Sunday, October 26, 2014
"Press On" Sermon: Philippians 3:12-16
October 26, 2014 Second Reformed Church
Last week, we saw Paul’s argument against and condemnation of the Judaizers – a group that claimed that keeping all of the laws given to national Israel were necessary – especially circumcision – before one could become a Christian. They argued that Jesus was not enough for salvation; salvation was only for those who had faith in Jesus and kept the Law.
Paul argued that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Alone; our works of obedience to the Law are not meritorious towards salvation – our works do not count towards our salvation.
Paul gave an overview of his qualifications based on his heritage and works and said that if anyone should receive salvation through his works, it would be Paul, but he did not – and no one can. Salvation is all of God. Our righteousness – our holiness and sinlessness – is credited to us by Jesus. Our righteousness – as Luther called it – is an “alien righteousness” – it does not come from us – it is given to us – credited to us – imputed to us.
Since that is true, Paul explained that he desired to know Christ and the Power of His Resurrection more fully, that he would be gifted to suffer for the sake of Christ and as Christ did – in complete obedience to the Father for the sake of the Gospel, even as he died, if God would have him die and not live to see Christ’s return. And whatever the future might hold for him, he looked forward in hope and joy to the physical resurrection which will occur upon Christ’s return.
As we turn to this morning’s text, we see:
First, we are not perfect in Christ yet.
Second, we must forget what lies behind.
Third, we must strain forward towards the goal.
And fourth, God will teach us the truth.
First, we are not perfect in Christ yet.
“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect,”
Paul was concerned that the Philippians would read the text we looked at last week and wonder what hope there was for them. They didn’t have Paul’s heritage, education, or zeal. How could they compete with someone like Paul who seemed to have reached the goal of perfection in Christ?
He was also writing against those who said that sinless perfection is possible in this life.
So Paul told them that he had not made it yet – he was not perfect. He did not desire Christ perfectly. He did not think of Christ constantly. He was not occupied with Christ and the things of Christ all the time. He was not in perfect fellowship with Jesus. He had not completed his suffering for the sake of Christ. He had not had the full taste of Christ’s Resurrection Power – he had not died and physically risen. He was still a sinner, saved by grace alone through faith alone by Christ Jesus Alone. He was still running the race that all Christians are running until Christ’s return.
We have the promise that we are now seen as righteous by God by the work that Jesus did, but we are not perfectly exhibiting what we have been given yet. We are righteous now, but we will not be righteous until Jesus returns.
Paul wrote, “and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,” (Ephesians 2:6, ESV).
We are both sinners still striving forward, working by the Power of the Holy Spirit to become sinless and holy, yet, we are also, in Christ Jesus, because of the work He did and has applied to our account, already seated with Him in the heavenly places.
We are all still sinners. Martin Luther famously said we are “at the same time sinner and justified.” We are sinners and (in God’s eyes) we are sinless and holy. The Christian life is the process – the race – of becoming what we are in Jesus. Jesus has completed His work, and we are seen as being in His Likeness now, but we won’t fully see that realized until Jesus returns. When Jesus returns – we will be made sinless and holy – like Jesus – never to sin again.
The hope that we have is that fact that salvation is not our own doing. If we saved ourselves – or if we “helped” in our salvation – there would always be the possibility – the likelihood – that we would mess it up – that we would go backwards and lose our salvation. But since our salvation is all of God’s Work, based on God the Son – Jesus – and what He accomplished on earth, we cannot but reach our goal.
Paul explains the work we are called to – knowing that he has already mentioned his confidence in being changed into the Image of Christ: “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.”
Paul argues that since Christ made him His own, Paul will – at the end of the age – make perfection in Christ his own.
Do you remember Paul’s conversion? Paul did not reason through Christianity and believe. Paul did not hear witnessing and become convinced. No, Jesus threw Paul off his horse and made him believe:
“But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ And he said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do’” (Acts 9:1-6, ESV).
