Following Christ demands the best you have to give

Shaunae Miller of the Bahamas won the women’s 400-meter race by turning it into a diving competition.

Miller dove across the line to finish ahead of American Allyson Felix by seven one-hundredths of a second to win the gold medal at the recent Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

“I just gave it my all,” said Miller, whose red “strawberries” on her knees, hips and arms backed up her statement.

The effort it takes to medal at the Olympics is the same kind of effort it takes to get into heaven.

You heard me right. Eternal life demands your utmost effort.

Jesus said to his followers: “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and not be able.”

“Make every effort” is an athletic reference in the original Greek language of the New Testament, and it is used of those competing in a race or in a wrestling match.

It means to hold nothing back, to give all you have, to exhaust yourself trying.

That’s curious, because elsewhere in Scripture, the Apostle Paul teaches that eternal life is a free gift.

“By grace you have been saved, through faith, and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not as a result of works, that no one should boast.”

We are saved by faith alone in the merits and efforts of Christ alone for us.

So, if eternal life is a free gift, why should it require any effort at all on our part? That sounds like a contradiction, but is it?

Becoming a Christian is a free gift, but that doesn’t mean being a Christian is easy.

Every day we struggle against our own sinfulness, repenting of our failures and trusting again in the forgiveness Christ earned for us by his death in our place.

Every day we place our confidence in a God we cannot see, in a righteousness we cannot feel, and in a heavenly future about which we have only heard.

Following Christ is never easy.

You may inherit a farm, but that doesn’t mean that running a farm is easy.

You may inherit a business, but that doesn’t mean that running a successful business is easy.

Being an Apostle of our Lord was a great gift given to Peter, Paul and a few other unworthy men, but that gift demanded everything of them.

And they willingly yielded up their lives, for they knew they were following a Lord who had already yielded his own life for them and for the life of the world.

There is a difference between receiving something as a free gift and then living with the consequences of that gift. The consequences of a gift can make great demands upon you, and that is true of the Christian life.

This is why some Christians try to compartmentalize their faith into one small segment of their lives, in an attempt to protect the other parts of their lives from Jesus and his demands.

But that is ingratitude, impenitence and unbelief.

The gift of salvation is the gift of a new life. It is a cross-shaped life of self-denial, of submission to authority, of dedication to one’s spouse, of obedience to parents and of service to all.

Our sinful nature screams, “No!”

Our families and friends will, at times, object.

The world itself gives us no encouragement.

But regardless of the cost, faith stakes everything on the Lord and his promises, which have not failed yet.

Faith, nurtured by the word, clings to Christ alone regardless of his demands and says with Peter, “Lord, to whom else can we turn? You have the words of eternal life.”

The Rev. John Armstrong is pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, Columbus, and may be reached at