My nephew Jordan is younger than me by just three years. For this reason, and due to the fact that he and his brother (only six years my junior) lived just a couple miles down the road during our childhood years, the three of us shared a relationship more akin to siblings than that of an uncle and his nephews.
During my high school years, I would typically dominate Jordan in one-on-one basketball skirmishes. These wins weren’t much of an accomplishment, of course, because I was bigger and stronger than Jordan in my freshman through my senior years. But each summer I would came back from college for summer breaks, I noticed that the balance of power was slowly but most certainly shifting.
The End of a Dynasty
Part of the problem is that I had stopped growing in eighth grade and peaked at just under five-foot-eight. Jordan continued to grow until he topped out at about six-foot tall. He had also continued to hone his court skills and was developing into an excellent baller. Where I used to make easy work of our matches, Jordan was more consistently challenging my tenure as champion. Our best-of-seven tournaments would no longer go 4-0 or 4-1. Now, Jordan was pushing us to six, even seven games.
But it was my junior year of college that my reign finally came to an end. The series would now go to seven games, but Jordan would regularly own the four wins required to take the series. The dynasty was officially over.
Failing to Finish
During this slow and painful transition of power as Jordan was consistently winning our one-on-one tournaments, the games still remained competitive. I would start our tournaments well, going up 2-0, even 3-1, only to lose the next three or four straight games and hand the series to Jordan. The problem wasn’t that I didn’t start well. The problem was that I just wasn’t able to finish.
When it comes to friendly competition between relatives, this is an amusing story. When it comes to our Christian lives, failing to finish well is no laughing matter. While Scripture speaks often of our security in Christ, it also regularly exhorts us to finish our race and warns us that terrible things await those who make a profession but fall away from Jesus when the going gets tough.
A Good Start Doesn’t Mean a Good Ending
And, like my experience with my nephew and our basketball exploits in my latter years of college, starting well doesn’t guarantee that we will finish well. Consider Saul. He seemed to begin well with God. He appeared humble and valiant, ready to serve the Lord and his fellow Israelites (1 Sam 9:21; 11:6ff). Yet, he eventually fell into unrepentant sin that revealed he was more concerned with his own reputation than the glory of God and the good of his people.
Then there’s Demas, Paul’s ministry companion who eventually left Christ for the pleasures of this world (2 Tim 4:10). Jesus’ parable of the soils speaks of a kind of response to the gospel that begins with great promise and flourish, only to wilt away at the first sign of persecution (Matt 13:20). Biblically speaking, what appears as a strong start doesn’t always translate into a strong finish.
Add to these biblical examples the people you know who once professed Christ and appeared to be growing in the faith but who eventually succumbed to the enticements of sin and unbelief. Sadly, my list grows with each passing year.
The Bible, therefore, doesn’t encourage us to rest on past spiritual experiences, revel in last month’s obedience, or ruminate on exercises of faith from two weeks ago. Rather, Scripture repeatedly instructs God’s people to exercise faith and obedience now and press forward in our pursuit of Christ and heavenly things. Consider Paul’s example:
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.Philippians 3:12-14
Notice that Paul is confident that he belongs to Christ (“Christ Jesus made me his own”), but he doesn’t set his sight on past experiences (“forgetting what lies behind”); rather he aims at his future with Christ, even “straining forward to what lies ahead.” The author of Hebrews exhorts us to press ahead in our Christian life when he writes, “For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end” (Heb 3:15). Jesus urged his disciples not to neglect their perseverance when people around them were giving up on Christ or turning to counterfeits:
And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.Matthew 24:10-12
How to Press Ahead
The call for professing Christians, then, is to keep making progress in our faith and not to allow spiritual stagnation to settle into our lives. While genuine faith in Christ is secure and cannot be lost (John 10:27-30; Rom 8:28-39), the same God who provides us with a secure salvation also provides us the means to keep believing. What are the biblical strategies we can implement to make sure we finish well?
