This sermon was originally preached in 2018.
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained.
Philippians 3:12-16 ESV
Having now defended the gospel and its benefits, the apostle moves into the realm of application. Within these verses, Paul describes the already/not-yet life of each Christian. Because of the gospel, we have already been freed from sin and have our eternal life with the Lord secure. However, we do not yet experience the fulfillment of those things. We know our goal and destination, but we must still continue to run the race.
PRESSING ON // VERSES 12-14
Having now boasted that his righteousness is found in Christ, it might seem that some readers could begin formulating in their minds that Paul might have been perfect in the faith. Perhaps one might consider that Paul believed himself to have “arrived”, to have reached the point where sin was no longer a struggle, becoming perfect in his walk with Christ. So, in order to stop this thought before it begins, Paul quenches any concerns that his readers and dear friends may have had by saying that he was by no means perfect yet. He is very adamant in these verse that he has not “obtained” his future glorification in Christ, nor was he already perfect. However, Paul does not allow his imperfections hold him back. Instead, he claims that he continued to “press on to make it” his own. He had yet to arrive at the spiritual level that he desired, but he was confident that he would attain such glorification because Jesus made Paul His own. Paul’s confidence in his glorification rest upon Jesus’ saving grace, not his own good works.
It is important that we see verses 13-14 as declaring the same message as verse 12 with different wording. Repetition, of course, means pay attention. Because Paul is doubling down on this thought, we should take extra care to understand him and his point.
To what is Paul referring when he claims not to have already obtained this? It must be the resurrection of the dead from verse 11. Yes, there is a sense in which followers of Christ are raised to new life in Christ here, but our salvation will always be incomplete in this life. We will always battle sin, and there will always be a war between our spirit and our flesh. Thus, the resurrection is our blessed hope. When Christ returns, He will raise us physically back to life, granting us new bodies that are incapable of sin. Following this resurrection, we will be perfectly sinless.
But the resurrection only comes with the return of Christ, and until then, we are not perfect. Until then, we have not attained the completion of our faith. Until then, there is still much growth to do. Thus, Paul emphasizes that he is pressing on to make the resurrection his own. As he said in verse 11, he will, by any means possible, attain the resurrection of the dead.
Yet notice that his hope of obtaining the resurrection is not based upon his own actions; rather, he will obtain resurrection only because Christ has obtained him. As Paul stated in verse 9, his obedience to the law has no ability to earn him the blessings of heaven; such grace must come from God through faith in Christ. We cannot hope to finish our lives as believers unless we belong to Christ. He alone can keep us faithful until the end. Each day we are presented with a hundred opportunities to flee from Christ, but the Christian’s life is hidden in Christ. Thus, we are only safe in the protective arms of our Savior. Him who rescued from our sins must also keep us from returning to them. The glorious grace of the gospel does not merely wipe our slate clean before God, so that we can now try harder to obey God. The Lord’s grace keeps us dependent upon Him. As the hymn says, “I need Thy presence every passing hour. What but Thy grace can foil the Tempter’s power?”
Paul seeks to clarify once more in verse 13, emphasizing that while he is pressing on to obtain the resurrection he has yet to obtain it. He then explains what “pressing on” in verse 12 looks like. He describes it in two ways: 1) forgetting what lies behind and 2) straining forward to what lies ahead.
What does forgetting what lies behind mean? In the particular context of our passage, Paul is probably referring to his religious works. Everything that he once took joy and pride in accomplishing he now leaves forgetfully in the past. He has left them behind in the same way that a marathon runner forgets about the previous miles as he runs. This is a strange concept for us today. Being more influenced that we know by Freud, our society has increasing become fixated on the past (not the historical past, mind you, but our individual past). Many have repeatedly bought into the notion that past traumas lead to present inevitabilities. An abusive childhood becomes justification for living together with one’s partner instead of marrying. Previous injuries make us a rare exception to living in the community of a local church. The list can (and does) go on and on.
