Planning to Win: A Primer in Salvation


Richard O'Ffill

I once heard someone say that the trouble with taking a walk is that you don’t know when you get there! For some people the Christian life may seem that way or even worse. They may not know where they are going. Or perhaps they have a long view that says, “I am going to heaven someday, I hope—that is, if I can hold on that long.”
Many, even members of the church, don’t have a clear idea of what the Christian life is supposed to be, and if they have a faint inkling they are not always sure how to get there.

The Christian life is not supposed to be a walk to nowhere or anywhere, but to somewhere. The Christian life is life with a purpose. It’s not just a walk we take, but a journey that has a destination, and there are signs along the way to let us know how far along we have traveled. The Apostle Paul knew from personal experience what the Christian life was all about. He knew where he was going, and he could tell you or anybody else how to get there.

Although Paul had a past, for him the Christian life wasn’t about the past—it was about the present and the future. “Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13, 14). The current modality is to solve your problems by looking back. To Paul the Christian life was about planning to win. He had a past, but he did not waste time looking backward.

I don’t know if you are aware of it or not, but we tend to move in the direction we are looking. As we drive, if we spend our time looking back, we will go off the road. It stands to reason that a person who spends a lot of time looking at his or her past life will sooner or later end up going backward. When a person really understands what the Christian life is all about, there is no reason to look back.

Some are giving more attention to how to get out of trouble than to how to stay out of trouble. They seem to be focusing more on what to do when they run off the road than on how to keep their Christian lives on track.

This could be because in our walk with the Lord, we see ourselves as losers rather than winners. There is no doubt we are weak and have a greater natural propensity to sin than to overcome. Yet we need to understand that the Christian life is based on the new birth. A newborn baby is just starting its life, and so the concept for the Christian is that when we are born again we get a new start. The apostle Paul said it best: “The former things are passed away, and behold, all things are become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

I suspect that the reason so many are having heavy-duty problems in their lives is because, when we came to Jesus rather than being born again, we seem to have just taken up where we left off. I am not suggesting that being a Christian means we won’t have problems anymore. Reality is that, not only will we have problems, but we may have even more problems than we had before we came to Jesus. Jesus Himself said that in this world we would have trouble (John 16:23).

Therefore, the goal is not that a Christian will have no problems, but instead of being a loser to their problems, as they grow in grace, they will more and more become a winner. After all, the Word promises that there is no trial that has come or will come to us but that God will get us through it somehow if we want it that way (1 Corinthians 10:13).

Could it be that many of us have not yet experienced what Jesus called being born again? We often go to Him with an enormous amount of baggage, and instead of leaving the baggage in the past, we take it on board. Some actually seem to enjoy rummaging through the old stuff. Many go to the Lord with their past lives full of mistakes and failures and, believe it or not, continue to do the same type of things although now in a different context.

The Christian life is not supposed to be a junkyard where we scrounge around for used pieces to try to get our lives back together. Rather it is a place where we start all over again. We must acknowledge that when a person is born again, he or she may not change his or her spouse and children, but the experience will definitely change the person himself, and that is for the better and not the worse.

For our part, the first step when we respond to the call of the Holy Spirit is to repent. This is because the first work of the Holy Spirit is the call to repentance (John 16:9). Unless we repent from the heart, we will, in spite of our profession of faith in Jesus Christ as our personal Savior and no matter that we say He did it all for us on the cross, we will remain with the same problems we had before we went to Jesus. We might even end up worse than before because the Scripture says that people who know to do right and don’t do it are worse off than if they hadn’t gone to the Lord in the first place (James 2:10).

We are not hearing sermons about repentance because it’s not affirming and accepting. I don’t know if you have thought about it or not, but the idea of always affirming each other can very well become a disincentive to change. The gospel is about change. If we are persuaded that I’m OK and you’re OK, we tend to perpetuate our weaknesses, or we try to build a new life on top of the old. Jesus said we have to be born again (John 3:7). The labor pain of the new birth is repentance.

