Running to Win: Pressing on to Lay Hold of Christ (Mike Riccardi)

Philippians 3:12–16   |   Sunday, November 3, 2013   |   Code: 2013-11-03-MR



Well we return this morning to our study of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. And we find ourselves once again in Philippians chapter 3. Now we have said in our study of this great chapter that in Philippians 3, Paul is chiefly concerned with defining the nature of a true Christian and true Christianity. In the face of the false teaching of the Judaizers, who were teaching the Philippians that in order to be saved they must also be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses, Paul combats their error by giving a spiritual autobiography of sorts. As one who lived as a respected Jewish rabbi, an expert in the tenets of true Judaism, Paul was uniquely qualified to comment on the inability of the Mosaic Law to provide the righteousness that God requires for salvation. And as one who was confronted by the risen Christ on the Damascus road and commissioned by Him to preach His Gospel of repentance and forgiveness through faith alone, he was also uniquely qualified to comment on the perfect sufficiency of Christ to provide that righteousness.


And so in verses 5 and 6 he lists out all of the religious advantages that he had trusted in for righteousness before He met Jesus Christ. He trusted in his orthodoxy, his pure bloodlines, his social standing, his religious traditions, his religious devotion, his sincerity and zeal for Judaism, and the self-righteousness that he managed to obtain by an external conformity to the Mosaic Law. And he says in verse 7 that he had counted all those inherited privileges and religious achievements as gains with respect to establishing his own righteousness before God. They were listed in the “Assets” column of his spiritual ledger book.


But he goes on to say in verse 7 that those very things that he counted as gains, he had come to count as loss for the sake of Christ. The very things that he trusted in to provide him with a righteousness by which he could stand before God he came to regard not only as worthless, but as harmful to his spiritual condition. And so he abandoned all hope in his own righteousness, abandoned all hope in the religious system of Judaism to provide his acceptance before God, and became an outcast among his own people. He lost everything he had. His family had disowned him and disinherited him. He forfeited the comfortable life as a respected rabbi, with its high social standing and upper-class income, and embarked upon life as an itinerant preacher and tentmaker, enduring beatings, imprisonments, homelessness, and constant conflict.


Self-righteousness, money, possessions, property, reputation, comfort—Paul says in verse 8 he suffered the loss of all things for the sake of Christ. And yet he says he counts all these things as if they were no better than refuse—than garbage—because of the surpassing value of what he has gained. And what has he gained? He tells us in verse 8: “the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Paul could lose everything that this life has to offer and call it gain—because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ!


And we learned last week, in verses 9 to 11, what that knowledge of Christ consists in. He tells us in verse 9 that knowing Christ consists in tasting Christ’s sufficiency in justification. He says that his life in Judaism, trying to meet the standard set in the Law of Moses, could only ever get him a righteousness of his own that came from the Law. But that kind of righteousness could never satisfy God’s holy standard. But the righteousness that comes as a gift from God through faith in Jesus Christ—that was a righteousness that could save him. In knowing Christ as his Savior, Paul could taste His sufficiency as the One who pardons all our iniquity, provides all our righteousness, protects us from falling, and pleads for us before the Father. He never had to worry about whether he was good enough to earn God’s favor, because the perfect Son of God had earned God’s favor in his place.


Knowing Christ also consists in experiencing Christ’s fellowship in sanctification. He tells us in verse 10 that as believers experience the sanctifying power of Christ’s resurrected life—as we progress more and more in practical holiness, becoming more and more conformed to Christ’s image—that there is a sweet communion with Him. We get to know Him better. And, just as He was hated and persecuted by the world, so too His disciples—since we become more and more like Him—will be hated and persecuted by the world. But even there, there is a fellowship with Christ in His sufferings. And it’s a fellowship so sweet that Paul can call that kind of suffering gain. Whatever the people of God may lose in that suffering doesn’t hold a candle to the gain of experiencing Christ’s fellowship in sanctification.


And then in verse 11 he tells us that this surpassingly valuable knowledge of Christ consists in enjoying Christ’s presence in glorification. The knowledge, and the joy, and the hope that we experience at the promise of one day finally seeing Christ face-to-face, unhindered by sin, is almost too much to take. The sweetness and the delightful communion with Christ now because of the hope of perfect communion with Christ then makes everything that we could ever lose in this life look like refuse.


