Does 1 Cor. 9: 27 indicate that Paul thought that there was a possibility that even he could be ultimately lost?
Sadly, there are many Christians that have no lasting assurance of salvation. They consider it the utmost presumption to assume that once one is saved, one is always saved. A misinterpretation of 1 Cor. 9: 27 is one root of this error. However, were it not for a morbid tendency to seize upon any Scripture which can be perverted to undermine the certainty of salvation, no one could find a difficulty with this passage.
What Paul says is “But I buffet my body, and lead it captive, lest [after] having preached to others I should be myself rejected”. Now the first rule of interpretation is context, and the context here is the apostle’s service. The whole chapter is about Paul’s ministry, and has no reference whatsoever to salvation. Paul could indeed find himself rejected––but only as a servant, not as a saint of God.
Perhaps a good deal of the misunderstanding stems from the modern readers’ unfamiliarity with the cultural circumstances from which the apostle wrote. The Corinthians would have had no difficulty in understanding the apostle’s meaning in the metaphors that he uses by way of illustration. However, for the English reader his examples lose their force unless the language and the background from which the examples are drawn are explained.
The background to 1 Cor. 9: 24–27 is the Isthmian games whose name was derived from the isthmus on which Corinth stood. These games, like the other games of Greece, involved every form of athletic exercise including running (vs24–26) and boxing (v26). None but freemen could enter as competitors, and then only after they had satisfied the appointed officers that they had undergone training for the previous ten months. Not only that, but immediately before the contests they had to attend the exercises in the gymnasium for thirty days. Only after the fulfilment of all these conditions were they allowed to contend in the games. Proclamation was made by a herald of the requisite conditions for each contest, and the name and country of each competitor read out. The herald later announced the name of the victor who was crowned with a garland of leaves. This, then, is the background to these verses in Corinthians.
In the earthly race there were many competitors but one prize. In the spiritual race, there is more than a single prize, but Paul exhorts his brethren to run as if there was but one (v24). The Corinthians would be only too aware of the training that the Isthmian contestants would undergo over many months in order to attain the honour of victory––a perishable crown of leaves! In contrast, the crown for which the Christian contends is incorruptible (v25).
Now when Paul says “But every one that contends …” he uses the Greek word which is identical to our English word ‘agonizes’––such is the intensity of the contest. Again in v27, where metaphorically he says “But I buffet my body …” he uses a word of such strength that it implies beating the body until it is black and blue! The richness of the language used, along with the background examples, all serve to show the intensity of the apostle’s service.
Yet there is more. Not only was Paul a contestant, but he was also the herald of the contest. Verse 27 can read “lest having been a herald to others, I myself should be rejected”. In the Isthmian games it was not the custom for the herald to join in the contest, but Paul was both a contestant in the Christian race, and a herald of the conditions of that race to others. It is natural then for him to speak of the two characters, which in the actual illustration would be distinct, as united in one when applied spiritually to himself. Thus having announced the conditions of service to others, it would be a poor thing if he himself did not meet these conditions as a competitor. Indeed if it was found that he had violated those rules, then he would be refused the prize, the ‘incorruptible crown’––he would be “rejected”.
The suggestion that the apostle wondered whether he might himself be finally lost is without foundation. The word in Greek for “rejected” is adokimos, and was originally applied to a base coin––and this helps as to its meaning here. A genuine coin can never become base, but an adokimos coin is base from the beginning. Likewise, a genuine Christian can never become a reprobate (2 Cor. 13: 5)––even if he did not buffet his body. The only way Paul could become adokimos would be as regards service not salvation. His ministry might become unworthy of a prize or crown, as in the public games to which he alludes.