On the other side of the gospel’s “done,” there is another kind of “do”: not the doing that strives for God’s favor or adds anything to Christ’s cross, but the doing that rises from fresh power, resurrection purpose, and a new and deep pleasure in God.
Say you have a friend whose approach to the Christian life seems somewhat extreme. Too strict. Overly disciplined.
You heard him say something the other day about beating his own body—figuratively (you think), but still. In fact, the way he talks often makes you squirm a little bit. Strain, agonize, struggle, labor, strive—these are common words for him. Maybe too common for someone saved by grace.
Then again, he does regularly celebrate God’s grace—more than you do, actually. He’s a joyful, worshiping man, not gloomy or obsessive in the typical sense. His seriousness is almost always tinged with something merry, and for all his drive he seems marked by unusual peace. He’s warm toward you, friendly.
But still, the man never seems to let up. He reads his Bible, and prays, and speaks of spiritual things with an earnestness that embarrasses you. He talks of fighting sin as if he had a sword strapped to his thigh. He denies himself many innocent pleasures (without expecting you to do so) because, he says, they “slow his pursuit of Christ.” You can’t help but feel a touch kittenish in his presence, your Christianity more purr than roar. So you wonder.
Is this legalism? Asceticism? An attempt to be superhuman?
And then, once again, you remember that this friend is the apostle Paul.
Now, if the apostle himself had overheard our concern, he may have sympathized, at least a little. For Paul had known the dangers of discipline. Hebrew of Hebrews, law-keeping Pharisee, zealous persecutor, Paul ran harder and faster than most (Philippians 3:5–6; Galatians 1:14). Yet his disciplined feet only carried him farther and farther from Christ (1 Timothy 1:13). He was rigorous, precise, self-denying, and lost.
Yet, remarkably, when Paul lost his legalism, he did not lose his discipline. Not even a little bit. God transformed him, instead, into a stunning apostolic paradox: He preached justification by faith alone, and he pursued holiness with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12–13). He worshiped God for his grace, and he “worked harder than any” (1 Corinthians 15:10). He boasted of Christ’s sufficiency, and he beat his body lest somehow he should fail to finish the race (1 Corinthians 9:27).
We struggle to live such paradoxes. The grace of God, for many of us, seems to produce a more casual Christianity, a faith without a sweat. But when Paul’s own discipline passed through the fires of grace, it emerged on the other side not consumed but refined—free from the dross of self-righteousness, aglow with the Spirit’s flame.
Mentions of discipline lace Paul’s letters. We could consider his toil in teaching (Colossians 1:29), his striving in prayer (Romans 15:30), his refusal to use his full apostolic rights (1 Corinthians 9:12), or that startling statement already mentioned: “I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave” (1 Corinthians 9:27 NIV). But we may hear the heartbeat of Paul’s discipline most clearly in Philippians 3:12–14 and its context:
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.
Paul the persecutor died on the Damascus road—and in his place arose a man who pressed and strained for Christ. A mighty discipline still drove him forward, but a discipline far different from the one he had known. A new power, new purpose, and new pleasure now gripped him.