The Law could never provide us the righteousness of God. Judaism—and every other religion of human achievement—could never bring us into personal communion with the living God. No experience in this world could ever compare to living in the presence of God Himself on the New Earth, free from sin and corruption. And so Paul says he counts everything in this life as loss for the surpassing value of knowing Christ.


And after hearing Paul enumerate all of those blessings of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, Paul anticipates that there may be some people in the Philippian congregation that have misunderstood him—some who think, in light of all of those benefits that he just celebrated, that Paul had somehow reached spiritual perfection—that he had been catapulted to a realm of spiritual experience where he had ceased sinning, and had already partaken of the realization of that promise of the resurrection of the dead.


And they would have been helped in such an interpretation by more of the false teaching that was gaining influence in their day. You see, not only had the Judaizers been teaching that circumcision and the keeping of the Mosaic ceremonies were necessary for salvation. They were also teaching that by keeping those laws one could come to a place of spiritual perfection in this life. And not only this, but there also existed a heretical sect that sought to mix pagan Gnosticism with Christianity. And these “proto-Gnostics,” we could call them, were also teaching that there was some ecstatic, mystical experience by which one could obtain a sort of secret knowledge, and that in that knowledge one attained spiritual perfection.


And so against the teaching of the Judaizers who taught that perfection came through lawkeeping, and against the teaching of the pagans who taught that perfection came through a mystical knowledge, and against anyone who believed that Paul himself had somehow been catapulted to spiritual perfection in his relationship with Jesus, Paul writes verses 12 to 16 to totally repudiate any form of Christian perfectionism.


And he does so by picturing the Christian as a runner in an Olympic race. And in the race of the Christian life, perfect holiness—perfect fellowship and unhindered communion with Christ—lies at the finish line. It is the goal of everything that we labor and strive for in this life. But while perfection itself is to be pursued with all our might, the complete eradication of sin awaits the day when, as chapter 3 verse 21 says, Christ “will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory.” So let’s read our text this morning. Philippians chapter 3, verses 12 to 16:


Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. 13Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, 14I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you; 16however, let us keep living by that same standard to which we have attained.


In this text, Paul provides with five principles for running the race of the Christian life—five principles by which we can order our lives so that we can run this race of sanctification that is set before us with the intensity, and with the strategy, that it takes to reach the finish line and win the prize.


I. A Sober Self-Assessment (vv. 12a, 13a)


Let’s look at that first principle. Number one: We must have a sober self-assessment. Look at verse 12: “Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect….” Paul is modeling a sober self-assessment. He says, “I’m not perfect! I’ve still got a long way to go!”


You say, “Paul, you’re a new creature, 2 Corinthians 5:17. God’s given you a new heart, Ezekiel 36:26; a new mind, Romans 12:2. You’ve been united with Christ in His death and resurrection, Romans 6. You’ve been forgiven of your sins, justified before God, you have Christ’s imputed righteousness. You’re even indwelt by the Spirit of God!” “Yes, all true. But I’m not perfect. I won’t be perfect until I attain to the resurrection from the dead,” verse 11. Paul had a sober self-assessment.


Someone says, “Well, this is just one man stating that he personally has not achieved spiritual perfection. What has Paul’s personal testimony got to do with me?” Well, don’t forget, my friend, that this entire section of Paul’s autobiography in chapter 3 has not been simply to help us know the Apostle better, as if his experience were to be interpreted as wholly unique. Not every detail of his story is normative, but the theology of his conversion and of his Christian life is normative. He tells his own story at this point in the letter precisely because he wants to teach the Philippians about the nature of salvation and the true Christian life. This whole personal testimony, from verses 4 to 14, is a statement of what is true for every true believer in Jesus.


And besides that, if anyone would have achieved spiritual perfection, it was the Apostle Paul. This man was the most committed and spiritually mature Christian who ever lived! He was the Apostle to the Gentiles. He took the Gospel of Christ throughout the entire Mediterranean world. And he endured the beatings and the stonings and the imprisonments as they came as a result of his ministry. And after walking with the Lord in the most intimate kind of fellowship for 30 years, he can write this epistle and, in no uncertain terms, renounce any claim to perfectionism. Does anyone dare have the audacity, then, to lay claim to a greater spiritual attainment than the Apostle Paul?


And Paul even repeats this declaration. He says in verse 12, “Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect,” but I press on toward perfection. And then again in verse 13: “Brethren….” And with that great term of personal endearment and familial affection, it’s as if Paul places both hands on their shoulders, looks dead in their eyes, and says, “I really mean this: I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet,” but I press on. He has absolutely no desire to be misunderstood here. Perfection is to be pursued in this life, but it is never achieved in this life.


