Tom Schreiner wrote Run to Win the Prize as a follow up to an earlier book, The Race Set before Us, to clarify his position on perseverance in light of reviews of the previous book, as well as provide pastoral responses raised by the doctrine. The New Testament creates tension. On the one hand a number of texts exhort believers to continue in their faith, warning them of what will happen if they fail to continue in their faith. These texts suggest that believers face the real possibility of losing their salvation. On the other hand, the Bible clearly teaches that believers have assurance in their salvation.
Schreiner criticizes both the Arminian and Calvinistic positions for overemphasizing one side of the tension. Arminian scholars take the warning passages seriously and argue that the possibility of losing one’s salvation is real. This position ignores texts that assure the believer of salvation as well as the role that God plays in it. Reformed scholars take seriously those texts that point to the assurance of the believer’s salvation, but they minimize the warning passages by arguing that they are directed to unbelievers, or those outside of the elect. The difficulty with this is that the threat implied by the warning passages is impending for all believers with no delineation between those who are a part of the elect or not.
Schreiner argues for a middle ground. He maintains that the most natural way of reading the exhortations and warnings is to understand that the threat of losing one’s salvation is real, but the function of these texts is to keep the believer away from this danger, not dictate the possibility. Schreiner writes: “The warnings are prospective, not retrospective. They are like road signs that caution drivers of dangers ahead on the highway. They are written so that readers will heed the warnings and escape the threatened consequence. . . . The purpose of warnings in the NT is redemptive and salvific. The Lord uses them as means so that believers will escape death” (p. 48). Schreiner illustrates this with parental warnings. Parents warn children to stay out of the street to avoid being struck by a car. The warning does not indicate if the child will play in the street, but if they do, the consequences are very real. If they are not, then the warning is hallow. Ultimately the effect of the warning is to keep the child safe.
In the remainder of the book, Schreiner addresses two misperceptions of how he articulates the doctrine of perseverance described in the earlier book. First, Schreiner argues that perseverance is not perfection. The New Testament teaches that believers will continue to struggle with sin until they are glorified. Prayers for forgiveness, commands for obedience, even biographical examples of the apostles themselves failing indicate that perfection in the Christian life is impossible to attain prior to glorification. Second, Schreiner responds to the notion that perseverance is equated with works-righteousness. He distinguishes obedience from salvation through faith. Believers are saved through faith alone, they demonstrate their faith through obedience. He states: “Obedience is vital for salvation, but it is an obedience that springs from faith, that flows from faith” (p. 71).
This short volume is helpful on a number of levels. Schreiner does an excellent job bringing exegetical decisions to bear on this theological discussion. The tension between the warning passages and passages that discuss assurance provides an opportunity for theologians to clarify what the biblical authors intended. Another helpful feature is Schreiner’s attention to how the topic has been addressed by previous theologians. Quotes from Spurgeon, Edwards, Bavinck, and Luther help show the wider theological context of the discussion. The focus of the book is exegetical, but Schreiner’s discussion is not isolated from the larger theological discussion. In short, the volume provides an example of how biblical theology relies on sound exegetical decisions as well as integrates with systematic theology.
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