Returning to the matter of the new birth, we know what a newborn baby is like. It is helpless and 100 percent dependent on someone else to take care of it. On the other hand, being born again in the spiritual sense is different from the natural sense because when a baby is born and develops and along the way, it progresses from complete dependence increasingly toward independence. In the spiritual sense, the new birth is just the opposite. After we are born again, we progress from independence to complete and total dependence on Jesus through the Holy Spirit. That is what it means when the Bible says, “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

These days we hear a lot about having a relationship with God. But a person who is born again will have more than a relationship with Jesus; they will have made a commitment. A commitment is a relationship, but a relationship is not necessarily a commitment. In this life we have all types of relationships, but we don’t make many commitments. This generation doesn’t mind having a relationship, but it refuses to make a commitment. Someone suggested that we take it even a step further, and that is to define commitment as surrender. I like that. That fits the commitment that Jesus had with the heavenly Father when He said, “Not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22:42).

The bottom line of the born-again Christian life is obedience, and that doesn’t mean just in the things where we happen to agree. The life of faith is doing what God has asked us to do whether we happen to agree or understand all the implications. People who are into sports take seriously what the coach has to say. The people who win the medals in the Olympics are the people who have trainers, and the trainers are the ones who call the shots.

Some have decided that in the area of faith and morals, our way, your way, or any way is okay as long as we are sincere. But winners are not only sincere, they are committed, and they are disciplined. It is amazing that in the Christian life that so many would have trouble with the one word that makes us winners. Whether it be in a military campaign or in a play-off game, the winning word is obedience.

A soldier shared with me that in the army they are really hard on you when it comes to the matter of obedience. They will discipline anyone for walking on the grass when the sign says, “Keep off the grass.” I asked the young man why he thought they are that way, and he explained that when we are in a battle, his life and the lives of the others depend on obeying orders. So their training is not only about learning certain skills, but underlying it all is the discipline of obedience.

One of the primary reasons many people are more into losing than into winning in the Christian life is that they have somehow become hostile to the concept of obedience. Imagine how ridiculous it would be in military training if, when the first sergeant was telling the soldiers how absolutely necessary it was for them to obey orders, an enlisted man would raise his hand and say, “Sir, but that is legalism.” The next thing the recruit would learn would be how to do 100 push-ups.

There is no area of life where obedience is not a necessary element, and the Christian life is no exception. Somehow a ridiculous and impossible notion has become accepted by many that obedience is unnecessary if you are a Christian. Nothing could be further from reality.

If we are going win in this life and be prepared for the life to come, we are going to have to start having the mind-set of winners and not losers. Winners are not afraid of words like “overcoming sin.” They don’t feel
intimidated when people talk about holiness or the victorious Christian life. Here at the beginning of the twenty-first century, a repentant, bornagain, committed Christian is one who is aware that the signs are telling us the coming of Jesus is near. They know that before this happens, probation will close, and those who are not winning when that happens will be permanent losers.

One day Jesus will say, He that is holy let him be holy still and he that is unholy will have to stay that way (Revelation 22:11, author’s paraphrase). While we are aware that where sin abounds, grace much more abounds (Romans 5:20); at the same time, we must not be presumptuous because the Word also says that God’s Spirit will not always strive with men and women (Genesis 6:3).

The current mindset doesn’t want to hear about repentance because it makes them feel guilty. Yet the first work of the Holy Spirit is to convict of sin (John 16:8). Nevertheless, guilt is seen by many as the cause of all our problems. Supposing a man and woman start an adulterous relationship. Of course, the natural thing is to feel guilty, so they go to see a counselor. The contemporary counselor will probably not tell them to break off the adultery but rather to stop feeling guilty.

On the other hand, a born-again Christian will not avoid the importance of guilt. It is as necessary for me to feel guilty when I do something wrong as it is for my finger to hurt when I put it on a hot iron. Contrary to popular belief, guilt is not our problem—sin is our problem. Guilt is God’s way of alerting us that something is not right.

I appreciate guilt as I grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Guilt is what tells me when I have missed the mark. Now I realize there is such a thing as toxic guilt. If guilt is the gauge God has given to tell us when something is wrong, it would not be out of the character of things if the gauge went bad once in a while. Our guilt gauge must be kept calibrated by the Word of God (Psalm 119:9).

So I am thankful for the guilt that keeps me on track. Guilt will tell us when we are off the road before we actually hit something and do permanent damage to our lives or the life of someone else. If we would value guilt and heed its warnings, we wouldn’t be hurting nearly as much as we are.