(1) Keep Believing the Word of God and Repenting of Your Sin. The essence of apostasy is unbelief. The remedy to apostasy, therefore, is faith. Israel fell away from God and came under his judgment because they failed to receive God’s Word by faith (Heb 4:2). The author of Hebrews, as he feared his listeners were in danger of falling away from Christ, repeatedly exhorted them to keep believing in God’s promises and repenting from the sin that saddled them with spiritual difficulty (Heb 10:19-25). In our reading of Scripture and listening to preaching and teaching, we galvanize ourselves against apostasy when we carefully absorb the truth we hear and use that truth to provoke specific repentance in our lives (Matt 13:23).
(2) Remain Near to Jesus Christ. We don’t remain near to Jesus without believing God’s Word and repenting of our sin, but it is important to emphasize the gracious nature of our relationship to Christ because faith and repentance are often hindered when we doubt the love of Christ and his patience toward us. Jesus describes himself as “gentle and lowly in heart” (Matt 11:29). He is a “friend of sinners” (Matt 11:19) who doesn’t break a bruised reed or snuff out a smoldering wick (Matt 12:20). In Christ all of our sins are forgiven—past, present, and future—so he now only acts in love toward us (Col 2:13). When we do sin, therefore, we must now allow hard thoughts of Christ to enter our minds that make us hesitant to go straight to him for help.
Satan would love to convince that we must remain an arm’s distance from Jesus when we sin and remain in a state of earthly purgatory until we’ve cleaned up our mess. But this approach is the exact opposite of how we are to engage with our Savior when we’ve sinned. John tells us that if we sin, we have an advocate with the Father (1 John 2:1); when we sin, we are able to confess that sin and receive cleansing from God (1 John 1:8). Our sin should not drive us away from Christ but closer to him so that we might receive renewed forgiveness and spiritual cleansing. When we are close to Jesus, we are far from apostasy.
(3) Heed the Warnings. One way that God keeps his people believing and repenting is by giving us warnings of what happens when a professing believer departs from the faith (e.g., Heb 2:1-2; 4:6-7; 6:1-8; 10:26-31). The warnings are not meant to undermine our assurance; rather, God intends these warnings to motivate us to remain diligent in exercising faith and obedience. Don’t skip past New Testament warnings because you know your salvation is secure. Instead, make good use of these warnings and allow them to prompt you to take action in your Christian life.
(4) Cultivate Humility Toward God. In the narrative of the Old Testament kings, we learn of some leaders who started well failed to finish in like manner because they fell into pride (2 Chron 26:16; 32:25). They became self-sufficient, self-reliant, self-focused, and arrogant. Pride disabled them from believing and repenting and walking near to their God (cf. Micah 6:8). It is the very nature of pride to hinder faith in Christ (John 5:44) and obstruct the flow of God’s grace into our lives (James 4:6). A key to perseverance is to see ourselves as fully dependent upon God for everything (John 15:6; 1 Cor 1:26-31), to seek his glory in all things (1 Cor 10:31), and to remain content in our callings (1 Cor 7:17).
(5) Embed Yourself in the Local Church. Finally, in order for the above four exhortations to be effective, we must integrate ourselves thoroughly in the local church. It is through the accountability and mutual encouragement of the local church that we are enabled to persevere in the faith (Heb 3:12-15; 10:24-25). Indeed, God has so designed the Christian life that perseverance in the faith is severely hindered without the local church. A Christian who distances himself from his local congregation and attempts to walk with Jesus by himself will only run into spiritual trouble (Prov 18:1).
It is tempting, once we’ve established a good beginning, to ease back a little and fail to finish what we’ve started. As we’ve seen, this can happen in one-on-one basketball tournaments between relatives. But most importantly, it can happen in our Christian lives. But God has given us everything we need to finish our race well. We have the Scripture, the church, and the examples of those who went before us and remained faithful until the end. Let’s grab a hold of these resources and regain our pace so that we can someday say with Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim 4:7).