John Wesley, as some of you may know, taught otherwise. Wesley taught that Christians could attain spiritual perfection in this life. He called this “entire sanctification,” in which we could be “so ‘renewed in the image of our mind,’ as to be ‘perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect,’” so that we really could love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, all the time (A Plain Account of Christian Perfectionism, 12). And this doctrine persists in some Wesleyan and Methodist churches today—that by some second work of grace after salvation, the Holy Spirit comes and catapults the believer to a place where they no longer struggle with sin. But our text deals the death blow to that kind of blasphemous error. After all his missionary labors, and 30 years of enjoying the kind of communion with Christ that has him superintended by Holy Spirit to write inspired Scripture, the Apostle Paul says, “Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect.”


Now, the danger of this sort of doctrine is apparent, isn’t it? If a runner believes that he’s already crossed the finish line, there is no reason at all that he’ll continue to run the race! People who think they’ve reached a state of sinless perfection will not give themselves to “pursuing the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord,” Hebrews 12:14. They become complacent, content with their current level of holiness. They relax. They become indolent. And in trying to convince themselves that they have ceased from sinning, they deaden their conscience and become desensitized to sin. In a sad irony, the claim of perfection only catapults people further into sin.


But the godlier a person is, the greater their awareness of and sensitivity to sin. Did you get that? The godlier a person is, the greater their awareness of and sensitivity to sin. A godly person has a greater ability to perceive the great standard of God’s holy law. And a godly person’s conscience has been trained by the Word of God to know how desperately far his own character falls short of that standard. And, do you know what the result of that is? That same godly person, who is aware of and sensitive to their sin, is the one who is most fully engaged in battle against his sin. And that’s what Paul says he’s after.


And so if we, dear friends, are going to have any hope of faithfully and successfully running the race of the Christian life, we need to develop a holy dissatisfaction with our present spiritual state. By means of a sober self-assessment, we need to disclaim all thoughts of sinless perfection—or of the thought that we’ve matured just enough. We need to be aware of and sensitive to our sin, painfully reckoning with how far short we fall of God’s standard. Only then will we have a clear picture of the race that is set before us.


II. A Sustained Effort (vv. 12b, 14a)


And only then will we heed the second principle for running this race. Not only does running the race of the Christian life require a sober self-assessment. It also requires, number two: a sustained effort. Look again at verse 12: “Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ.”


This phrase that is translated, “I press on,” is the Greek word dioko. It means “to run after, to follow hard after.” It describes a zealous pursuit, a strenuous attempt, an aggressive, energetic endeavor. It was used of hunters who were in active pursuit of their prey. In fact, this is the same word used in verse 6 of chapter 3, when Paul refers to his former manner of life in Judaism as a persecutor of the church! This is the word for persecuting people! Just as Paul had once followed hard after the followers of Jesus, and pursued them zealously, energetically and aggressively seeking them out in every corner where he could find them, in the same way he is now following hard after holiness. He is zealously pursuing it, strenuously straining for it, aggressively seeking it out in every corner of his life.


The Christian life, friends, is no passive endeavor. We’ve already quoted Hebrews 12:14 and noted that the Christian life is a pursuit. In 1 Timothy 6:12, Paul calls it a fight, as he exhorts Timothy: “Fight the good fight of faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called.” This is a fight. This is something we are to take hold of, to seize. In 1 Corinthians 9:24–27, using a similar metaphor to the one we have in our own text, Paul compares sanctification to the contests in the Isthmian Games. He writes, “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.”  And of course, a text that we’re all very familiar with as we’ve studied the book of Philippians, Philippians 2:12. On the basis of God’s gracious work within us, Paul calls us to “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”


And just like Paul repeated himself about not having attained perfection, he repeats himself about this diligent, sustained effort he makes in sanctification. He’s already said he presses on to lay hold of that for which also he was laid hold of by Christ. And then in verses 13 and 14 he says, “One thing I do…I press on!” We are to make every effort, my friends, as we run this race of the Christian life (cf. 2 Pet 1:5).


