“Run the Straight Race through God’s Good Grace”

(Hebrews 12:1-11 – Pentecost 13 – September 8, 2019)

Hebrews 12:1-11 – Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance 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 has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls. You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin. And you have forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to sons: “My son, do not despise the chastening of the LORD, nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; for whom the LORD loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives.” If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten? But if you are without chastening, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate and not sons. Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them respect. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live? For they indeed for a few days chastened us as seemed best to them, but He for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness. Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

Dear fellow Redeemed in Christ Jesus:

I was looking at a chart of top times for marathon runners. A marathon is 26.2 miles. The top runners finish in just over two hours, averaging around 5 minutes per mile. This is true even through the often grueling heat and long uphill climbs that are part of marathons. It is normal for some runners to drop out in the course of the race. What a test of endurance! But then what a joyful conclusion, as each runner crosses the finish line after a race well run!

Our text encourages us to “run with endurance the race that is set before us.” The Christian life is compared to a race, a contest of keeping our eyes of faith focused on our heavenly goal in Jesus. We are encouraged to “Run the Straight Race through God’s Good Grace,” as we sang in a verse of the hymn (“Fight the Good Fight”) – because we have 1) God’s grace for the duration, 2) God’s grace for the struggle, and 3) God’s grace for the motivation.

1) God’s grace for the duration

First, we can run the straight race because we have God’s grace for the duration. What a blessing it is to know this. For the race we run is no 100 yard dash. It is no hours-long marathon. The race we run is for a lifetime. We need God’s grace for the duration!

Our text first reminds us of those saints who have gone before us, for whom God has already provided grace for the duration. It says: “We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.” The image is that of an athletic contest, like a marathon, when spectators gather along the sidelines to cheer on the runners. These witnesses are the heroes of faith, who have finished the race by God’s grace and now enjoy their heavenly goal. They are those of whom the writer to the Hebrews spoke in the previous chapter – from Abel, to Enoch, to Noah, to Abraham, to Moses, to all who have persevered in the faith, despite facing persecution and even death for the faith. The witnesses are all of whom it says in Hebrews 11:13: These all died in faith.” They passed from this world trusting God’s promise of salvation in Christ; therefore, God has brought them home to heaven.

“We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.” That word for “witnesses” is the same as the word for “martyrs.” Whether or not they witnessed their faith “to bloodshed,” all the saints who have gone before us are martyrs in this sense: they witnessed the faith by standing firm to the end. And they are witnesses that God will give us grace for the duration, and bring us home too.

If it were not for the grace of God in Christ, we would not make it to the finish line. How often, when we have found ourselves running under the grueling heat of temptation, we have not kept up the pace so well. When we have found ourselves in those difficult uphill climbs of trials, we have complained. And we have not always kept to the course God has set before us. Instead, we have veered off to paths that seemed easier. We have run the way that felt more pleasing to our sinful flesh. We have run the way that brought more cheers from the world. We have run the way Satan would set before us. So we have not always run with endurance the race God has set before us.

By God’s grace getting to heaven does not depend on our sinful performance, but on the sinless race His Son ran for us. For the certainty of God’s grace for the duration, for the certainty that He will bring us home to heaven, our text encourages us to keep on “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 has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Jesus came to win the race and win the prize of heaven for us. As the perfect Son of God in our flesh, He always ran the straight race His Father set before Him. He endured the grueling heat of temptations and the long uphill climb of trials, always obedient to His Father, without any complaint. Then, for the joy of saving us for eternal life, Jesus endured that final grueling agony of death of the cross, bearing our guilt and punishment. He went the distance to pay for all our sin, to conquer Satan and death for us. He rose in victory to God’s right hand. There He pleads our innocence before His Father on the basis of His judgment in our place. He pleads our right to life on the basis of His death in our place.

Now by joining us to His Son in baptism and faith, God is calling us His saints – His holy ones in Christ. Just like all the saints have gone before us, we do not plead our own strength and merit; we plead only the merit of Christ for us. We join that great cloud of witnesses, “looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith”; with this promise in Philippians 1:6: “He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.” Our living Savior will continue to keep us in the true faith, as He brings His grace and salvation to us through His Word and Sacraments. And at last, He will bring us home to heaven, where we will rest from our earthly race. In Jesus, we have God’s grace for the duration.

2) God’s grace for the struggle

And until we reach our heavenly goal, we can run the straight race because we have God’s grace for the struggle.

Our text assumes that as long as we run the race this side of heaven, we will face a struggle. It says: “You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin.” The word for “striving” gets at the intense contest, as one struggles against the opposition. Most of us have not been called on to witness our faith in Jesus with our own blood; though Christians today in parts of the world do endure imprisonment, torture, and even death for the true faith.

