Even though Paul charges Timothy, and all Christians by extension, to train himself for godliness, the apostle is clearly not exempting himself from the standard given to his young disciple. For as we see in 1 Timothy 4:10, Paul is toiling and striving to the same end of godliness — conformity to the divine will that is possible only for those who trust in Christ alone for their salvation.
Coupled with the athletic metaphors of verses 7b–9, we have a vivid picture in today’s passage of the hard work of sanctification. The language of toiling and striving is used elsewhere in the New Testament to speak of manual labor (Luke 5:1–5), so Paul is making no bones about the fact that mortifying the flesh and growing in the knowledge of God is exhausting. Progress in godliness is wearying for Christians in general, not least for those who serve the church everyday. This is not easy work (Col. 2:1). Having to be examples to their flocks (1 Tim. 4:12), pastors must be especially wary of their conduct, for many can stumble on account of how they see their pastor live. Moreover, long hours are required of the preacher as he seeks to understand and proclaim the Word to the people and as he makes himself available to them. Faithful ministers do not serve God and men only on Sundays; they labor daily unto godliness to provide a model for others to follow.
Left to our own devices we would quickly give up striving after holiness, being discouraged with our progress. But we hope in the living God who empowers our feeble efforts to conform us to Jesus (1 Tim. 4:10). By grace alone we have been declared righteous before the Lord, and grace alone guarantees our final reward; thus, we obey Him now, confident that our godliness today is not in vain. Matthew Henry writes, “The salvation he has in store for those who believe is sufficient to recompense them for all their services and sufferings.”
The God who bestows such grace is the “Savior of all people, especially of those who believe” (1 Tim. 4:10). If redemption is to come to anyone, let alone “all people,” it must come from our covenant Lord, and He is the Savior of all because all people are commanded to trust in Him alone for salvation. This is God’s good gift to a fallen world, in particular to those who trust in Christ.
Scripture never depicts our pursuit of salvation as something that is without a reward. While we should never serve God simply for a reward, it is not wrong to expect many blessings as a result of our service. If you are discouraged in your striving after the Lord, know that there is a great reward being laid up in heaven for your service and sacrifice in the kingdom of God. Make sure to encourage other believers to press on for the prize that lies ahead.