And not only does this put the lie to the perfectionists who say that there’s no need to pursue holiness any further. It also strikes at the heart of the great error of antinomianism, which teaches that holiness isn’t necessary anyway. These are the people who say, “Listen, if we’re saved by grace through faith alone, and if you’re telling me that I can never be perfect anyway, why bother pursuing holiness at all? I’m still going to heaven, and I can’t be perfect!” Well, if that’s your attitude you may not be going to heaven. Remember last week we said that we don’t pursue holiness for holiness’ sake, but because as we increase in holiness we get to know more of the treasure that is Christ Himself! And I’ve never heard somebody having a treasure chest dropped in their backyard and only stuffing a handful of gold coins in their pocket because they knew they’d never be able to lift the whole treasure chest anyway! If you’re attitude towards holiness is, “Why bother if I can’t be perfect?” maybe you’ve never been given eyes to properly value the treasure.


We bother, friends, because it is the nature of our Christian life. If we are alive, we must be growing. Peter tells us that newborn babies long for the nourishment that comes from their mother’s milk. He says the Christian who is alive longs for the pure milk of the Word of God, so that by it we may grow in respect to salvation (1 Pet 2:2).


And so if we are going to run this race of the Christian life in a faithful, God-honoring way—if we’re going to run so that we may win the prize (cf. 1 Cor 9:24), we not only need to have a sober self-assessment that teaches us that we’ve not yet arrived. We also need to make a sustained effort—the maximum effort—in our pursuit of that prize.


III. A Solid Foundation (v. 12c)


A third principle Paul lays out for successfully running the race of the Christian life is, number three, that we must have a solid foundation. Look once more at verse 12: “…I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ.”


I want you to notice that all of Paul’s sustained effort in vigorously pursuing Christ through increasing holiness—all of his pressing on to apprehend the prize—is grounded upon another, prior “apprehension.” It is founded upon Christ’s apprehension of Paul at his conversion on the Damascus Road. Paul says, “Before I ever thought about pressing on in hot pursuit of Christian holiness, Christ laid hold of me. And it is only because Christ laid hold of me, and forgave me, and saved me from my sin, and justified me on the basis of His own righteousness—that I can make any progress in my sanctification.”


You see, friends, justification is the necessary prerequisite to sanctification. Put in the language of Philippians 2:12 and 13: you can’t work out your salvation with fear and trembling if you have no salvation to begin with! If the Lord has never removed your heart of stone and has given you a heart of flesh—if He has never breathed into your soul the breath of the divine life—if you have never truly repented of your sin and trusted in Christ alone for your righteousness—dear friend, don’t try to make any progress in the race of the Christian life! Receive Christian life, first of all, by turning from your sins and believing in Jesus Christ!


And yet if you are a true believer in Christ, you need to recognize that your pursuit of holiness in sanctification is grounded upon the solid foundation of your justification. And that reality needs to affect the way that you run this race. This is a Gospel-driven race! As a believer, covered in the righteousness of Christ, you run the race of sanctification—not as one who is trying to earn God’s favor—but as one who has already been given God’s favor as a gift of grace. And that fact needs to fuel your fight against sin. We need to battle against sin in the strength and in the freedom of that Gospel-driven foundation: that I can be victorious over sin, because Christ has already conquered sin in me by virtue of His work on the cross.


But your justification also needs to affect your sanctification in another way. Look again at the text. Paul says, “I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ.” Paul is saying that Christ laid hold of him for a particular purpose. And whatever it is that Christ laid hold of Paul for, it’s that thing that Paul presses on to lay hold of. Paul’s goal in living is entirely consistent with Christ’s goal in saving him. Paul derives his purpose for life from the purpose for which he has been saved.


And what is that purpose? Why did Christ lay hold of him? Romans 8:29: “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son.” Conformity to Christlikeness is God’s aim in our justification. He justifies us to sanctify us. Titus 2:11 to 14 says the same thing. There Paul writes, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age.” You see? Justifying grace instructs us to live righteously and godly in the present age. Paul goes on to say in that passage, that Christ “gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds.”


So you see that justification has as its aim, not just a forensic righteousness by which we are forgiven, but also the practical righteousness of sanctification. The reason why God saved you is to conform you into the image of His Son—to make you more and more holy throughout your Christian life. And so if this is the purpose of our salvation—if Christ has laid hold of us in order to make us more like Himself—then we better order our entire lives according to that purpose.