Jesus threw Paul off his horse and compelled him to believe – and thus began the work of Paul that we know from the New Testament.
While we may not have such a spectacular conversion, Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day,” (John 6:44, ESV).
Do you understand what Jesus said? It is impossible to come to faith in Christ on our own accord. God draws people – literally, God drags people – to His Son. God chooses us and changes our heart that we will receive Jesus Alone by faith alone – that is grace alone! And if God has caused us to believe, Jesus will bring us to the finish line and grant us physical resurrection and entrance into His Kingdom.
Second, we must forget what lies behind.
“But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind”
And we might well ask Paul what he means here. He can’t mean to forget everything that ever happened to us in our past – to not remember anything before this moment – because he refers back to his conversion, his heritage, and all that happened to him up to the moment of his writing on several occasions. Paul remembered and repeated his past as examples.
So what is Paul talking about?
Paul is using the imagery of a runner – and if you have never run a race, you probably have at least seen someone else run a race. Now, if the runner keeps looking back at his opponents – at the ground he has already covered, what is going to happen? He’s not going to know where he’s going, right? If he is always looking backward, he will have no idea where he is going or where the finish line is.
So, what is Paul telling the Philippians – and us – to forget as we run the race of faith?
First, Paul is telling us to forget those things in our past which may cause us sinful pride.
For example, several years ago, I was given an award from the Irvington Rotary Club for “Service Above Self” – Joshua jokingly called it my “humility award.” If I keep looking at that award and patting myself on the back and telling myself how wonderful a person and minister I am, I’ll be stuck in my sinful pride and not make any movement forward. It was a great honor, but it did not mark the end of the work that God has for me to do. So, I see it for what it was then and look at what is now. Does that make sense?
If we use our past accomplishments as excuses not to move forward, we sin. When Paul looked back – even on the great things he did – he turned from that to talk about now and how to continue forward – and we must do the same.
So, if you did something wonderful in the past – if you got some great acknowledgement in the past – that is wonderful, and we should rejoice with each other in those accomplishments – but we dare not be stuck looking back, or we will not know where we are going, and we may miss the finish line.
Second, Paul is telling us to forget those sins in our past which we have been forgiven for. If we have been forgiven for a sin, even though it might prove instructive to someone in the future, we are not to dwell on it in self-pity and doubt.
You may remember the story Dr. R. C. Sproul told of a woman who came to him crying and crying, and when she got herself together, she told Dr. Sproul about her sin and he told her to confess it to God and ask for forgiveness for it. She said she had done that multiple times, but she still didn’t feel forgiven. And Dr. Sproul told her to ask forgiveness one more time – this time for the sin of arrogance that caused her not to believe that she had been forgiven through Jesus.
I have counselled people recently who told me that God can’t use them due to their past. Some of them could not let go of the sins of their past and were so focused on them that they couldn’t move further. I have had people tell me that God couldn’t use them because of such-and-such a sin in their past. Even though they know they were forgiven – they were so obsessed with their sin that they couldn’t let it go. And the devil is no help here – he is rightly called the “accuser” because he brings our sin up to us: “Peter you can’t do that – don’t you remember how you did this sin or that sin in the past. Even if God will forgive you, you are unworthy to do this or that for God.” Liar!
We are new creatures in Christ! Every sin past, present, and future has been forgiven through the work of Jesus. Jesus chose a hypocritical murderer named Paul to be one of the great missionaries of the early church and to write more than half the books of the New Testament. If you have asked forgiveness, don’t obsess about your past sins. Don’t doubt that you are forgiven – clean as white wool. Look forward to the road God has called you to run.
Remember what Jesus said, “ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God’” (Luke 9:62, ESV).
Third, we must strain forward towards the goal.
“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.”
Paul tells the Philippians – and us – again that the road to sanctification – the race towards the holiness we will have at the end of the age – is a strenuous one. We don’t become Christians and sit back and wait until Jesus returns. What if a runner knew he could easily outrun his opponents, but instead of running, having that knowledge, he sat down on the track? He would lose!
