I have spent the last few days reflecting on the idea of legacy. Mrs. Betty Shipley, our dearly beloved sister in the Lord, entered into her eternal rest on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023. What is her legacy? Here was a dear lady who spent her last days constantly speaking of her hope in the Lord Jesus Christ. Many of her descendents are believers. She was one of the first members of Reformed Baptist Church of Elizabethtown. This little congregation owes its existence and current state, at least in part, to her faithfulness. In one of my last conversations with her, she was greatly concerned for the missionaries whom we support, and was hopeful that we could begin supporting more. Despite suffering from pain, fatigue, and memory loss, she rejoiced in her Lord. The last time I saw her in person, she had come to the church building. She wanted to step inside it again, and told me how happy she was that the Lord had given us so much. What a legacy! The apostle Paul wrote, when he contemplated his upcoming execution, “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” (2 Tim. 4:7-8). Our dear sister fought her good fight, finished her course, kept her faith, and now enjoys that crown of righteousness.
What is this fight? It is the daily battle of the Christian life. The word refers to a conflict that causes pain. It is the word from which we get our English word “agony.” Our warfare is painful. We war against sin. The old corruptions of the flesh tempt us, and how often do we fall into them! And yet, we are, by the power of the Holy Spirit, able to resist it. This is the daily struggle of the believer: to not sin and to follow the Lord Jesus. We war against the world. This is not a physical warfare, but a spiritual warfare. The world tells us that we are believing a delusion. The world tells us that we ought to be more tolerant. The world tells us that we ought to eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. Yet we must resist these lies. Our calling is to proclaim the good news of peace with God through the redemption in Jesus Christ our Lord. This war is so contrary to the warfare of the world. We do not go out seeking to destroy and conquer, but to declare peace and forgiveness. We war against the devil and his minions. Our adversary is described as a roaring lion who roams about seeking whom he may devour. We are to stand firm, to put on the whole armor of God, and to not give way to his lies and murders. While this fight is agonizing, Paul says it is “good.” The Greek word literally means beautiful and virtuous. Every battle that our God gives us is good. It is beautiful and virtuous, because it makes us like our Savior. Every agonizing fight burns away a little bit more of the dross; kills a little bit more of the old man; renews the inward man bit by bit.
What is this course? It is a race, a contest of endurance and dedication. If you’ve ever run any significant distance, you know that it becomes painful. After a while, your legs start burning and your lungs start aching and your mind starts telling you to just stop. Yet, every race has its finish line. The contest is not really about who is fastest. The sprinter will not win the long race. The contest is about endurance; the victor is the one who pushes through the pain, stays the course, and crosses the line. Such is the Christian life. You may not be the sharpest tool in the shed. You may not be able to speak well. You may not have all the gifts that other men have. Yet, can you finish the race? Can you look to that finish line, set your eyes on heavenly things, and endure to the end? The Christian race is different from every other kind of race. In other contests, the sole determining factor is the individual. If you are smarter, stronger, quicker than another, you will win. But the Christian race is not like that; in this contest, the one who knows best his weakness is the one who endures to the end. The victory lies not in our ability to run, but in our inability to run. We look to, follow after, long for, the One who has already run the race for us. The One who already crossed the finish line has promised to always be with us in order to bring us to himself.
What is this faith? It is the free gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is the good news that God has brokered peace by the blood of his Son. It is the good news that Jesus lived a perfect life for all of his people, suffered for all the sins of all his people, and rose from the dead to give new life for all his people. What better legacy to leave than to be known as one who has kept, guarded, watched over this faith. We are always under threat of forgetting it. So many things, both inside us and outside us, induce us to look away from this message of love. Yet, the One who brings us through the race is the One who keeps us in his hand. So many have lost sight of this truth. Some of the most famous men will have a far inferior legacy than our sister Betty. They will be known as men who won debates, men who destroyed enemies, men who conquered cities with their charisma. They might be known as men that built seminaries, or invaded the political scene, or defeated every pseudo-controversy they saw or invented. All these things are trivial in comparison to simply keeping the pure faith. No one truly keeps the faith when they are concerned with their own appearance. The one who knows their weakness, who knows their need, who knows that Jesus is a gracious Savior who provides all things for his people; this is the one who keeps the faith.
To the one who fights the good fight, who finishes the race, who keeps the faith, there is reserved in heaven a crown of righteousness. This word crown is interesting. Sometimes it referred to a crown given to the victor in public games. The one who finished the race was given the prize. Sometimes it referred to a crown of glory and honour. It was a symbol of majesty and royalty. Sometimes it referred to a crown as a badge of office. The king wore the crown; it was the sign of his authority and power. But the apostle points us to a better crown, a crown of righteousness. All the pain in this life, all the woes we endure, all the sorrow we feel is a result of the fall. Sin has brought an utter curse on the entire world, and sin destroys and maims and kills us physically, spiritually, mentally, and emotionally. But to the one who endures, there is laid up, reserved, appointed, in heaven a crown of righteousness. One day, our sin will be no more. Whatever else life in glory might be like, this much is certain: we will be only righteous. And where sin does not exist, there exists neither pain, nor sorrow, nor sickness, nor death. Some long for many vain things about heaven. They long to see loved ones again. They long to escape the torments of hell. They long to walk forever on streets of gold. But all of those things pale in comparison to the true beauty of heaven. We will forever live in unbroken and untainted communion with our great Triune God. The fellowship will be unsullied by the corruption which we now possess. Our love to him will be unblemished by our periods of coldness or lukewarmness. We will be in the presence of the Father, the Word, and the Spirit covered forever in the righteousness of Jesus Christ, that great work begun on earth being completed in glory.
It is the Lord Jesus, the righteous judge, who gives us this crown. The word “give” means to render what is due. Some have imagined this to mean that this crown is a reward for our good works. Yet this cannot be the case. The crown is the crown of righteousness, and this is a righteousness bestowed or rendered to the one who has kept the faith. The reason why this crown is due to us is not because we have done something to earn it. It is due to us because of the promise that all who have faith in Jesus are justified before God. It is rendered to us as that which is due because God is faithful to his promise: Abraham believed God and it was counted to him for righteousness. This righteousness is not perfected in this life, but is reserved for us when we pass into that eternal state. Put simply, the Lord Jesus is a righteous Judge because he keeps the promise that he made. To whom is this crown given? To those who love his appearing. Those who unconditionally love, love without considering the cost to self, the second coming of our Savior. There are many who conditionally love his second advent. They look forward to a golden age. They look forward to seeing the wicked judged and enemies vanquished. But Paul uses the word ἀγαπάω, which uniformly refers to a love without condition. The one who truly fights the good fight, who truly finishes the course, who truly keeps the faith is the one who simply loves and longs for the glorious sight of seeing Jesus face-to-face.
Is there anything or anyone else worth longing for? Are we, Reformed Baptist Church of Elizabethtown, fighting the good fight, finishing the course, keeping the faith? Am I set fully and wholly on my Jesus, who loved me and gave himself up for me? Let us, dear saints, follow after the example of our dear sister Betty. Let us imitate her as she imitated the Lord Jesus Christ. Let us heed that command which the apostle issued to the Hebrews, “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” (Heb. 12:1-2).