Do you know what you call a life that is not lived according to the purpose of its Designer? Wasted. It’s a wasted life. Dear friend, don’t waste your Christian life—the life that Christ died to give you—fooling around with the passing pleasures of sin. Don’t waste your life, enslaved to fleeting gratification of sexual immorality. Don’t waste your life, enslaved to the false promises of drugs and alcohol. Don’t waste your life, enslaved to the fear of man when the fear of God is the fountain of all blessedness. Don’t waste your life enslaved to pride and boasting and an overinflated view of yourself, when God looks upon him who is humble and contrite of spirit and who trembles at His word (Isa 66:2). Live your Christian life to its fullest potential! “Don’t go on presenting the members of your body as instruments of unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law, but under grace” (Rom 6:13–14). Christ has laid hold of you to conform you into His image. Run the race of the Christian life grounded upon that solid foundation.


IV. A Singular Focus (v. 13b)


There’s a fourth principle for running the race of the Christian life in this text, and that is, number four: we must have a singular focus. Look with me at verse 13: “Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do….”


The words “I do” don’t even appear in the original language. The English translations add them to smooth out the flow of thought, but that tends to blunt the sharpness that Paul intends to communicate. This is a forceful interjection and is extremely emphatic. Literally, Paul simply says, “One thing!” He had a singular focus. This highest priority of pursuing Christlikeness with all his might “captivates his full attention and demands total concentration” (Hansen, 253).


And this only makes sense. Have you ever seen a race where the runners are looking all over the place—back behind him to see where his opponents are, down at his feet to analyze his form, out at the crowd to look for his fans? No! If the runner is doing any of that, what happens? He starts to go off his course. He starts running out of his lane. He starts deviating, and even faltering. But Paul says the runner in the race of the Christian life has a singular focus: and that is the finish line, Christ Himself. That’s why the author of Hebrews calls us to “lay aside every encumbrance” (Heb 12:1). Every distraction is to be thrown aside, and we are to fix our eyes on Christ alone.


Calvin says, “As the runner requires to be free from entanglement, and not stop his course on account of any impediment, but must continue his course, surmounting every obstacle, so we must take heed that we do not apply our mind or heart to anything that may divert the attention, but must, on the contrary, make it our endeavour, that, free form every distraction, we may apply the whole bent of our mind exclusively to God’s calling” (102) “The whole bent of our mind exclusively to God’s calling.”


Friends, we must give ourselves in singular devotion to this task of sanctification. We need to heed Solomon’s words in Proverbs 4:25 to 27. He says, “Let your eyes look directly ahead and let your gaze be fixed straight in front of you. Watch the path of your feet and all your ways will be established. Do not turn to the right or to the left.” Our world continues to invent more and more things to distract us from this business of pursuing holiness: TV shows, movies, sports competitions, video games, computers, blogs, fantasy football, FaceBook, Twitter, Candy Crush Saga. It never ends! And all of those things can be fine, lawful recreational activities; some of them can even be good things! But not if they distract you from your pursuit of God in the Lord Jesus Christ! Not if you’re checking your Twitter feed before you’ve gone to the Lord in prayer in the morning. Not if your hobbies crowd out your Bible reading. No, we need to have a singular focus. Our pursuit of Christ must be the orienting principle of our lives. He must have the priority. He must be our singular focus.


Paul tells us that this one thing—this pressing on to lay hold of Christ—is characterized by two activities. The first is: “forgetting what lies behind.” And we mentioned this. A runner doesn’t look over his shoulder to see how much ground he’s already covered, or to see how far ahead of his competitors he is. He doesn’t turn around to admire how great of a jump he got off the blocks. And if he got a bad jump, he doesn’t turn around to lament that either! The moment he does any of that, his concentration is broken, and he starts to veer off course.


Paul says the Christian runner in the race of sanctification does the same thing—he forgets what lies behind. He’s not discouraged and incapacitated by past failures, and neither does he seek to live on the past successes of the “good old days” to fuel his present performance. And how easy it is to fall into one of those two traps! On the one hand you have people who can never get over the guilt of their past failures. Sins they committed years earlier are paralyzing their growth in the present. “How could God ever forgive me for that kind of sin? I mean, it would have been one thing if I wasn’t a Christian, but I was a believer and did those things! No, I just have to live with the reality that I’m a second-class Christian. I’ll never be able to make progress in sanctification like the normal people.” Rather than looking to Christ and His righteousness as the ground of their acceptance, they make too much of their own spiritual performance, and they despair of ever making adequate progress in the race.