Paul has already told the Philippians to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” – to struggle and strive and strain and work hard – not to be saved, but to turn from sin and to become more and more holy – more obedient and faithful to God in all that He has called us to do.
As Christians, every day we are presented with temptation to sin. But God promised: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13, ESV).
As far as sin is concerned – none of us are special – our sins are common. And the devil tells us – “You saved – it doesn’t matter if you sin. What’s once more? It feels so good. Who’s going to care? Everybody does it.” And Jesus suffered eternal Hell on the cross for each time we tell the devil, “ok.”
The devil did NOT make us do it. He is an accuser and a tempter. But he is a defeated foe. God promises that we never have to sin and God have given us the gift of the indwelling of God the Holy Spirit so we always have to power and we always have the ability to say “no” to temptation. Brothers and sisters, say “no”! Strive against those temptations that you find so enticing and consider the sacrifice of God in coming to earth and living and dying for those sins. Doesn’t it matter to us? Sin is so easy. Obedience and faith and holiness are hard – it is a striving, a straining forward in the race.
On the positive side – we are to press on towards the prize – we are to keep the prize before us and run with all our might – working hard to do and believe all that God has set before us. Do you know what God has said? Do you desire to follow after God in all things? Do you desire with all your heart and all your soul and all your might and all your strength to love God, and your neighbor as much as you love yourself? That’s what it takes – knowing where we are going – what the prize is – and putting everything we are into running the race straightward and rightly – as God has called us to run.
Paul explained: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27, ESV).
The goal we are running towards by the Power of the Holy Spirit and with the confidence and hope in the promise and victory achieved by Jesus on our behalf is being conformed and transformed into the Image of Jesus Christ. God has enabled and guaranteed that we will run the race to the end and be received by Jesus into His Kingdom. Our response should be to run the race of obedience and faithfulness with everything we are and all the blessings we have been given. Do you want to please God? Work hard to run as He has called us to run in His Word.
God has promised we will get to the finish line, but He calls us to faithful obedience – turning away from sin and following after Him in all He has said to do. As Paul put it, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:28-30, ESV).
Don’t ask yourself, “What would Jesus do?” – that’s the wrong question. We are not Jesus and we will never be Jesus. Ask yourself, “What would Jesus want us to do and be?” That will keep us on course.
And fourth, God will teach us the truth.
“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.”
Paul tells the mature believers that they will agree with him. Yet, he knew there were some less mature Christians who would not be sure about everything he said and instructed them in. You may have noticed that Christians disagree on how to interpret some things.
But one day, we will all agree. And as we run, we have the promise that God will teach us: Jesus promised, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26, ESV).
What we must do – what we hold as true above all else – is the Gospel. It is the Gospel which unites us as Christians as we run the race of faith together, empowered by the Holy Spirit. God came to earth in the Person of Jesus, lived, died, rose, and ascended back to His Throne – accomplishing salvation for all those who will believe – all by Himself, with no help from us, because He is God.
Today is Reformation Sunday – and the heart of the Reformation is that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone through Jesus Alone. That is what the Scripture teaches – salvation is to the Glory of God Alone.
So let us understand that none of us has been perfectly conformed and transformed into the Image of Jesus yet. All we Christians are still running the race of faith in this life. Let us turn from sin with all our might and run towards faithful obedience in holiness by the Power of the Holy Spirit, holding fast the Gospel of our salvation.
Let us pray:
Almighty God, we thank You that salvation is all of You. We thank You for indwelling us that we can run the race of faith. Drive us towards You in forsaking our sin and seeking every way to follow You as we come closer to the final day – at the finish line – when Jesus will receive us into the fullness of His Kingdom, having changed us into perfect sons and daughters of God – after His Image. For it is in Jesus’ Name we pray, Amen.