will be proved best. Do not think or expect to have your reward on earth, do not draw back because your good things are all yet to come: today is the cross, but tomorrow is the crown; today is the labour, tomorrow is the wages; today is the sowing, but tomorrow is the harvest; today is the battle, but tomorrow is the rest; today is the weeping, but tomorrow is the joy; and what is today compared to tomorrow? today is at most but a few short fleeting years, but tomorrow is eternity. Be patient and hope to the end.
V. The last point is the most important in the text. It is the object on which our eyes are to be fixed: we are to run our race “looking to Jesus.”
We are to run, depending on Him for salvation, renouncing all trust in our own poor frail efforts, and counting our own performances no better than filthy rags, and resting wholly and entirely, simply and completely, upon that perfect righteousness which He worked out for us on the cross. We need not run uncertain of the end, we need not fight in ignorance of what will follow; we have only to behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and believe that He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, and will soon present us spotless and un-blamable in His Father’s sight. And then we are to run, making Jesus our Example, taking no lower pattern than the Son of God Himself, endeavouring to copy His meekness, His humility, His love, His zeal for souls, His self-denial, His purity, His faith, His patience, His prayerfulness, and as we look we will, day by day, become more like Him.
And then we are to run, looking for our blessed Lord’s appearing, praying always with all prayer and supplication that He will hasten His coming and kingdom and accomplish the number of His elect. To them that look for Him will He appear the second time without sin to salvation, and their vile bodies in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, will be made like his glorious body, and they will be forever with their Lord.
This, this is looking to Jesus! here is the secret cause which kept that cloud of witnesses steadfast and unmovable in this narrow way! Here is the simple rule for all who wish to enter on the course which lands a man in Paradise! Do not look to earth: it is a sinful, perishable place, and they that build upon it will find their foundation of the earth earthy; they will not stand the fire. Do not set your affections on it, or else you will perish together. The earth will be burned up, and if you cling to it, in death you will not be divided, you will share its fate!
Do not look to yourselves! You are by nature wretched and miserable, and poor and blind and naked; you cannot make atonement for your past transgressions, you cannot wipe out a single page in that long black list, and when the King will ask you for your wedding-garment you will be speechless. Look simply to Jesus, and then the weight will fall off from your shoulders, and the path will be clear and plain, and you will run the race which is set before you. Truly a man may be mistaken for a season, and walk in darkness for a time, but if he once determine to look to Jesus he will not greatly err.
Is there anyone here this morning who has not yet entered on the grand struggle for life? This day, you who are Christless, sleeping ones, this day I urge you to be honest and merciful to your souls. Turn, would that you would turn from your evil ways, turn from your self-pleasing and self-indulging; seek the Lord while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near; cry mightily to the Lord Jesus Christ, before the night comes and you perish for evermore.
I know the thoughts that are in the hearts of those among you who ever think, (for many come and go without even thinking): I know your thoughts; you cannot make up your mind to lay aside every weight, you cannot throw overboard the sin that does so easily beset you. Sadly! like Herod you would do many things, but not all: you will not give up that Herodias, that darling cherished sin—the world, the business, the amusements, the pleasure—you cannot give it up, it must have the first place in your heart. I testify, I warn you, I take you to record, that God has declared that as regards heaven, “nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false,” (Rev 21:27) and if you are determined not to give up your sins, your sins will cling to you like lead and sink you in the pit of destruction.
You must not wait: you have to show some inclination; God will not convert you against your will; except you show the desire, how can you expect He will give you the grace?
But as for the men and women who are running the race and struggling towards the heavenly Jerusalem: Do not think that you have anything which makes your journey more difficult than others; the saints at God’s right hand were perfected through sufferings; and you must run with patience; millions have gone safely through, and so will you.
Beware of encumbering yourselves with any weight of earthly things; examine your hearts most closely, and purge out each besetting sin with a godly prayerful jealousy. Remember that blessed rule, “looking to Jesus.” Peter did run well for a time, when he left the ship to walk on the sea to Jesus; but when he saw the waves and the storm he was afraid and began to sink. In this way many a one sets out courageously; but after a while corruptions rise high within, corruptions are strong without, the eye is drawn off Jesus, the devil gets an advantage, and the soul begins to sink.
But resolve to keep your eye steadily fixed on Christ, and you will go through fire and water and they will not hurt you. Are you tempted? look to Jesus. Are you afflicted? look to Jesus. Do all speak evil of you? look to Jesus. Do you feel cold, dull, backsliding? look to Jesus. Never say, “I will heal myself and then look to Jesus, I will get into a good frame and then take comfort in my Beloved.” It is the very delusion of Satan. But whether you are weak or strong, in the valley or on the mount, in sickness or in health, in sorrow or in joy, in going out or in coming in, in youth or in age, in richness or in poverty, in life or in death, let this be your motto and your guide:
“Looking to Jesus.”