But then on the other hand, you have those who look to some golden age in their spiritual experience to validate their present stagnation. They say, “Oh, back when I first got saved, oh boy, you should have seen me! I devoured those Scriptures, man! I was reading five chapters every day. I read through the entire Bible in six months!” And you ask them, “How many times have you read it since?” “Oh, uh, well… Hey, you should have seen me back then! I really dug into the deep stuff and studied the Bible—study Bibles and commentaries and dictionaries: the whole bit! I even taught Bible studies, and I used to evangelize all the time. Man, I’d tell everybody about Christ!” And you say, “Who in your life are you praying for and making it a point to speak the Gospel to now?” And the answer’s the same: “Oh, well, um… Oh, you should have seen me back then!”


You see, when you’re trying to live your Christian life on the basis of past successes, you get complacent; you get content. You lose that holy dissatisfaction that we spoke about earlier. You lose your grip on that sober self-assessment. But Paul says the Christian forgets what lies behind.


And then, to put it positively, he says he also “reaches forward to what lies ahead.” This word that gets translated “reaching forward,” is epekteinomai in the Greek, an extremely vivid and emphatic word that “describes stretching a muscle to its limit” (MacArthur, 247). And if “minding what lies behind” was pictured by a runner looking back over his shoulder, “reaching forward to what lies ahead” pictures the runner “straining every nerve and muscle as he keeps on running with all his might toward the goal, [with] his hand stretch[ing] out” as if he was laying hold of that prize right then and there (Hendriksen, 173). The dictionary translates this word, “to exert oneself to the uttermost” (BDAG, 361). This is maximum effort. Does it describe your life?


V. A Steady Gaze (v. 14b)


Well, we’ve seen that in order to run the race of the Christian life, we must have a sober self-assessment, we must be marked by a sustained effort in sanctification, we must be standing firm on a solid foundation, and we must be captivated by a singular focus. The fifth principle for successfully running the race of the Christian life is that we must have a steady gaze. Look with me at verse 14. Paul says, “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”


Now this word, “goal,” is the word skopos in the Greek, and it’s where we derive the English word scope. It refers to “a mark on which to fix one’s gaze” (MacArthur, 248; O’Brien, 430). For an archer, the skopos would be the bull’s eye on the target. For a runner, like we’ve been seeing in our passage, the skopos is the finish line. And that runner keeps looking at the finish line. He concentrates on that finish line. He disregards everything else but that finish line (cf. Hansen, 255). And if at some point of the race he gets tired, or gets a cramp, or for whatever reason begins to feel like he can’t make it—he raises his eyes to the finish line, and the sight of his goal so close within his reach causes him to bear down and give it everything he’s got.


In 1951, Florence Chadwick became the first woman to swim the English Channel in both directions. One year later, she set out to swim the 26 miles between Catalina Island and the California mainland. A few small boats surrounded her as she swam, in order to watch out for sharks and to come to her aid if she became hurt or grew tired. After about fifteen hours (!), a thick fog set in off the Southern California coast—so thick that she could barely see the boats that were accompanying her. But she continued on. But after another hour, she began to cry out to the people in the boats to be taken out of the water. Her mother, who was in one of the boats to encourage her, called out and told her that she was close and that she could make it. But Florence was exhausted. She stopped swimming and was pulled into the boat. When she got on board, she found out that the shore was less than half a mile away. And at a news conference the next day, she said, “All I could see was the fog. … I think if I could have seen the shore, I would have made it” (Alcorn).


And friends, if we would turn our eyes from regarding vain things—if we would lift our gaze from the fogginess of all the distractions of this life—we could see the shore! We could see the prize—we could see the Lord Jesus Christ Himself there, waiting for us, and beckoning us, and cheering us on to give it everything we’ve got! And if we could but see Him, brothers and sisters, the sight of His glory would provide every ounce of strength and endurance that we could ever need to finish this race! Oh, if only we would look to Him!


This is why the Apostle Peter, when he exhorts the churches of the dispersion to greater holiness, he says in 1 Peter 1:13: “Therefore, prepare your minds for action, keep sober in spirit, fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” It’s why the author of Hebrews writes, “Let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us [and so easily clouds our vision,] and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:1–2). Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 4:17 that “momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen.” And just a chapter earlier, in 2 Corinthians 3:18, in what is probably the most foundational statement about sanctification in the entire New Testament, he says, “We all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.” It is beholding the glory of Christ, that we are transformed into the image of that glory. We are sanctified as we behold—as we fix our gaze steadily upon the glory of Jesus.


