THE GOOD FIGHT OF FAITH
2 Timothy 4:1-8 (verse 7)
“1 I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom; 2 Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine. 3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; 4 And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables. 5 But watch thou in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry. 6 For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. 7 I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: 8 Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.” (2 Timothy 4:1–8, KJV)
We’ve all heard it: “There is nothing more certain than death and taxes.” I’m not so certain about equating these two, given all the methods of tax evasion today. One of the two is absolutely certain: “It is appointed unto men once to die” (Hebrews 9:27), and there are reminders of it daily— accidents, disease, murders, obituaries, funerals, etc. Another reminder, but one that is often ignored, is the aging process. It begins the minute a person is born, actually upon conception. He or she is born to die, and with each passing day one grows older, on the way to the grave. From birth on, the body begins to deteriorate: there is sickness, aches, pain, imperfect food that aids the dying process, chemicals, poisons, cancers, hardening of the arteries, high cholesterol, heart attacks, etc. Now the world is constantly trying to overcome all these things, including death. What is sad is that the world fails to see or deal with the why of these things—the sobering truth that all are conceived and born in sin (Psalm 51:5), and that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).
When Paul wrote the words of our text, he was a prisoner at Rome. Being quite sure that this final imprisonment would end in death, he writes in verse 6: “The time of my departure is at hand”—more literally, “the time of my loosening” or “the time of my release.” We should think of the loosening of the ropes or cables of a ship when weighing anchor and setting sail. The time for this is near. The weighing or hoisting of the anchor and the loosening of the ropes has begun. Soon the blast of the wind would be in the sails and the final voyage begun, arriving almost immediately in the haven of rest. It was at this juncture of his life, that God inspired Paul both to look back and to look ahead. What he saw, knew, and wrote is for our instruction and comfort—for all who are taking this voyage and are part of the dying process.
Paul looked back and what he saw made him glad. He is not one of those many who face death in fear and panic because all their lives they had time only to eat, drink, and be merry and never thought to “number their days and apply their hearts to wisdom” (Ps. 90:12). Looking back, Paul says, “I have fought the good fight.” In the original Greek, it is not, “I have fought a good fight,” but, “I have fought the good fight.” The definite article here is important. For there is only one great fight. There are many kinds of conflict in life, but only one great war or fight—the fight against our flesh, the world, and the devil, or what has been termed “the wicked trinity.” That fight is so great that it encompasses heaven, earth, hell, and all creatures. It is the war which was initiated in Paradise following the fall, when God said to Satan disguised as a serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed” (Genesis 3:15), or as biblically understood, the war between Christ and those who belong to Him over against the seed of the serpent or those who are in the employ and clutches of Satan. That is essentially the fight that Paul is talking about as he stood at the brink of death. That is the good fight of faith to which Paul exhorted Timothy in his first epistle: “Fight the good fight of faith.” (1 Tim. 6:12). But that fight is good only if you are on the side of the Almighty and His Christ.
If you are on the side of Satan your fight is a very bad fight. In fact, you are already conquered; you are already fallen in the battle, and if you are not rescued, you will perish!
But if you are on the side of the Almighty and His Christ, you are more than a conqueror. If we are Christians, we (all of us who believe in and confess Christ) are fighting the good fight as Paul did in his day. Our fight will be one of continuing victory. “For there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). As Paul wrote in Philippians 1:6: “He who has begun a good work in us will complete it until the day of salvation,” or later in verse 21: “If to live is Christ, then to die is gain.” Now all of this is written to instruct and comfort us as we fight the good fight.
However, this does not mean that the fight is or will be easy. Paul gives us a description of this fight: “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (Rom. 7:14-25).
What these verses are telling us is that although we are in Christ and free from the curse of the law, the Christian is not yet perfect and is unable to fulfill the requirements of the law. Because Paul has been raised to a new life in Christ (regenerated, born again), he is aware that God’s law is “spiritual”—that it is holy, righteous and good, reflecting God’s character, and the standard to which life governed by the Holy Spirit should conform. Paul actually delights in God’s law, desiring to fulfill it perfectly. But he is distressed that sin in him opposes that desire. He distinguishes between his “mind” which aims at obedience, and his “flesh” which continues to sin. This causes conflict and anguish to rise up within him. It becomes a constant struggle: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7:15). Paul is actually describing a profound conflict that every Christian finds inherent in his life in Christ. Christ dwells in him (cf. Galatians 2:20), yet sin also dwells in him: “So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. . . . Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me” (Rom. 7:17, 20). Perfect conformity to God’s will is at present out of his reach and that causes frustration. However, he is grateful at the prospect of future deliverance from this frustration: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:24-25).