But even if we do not face such opposition, God calls us to stand firm through hardships that come. We know what a struggle it is to run the straight race of faith, when all around there are not cheers but jeers. The world calls our hope in the cross of Christ “foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:18). We are led by a different Spirit from the evil spirit the world is led by (Ephesians 2:2; 1 Corinthians 2:12). We received the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead (Romans 8:11), who gives us spiritual life as the children of God. By God’s Spirit in us, we can strive against sin and evil. We can resist our own sinful flesh. We can resist the pressure of Satan and the world to give up the race, the temptation to give up our Christian witness in order to be accepted and fit in.

God knows our spiritual struggle is “not… against flesh and blood,” but “against spiritual hosts of wickedness” in Satan’s kingdom (Ephesians 6:12). So it is good to know that we have God’s grace for the struggle. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:1). Even through the most difficult times, He is always continuing to care for us as children He whom He dearly loves.

As it says: “And you have forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to sons: ‘My son, do not despise the chastening of the LORD, nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; for whom the LORD loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives.'”

Here we see that from our heavenly Father’s point of view, every hardship we struggle with in our race ultimately fits into His plan of loving chastisement. Through our trials, He is disciplining us and shaping us for our good. Do we suffer with health problems? Do family concerns burden us? Are we emotionally distraught? Are we confused about which direction to take? Do we mourn over lost loved ones? Are we rejected because of our faith?

In the heat of the race, in the long uphill climb, our heavenly Father gives us grace for the struggle. He turns our eyes again to His Son who endured the cross for us, to remind us that our eternal life is secure in Him. Our hardships are not to pay for our sins; for God has already laid all the punishment for our sins on His Son (Hebrews 7:27). How different it is when we can face life’s hardships, not under the burden of guilt or the threat of punishment, but in the peace of God’s forgiveness and love in Christ.

Whatever struggle you face, do not be discouraged; for you stand in God’s good grace. As it says: “God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten?” Through our hardships, our loving heavenly Father is lovingly shaping us for our good.

I am thankful for my parents’ discipline as I was growing up, though at the time I grumbled and complained about it. They knew there was a struggle in this world against evil influences I had no idea about. They cared enough to guide me in the straight path “as seemed best to them.”

Imagine parents who never cared to intervene when their children played in danger, who never cared to let their children experience discipline to keep them in the safe path. We would have to wonder if they really loved those children – and if those really were their children. As it says: “If you are without chastening… then you are illegitimate and not sons.”

But we never have to wonder if our heavenly Father loves us. He who gave His Son unto death for our eternal life is always acting in our best interest. It says He chastens us “for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness. Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” Our heavenly Father is letting us experience discipline to keep us in the safe path. He is not letting us stray back under that false spirit by which the world is misled; but He is guiding us in truth by His Holy Spirit, through His Word. He is not letting us believe we can run the straight race by our own strength; but in our weakness His strength is being made perfect; in our weakness, He is bringing us to rely on His all-sufficient grace for us in Christ (2 Corinthians 12:9). So we can run the straight race because in Jesus, we have God’s grace for the struggle.

3) God’s grace for the motivation

Finally, we have God’s grace for the motivation. Again, our motivation for running the straight race is in looking to “the author and finisher of our faith.” When it encourages us to keep “looking unto Jesus,” it is the sense of, “Let us look away from all else to Jesus.”

As we look to Him and listen to His Word, He keeps us from veering off course and trying to make a false paradise in this world – for we see Him who endured the cross for the joy of giving us His real heavenly paradise. When spiritual forces in the world pressure us, we can look to Jesus “who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest [we] become weary and discouraged in [our] souls” – for we know that even if people are ashamed of us, Jesus is not ashamed right now to acknowledge us before His Father in heaven. As we look to Jesus, He motivates us to “lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and… run with endurance the race that is set before us” – for He has given us such a high calling to far greater things. To keep looking to Jesus is to say with Paul in Philippians 3:13-14: “forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Therefore:

Run the straight race through God’s good grace;

Lift up your eyes, and seek His face.

Life with its way before us lies;

Christ is the path, and Christ the prize.

If a marathon runner finishes a race and feels joy in victory, think of what greater joy awaits us at the finish line, when Jesus places His heavenly crown of life on our heads (Revelation 2:10)! Think of the great cheering multitude who will greet us – all the saints who have gone before us in faith. Together forever, we will praise the author and finisher of our faith who has enabled us to say: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). With our eyes fixed on Jesus, we are running the race victoriously; for we have God’s grace for the duration, God’s grace for the struggle, and God’s grace for the motivation.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. Amen.