It is the feeling of guilt that sends me to my knees. How thankful I am that “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Sometimes when I miss the mark and I know I have not glorified God, I ask Him to forgive me, and then I say, “Lord, let’s try that again. Give me another go at it!” If you are into affirming, let me warn you. Guilt is not affirming; it is humiliating. But humility in the Christian life is not a put-down. It is the way to let God put you back on track.

Take into account these texts: Matthew 18:4—“Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 23:12—“And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.” Here are more: James 4:6—“But he giveth more grace. Wherefore he saith, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble.” And finally, James 4:10—“Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up.”

In the Christian life humility is actually the way that we grow. It could be put this way—Christians do not grow up, they actually grow down. The more we are humbled before God the closer to Him we become.

The old spiritual was right when it said that everyone who was talking about going to heaven wouldn’t be going there. Though we may be talking about winning a crown someday, what many are doing in the here and now will result in anything but a crown. If we plan to win the crown, we must take steps here that will make it possible for us to win. Salvation is not a civil right. Jesus paid a price for our salvation and so must we. Being saved is not the easiest thing we will ever do; rather, it will be that for which we had to pay a price. And that price is, we had to die to the old life and be born again to a new one in Christ Jesus. Although being saved is not easy, thank God it is possible for all who undertake it with their whole heart. The Word says we will find Him if we search for Him with all our hearts (Jeremiah 29:13, author’s paraphrase).

Heaven is for winners. Those who don’t make heaven will be those who copped out of the race. Everyone who runs the race of salvation and stays in the race will win. But we have to stay in the race.

“Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us. Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds. Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin” (Hebrews12:1-4).

Have you ever been impressed when you see someone able to do something well? We use the expression that it seems to come natural to that person. There is no doubt that we are all born with certain talents, but we should make no mistake that those who do something particularly well are those who have taken their talents and employed them to the best of their ability.

One of my college professors was an expert in biblical languages. He made it clear to us he was not happy to hear people say that languages come naturally to him. He said he had spent his whole life studying and applying himself to learn these languages. It was by no means something that came naturally.

The growing Christian life is not natural either. It is a mixture of the supernatural with a serious commitment on the part of the person who has been born again. I like what I heard someone ask one time and have repeated it often: which is most important, being born or staying alive?

How many Christians have had the miracle of the new birth, but then have made no effort to move forward and grow in grace? I know there are some who say we don’t need to make an effort, only “let go and let God.”

In Florida where I live, I try to keep some variety of flowers growing most of the year. I don’t make the flowers grow, God does. But how I care for them is a big factor in how they grow and if they survive. “Let go and let God” is to understate what the Christian life is all about. It would be like saying when you want to grow petunias, just stick them in the ground and you don’t have to do anything more. Just a word here about what I call living the Christian life by adrenaline. Using the gardening illustration again, the water that gives life to a plant can also drown it, and the sun that makes the plant function can also scorch it, and the fertilizer that can contribute to its growth can also kill it.

There is a tendency on the part of some to try to force feed the Christian life. As in nature this is not expedient. A man who had been a Christian about six months called me on the telephone. He was full of zeal. Fortunately, his family was encouraging him in his new-birth experience. His question to me, if I remember rightly, was whether or not he should quit his job and move to the country. He was completely immersed in his new faith and wanted to make sure he lived it to the smallest degree. You may not agree with my counsel, but I suggested he slow down and let his life catch up with his heart and mind. We must not forget that the new life in Christ must be nourished. We must put our roots down deep. Often there are some serious spiritual amputations that must take place, and these will often take time to heal.

A baby may be born in a day, but it doesn’t grow up in a day. There was a time when evangelistic meetings where conducted over a period of months. By the time the person took the big step to be baptized and become a member of the church they had gone a ways down the road toward a new lifestyle and the change of culture that is necessarily required. Unfortunately, we now have much shorter campaigns, sometimes lasting only three weekends. A person who tries to go from zero to sixty in three weeks will often not have enough speed to get their new lives off the ground and one of two things happens: they either become spiritually disabled, or simply the old life never drops away and what should be a new life in Christ becomes an extension of the old life but now in a religious context.

Let us keep “looking to Him, who is the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). Let us remember that we are more than conquerors through Him who loves us (Romans 12:2), and that He that is in us is stronger than he that is in the world. Let’s make plans to win!