Beloved, can you identify with this struggle and frustration? Do you fight against sin and temptation? When tempted to lie, cheat, steal, hate, gossip, to turn your ears away from the truth to fables and lies of false teachers (2 Tim. 4:4; cf. 2 Tim. 2:22-23; 1 Tim. 6:20-21), look at, or read, that which will cause you to lust and become promiscuous, become one with evil companions, do you resist and refuse to yield? If so, then you are in the good fight. I am reminded of the words of an old hymn: “Yield not to temptation, for yielding is sin; Each victory will help you some other to win; Fight manfully onward; dark passions subdue; Look ever to Jesus, He will carry you through. Shun evil companions; bad language disdain; God’s Name hold in reverence, nor take it in vain; Be thoughtful and earnest, kind-hearted and true; Look ever to Jesus, He will carry you through” (cf. 2 Corinthians 6:14-18).
Paul saw more when looking back at his life. He says, “I have finished my course.” No doubt here Paul was thinking of the Olympian games when he said this. He had run the race. There is a certain course set for each one of us. It begins at your birth and ends with your death. Paul was an important runner whom God has used to teach us. He is one of the great heroes of faith in Christ’s church. He ranks with Abraham and Moses, with Isaiah and Jeremiah. But every one of God’s children is in the race. And all of them will finish their course. The end of each one is peace, glory, and eternal triumph. At the end is unspeakable bliss such as “eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has ever entered into the heart of man” (1 Cor. 2:9). Yes, the race, the fight, is beset with hindrances, obstacles, sweat, pain and suffering, and sometimes blood and tears. But they all finish. God sees to that and that is why Paul could say, “I have finished my course.”
But there is still more to the apostle’s look backward: “I have kept the faith.” Of course, for it is “the good fight of faith.” At first thought, it would seem as if Paul is being quite boastful. But we must know Paul and his writings to fully understand his thinking, such as Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast”; and Philippians 2:3, “For it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” Because this is true, Paul did keep the faith, even as all God’s people keep the faith. Not one of them will ever forsake the faith. Recall that Jesus prayed for Peter that His faith might not fail, and it did not (cf. Luke 22:32). Even after his terrible denial of Jesus, Peter’s faith reasserted itself upon the prayer of Jesus, and he left the hall of murderers, weeping bitterly, for he had seen the loving eye of Jesus Who would not let him fall from grace. “I have kept the faith.” What is that faith? It is that “certain knowledge whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word, and also a hearty trust, which the Holy Ghost works in me by the Gospel, that not only to others, but to me also, forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.” (Heidelberg Catechism #21)
What does it mean to keep the faith? It means that you embrace it and count it dearer than life itself, for it is through faith that you receive all the benefits of Christ’s work of salvation, benefits which no one can take from you. If you are a true believer, you will go to heaven and can never be lost. You will surely step across the threshold of the DOOR and enter into the mansions of glory. Death for the Christian is no longer “a punishment for sin, but only a dying unto sin and an entrance (a door) into eternal life” (Heidelberg Catechism #42).
Beloved, fighting the good fight, running and finishing the race and keeping the faith is God’s wondrous work of salvation within us. Salvation is of the Lord! (cf. Ps. 37:39; 1 Peter 1:9). Because Paul knew this, he could say, “I have kept the faith,” and so can every believer!
And finally, we must also follow the apostle’s look forward where we see a beautiful view of glory: “Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me at that day” (v. 8). Here, too, it is not a crown, but the crown of righteousness, for there is but one crown of righteousness. Again we must be reminded of the Olympian games which Paul used as a simile or comparison of the course to be run by every Christian. Here he has in mind the same course. Every winner of this race received a garland of flowers which was placed upon his brow. So every Christian will receive the crown of righteousness in that day.
Here we must look to Jesus Christ, Who the author of Hebrews refers to as both “the author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). In reality, Jesus was the only One Who ran the race, fought the good fight and kept the faith. Earlier I mentioned the hindrances, obstacles, sweat, pain and suffering, blood and tears that may lie in the course of this race. Jesus truly and fully ran this course. I don’t think I need to remind you of His sweat and toil and the hindrances and obstacles which He found in His way. I wouldn’t have the time. I would have to speak of hell and damnation, of sin and guilt, but not His own. I would have to speak of the devil and his demons, of wicked vicious men and faithless servants, of hunger and thirst, of unspeakable anguish when he cried out from the cross, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” The words of Hebrews 5:7-8 are enough to make us tremble: “Who, in the days of His flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear, though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered.”
But the end was glory for Him. Christ indeed received the crown of righteousness. And of that crown Christians are partakers: “For He hath made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). How are you righteous before God? Only by true faith in Jesus Christ; that is, although my conscience accuses me, that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and am still prone always to all evil; yet God without any merit of mine, of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never committed nor had any sin, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me; if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart (Heidelberg Catechism #60). The glory of that crown of righteousness will glitter through all eternity!
And when He returns He tells us that with Him is His reward to give unto everyone according as his work shall be: a reward not of merit, but of grace even as our works are of grace (cf. Matthew 16:27; 1 Cor. 3:8; HC #63). Such is the wonderful comfort and light, not only for Paul, but “to all them also that love His appearing,” for all who “fight the good fight of faith,” and would say with Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous Judge shall give me at that day, and not to me only, but unto all them also that love His appearing” (2 Tim. 4:7-8). AMEN.
Rev. Vernon Pollema