I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.
Even in the darkest hours, when the battle has been raging the fiercest, as soldiers of the cross, we are able to sing: “Christ shall have dominion over land and sea, Earth’s remotest regions shall His empire be.” That confidence of victory in the battle of faith we must have! As soldiers of the cross, we need that personal assurance. And nowhere do we find a more personal testimony in this regard than in this Word of God.
Bear in mind that the inspired apostle Paul writes this second letter to Timothy during his second imprisonment in Rome. He expected to die presently. This letter is really his farewell message as a Christian soldier. The sixth verse here in chapter 4 makes that plain: “For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand.” Paul speaks of his life being poured out as a thank offering to God. He speaks of his death as a “departure,” literally, a being set free, a being released. And these words certainly have the ring of triumph in them: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness….” These words are certainly not the expression of doubt, of despondency, of defeatism—oh, no. They echo with the ring of victory and triumph! This soldier, having finished his course, has fought the good fight and has kept the faith! He is victorious! He is assured of receiving the crown of righteousness!
The apostle Paul is retiring from the field of battle as the victor! Such is the entire tone of these verses. But, perhaps, you wonder, how can that be? He is a lonely prisoner in Rome. He expected very soon to appear before Nero, the corrupt Roman emperor—which was like putting his head into the mouth of a lion! The time of his departure is at hand! His death is imminent. Looking back, what a difficult struggle it had been. Certainly judging by ordinary standards, Paul’s life had been a failure. He had suffered the loss of all things, had thrown away position and honor, had exposed himself to sorrows and trials. He had been despised and rejected by many, had been persecuted. And now the end is near—he is in prison and the sword of execution is waiting for him. How can he testify: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith”?
Make no mistake, the apostle is speaking of the battle of faith. He is speaking of the same spiritual battle against the principalities and powers of darkness and against our own sinful natures which we all must fight as God’s people. Paul says, “I have fought a good fight,” literally “I have fought the good fight.” Who can dispute it? From the time of his conversion on the road to Damascus, Paul had been in a bitter fight from a physical point of view. Already in Damascus the Jews had taken counsel to kill him. As a missionary to the Gentiles, he was often pursued from city to city. He was beaten with stripes more than once and left for dead. Nevertheless, the essence of that fight was spiritual. How he struggled with that thorn in the flesh which he calls “the messenger of Satan to buffet me!” Paul terms himself the “chief of sinners.” His cry inis: “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” But even then, he ends on a triumphal note: “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
By the grace of God we know that fight, the battle of faith! For we too are but sinners saved by grace! We struggle all our life with our own sins and weaknesses, with that old man of sin that still besets each of us. We too can only take refuge in our Lord and Savior. And for that very reason we must always ask whether we are fighting the good fight diligently. We must examine ourselves to see whether we are even aware of the battle. For most people today see this world as a playground not a battlefield! Are you engaged in that spiritual battle of faith? Can you say it: “I have fought the good fight”? A “good” fight is a fight that is waged in such a way as to insure the victory. Literally, this is a “beautiful” fight, for every movement is coordinated to guarantee the victory! The faithful soldier always fights with his eye upon the crown, with a view to the victory that we have in Christ.
And the apostle has almost finished his course—that too is his testimony. “I have finished my course,” that is, the course divinely assigned to me, the place and calling that God has laid upon me. The courses of God’s people are not all alike. They vary according to the station and calling the Lord has given in this earthly life. Our course is that particular position in which the Lord places us to serve Him and the cause of His kingdom in this life. It concerns whether we are single, husband, wife, father, mother, grandparent; it pertains to the work or vocation the Lord has given, our place and function in the midst of the church.
And what a course had been the apostle’s! He speaks of it in his farewell to the elders of Ephesus in: “But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God.” As we have noted, his calling to witness of the gospel of Christ led the apostle to face grievous sufferings for Christ’s sake. But now his course was nearing its end! Again, listen to his words, “…neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy.” Don’t you feel it? The apostle is straining, as it were, anticipating the goal! He is eager to finish and complete his course. He could complete it with joy! And now he is about to be offered, and the end is in sight. The apostle throbs with intense excitement—the excitement of victory! For as he writes the Philippians: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain!”
