Only a few days have passed since the Olympic torch was extinguished at the conclusion of the 2012 summer games. London has no doubt wearily willed herself out of bed these last few mornings as her inhabitants adjust once again to life as it was. No doubt the streets seem empty now that the hordes of athletes and crowds of spectators have returned to the countries they call home.
One of the things that strikes me each time I watch the Olympics is how astronomically high the stakes are. This is the top tier of the best athletes in the world with hundredths of a second or a tenth of a point providing the only degree of separation between receiving a medal or going home empty handed. They’re all “Faster, Higher, Stronger,” as the Olympic slogan says, but the majority are not fast or strong enough to be remembered even a week later. For many of these athletes, this is their only chance. Years of blood, sweat, and money are either rewarded with the highest possible honor or are investments that culminate in no return. And because the games only occur every four years, many cannot hang their disappointments on the phrase “there’s always next year.” For many athletes there is often an air of finality to their success or failure.
The New Testament uses a few athletic metaphors for the Christian experience such as training like a boxer or running to win the prize (1 Cor 9:26). But we can all be glad that our performance as Christians does not relate to our success in the same way as it does for the Olympians who captivated our attention for the past two weeks.
Success Does Not Depend on Our Performance
We can be glad that our performance is not the criterion by which we will be judged. Though the Olympic quest is the pursuit of perfection, that pursuit, in most cases, is never fully realized. For the gymnast, even the slightest variation from the routine—an arm extended to regain balance or an improperly pointed toe—results in a deduction. Success or failure is judged based on that single performance, and even the most brilliant of routines can be undone by the slightest hop on the dismount. When it comes to our moral performance, our standing before God, the hard truth is that none of us can stick the landing. Many people, including Christians, live their lives trying to earn, through the strength of their performance, the favor of the only Judge who really matters. Yet, mercifully, this Judge will not render a verdict based on our performance; after all, he employs a standard that demands a flawless performance, every time, for a lifetime. The holy standard to which we are held does not take into account our moral performance as it relates to the difficulty of our circumstances or our rank in the field. The standard is the holy Judge himself and with that standard we all miss the mark (Rom 3:23). There is good news in all this, however: Jesus hit the mark; he stuck the landing for you. You can take heart because your reward from this Judge is not based on your performance, but on the perfect righteous character of Jesus who grants that perfect record to all who receive it in faith.
Jesus’ Success Encourages Our Performance
Not only does Jesus impute his perfect score of righteousness to us, but his success is the very thing that presently fuels our performance. Imagine the difference in approach if an Olympic gymnast took the floor, knowing that she had already been awarded a perfect score. No longer would she fear the deductions of the judges, the expectations of the crowd, or the presence of her own shortcomings. She could perform with confidence, knowing that the outcome had already been determined. While it would be ludicrous for the Olympic judges to render a score prior to the athlete’s performance, this is precisely the promise of the gospel. Only in this message of good news does the Judge render a verdict prior to the performance. How different a situation it is when we perform, not to earn the favor of the Judge but in the freedom of knowing we already have that perfect score. Knowing this frees us from the debilitating fear of failure. No longer do we labor under the harsh view of a Judge deducting point after point for every misstep. With the perfect score already given, we are freed to do with confidence the “good works which God has prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph 2:10). We can yield “every part of [ourselves] to him as an instrument of righteousness” (Eph 2:13) because we have already received “God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness” (Rom 5:17).
Olympic success or failure is often measured on the strength of a single performance. So it is for us, but that performance is not our own; it belongs to the one who lived the life we should have lived. How disheartening it must be for some of these competitors who ultimately fail at their only opportunity for Olympic success. You and I will never stick the landing, but due to Jesus’ success, we can run the race set before us and, in time, become like the One who has already run ahead (Heb 12:1–2).