Oh friends, do you want that prize? Do you press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus? “What’s the prize of the upward call?” The upward call of God is the divine calling to salvation. The prize of salvation, according to 2 Thessalonians 2:14 is “that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ!”


In The Master’s Seminary Library, there are various plaques on the walls with quotes from Pastor John. I imagine they’re there to inspire and encourage the students in their studies. One plaque hangs on the wall at the bottom of the stairwell leading to the basement, where I did much of my schoolwork for my first year in seminary. Every day that I went to the library I walked past this plaque. And the quote engraved upon it became engraved upon my mind. Pastor John said, “If you properly value the heavenly prize, it will compel you to give of yourselves and of your resources. Fervency springs from a vision of heaven’s reward.” Dear friends, look to the reward! Keep a steady gaze upon the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. And you will find in that vision of Him all the strength necessary to run this race with endurance.


Conclusion: Paul’s Admonition (vv. 15–16)


And at that point, Paul turns from giving his personal testimony and applies what he’s been teaching to the Philippians. And he also applies it to us. Look at verse 15. He says, “Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, have this attitude.” And you say, “Wait a minute. Didn’t he just finish telling us in no uncertain terms that nobody was perfect?” Yes. But don’t miss Paul’s sarcastic wordplay here. He’s speaking to the perfectionists. He says, “You want to know who the perfect are? They’re the ones who realize that they’re not perfect.” That’s brilliant. “Let us, as many as are perfect, have this attitude about the impossibility of perfection and the perennial need for straining, exhaustive effort in the Christian life.”


But Paul doesn’t only mean it to be a sarcastic dig at the false teachers. He also means it as a sincere call to the people of God—a sincere call to you—to embrace mature thinking. The Greek word teleios is also used throughout the New Testament to describe spiritual maturity. Perhaps the most famous instance is in Colossians 1:28 where Paul says, “We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man completeteleios, mature—in Christ.”


And so I ask you: Would you consider yourself a mature Christian? Paul says those who are mature think this way.


Do you have a sober self-assessment? Do you disclaim all notions of perfectionism, and take a realistic view of your spiritual progress?


Do you forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead, pursuing holiness with a sustained effort? Do you see the necessity of diligence and devotion and intentional activity in the pursuit of holiness? Do you shun both the errors of quietism and apathy?


Are you running on the solid foundation of your justification, living your Christian life according to the purpose for which it was given you: to become more like Christ?


Do you keep a singular focus, eliminating all distractions, keeping your pursuit of Christ the main priority in your life?


And do you keep a steady gaze to the prize of gaining His glory? Of the consummate blessing of face-to-face fellowship with Him? Can you see the shore? Are you looking to the reward?


Paul was a realist. Like any reasonable pastor, he knew that not everyone was going to agree with him. And I’m under no illusions either. And while there might not be too many of you who would be so bold as to claim that you’ve been made perfect, there are too many of you—even if there’s just one of you—who have become complacent in your fight for holiness. There are too many of you who think, “Oh, I’m doing alright! I’ve made some good progress. You should have seen me three years ago! No, I’m OK where I’m at. I don’t need to press on.” Now you may not say that outright, but that’s the attitude you’ve taken. You’ve become lax in your spiritual growth, and you’ve grown content in that apathy.


And Paul says, verse 15, “…if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you.” “I’ve said all I can say. I’ve done my best to lead you to the truth of God’s own Word. And at this point all I can do is pray that the Lord will make these things plain to you in His own dealings with you.” You say, “How does He do that?” In different ways with different people. With some He will be so gracious as to simply illuminate His Word to you as you continue to study. With others it will be through the faithful influence of a godly brother or sister in Christ speaking the truth of correction into your life. But perhaps the most common form of God’s correction comes through divine chastening, through discipline—where He brings you through some trial or tribulation to wake you up from your slumber, and to drive you back to Him and His Word.


But no matter what happens, verse 16, whatever the case may be, “let us keep living by that same standard to which we have attained.” If you really are one of those who can properly be called “mature,” keep making progress in your pursuit of holiness. You say, “How do I do that?” By continuing in step with that same rule of life by which you’ve made the progress you’ve already made. And what is that rule of life? It is the Apostolic teaching and the Apostolic example that we now have codified for us in the sufficient Scriptures.


Press on, reach forward, keep running, all according to the Word of God. Lay hold of the prize. Lay hold of Christ.