Having finished his course, Paul could also declare: “I have kept the faith.” The word “kept” here means “to guard.” And “faith” here must be understood in the objective sense—that which we believe. Paul refers here to the truth, the truth of God’s Word, the truth as it is in Christ Jesus, God’s revelation of Himself as the Sovereign God of our salvation. And to keep the faith means two things. First of all, it means to preserve and diligently to safeguard its purity; it means to defend the truth from all opposition. And secondly, to keep the faith means that we strive to live it, testify of it, not only in word, but in deed. We must love the truth of Scripture, which is to say, the truth of the Reformed faith. And that implies too that we have a love for the church, and a willingness to serve in the church, and an abiding concern that the church remain faithful unto that truth. Even more, it means that we have a concern that our children and grandchildren in our generations, keep the faith. We must say, with the apostle John, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth” ().
Certainly the apostle would have us face the question: Are you keeping the faith, the faith as it is in Christ? None of us knows the length of his course in this earthly life—it may be long. It may be short. It can be finished very suddenly! The question is: Is this triumphal testimony yours?
For it is in this way that we receive the crown! We read, “Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness.” This is not a royal crown, but the victor’s crown! It is the wreath of victory that shall be bestowed upon all God’s people. It is the crown of everlasting life! To receive that crown means that we will enter fully into the liberty of the children of God. We shall be free from sin and death and never again bound by it. We shall be free in our service of the living God. We shall be clothed with the life and glory of the heavenly renewal of all things. Think of the anticipation of the apostle as he utters these words from the prison in Rome! He is thrilled with knowledge that his struggles would soon be over. Presently he would exchange his sword for a crown!
But that is not all! Paul is assured of the crown of righteousness! And righteousness implies perfect harmony and conformity to the will of God. How could he be confident of receiving a crown of righteousness? How can we? We are not always diligent in fighting the good fight. We are yet so weak! What does Scripture say? “All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” ()! And further notice that our text speaks of the “righteous judge,” the Lord! He will not deviate from the justice of the living God! He will render a just verdict! And we stand before Him as an open book! He is aware of all our sins and shortcomings!
Where did the apostle’s assurance come from? How can we have this assurance of receiving the crown? Understand, the assurance is not conditioned by our fighting, our finishing the course, or our keeping the faith. The crown is not something we earn or merit; it is a gift. Paul says, “which the Lord, the righteous Judge shall give me at that day….” It is given—salvation is of grace from beginning to end!
Above all, remember, it is not a crown of my righteousness or of your righteousness! The only ground of our assurance is the perfect righteousness of Christ Jesus. He has suffered and died for His own! He lives and works within us by His irresistible Spirit and grace! I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me! I fight, yet not I, but Christ fights in me and through me! I keep the faith, yet not I, but Christ in me and through me! It is all of Christ—for Paul, but also for us, as soldiers of the cross! So the fact that we fight the good fight, and keep the faith, is simply the fruit of Christ’s work for us and in us, and therefore the proof that His righteousness is ours! By grace, by grace alone, we receive that crown!
Let us understand that this assurance of the victory and of the crown of righteousness is not just for Paul. It is for all the faithful soldiers of the cross. As this verse puts it: “…not to me only, but unto all them also that love His appearing.” It is for all who have as the object of their hope the return of Christ upon the clouds of heaven. Is your hope fixed upon the Lord of lords and the King of kings, Jesus Christ, our crucified, risen, and glorified Lord? Do you watch for His return? Then this assurance is yours!
And with that assurance we too can fight the battle of faith even unto the end. We must endeavor always to be prepared for that end. We do not know when our battle may be over and our course finished. But until then we fight! We have Christ Jesus the Captain of our salvation leading us in the fight. We have the incentive of the crown of righteousness that is laid up for us. From the arsenal of God we receive the armor. Equipped with the armor of God, we stand throughout the evil day confident of victory. We need no artificial morale booster, based on human strength or war-like boasts. It is not a false optimism. We are not deceiving ourselves. We know that we are weak, that very easily we succumb to the wiles of Satan. Daily we must repent, confessing our sins in shame and sorrow of heart!
No, this is the confidence of faith! By grace, we have the conviction of the truth as a girdle about our loins. We wear the breastplate of the righteousness of Christ, the assurance that we belong to Him, that we are righteous in Him. The shoes of the preparation of the gospel of peace lead us on our way. The helmet of salvation gives us undaunted hope of life everlasting. The shield of faith wards off every dart of the enemy. The sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, carries us on through suffering and death unto the victory with Jesus Christ our Lord.
What a blessed assurance is ours! Let no one deprive you of that! In that conviction Paul could say in: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?…. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us!” One day, perhaps soon, we shall exchange our sword for that imperishable crown that is laid away in the heavens! But for now we go forward! Fight the good fight! Keep the faith! Look with uplifted heads for Christ’s appearing!