Always Leaning Forward


Philippians 3:1-16

We are reading this morning the text we read last Lord’s Day morning, 3:1-11, together with the next five verses.

Text Comment

v.12

Interestingly, Paul does not supply the object of the verb in the first clause. The NIV’s “all this” is not in Paul’s Greek, but it does catch Paul’s meaning. Paul just says, “Not that I’ve already obtained…” The lack of an explicit direct object for the verb “obtained” indicates that he is talking about obtaining what he has just mentioned in vv. 10-11, namely, the resurrection, Christ-likeness, and the full knowledge of Jesus Christ that will then be his. [Silva, 174] And the second clause confirms this: what he doesn’t yet have but what he very much wants is perfection, to be everything he ought to be as a follower of Christ.

But Paul is also careful to say that his striving after what he does not yet have is the result of Christ having laid hold of him. Always the Lord and his grace first and our response after!

v.14

Once again, Paul’s attention is thrown forward to the end, the prize, the culmination of salvation at the resurrection and heaven itself. And, as with everything else in his Christian life, Paul presses on in Christ Jesus, depending upon him, confident of God’s grace through him, seeking to please him. His union with Christ defined Paul’s life. Everything he did was in Christ Jesus!

v.15

The NIV’s “mature” is a fair translation, but it is interesting and perhaps instructive to note that the Greek word here translated “mature” belongs to the same word group as the verb “made perfect” in v. 12. It raises the question whether there is a touch of irony in Paul’s remark here: a dig at some in the church who seem to think that they are already perfect, which Paul admits he is not.

The second statement in v. 15 seems confusing to us, as if Paul is saying that the Philippians are free to disagree with him. But it is possible that the disagreement Paul is referring to is not with him but with one another in the church. He is returning to the idea of chapter 2 and the importance of the saints in Philippi practicing unity in love. So Paul would be saying, in effect, “But if there continue to be some disagreements among you, I trust that God will soon bring unanimity in your midst.”

v.16

Whatever views they hold at this particular moment about this or that, the Philippian believers must live in accordance with the truth that they have already received. Paul makes many similar statements about the Christian’s calling to live worthy of the calling that they have received, or, as he put it earlier in this letter, to live worthy of the gospel of Christ. Whatever one’s viewpoints, they cannot be out of accord with the gospel they have been taught and the life they have been summoned to live.

Perfectionist ideas come in all forms and resurface again and again in the history of the Christian church. That fact suggests that perfectionism is a very natural tendency, an idea to which the Christian mind is prone. Or, better, it is a Christian form of an idea to which the human heart is prone. Sometimes Christians actually believe that they have got past sinning, like the chapel speaker at Covenant College some years ago who told the students that it had been some months since he last sinned. Many others, describing the experience in various ways, have claimed to have enjoyed a second, deeper, higher effusion of God’s grace that has lifted them above the humdrum level where most Christians find themselves. While many of these would say that they are not absolutely perfect, they do claim to be free, or largely free, or much freer of conscious violations of God’s commandments and that their hearts are now filled with a love for God that is untroubled or scarcely troubled by any competing affection. Very good Christian men have made this claim, if not for themselves for others. This kind of Christian perfectionism, as you know, was a controversial feature of the teaching of John and Charles Wesley during the Great Awakening. A modified form of this teaching surfaced in 19th century evangelical Christianity in what was called “The Higher Life” or “Victorious Life” Movement.” This was the movement of writers and preachers associated with the famous annual Bible conference at Keswick in the English Lake District. Famous among its representatives were the American Presbyterian Robert Pearsall Smith and his wife, the Quaker, Hannah Whitall Smith, author of the immensely popular book, Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life, published first in 1875 and still in print today. There were others who embraced this teaching to one degree or another who are undoubtedly worthy of our admiration including the Anglican bishop H.C.G. Moule, a wonderful man and champion of evangelical and Reformed Christianity in 19th century Anglicanism, and the Baptist Oswald Chambers, author of the deservedly popular My Utmost for his Highest. These men did not, to be sure, hold to the perfectionist ideal in the same way.

The impulse of all forms of this teaching is found in Paul’s assertion in Romans 6 that the man or woman who is united to Christ by living faith is dead to sin and alive to God. His or her old self was crucified so that the sinful body might be destroyed and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. They felt that the old Reformation view, that a Christian would have to struggle against sinful tendencies in his own heart all his life long, that he would never in this life be rid of sin’s corrupting power, did not do justice to Paul’s declaration of the Christian’s freedom from sin. They felt that the old view was too pessimistic and, in effect, belittled Christ’s achievement in delivering his people from the power of sin. They held, to the contrary, that while one’s heart will never be completely sinless in this life, by exercising faith in Christ and relying on the power of the Holy Spirit one could reach a place of freedom from, as they put it, “voluntary transgressions of known commandments.” That is, a Christian could reach the point where he was free of conscious violations of God’s law.

It may surprise you to know that in even some Reformed and Presbyterian circles a certain form of perfectionist teaching has resurfaced in our day. A former member of this congregation told me of his experience with a popular seminar on the Christian life that has been offered in some Presbyterian Church in America congregations. In emphasizing the Christian’s complete acceptance in Christ the seminar leader, or trainer, made the statement that it is impossible for Christians to disappoint the Lord. His love for us and Christ’s sacrifice for us are such that they overwhelm all our failures and render them uninteresting and unimportant. What is that but simply perfection from the other direction: now it is not our doing everything right; it is rather our inability to do anything wrong, at least anything that really matters. Well, the attraction of such views is not hard to explain. The Christian life is demanding and frustrating; it is ever disappointing, as we struggle to make lasting progress against our sins. We would all love to know we were good enough and could stop, relax, and rest. We would all love to know we had arrived!

Apparently there were some in the Philippian church who had embraced one form or another of these views. To some degree they felt that they had arrived as Christians. We said last week that Paul’s reserve in speaking of his own salvation, the note of uncertainty in v. 11 – his “somehow” – may have been due in part precisely because there were Christians in the Philippian church who were suffering from overconfidence. They thought too well of themselves. They were taking too much for granted. But still more, we gather that there was a problem like this in the Philippian church from Paul’s insistence that he, the Apostle to the Gentiles, hadn’t arrived in vv. 12-14. It is impressive how emphatic Paul is here. He hasn’t obtained, he isn’t perfect. He presses on. He hasn’t yet taken hold. One thing he does: he forgets what is behind, he strains toward the goal to win the prize. You get the point: Paul has not arrived!

He knows he hasn’t arrived and the fact that he hasn’t drives him onward. No doubt his note of uncertainty, his “somehow,” in v. 11 is rooted in that precise psychological reality. If you feel you have arrived, you won’t continue to strive. You don’t keep running after you’ve caught the bus! And Paul fears that these believers in Philippi will not strive to go on in Christ and, in particular, will not work hard to perfect their love and unity if they are self-satisfied, content with themselves and taking Christ and their life in him for granted.

And his statement in v. 15 confirms this interpretation. When he says, “All of us who are mature should take a view of such things,” it is perfectly obvious that he is concerned that there are some in the Philippian church who do not take such a view. They are not concerned to press on and strain forward as Paul is.

Now, I don’t suspect that many of you are really tempted by various theological constructions of Christian perfectionism. It will not surprise you to learn that these movements are usually short-lived precisely because they run afoul of so many plain statements of the Bible, such as these statements of Paul in Philippians 3. The best, the godliest Christians are still sinners, still very aware of their imperfections, still deeply disappointed in themselves; they live with a high level of personal frustration on account of their failures, and chief among such Christians was the Apostle Paul himself. This world is not heaven. As Robert Browning has it:

A man’s reach should exceed his grasp
Else what is heaven for.

And a Christian’s reach in this world always exceeds its grasp. But that does not mean that we are not tempted by the very self-satisfaction that concerned Paul. We may not be perfectionist in our thinking, theologically speaking, but we are often perfectionist in our thinking practically. And the proof that we too apparently often feel that we have arrived is that far too often we also are not straining forward to reach what is ahead. We would vehemently deny that we have reached perfection or that we ever imagined any such thing, but the practical effect is the same. We aren’t working very hard to move forward spiritually and morally for Jesus sake just as if we felt we didn’t any longer have to.

We might have stopped pressing forward out of weariness or frustration, feeling the effort was useless, we’ve disappointed ourselves too often, but given the fact that we haven’t given up being Christians, the practical effect is that we obviously have concluded that what we are now is good enough. We might have stopped striving out of laziness or worldliness, but, since we are still Christians and intend to be Christians, the practical effect is that we have concluded that what we are now is good enough. Is that not perfectionism of a kind? Is it not, in effect, the claim that we have gone as far as we need to go and have reached as high as a Christian needs to reach? What difference does the particular form of a Christian’s perfectionism make, or its motive, if the practical effect is the same? You’ve stopped moving forward and are no longer making much of an effort to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of you.

Nothing is more essential to achievement in life than clearly defined goals and the commitment to reach them. Paul uses athletic imagery, you remember, to make this point. In a passage not too different from this one, in 1 Cor. 9 he writes:

“Do you not know that in a race all runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it may slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”

Intentional training with a specific goal in view: that is what Paul is talking about. I had a delightful conversation with one of our young people a few weeks back at the Wednesday evening supper. She was describing her participation in her high school’s cross country team. “Why cross country?” I asked. “Well,” she said, “she wasn’t particularly good at any other sports and nobody gets cut from cross country.” So she was running in a race, enjoying being outdoors on an autumn afternoon, neither concerned to win the race nor imagining that there was any possibility of her doing so. Not far from the finish line still another runner passed her by. She thought of trying to catch up but then thought, “Well, that runner probably needs a higher finish than I do,” so she finished contentedly behind her and many others.

Now, there is nothing wrong with that. I actually found her attitude quite charming! But she would be the first to admit that this is no way to win a cross country race! With an attitude like that she will continue to enjoy running in the out-of-doors on autumn afternoons, but what she will not enjoy is the thrill of victory!

I learned the same lesson myself in 9th grade track and field. I participated in two events: the quarter mile and the high jump. You are immediately thinking to yourselves that I do not look like any successful high-jumper or sprinter you’ve ever seen, and in that you would be right. But I could have done better than I did. I lacked goals. I never set out carefully to measure my progress in either event or suit my training to lower my time in the quarter or raise my height in the high jump. And the result was entirely predictable. At the end of the season I ran out of gas at pretty much the same place on the track where I had run out of gas at the beginning; and I knocked off the bar at the same appallingly low height I was reaching when I started in the event.

No, says Paul; in the spiritual life as in other things run so as to win the prize. Or, “press on toward the goal,” “press on to take hold of that for which Christ took hold of you.” And this focused attention, this drive to be more and do more, this determination to grow in the grace of God and in holiness of life has always been characteristic of the happiest, most fruitful, and godliest Christians. They were driven people, animated by the fact that Christ had summoned them to live godly lives, empowered them to do the same, but that they had not yet attained nearly as much as they knew they should and could. There was about them what one writer calls “a sovereign energy of mind.” [Walter de la Mare cited in Dudley Smith, John Stott, ii, 432] They thought about where they were and where they ought to be. They saw the path that led from the one to the other. And they took the path.

Frances Ridley Havergal, the author of ten hymns included in our Trinity Hymnal, including the hymn “Take My Life and Let it Be,” lived a quiet life. She never married and was only 42 when she died. But she loved the Lord very much and accomplished a great deal and her life is still blessing the church these 130 years after her death. She once said that “she wished to crowd into her life all she could possibly do for Jesus.” That is the intentionality, the focused attention on moving on for Jesus’ sake that Paul is talking about here. “He is not truly good, who does not wish to be better.” A pagan philosopher said that. But how much more ought it to be the watchword of a Christian who has so much higher reasons to be better and for whom “better” is a true goodness not only pleasing to God but a blessing to man.

But you and I are not often enough followers of Paul in this way as Frances Havergal was. We are too aimless in our Christian lives. We live too much without a clear direction. We do not have in our mind’s eye precisely how we ought to change and we are not as often as we should be setting out to change in that way for Jesus sake and with the help he promises to provide.

James Fraser of Brea, the Scottish covenanter, admits that this was often a fault of his. He often did his duty in a certain measure as a Christian, but he didn’t clearly set out to attain to anything in particular. He described himself

“like children, who with their little bows shoot, but at no mark, but that they may shoot; or as when they set their paper boats to sea, but look for nothing else than to see them swim upon the waters…” [Memoir, 215]

We shoot our arrows just to shoot – not to hit anything, just to fly through the air – and we build our little boats just to watch them float – not to go anywhere, just to float. But that does not describe Paul and it should not describe us. Some years ago the Unitarian Church ran a radio ad that concluded with the line: “Come as you are; we don’t want to change you!” Well, Paul was the furthest thing from a Unitarian. He wanted to change. He knew he needed to change. He wanted his church to help him change. He wanted to live among Christians who were as committed to changing as he was. He was far from being the man Christ wanted him to be and he wouldn’t stop working on himself until he was Christ-like. He set his sights high and kept moving forward, praying as his disciple Robert Murray McCheyne would later pray: “Lord make me as holy as a redeemed sinner can be.”

What do you suppose Paul’s straining and striving and pressing on amounted to in his own daily life? Well, I think it was something that you and I can very easily understand and identify with. Thursday night, the night of the windstorm, Florence and I drove to the airport to pick up our boys coming home for the holidays. As is our usual custom, I dropped her off to join the boys at the baggage carousel – waiting for their luggage to arrive – and I remained in the car, waiting in place as long as I dared, listening to the interminable announcement that “no parking or waiting is permitted on the airport drive; you must be actively loading or unloading passengers; violators will be ticketed and towed” – and then driving all the way around the airport again to repeat the same cycle once again. But, as it happened, there was first a problem with the baggage handling equipment and for some time the carousel was stopped and no bags arrived, and then, after the luggage began arriving again, the boys’ luggage didn’t arrive at all. As it happened, it was still in Atlanta. So there I was waiting and driving around, for half an hour, then an hour, and then still more.

Now, I would like to be able to tell you, no doubt Florence would like to be able to tell you, that I handled the delay with my usual aplomb, patience, and good cheer. What is a minor inconvenience like this compared to the true difficulties and troubles of human life and, if a man is a follower of Christ, surely he will pass an easy test like that with flying colors. The Lord Christ maintained his poise in the teeth of the most criminal and inhumane mistreatment, surely I could manage to maintain mine in the face of an altogether minor inconvenience.

Shortly after coming to Christ in Benares through the witness of the young Indian man – remember Jacob who had handed him a copy of the Gospel of John and then stopped back the next day to ask what he thought about what he had read – Marc Mailloux took the train to Delhi. Jacob was on the same train heading to a Christian conference in the capital. The day they traveled it happened to be a Hindu holy day which is celebrated by people sprinkling people with colored water or other kinds of liquid at any time. Characteristically, young people take the custom further and make a prank out of it. “When the train stopped at the numerous stations on the route young Indian rascals would squirt the passengers through the open windows with dyed water, or shower [them] with handfuls of flour or even dirt.” It was not done maliciously, but Marc had spent a sleepless night squeezed on a tiny wooden bench, it was terribly hot, the compartment was unbearably stuffy, and he was miserable. The young people’s fun just made him furious. But he noticed that Jacob, whose neat black suit was now covered with some kind of white flour, took it all in stride, smiled impassively and retained his composure all the while. His inner strength Marc says made a great impression on him. [Discovery on the Katmandu Trail, 135-136]

Well, I didn’t manage to do so well. I was irritated and impatient. However, I was also ashamed of myself and battled my conflicting sensibilities all the while: angry that the airport and airline were wasting my time and stealing my sleep, angry with myself for my lack of perspective and composure, reminding myself of my obligations as a Christian, and disgusted that I had to remind myself more than once. Well, so it was and would have been for Paul. It would have been just such impatience or irritation in the face of life’s inconveniences, or an instance of unkind or unloving speech, or indifference toward others, or greedy or lustful or selfish thoughts and attitudes, or a lack of faith and confidence in God, prayerlessness, or whatever it might be: Paul would recognize that it was not Christ-like and deal with himself about it and work to gain control over himself in Christ Jesus. It took pressing on, striving actively, laying hold of the right thoughts and the right actions.

And Paul would tell us: do that day after day, recognize and be ashamed of your falling short and then press on, strive, and strain forward. And if you do that every day, it will tell. You’ll never get over having to forget what is behind and press and strive toward what is not yet in your heart and life – not as long as you are in this world – but when your life is done you will be much, much further down the road to Christ-likeness than you will be if you content yourself with what you have so far attained.

Where is it in your life that you most want to forget what is past, and where is it that you most want your future to be different than your past? Is it in your speech, your life of prayer, your faith in God, your peace, your love for others; is it in controlling your temper or your lust or your greed; is it in putting to death your sloth, your ignorance of the Word of God, your fear of men? Is it in your indifference to the troubles of others? Is it in your failure to love others as Christ loved you? Whatever it is, it is time to forget what is past – both your failures and your successes – and to strain toward what is ahead, the prize, the goal, more and more of what will perfectly be yours on the great day.

Do you love Jesus Christ for what he suffered for you and what he has given to you? Do you love your Savior and your King? Well, says Paul, he lived and died that you might be rich in the Word of God and prayer, avid in worship, bold and courageous in witness, pure and undefiled in speech and behavior, a lover of God and man, a humble and selfless servant of the kingdom of God. That is why Christ laid hold of you: so that you might eventually become like him in every good and holy way. Well, then, every day you are to press on to take hold of all of that! More today than yesterday; more tomorrow than today.

Do you see how you should change, in what ways you should be different and live differently if you are to take hold of that for which Christ took hold of you? Can you see yourself so patient, so kind, so gentle, so generous, so devout, so grateful, and so full of love for God and man as he was? Of course you can. Every Christian can. Well, then, piece by piece put on that Christ-likeness. Determine to do it and do it. Decide to do it and do it. It will take pressing, striving, straining – it will require leaning forward all the time – but what a difference it will make.

Paul did this all his life and was still doing it at the very end: forgetting what was behind and straining toward what was ahead. But having done that for so many days, he, he who spoke of somehow attaining to the resurrection, he who consecrated himself lest having preached to others he would be disqualified for the prize, he was, at the last able to say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

Don’t make this more complicated than it is. You know very well that you need to be a better man or a better woman as a follower of Christ. Don’t kid yourself. There are many changes and large changes that need to be made. If you don’t know what those changes are, come to me and I will tell you! So set about to make those changes and keep your nose to the grindstone. Exercise like an athlete who intends to win his race. Fix what is wrong with repentance, prayer, and purposeful new obedience. Set your face like flint to the new you and press on, looking to Christ to enable you, to inspire you, and to instruct you.

On the saintly priest Jehoiada’s grave stone it was written: “He has done much good in Israel both toward God and toward his temple.” What will be written on your gravestone? What about this? “He cared/She cared about growing in the grace of Jesus Christ above all things.”

“May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul, and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.”