The Example of Paul
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 Tim. 4:6–8)
Paul was confident he had endured to the end and had finished well. Sadly, however, just a few sentences later he had to write of one of his coworkers: “Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica” (2 Tim. 4:10).
Here were two men who had ministered together—Paul and Demas—mentor and mentoree. One endured and finished the race and looked forward to the crown of righteousness. The other man peeled off, deserted his mentor, and was never heard from again. We don’t know what finally happened to Demas. We don’t know whether he ever repented or not, but the Scripture ends with the fact that “Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me.” In Philemon 24 Paul calls Demas a fellow worker along with Mark and Aristarchus and Luke. Demas was apparently a promising young man with a promising future; yet as far as we know he did not make it to the end.
This is a sobering thought. In God’s gracious providence you have many years ahead of you, and you expect to finish the race, to stand firm, to endure to the end. But there was a time when Demas also thought that way. He didn’t initially join Paul’s team with the intention that he would later desert Paul when the going got tough. No, he undoubtedly expected to also stand firm and finish well.
This is a sobering thought even for those of us who are older because, as the famous baseball player Yogi Berra once said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” So we cannot presume that even at our age we will finish well. We never finish until the day we die. And so all of us, young or old, need to heed the warning that comes to us from the example of Demas.
4 Essential Elements for Finishing Well
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:
- a daily time of focused personal communion with God
- a daily appropriation of the gospel
- a daily commitment to God as a living sacrifice
- a firm belief in the sovereignty and love of God
Now these four essentials are viewed from our perspective; that is, these are things we must and should do or believe. But standing over all of them is the grace of God. The same apostle who said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” also said in another context, “But by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor. 15:10). Paul attributed all of his endurance, all of his faithfulness, to the grace of God. 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.
1. A Daily Time of Focused Communion with God
The first essential is a daily time of focused personal communion with God. Many readers are familiar with the old classic Practicing the Presence of God, and that is an excellent habit to cultivate. But the foundation of that has to be a time of focused personal communion with God, and it needs to be daily. Demas didn’t just wake up one day and make a 90-degree turn. That doesn’t happen. Demas drifted little by little toward the attractions of the world. And if you and I do not practice this daily focused time of communion with God, we will find ourselves also drifting in the wrong direction.
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 at dusk we would “shoot the stars” and get a position. And invariably after having done 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. Demas was in love with this present world. Each of us, whether believer or unbeliever, is in love with something. Demas was in love with the world. The apostle John said, “Do not love the world” (1 John 2:15). But we cannot just “not love the world” and have a vacuum in our hearts. In order to not love the world we have to love 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.
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.
2. 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 of 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 an object of your mercy and your grace.”
In the early years of my Christian life and even in my early ministry I regarded the gospel as a message for the unbeliever. Now that I was a Christian I personally no longer needed the gospel except as a message to share with unbelievers. But I learned the hard way many years ago that I need the gospel every day of my life.
At the time I was serving overseas, and I was single and lonely. Additionally I was struggling with some interpersonal relationship issues. Every Monday night I led a Bible study at an American Air Force base about an hour’s drive from where I lived. And every Monday night as I drove home, Satan would attack me with accusations of my sin. Out of desperation I began to resort to the gospel. To use an expression I learned years later, I began to “preach the gospel to myself.” And I subsequently learned that I continued to need the gospel every day of my life. That is why I list this practice as one of the four essential elements.
3. 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 to present ourselves as daily, living sacrifices.
In using the word sacrifice Paul was obviously drawing from the Old Testament sacrificial system. Those sacrifices are set forth for us in the book of Leviticus, and all of them together portrayed the one great sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ. God has not asked us to loan ourselves temporarily to him. He’s asked us to present ourselves to him as living sacrifices to use as he pleases. The fact is, objectively this has already taken place. The apostle Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 6:19–20, “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price.” Paul wants us to affirm in our hearts and in our emotions what is true in reality, but he approaches it by way of an appeal. He does not say, “This is your duty to do.” He does not say, “You’re not your own; you don’t have a choice in the matter.” He says, “I appeal to you . . . by the mercies of God.”
The outworking of presenting our bodies as living sacrifices will be different for each of us. For some it might mean reducing one’s standard of living in order to be able to give more to God’s kingdom work. For our son, it meant taking a lower-paying job in order to have more time for ministry. For me at this time, it means being willing to continually give myself to the ministry God has given me. At the time of this writing, it is only a couple of weeks until my seventy-eighth birthday.
Over the past dozen years I have flown over a million miles, I have delivered over a thousand messages, I have written several books and a number of articles for Christian magazines. I confess I often get weary of the continuous travel, the frequent writing deadlines, and the pressure of constant message preparations, and I sometimes begin to feel sorry for myself. How do I keep going? How do I keep from feeling sorry for myself? Each day as I appropriate the gospel for myself, I say to God, “I am your servant. Because of your mercy to me and your grace at work in me, I again present my body as a living sacrifice. If this means continual travel and continual time pressure, I accept that from you and thank you for the privilege of being in your ministry.”
4. 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.
At one time I suffered a crushing and humiliating disappointment in my work situation. It certainly was not due to the sinful actions of other people, but it was due to their thoughtless and uncaring actions. This action occurred on a Thursday afternoon, and I was scheduled to speak at a weekend conference beginning Friday night. How could I possibly recover from the hurt and humiliation so as to be able to speak Friday evening?
On Friday morning I awakened with the words of Job in my mind, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away” (Job 1:21). In my time with God that morning I was able to say, “Lord, in times past you gave, but now you have taken it all away. I accept this as from you.” My turbulent emotions quieted down, and I was able to speak at the conference as if nothing had happened. And I never became at all bitter toward those other people. This was because I believed in the sovereign control of God in their actions.
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. If you were brought to the point of being like Job, this you can count on. You stand before God clothed in the righteousness of Christ. He will never, never take the gospel away from you. And you will always have his promise, “never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”
Persevering, Not Just Enduring, to the End
These are the four essentials. I’m sure there are other important considerations, but I believe these are fundamental. And so I would commend them to you.
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.
This article is adapted from Jerry Bridges' chapter "Four Essentials for Finishing Well" in Stand: A Call for the Endurance of the Saints, edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor.