Present Perfection, Future Prize
A call to radical holiness
Last week, we saw that Paul presented the truth of justification by faith alone, apart from works. He preached to us that we should count our own righteousness as a complete loss, and find our righteousness in Christ alone, through faith.
It seems now, however, that we are in somewhat of a pickle. Why? Well, because there are certainly Scriptures that demand that we act righteously. But then we have Paul telling us, “acts won’t make you righteous.” Earlier in this letter Paul tells us: “Work out your salvation…” Then in Romans 4:5 Paul says, “And to him who DOES NOT work but trusts in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith will be credited to him as righteousness.” So what about works? What about living righteously? Does it matter how righteously we live, or not? These questions are where we focus our attention today.
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)
The main point of what Paul is saying: he will do everything in his power to live up to what Christ has already made him. In other words, Christ has perfected us and destroyed sin in us and we are the very righteousness of God…that is what we ARE. So the Lord is telling us, through Paul: live as what you ARE, not as what you WERE without Christ.
Total Victory in Resurrection
Paul begins by saying, “Not that I have already obtained this…” What’s the “this” he’s speaking of there? We only need to look back one verse to remind ourselves: the power of the resurrection!
- The death and resurrection of Christ bought our righteousness
- His resurrection has destroyed/humiliated the power and sting of death 1 Corinthians 15:50-58 tells us that the resurrection of Christ has destroyed the power of death and the sting of sin. “Where o death is your victory?”
- He has, through our faith, IMPUTED (re-define) divine righteousness to us
But remember that Paul says that he has NOT obtained this perfection yet. Moreover, he acknowledged the fact that he was NOT “…already perfect…” This is the distinction between the already and not yet. Our perfection has been bought and given, but we still live in fallen world. Christ has ALREADY made you perfect. You ARE the righteousness of Christ, but creation and we ourselves have NOT YET been finally renewed and re-created. You can see Paul’s struggle with this in Romans 6-7. “I do not do what I want to do, but that which I hate, this I keep on doing.”
Surely this is one of the most frustrating things about our lives – that even after we commit ourselves to Christ we seem haunted by sin. Walking according to the holy perfection Christ demands seems such a struggle! It sometimes seems like running the race of faith leaves us gasping for breath, and simply relaxing our lifestyle from being adamantly holy is like a breath of fresh air. I have sometimes felt as though my attempt to be holy is like walking up an endless staircase. I’m already winded with tired legs, and I see no end in sight. How much easier would it be to just sit down on the step! Sure, the Lord commands holiness of mind…but I’ll just watch this one movie, or TV show. Yes, the Word urges us to pour our lives out for the gospel and for others…but there are plenty of other people to do the work. I feel like I should probably pray and study the Word more…but I’ll be at church to hear the Word and I’ll say a quick prayer while I’m doing other things.
Brothers and sisters, I implore you to realize that those are the times when we absolutely must pour out our strength to continue the upward climb. I promise you this: a constant diet of prayer and studying the Word will strengthen your legs and lungs, and you will be able to climb faster and farther than you ever thought possible.
Pressing on to perfection
“…I press on to make it my own…” and …I press on toward the goal…”
Paul does not allow his effort to slack or back off. He is like the runner forcing his weary legs to carry him each next step in the race. He’s like the warrior fighting for his very life, knowing that if he doesn’t raise his sword again it will mean his doom. He’s like the mother who hears the cry of fear from her child far off – NOTHING will stop her from getting to her child. He’s like the father who sees his child being kidnapped in a crowd of people – NOTHING is going to stand in his way from saving his child.
That almost frantic urgency is the same attitude Paul displays, and calls us to display in our own lives. Whatever was not Christ or holiness Paul considered completely lost, and turned his sole attention to pressing forward with all his might towards perfection. Just like a father would violently push anything aside which hindered him from reaching his child, Paul pushes everything aside which hinders him and presses on. The writer of Hebrews encourages us:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let of throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles and run with endurance…” Hebrews 12:1
Notice that the writer differentiates between sin and things that hinder. There are some things in this life which have the power to hinder your faith and your flight of holiness that are not sinful. Yes, do away with sin, but also throw off everything that HINDERS you, even if it is not specifically labeled a sin. As Matt Chandler said in one of our chapels at the seminary, “Some of you are absolutely controlled by morally neutral things.” And the writer of Hebrews, and Paul, and Christ Himself would cry out to us saying, “Throw off the hindrances and run towards Christ! RUN! Run for your life!”
That’s precisely what Paul did. The thing he was pressing on to take hold of, and the goal he was pressing on towards was the life of absolute obedience and holiness that Christ had already bought for him. Christ made him righteous, and Paul’s goal was to throw everything aside that might hinder him in gaining that righteousness.
Now, as I consider this, I am continually more in awe of Paul’s life. How in the WORLD does he do this? Where does he find the strength to throw off everything that hinders? How does he devote himself so single-mindedly to the pursuit of perfection? How does he so steadfastly keep his eyes on the goal? Look at the reason he gives:
“…because Christ Jesus has made me His own.” or “…to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.”
The meaning here is the same. Christ took hold of us so that we might be saved and sanctified, so we press on to take hold of that salvation from sin and death. We press on because He has made us His children.
Paul gives this as the basis for why he presses on as he does. The facts of what Christ has done for us are the source of strength and joy in His people! We draw our hope from the fact that we are HIS! We draw our strength from the fact that Christ has promised that HE will be our strength and will renew us when we are weary. We gain our courage from the fact that we are dearly loved children of the King who sits on the throne.
Why did Christ take hold of us? He took hold of us in order to deliver us out of death and darkness and into light and life! He took hold of us to free us from the bonds of slavery to sin and impurity, and to free us to purity. Because Christ has made us His own, He has made us the very righteousness of God. We, then, must expend every ounce of our strength to live in accordance with what we already are.
Now, we must be wary of letting our deceitful hearts or Satan himself distort this truth. It would, perhaps, be easy for us to think, “Well, since I’ve been made righteous that must mean that however I feel naturally is right.” Here’s what I mean: we cannot say, “Well such-and-such sin or vice is how God made me and so it must be ok.” Brothers and sisters, NO…that is how sin has made you! GOD has made you perfectly righteous, virtuous, sinless.
But this knowledge that Christ has made us HIS OWN is a great promise that blows away the clouds of defeat and self-loathing, when for the thousandth time it seems we have to ask forgiveness for the same sin, or when we cannot seem to motivate ourselves to pursue purity and holiness and kindness and love. Even when we fall repeatedly, and sit down on the steps, and forsake our pursuit of holiness we can know: that is of the old, and it is passing away. Christ HAS made you victoriously righteous, so let us be!
How do we accomplish this
Now, Paul goes on to say how he does this. How does he press on in light of what Christ has made him?
“But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead…”
He forgets what lies behind. In other words he has counted all as loss and rubbish! He forgets everything other than what Christ has made him. He forgets the grandeur of past sins. Often, if you pay attention to your heart closely, you may catch yourself as I have before looking with pride or longing at past sins. “Ha! That was a good one.” But Paul forgets the old way of life that was controlled by his OWN desires and worldly goals. He turns away from these things completely! Brothers and sisters, we are no longer of the world but are citizens of heaven, and so to live as though the goals and triumphs of this world were the most important thing is to live at odds with what we are!
How far away from the old are we willing to live? Will we live on the ragged edge of sin, or will we push ahead into the vast beautiful country of holiness? This world and all its desires are as nothing but vague shadows; nothing but phantoms seems dimly through a clouded glass. This world and all it offers to our sinful desires is like a single blade of dry grass, but holiness and righteousness push us into the unending, unshakeable, mountainous realm of heaven. As we conform ourselves to the image of our Creator, it’s as if we’re washing dirt out of our eyes so that we can see the achingly beautiful Kingdom of our beloved Lord. And not only do we experience more real and more solid country of God when we live righteously, we ourselves become more as we were meant to be. It’s like Ezekiel 37 – looking out over the valley of scattered dried bones, and as he preaches God’s Word to them they come together, and God puts sinews, muscle and skin on them, and then finally breath into them. As we push closer to God and press on to be what He created us, we come together, and as we become more holy our muscle and skin appears. And the more closely we live according to what He has already made us in Christ, the more complete and real and whole we are.
We can only be as we were meant to be when we are in the presence of God, and our nearness to God is in direct proportion to how committed we are to being like Him; how committed we are to turn away from sin and throw off anything that hinders so that we might be what He created us to be: His image.
Now, I hope I haven’t made this sound as if it were easy. There’s more to it than simply saying in your head, “I’m going to be holy today.” It is a struggle. The flesh is powerful, as you are all well aware of, I’m sure. John Owen, in his treatise concerning the mortification of sin, says, “You must always be killing sin. It is a daily duty that must not slack or back off. Be always killing sin, or it will be killing you.” It is a daily effort, and no small effort at that! Paul says that he is STRAINING forward toward what lies ahead.
It makes me think of, first of all, the World’s Strongest Man competition. Have any of y’all seen this?! You have all these giant, Nordic, Viking-looking guys named Bjorn and Magnus picking up cars and throwing ship anchors around. These guys are just absolutely massive. One of my favorite events is the 18-wheeler pull. They strap these guys up in a harness and tie them to an 18-wheeler on a slight incline, and say, “Go.” And ONE man pulls an 18-wheeler. You should see them when they do it, they’re straining every single muscle in their bodies, leaning almost horizontal with the effort. Straining forward.
Secondly, it makes me think of the story in scripture about the bleeding woman pressing through the crowd to simply touch the hem of Jesus robe. She’s been sick for years and years. As Jesus comes by, he’s surrounded by a huge crowd of people crushing in around him, and this woman thinks, “If only…if only I can just press through to touch the very hem of his robe.” She presses through to get close enough to Christ.
Lastly, I’m reminded of something a dear friend of mine said as we were in awe at some young prodigies, wondering if they were just created a cut above everyone else, or if they just worked harder. She said this:
“I feel like Americans can be too quick to say that it comes down to talent. That the gift for mathematics or piano is an arbitrary ability determined by genes and that it’s much easier to write off someone’s superior performance in say, math, as: “Oh, they’re GOOD at math…Math was just never my thing…” True, I think there is a genetic component no doubt. But, when you…read the biographies of such astounding individuals as Marie Curie, W. A. Mozart, Albert Einstein, you’re nearly always more impressed by their sheer tenacity than their talent. Perhaps it’s time to start placing a higher emphasis on a stronger work ethic than concerning ourselves with whether or not we have the talent to achieve something…”
Let us not concern ourselves about whether or not you have been given the spiritual gift of holiness. You CAN be holy. You CAN be righteous. Indeed, if you are a child of God than He has ALREADY made you the very righteousness of Christ. We simply press on to live as what we already are.
What if we worked as hard to be holy as body builders worked to be strong? What if we worked as hard to be like Christ as soldiers worked to train for war? What if our straining to press on to holiness was marked by the kind of tenacity that marks the lives of Olympians preparing to play games. What if we strained forward with all our might, simply to touch the hem of Christ’s robe? What kind of people would we be?
My dear friends let us pursue a RADICAL life of holiness that is not measured by the world around us. If we are honest, it doesn’t take much to be more righteous than the world. If we simply refrain from a few vices, we’re already more righteous. But the world is not our standard! We are servants of the God of Hosts, whose holiness is so pure that it burns like eternal fire and whose righteousness is so great it resounds like thunder! THAT is our standard. And that standard calls us to a radical, truly set-apart, heavenly holiness. People may say you’re a fanatic. They may abuse you for being “Holier-than-thou”. They may call you a prude, a puritan, an over-the-top Bible-beater. Thankfully, the acceptance of the world is not what we cherish. Are you willing to trade every single kind word you’ve ever received on earth and count it as rubbish, if only to hear from your Savior “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”?
Youth, this is especially pertinent to you. This is a time in your life when you are surrounded by people who want to shape your habits – your friends, your teachers, your favorite television shows. It is so very easy to start living like the world around you. If you do not commit yourself even now to constantly seeking to be like Christ, you will become just like the world. How do you become like Christ? Well, a good place to start is to know what Christ was like…that means study what’s written about Him. But hear the warning: you cannot dabble in sin! You will have friends and be handed opportunities to choose whether to walk just a little bit away from holiness. Don’t do it! I speak to you as one fairly near your own age. I’m only a very few years older than some of you. And I see in you a group of people who can affect nations for your Savior, if only you will commit to Him! Be radical in your pursuit of Christ.
The upward call
Finally, as is Paul’s habit, he directs our attention towards what is to come. “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” His expectation after all his pursuit of righteousness is the PRIZE of the upward call. Brothers and sisters, it is not senseless toil that we pursue. It is not a meaningless obedience. It is a LIFE which is REWARDED. To know that one day we will be called upward in Christ seals our joy. The prize is closeness to Christ!
Ah, the upward call of God! There is the promise of satisfaction. There is the promise of peace and joy that is so sweet and powerful that it becomes tangible. Mercy that we breathe into our lungs. Love that we live and move in. Peace that we lay our heads upon. An ocean of crystal shores before the throne and far green fields that never fade. An eternal Creator King who sits on the throne eternally…who knows your name.
Brothers and sisters, the only goal worth straining towards is in pressing on to be closer to Christ, and one day the upward call will come and we will be by His side. The only prize worth desiring, more than ANYthing this world can offer, is in knowing Christ and being like Him. And for THIS reason, we press on to take hold of the righteousness which Christ has created in us, and in doing so we press in closer to Christ.
The mark of Christian maturity
Paul goes on to say this:
“Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.”
He is saying that this mindset of pressing on, of straining forward toward the goal and glory of heaven, of becoming more and more conformed to Christ in us who has already made us perfect…that sort of mindset marks Christian maturity. Do you want a measure of how mature you are as a Christian? Ask yourself how willing you are to think this way. How willing are you to throw away everything for the sake of pursuing the holiness that God has already created in you? How willing are you to set your mind and hope fully on the prize of the upward call? Are these things constantly in your thoughts? Do you press on and strain forward into holiness with your thoughts on Christ?
Paul’s last statement is this:
“Only let us hold true to what we have attained.”
What have we attained? We have already attained righteousness not of ourselves, but that which comes through faith in Christ. We have attained salvation and justification. We have a Savior who calls us to be the image He has created us to be.
How do we hold true to it? We press on to perfection; to holiness. Strain towards the goal of being LIKE Him so that we can be WITH Him. We live as we ARE and not as we WERE.
As we strain forward to holiness, press on to attain the perfection which we have received, we become more like Christ. As we become more like Christ we are closer to Him. At every turn of choice where we can either press closer to Christ or turn aside to sin. We cannot do both. Every choice to sin takes us farther from the presence of our sinless and Holy Lord. The more we forsake sin, the closer we are to heaven and to Him! And thus present holiness becomes a taste of the future prize: living in the presence of our almighty, loving Savior – Jesus Christ.
So then, will we…
- …intentionally live lives that image God?
- …never be content with slight holiness, but radical holiness?
- …will we truly turn away from everything that is less than Christ and press on toward Christ so that we might receive the prize?
- …live as what we ARE, or what we WERE.
Let us be radical! Let us be fanatics. Let us be those who strain forward to holiness and live as we were created to live. Let us press on!