But as Christians, we are called to have a different relationship with the past. Of course, we can never truly forget the past (perhaps that’s why Paul says forgetting instead of having forgotten). Yet our eyes are set forward, not backward. We are not defined by our past abuses, our past sins, nor our past false beliefs. We have been united with Christ. He has rescued us by His grace, so we can forget about our previous futile efforts to earn God’s love. He has made us children of His Father, so we can be free from the sins that once defined us. He has promised to providentially orchestrate our lives for His glory and our good, so we can leave behind the traumas of our past.
Instead of having our eyes set on the past, we must strive forward toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Brothers and sisters, there is a goal to the Christian life, and there is a prize upon reaching that goal. Our goal is upward. It is forward and onward. It is above and ahead of us, not behind us. Eternity with the Lord in the resurrection is our goal, and the prize is being with Christ. Furthermore, this is not a wishful goal; God Himself has called us to it. He has beckoned that we seek Him, that we attain the resurrection through faith in Christ. We have been summoned to run a great race, and the Prize for completion is glorious beyond all measure. Our eyes, therefore, must be fixed upon the finish line. We must strive to reach it. Indeed, we will only reach it through much endurance. The path is narrow and difficult, and few will enter the gate to eternal life at its end (Matthew 7:14). The life to come, therefore, must be the focus of our life now.
THE MATURE MENTALITY // VERSES 15-16
Within these final two verses, Paul gives direct application to the ideas of verses 12-14 (although it would not be a stretch to consider them as addressing verses 1-11 as well). The application here is threefold: 1) let those who are mature think this way, 2) if you think differently, God will show you the truth, and 3) regardless, we must hold fast to what we have already attained.
First, mature Christians will have the mindset outlined in verses 12-14, knowing that we are not yet perfect but pressing forward toward that glorious day when our salvation will be complete. Interestingly, this means that a confidence in having figured out the Christian life and believing that we have already matured enough is immediate evidence of not being mature. After all, consider Paul’s previous emphasis upon humility as modeled by Jesus Himself. To think that we have matured enough is pride and arrogance, the very opposites of humility. Those who are the most mature recognize just how much maturity they still lack. This principle can be seen anecdotally in the Dunning-Kruger effect, which claims that a lack of understanding can often cause us to think that our understanding is greater than it truly is. For example, after reading a book about quantum physics, I may wrongfully consider myself knowledgeable in that discipline. However, a scientist who devotes his life to the study may be considerably humbler because he has a better understanding of just how much we still do not understand about quantum physics. The same applies to our pursuit of knowing God. Many read the Bible once and consider themselves experts in Christianity, but when we dive deeply into knowing God through His Word, we quickly begin to realize just how inadequate we truly are for the task.
Second, Paul expresses his confidence that if anyone disagrees with him, God will reveal the truth. Obviously, the apostle must be referring immediately to verses 12-14, as the first eleven verses of the chapter are too grounded in the defense of the gospel to think that Paul would now be going soft on the mutilators of the flesh. Instead, just as the mature believer will live out verses 12-14, immature believers may not yet see how much growth is still before them. Those who are immature will always consider themselves further progressed in their walk with the Lord than they actually are. But the apostle does not lump them in with the heretics of verse 2; he calmly assures them that they will one day come to know that he was correct. He leaves their spiritual growth in the hands of the Lord. Paul faithfully presented the truth, but God alone can sink it into the heart.
Finally, Paul urges us to hold true to what we have already attained. Earlier Paul emphasized that he has yet to attain the resurrection of the dead; instead, it was his great goal, to live forever with Jesus Himself. Being without sin and in the presence of Christ was the blessed hope because of which Paul was joyfully willing to suffer the light, momentary afflictions of this world. For the Christian, death is gain because we then come into the perfection of our faith. However, although we have not attained our final reward, we will gradually attain more of the life and peace of Christ through the process of sanctification. Or to return to the race metaphor, each step takes us closer to the finish line, but we are presently still running the race. Paul is, therefore, warning us against the ever-present danger of backsliding. Let us not lose the ground that we have made and the maturity in which we have grown.