When Paul used athletics to describe the Christian race of faith, in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, he states in verse 27 that he beats his body to make it his slave, so that after he has preached to others, he himself won’t be disqualified from the prize. Is he referring to the prize of salvation? If so, does that not imply that one can lose his or her salvation?
Salvation is a gift that’s freely given, not a prize that has to be earned. Therefore 1 Cor. 9:24-27 is not about salvation, but about crowns we can win after we’ve been saved. We can confirm this by reading other things Paul wrote. For example, he said our inheritance was guaranteed from the moment we believed (Ephes 1:13-14) and after that nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39) because it’s God who makes us stand firm in Christ (2 Cor. 1:21-22).
In 1 Cor. 9:24-27 Paul used a sports analogy to help us understand the rules for winning our crown so we wouldn’t be confused about how this works. As in events like the Olympics, winning the victors crown requires that competitors qualify and then compete. For believers, qualifying means being saved, because this is an event for believers only. Then we go into “strict training” in order to increase our chances for victory, because no Christian should be satisfied just to qualify, even if it does mean gaining eternal life. That’s just the beginning. We all want to win crowns and get rewards.
In going for the crown of victory we’re not competing against someone else, but against our old selves, also called “the flesh”. This is what Paul meant by beating his body to make it his slave. Achieving victory means putting the flesh to death; getting rid of our selfish desires, our bad habits and attitudes, and any behavior that puts the Lord to shame. As in all competitive events there’s no penalty for losing, only a reward for winning.