Tuesday, August 3, 2010

‘Run To Win The Prize: Perseverance in the New Testament’ by Thomas R. Schreiner – Book Review

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Being that I am involved in a marathon/half marathon runner training program, the subject of perseverance is dear to my heart at the moment. Thomas R. Schreiner has written a book called ‘Run To Win The Prize: Perseverance in the New Testament.’ Although I was quite sure before I read it that it does not relate to running – but instead to persevering in our Christian walk – there are applications to other areas of life.

Here is the synopsis of this book:

The doctrine of perseverance in the New Testament is often misapplied and misinterpreted. While the doctrine has been met with hostility and fear by some, it’s simply confusing or irrelevant to real life. What does the Bible really say about perseverance?
Thomas Schreiner looks at the New Testament’s collective exhortations and warnings to persevere. As he addresses misunderstandings and difficult passages, a fuller picture of perseverance emerges and we see that there is great assurance and joy for believers who hold to the truths of this precious doctrine.

Here is the biography of this author:

Thomas R. Schreiner (PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) is the James Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In addition to his PhD, he holds an MDiv and a ThM from Western Conservative Baptist Seminary. He is the author of Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ and the author or editor of more than ten other books.

Dr. Schreiner asserts that perseverance is prevalent in the New Testament:

…[R]ecent converts are exhorted to continue in the faith, but such an exhortation is not limited to new believers. The exhortation to persevere until the end is a staple of NT teaching. Peter sums up his entire letter in 1 Peter 5:12, remarking that he has declared to them “the true grace of God.” Then follows the admonition addressed to churches facing persecution: “Stand firm in it.” In other words, they are to stand fast in God’s grace in the midst of their troubles. The devil is on the prowl, attempting “to devour” and destroy believers (1 Peter 5:8). And the devil aims to shatter the faith of believers by inducing them to commit apostasy. Believers will not commit apostasy and fall away if they “resist” the devil by being “firm in [their] faith” (1 Peter 5:9). Peter does not exhort the readers to do something usual or surprising at the onset of persecution. Rather, they are to continue trusting in God for strength to face the pressures and persecution that afflict them. (p. 19)

In concluding that chapter on ‘Exhortations to Persevere,’ he states:

[W]e have indications in exhortations given to both new believers and experienced believers that perseverance is required to obtain eternal life. NT authors did not promise an eschatological reward regardless of how someone lived in the future. Instead we have seen that both new believers and experienced believers are urged to persevere to receive eternal life. The varied examples given here suggest that this was commonplace in NT teaching. (p. 23)

There are several warnings in Scripture threatening final judgment. Here is a warning from the Gospel of Mark:

Jesus, in addressing his disciples regarding their mission, declares, “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 10:32-33). Clearly, Jesus speaks to all his disciples here, so the text cannot be confined to those who are almost Christians. The decision facing them is starkly put. Either they acknowledge Jesus before others or they deny him. If they confess him as Lord and Christ, he will acknowledge them as belonging to him before the Father. If, on the other hand, they repudiate and deny him, then he will disavow them before the Father. It seems quite clear in the context that the penalty threatened is not merely loss of rewards but final judgment – being excluded from the Father’s gracious presence. Such a view is confirmed by the remainder of the discourse, for Jesus also affirms that only “the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matt 10:22). Conversely, then, those who fail to continue in the faith will be destroyed. (p. 28)

Another book in the New Testament that includes warnings is Hebrews:

The admonitions in Hebrews are warnings. They function prospectively, urging believers not to fall away. In other words, they admonish the readers not to commit apostasy and fall away from Jesus Christ. The writer’s aim is not to counsel believers against sin. Rather, he admonishes them not to commit apostasy. The author, of course, does not take sin lightly, but what he warns against is final definitive rejection of Jesus Christ. That is why he says there is no sacrifice that can not be offered for those who have rejected Christ’s atonement (Heb. 10:26). The sin envisioned is not a temporary lapse but represents a re-crucifixion of the Son of God (Heb. 6:6), which is unthinkable and represents forsaking Jesus. (p. 46)

Chapter Three looks at the fact that persevering in faith is not perfection. That’s a relief for me to hear! We need to strive for it as much as possible:

Even though perfection will only be attained at the resurrection (Phil. 3:11-12), the delay of perfection to the future does not produce moral laxity in Paul. Paul runs the race with effort and energy in order to obtain the eschatological prize on the last day. How he runs the race presently is not severed from the future reward, even if he does not run perfectly in the present evil age. Those who are “mature” or “perfect” (teleioi) know that they cannot be perfect in this life. They are deeply conscious of their sin, their pride, their selfishness, their irritability, their pettiness, their anger, and their lusts. Still, they keep running the race, but not in order to obtain their reward by works. They run the race in faith, not trusting their own righteousness but looking to Christ for every good gift. Even if they fail and fall repeatedly, they do not quit the race. Instead, looking to Christ, they rise again and run to obtain the prize, trusting in the righteousness of the one who saved them, not in their own righteousness. (pp. 54-55)

Neither is persevering in faith works-righteousness. Paul addressed that issue in his book to the Galatians:

Paul reproached the Galatians because they began their new life in faith and tried to complete it by works (Gal. 3:1-5). He clarifies that just as one begins the new life by the power of the Spirit and by faith in Christ, so one continues the Christian life in the same way. We do not begin in the Spirit and become perfected in the flesh. Hence the Christian life from start to finish is a call to trust God. Every step of the way, we look to Christ for our righteousness. Those who stumble and fall may be restored again and again, as long as they keep running the race by looking to Christ for salvation and putting their trust entirely in him.
The paradox here is quite striking. If we concentrate on the quality of our works, we are apt to become consumed with ourselves and our righteousness. The pathway is thereby opened to pride and self-delusion. (p. 73)

The Cross of Christ as the only means of salvation is all over the New Testament:

Apostasy in Hebrews, then, as in Galatians, occurs when believers cease clinging to Christ and his atonement. Believers persevere by continuing to find their forgiveness and final sanctification in Christ instead of in themselves. Hebrews does not call upon believers to look at themselves but to Christ. Those who commit apostasy end up looking to themselves and trusting in themselves. Assurance is found only by those who lean upon the sacrifice of Christ. (pp. 80-81)

One of the most famous chapters in the New Testament is Hebrews 11, nicknamed the ‘Faith Hall of Fame.’ That chapter confirms that perfection is not necessary for salvation:

Hebrews 11, then, confirms that the life of faith is not a life of perfection. Indeed, it is evident that many of the believers commended were deeply flawed, just as we are today. The significance of this observation increases when we realize that Hebrews contains the strongest warnings in the NT. The writer warns against falling away from Jesus; he does not teach perfection. Believers are to be like Samson who, despite his sins, continued to put his trust in the Lord and presumably repented of his sin. The life of perseverance is a life of faith and repentance. It places all its trust with what Jesus as the Great High Priest accomplished on the cross. It looks away from self and looks to Christ. (p. 83)

Dr. Schneider makes a distinction about the people to whom the warnings are directed:

They are prospective, admonishing believers to keep clinging to Jesus Christ, so that they do not turn to idols (1 John 5:21). The warnings were not written as retrospective reflections on the status of those who have already fallen away. They are instructions shouted to runners during a race, so that they will not give in to exhaustion and discontinue running. They are instructions given to troops in the midst of the battle. They are not armchair reflections on those who deserted during the battle. (p. 105)   

In the Epilogue, Dr. Schreiner closes out his book this way:

If the warnings are directed to Christians, do they quench and dampen our assurance? Certainly not. The admonitions are the means God uses to keep believers on the path of faith. Believers are even more assured of their salvation as they heed the warnings, because their response to the warnings demonstrates that they truly belong to God. And the argument of this book is that the elect and those in the new covenant always heed the warnings. God loses none of those who belong to him. Just as all the elect believe the gospel when it is proclaimed to them, so too all those who are foreknown and predestined will certainly be glorified. God’s promise that all those who are his will persevere does not exclude the need to heed the warnings. (p. 113)

And the final paragraph includes these encouraging lines:

They look away from themselves and what they have accomplished and put their hope in Christ crucified and risen. Those who persevere are not perfect, but they never turn away from Jesus Christ. They never forsake him as the fountain of living waters. They do not put their trust in their own works but in the atonement secured by Jesus Christ. Perseverance, then, does not lead to pride but to humility, for it is nothing other than clinging to Christ and his righteousness. We show our trust by obeying, for there is no other way to receive the prize on the last day.   

This is the first book of Dr. Schreiner’s that I have read, and I learned a great deal. I appreciate his scholarship in bringing all of the pertinent Scriptures together. I was greatly encouraged by ‘Run To Win The Prize’! It is a terrific reminder that we need to always seek Christ, and to never get distracted by ourselves or our circumstances.

You can order this book here.

This book was published by Crossway Books and provided by them for review purposes.

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