On Law, Grace, and the Joy of the Race

Phyllis Nissila


When I think about talented runners I think about two people: 1924 Olympic Gold Medalist Eric Liddell, the inspiration for the Chariots of Fire story and film [1], and let’s call him “Charlie,” a middle school special education student with whom I once worked.

Both athletes were physically gifted for the race though one was world-famous, the other only famous in our school, and both experienced the sheer joy of the run. The quote, God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure” [2] is attributed to Liddell, but even if only a scriptwriter’s inspiration, one can easily imagine Liddell saying it.

Charlie was known only locally for simply setting his smiling face high and into the wind and running, running, running—past the best and the brightest, past crazy-cheering staff and students, even past the stopwatch and the finish line neither of which he completely comprehended nor cared that much about.

Indeed, Charlie would have run as far and as long as we or his stamina would let him—once we pointed him in the right direction!

To me, both runners illustrate not only the skill of the race, but the joy of it, the heart of it, and on the spiritual track, both seem apt illustrations of “grace” versus “law”.


Two millennia ago lived another runner named Paul, aka “Saint Paul.” Here is what kept him on “the good track”: “However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24).

What compelled Paul was not perishable laurel wreath but joy in the greatest story ever told: Jesus Christ and Him crucified…the extraordinary “why” of His sacrifice…and, incredibly, for whom…

To be sure, Paul kept to the daily “training schedule,” as it were, the preparation, discipline, and endurance required to be equipped to teach this Good News “in season and out” (like Liddell both running and preaching on those sometimes muddy race tracks) but not just because of the command or the demand, rather because Paul was, well, excited about it. This is evident. He was compelled (setting his heart high and into the task).


Paul also knew the difference between the “law run,” if you will, and the “grace race.”

Pre-conversion, Paul was a dedicated Pharisee versed in both the mandates and minutia of The Law, understanding well that there are many potholes and bumps on the spiritual course. Indeed, literally hundreds of impediments—as painstakingly codified in the Testament.

He, above all, understood the mental and spiritual stamina required to obey that long list of rules and regs. And he dutifully pounded down the track of redemption as he understood it until the day of his “Jesus reveal” when the Lord literally stopped him in his zealot tracks.

Paul (known still as Saul) was on his way to persecute more followers of Jesus when, in a blinding flash of light, horse and rider dropped to the ground, and the voice of One identifying Himself as Jesus, the One, He explained, Paul was really persecuting, instructed the future apostle to get up and go into the city where he would be told what to do (Acts 9:3-9).

Epileptic fit? Psychogenic event? As some surmise Paul’s “conversion” might have been.

Or was it an extraordinary life- and career-changing event wherein one formerly and steadfastly committed to the “letter of the law” became literally in a day one whose eyes were opened to the “spirit of the law”—a message in the script all along: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercyand to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

And Paul’s grace race began. Still requiring stamina, discipline, and preparation, but no longer on his—or fast-forward, any of our—own steam, checking off rule by regulation by code; inspired now, rather, by faith in Jesus Christ Who satisfied every jot and tittle of that law perfectly and then offered His body up as a perfect sacrifice for us when we don’t stay the course (and believers of all epochs cheer still).


Back to my favorite runners.

Our middle school champ knew only that what he loved above all else was a race track, a pair of running shoes, and a chance. Gold medalist Liddell searched also for a track and a chance, in his case, not just to run but to preach. And each inspired many in their time, even some, now.

I pray that you, too, gentle reader, will experience the joy of the “grace race,” that you, too, will comprehend the difference between the “letter of the law that kills” and the “spirit of the law that gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6) as you run your own course.

But mostly, I pray that in all this you, too, will “feel God’s pleasure” in your calling.

Don’t know yet what God has designed for you or designed you for?

Ask Him.

Your race might not net you the gold the world awards, but there is a crowd awaiting your entrance on the field. And they are pensive, hopeful, longing to cheer for you, too; needing you, too, to stay the course—and to win so they might have hope to hold their own head high and into the wind and into the joy of their own calling in Christ Jesus.

And He waits near to assist.

*(See below for a little inspirational background music.)


*http://www.youtube.com/watch?gl=IL&hl=en&v=ls6IwEG0FYM (Vangellis, 1981, original Chariots of Fire theme.)

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_Liddell


Photo from John W Keddie, “Running the Race – Eric Liddell, Olympic Champion and Missionary” book.

[2] http://www.ericliddell.org/ericliddell/quotations

Image from the public domain.

This entry was posted in Commentaries, Devotionals, education and teaching, most recent posts and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to On Law, Grace, and the Joy of the Race

  1. pnissila says:

    I’ll second that 🙂


  2. Cathy says:

    Yes, the “Grace Race” is the gift of God! Only, God for filled the “Law Race” because He is Perfect and Divine! We can do Nothing, without Him, in our Humanity!
    So let the Believers, Run The Race, with, the Grace of God, Boldly and with Endurance! The Thorn, in our side, will only, make a Stronger Race…..like it did Paul! My Thorn, is I cannot physically Run, but I am in the Spiritual Race!
    Amen, Praise His Merciful Name!


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