Summary: Paul's fear was not that he would lose his salvation, but that he might be disqualified from his team!
TRAINING AND TEAMWORK
The Apostle Paul, as every good minister of Christ, was willing to become “all things to all men” (1 Corinthians 9:22), that they might be SAVED by Christ.
Now Paul did all this for the gospel. It was an unselfish act, but would have its reward in the harvest of souls to, not Paul, but to our Lord Jesus Christ. The Apostle looked forward to enjoying the fruits of his labour with those who had been the recipients of his labour (1 Corinthians 9:23) - not only in the hereafter, but in the here and now (cf. Psalm 126:5-6).
Paul’s desire was to be a co-participant - a team-member - in the service of the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:23). The Apostle’s fear was not that he might somehow ‘lose’ his salvation - which is impossible - but that, if he failed in his service he might be dropped from the team (1 Corinthians 9:27)!
Our Christian service often involves teamwork. Those of us who minister, do not minister alone: we each have our part to play, on God’s team. Occasionally, and always with good reason, the Lord will drop us from our specific team: but He will NEVER cancel our salvation (Romans 8:29-30).
Paul draws a familiar illustration from the Isthmian Games in Corinth. Many of his early readers would have been familiar with the sight of athletes getting into form for the big competitions. Running around the block; sparring in the boxing ring; pummelling their bodies (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).
It is important to recognise that even what we may deem individual sports (e.g. running, boxing), are sometimes participated in by TEAMS of athletes.
I once entered the 5,000 metres footrace - for my Division - in our annual Sports Day at Sea School. Now I made ‘a good finish’ (the timekeeper told me), ALMOST overtaking the boy in front of me on the last lap. But I still came in LAST.
However, my Divisional Officer remained at the trackside to see me through to the end. No doubt he was relieved that - unlike some others, who had dropped out - at least I HAD FINISHED THE RACE. Which earned at least one point for my Division!
Now only one boy won that race, but every one of us was obliged to run as if WE expected the prize (1 Corinthians 9:24). The difference which I perceive, when talking about the Christian ‘race’ - is that we are all winners! Or, to put it another way, we each have our own individual race to run, and must strive towards it (Philippians 3:13-14).
Now, as we run this race, we must do so as those striving for a prize. It is not, after all, about coming in first: I still won a point for my team. It is about FINISHING THE COURSE, and attaining the crown of righteousness which awaits us all (2 Timothy 4:7-8).
We must nevertheless learn from the athlete. The competitor’s temporal (and sometimes temporary) temperance strives for a perishable crown - withered celery, no less, at the Isthmian Games in Corinth. But OUR temperance strives for an incorruptible crown, that will last for eternity (1 Corinthians 9:25).
There is nothing uncertain about our victory (1 Corinthians 9:26) - it is already ours in Christ Jesus (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:57). Rather than flailing about in the air, we must ‘fight the good fight for the true faith, and lay hold upon the eternal life to which God has called’ us (1 Timothy 6:12). And to this end we must discipline our bodies (1 Corinthians 9:27).