This is the second installment of a blog series announced here.
When it came to athletics, especially running, there were few people more determined than Eric Liddell. To put it simply, he would never give up. Never.
The most famous example of Liddell’s determination was at a 1923 championship meet at Stoke where he was competing against runners from Scotland, England, and Ireland. After competing in the 100 and the 200, an exhausted Liddell was set to run the 400—and event for which he had hardly trained.
Soon after the race had begun, Liddell’s chances grew even worse when at the first turn he was tripped up by another one of the runners and found himself lying on the infield grass. Thinking he was disqualified, Liddell stayed there for moment until one of the judges urged him to get back up and run. And run he did.
Despite being behind by almost 20 yards, Liddell began to do the unthinkable. He started to catch the other runners one by one. By this point the crowd was electrified and cheering loudly. Around the final turn, Liddell tossed his head back in his classical style and surged past the lead runner, winning the race by two yards.
But, Liddell’s determination did not stop at athletics. He recognized, according to the words of Paul, that the Christian life also required the determination of a runner:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (1 Cor 9:24-27)
Paul uses a word here that many would balk at today: discipline. Let’s be honest, when we discover a Christian who exercises personal discipline (to read Scripture, or pray, or have a quiet time) we tend to be suspicious that we have a legalist on our hands. Maybe they don’t understand grace, we think.
But Liddell did not make this mistake. He recognized that discipline and determination are not necessarily contrary to the gospel of grace. Just like a runner, we can exert effort in our pursuit of Christ—effort fueled not by legalism or perfectionism but by grace.
The Westminster Confession itself, which Liddell grew up learning, affirms this balance between grace and effort:
Their ability to do good works is not at all of themselves, but wholly from the Spirit of Christ . . . yet are they not hereupon to grow negligent, as if they were not bound to perform any duty unless upon a special motion of the Spirit; but they ought to be diligent in stirring up the grace of God that is in them (16.3).
Notice here that the Confession clearly affirms that all our good works are due to gracious work of the Spirit. But, then it uses the key word “yet” to indicate that we must be careful not to misunderstand the implications of this. Even though our good works are by grace, we still have a “duty” to be “diligent” in pursuing those good works. These two truths are paradoxical to be sure. But not contradictory.
The life of Eric Liddell reminds us that we are all called to be runners in the Christian life. We run with earnestness not so that we might become Christians, we run with earnestness because we are Christians.