Motivation to win, Judgment Seat of Christ
In the Olympic and Isthmian games, there could be only one winner among the many participants in any given race (9:24a). In the Christian life, however, all believers are participants and all can be winners. In the physical contest men compete against others, but in the spiritual race a man competes against himself as he obeys or disobeys the will of God for his life. Thus, a believer should have the motivation to win (9:24b). Christianity is not a spectator sport.
Everyone who strives or agonizes (agōnizomenos) to win goes through a strict training program before the race (9:25). As the athlete prepared for the games with strenuous exercise, proper diet and sleep, and mental concentration to gain a “corruptible” pine wreath placed upon his head, should not the believer discipline himself to win an incorruptible crown (9:25b)? In contrast to the corruptible crown given for self-mastery, four spiritual rewards are mentioned in the Scriptures: the crown of rejoicing for faithful witnessing (1 Thess. 2:19); the crown of righteousness for loving the coming of Christ (2 Tim. 4:8); the crown of life for enduring trials (James 1:12); and the crown of glory for faithfully pastoring churches (1 Peter 5:4).
Paul, then, saw himself as a Christian runner with a definite goal guiding his life (9:26). He did not see himself as a shadow boxer; rather, he saw his Christian life as a fight and victory to be gained over sin, flesh, and Satan. Near to martyrdom, he could shout triumphantly: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7). He sensed a tremendous responsibility to minister to himself and to keep himself in the will of God, lest, in preaching to others, God would detect flaws in him and remove him from the ministry (9:27). The word “castaway” literally means “disapproved” (adokimos). An Olympic athlete who won a race did not lose his Greek citizenship if he was subsequently disqualified; however, he did lose the honor and forfeited his wreath crown. Christians, like Paul, should not want to lose the opportunity to serve Christ and the subsequent praise at the judgment seat of Christ (cf. 3:14–15).
Robert Gromacki, Called to Be Saints: An Exposition of I Corinthians, The Gromacki Expository Series (The Woodlands, TX: Kress Christian Publications, 2002), 114–115.