Any professional sport requires committed athletes. A professional athlete often dedicates several hours a day, most days a week, to intense, regimented training in order to gain the stamina, strength, and speed required to succeed. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 9:24–27, compares the need for self-discipline and training in a believer’s life to athletic training. Like a runner or a boxer, Paul says, “I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27, NASB).
First Corinthians 9:24–27 uses the metaphor of a winning athlete to illustrate a dedicated believer. Paul asks, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize” (1 Corinthians 9:24). Paul compares the discipline necessary to grow spiritually to the self-mastery of an Olympic athlete who buffets—or disciplines by striking into submission—his body in a dedicated effort to win a race. While God works in us “to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:13), believers must cooperate with Him by following the ways of God with serious dedication (see 1 Kings 8:61). Like a runner or boxer who buffets his body, a Christian brings his or her body under control to reach the “upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14, ESV).
This passage is not talking about salvation as the prize. Paul teaches clearly that salvation is a gift, not something that comes as a result of strenuous effort (Ephesians 2:8–9). Nothing can disqualify a true believer from salvation, but sin can disqualify us from having an impactful testimony (1 Corinthians 9:27). The prize Paul refers to is Christlikeness. He wanted to be able to say at the end of his life, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store 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 longed for his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:7–8).
The goal, or prize, for each believer is to become more like Christ in heart and action (Romans 8:28–30). This is accomplished by the transformative work of the Holy Spirit (Romans 12:2). Believers do not buffet their bodies by doing more in their own strength or by following a legalistic, performance-based religion (Galatians 5:7–8). Rather, the true Christian life is lived by faith: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). Believers pick up their cross and die to self daily; believers buffet their bodies by first submitting them to Christ.
A believer continues to buffet his or her body for the sake of Christ by practicing self-control through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is similar to the way an athlete disciplines his or her body with strict self-control: diet, exercise, sleep, and lifestyle choices are highly regulated. A believer patiently endures the tests and trials of life to grow in Christlikeness. This means throwing off sin and anything that ensnares. As the writer of Hebrews exhorted, “Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Hebrews 12:1–3). Believers grow in Christlikeness as they persevere in faith through the trials and temptations of this life.
As a runner or boxer keeps his eyes on the prize and so endures all kinds of hardship, so believers must keep their eyes on Christ and on that which will last forever (1 Corinthians 9:25). Believers “do not run like someone running aimlessly” and “do not fight like a boxer beating the air” (1 Corinthians 9:26). No, a believer continually buffets himself into submission to Christ. He or she does not allow the flesh to have control (Romans 13:14; 1 Thessalonians 4:4). Believers look forward to the day when God says to them, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23).