The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached in April, 2022*
Sermon Audio: The Christian Life (Phil 3:12-16)
The war in Ukraine has given us stunning stories of resilience and remarkable fortitude in the face of unthinkable odds. By all accounts, Russia, most of the West, and even many in Ukraine assumed that the Russian invasion would last a few days. Russia possesses one of the largest and most formidable armies in the world, nearly three times the size of Ukraine’s, with considerably more heavy firepower. And yet, two months later, the Russian army has been unable to claim victory. From city to city, the Ukrainian army, filled with trained soldiers and everyday citizens, have repelled the aggression from the East. And yet, they have born a terrible cost.
Desperate resistance in the face of aggression is familiar in war. We can think of the battle for Bunker Hill at the start of the Revolutionary War, the battle of the Somme in World War I, or the storming of the beaches of Normandy in World War II. Or we can think of the battle of Bataan, where the Japanese army pushed a combined American-Filipino army back into the tiny province of Bataan in the Philippines, where for three months the Allies held out against the Axis power. But, as they had been unable to receive any reinforcements, food or medical supplies, 80,000 starving, wounded, and disease-riddled Americans and Filipinos surrendered to the Japanese army.
Without supplying the captives any food, water, medical supplies, or transportation, the Japanese army forced the emaciated men to march 69 miles on foot to the POW camp that would house them. This trek later became known as “The Bataan Death March,” where men perished by the thousands from exhaustion, dehydration, illness, or wanton executions from Japanese soldiers who still burned with revenge at their enemies. Only 54,000 of the 80,000 soldiers made it to the POW camp.
Once at the POW camp, hundreds of soldiers died daily for a few months. Healthier soldiers were deported to go work as slave labor in factories. Three years went by and the massive swell of American prisoners had dropped to a mere 500 men left in the Cabanatuan POW camp.
In our text today we see Paul share with us a similar pattern of resistance, of striving, of pressing on despite resistance and difficulty with the hope and expectation that he will be vindicated. But unlike these soldiers caught in a mortal struggle, uncertain of the outcome, Paul is caught in an eternal struggle, but with great certainty. Turn with me to the book of Philippians:
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. 13 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, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. 16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained. – Phil 3:12-16
Paul opens by admitting that he has not obtained the resurrection of his body or the glorified and perfected state of sinlessness that comes with it. In verse 11 he told us that he was striving “by any means possible” to “attain the resurrection from the dead,” (Phil 3:11). When you and I die, our souls will depart our bodies and we will be present with the Lord (Phil 1:23). But the separation of our souls with our bodies is an unnatural event. What our ultimate hope resides in is that one day Christ will return and we will be reunited with our bodies, only these bodies will be like Christ’s body. Paul dispels any notion that he has achieved this glorified, perfect state on his own, “Not that I have obtained this or am already perfect,” (Phil 3:12), and again in verse 13, “Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own,” (Phil 3:13).
Remember what Paul’s argument has been thus far. Back in verses 5-6 Paul recounted his resume of spiritual standing according to the flesh, and it was considerable. Yet, he dramatically spits all of that out of his mouth as “rubbish” and says that everything that he once held onto for his confidence he now counts as a loss in order to gain Christ. Now, if you were a member of the church at Philippi listening to this letter being read out loud, and you know of Paul, you know his commitment and his courage and faith, and you hear him say that the typical religious scorecard that people use to measure their godliness is below him, you might be tempted to think: Wow, Paul must be perfect. But Paul heads that off: No, I haven’t arrived, I’m still a work in progress. In fact, Paul tells his young protégé Timothy, in effect, the chief of all sinners (1 Tim 1:15). What a statement! Paul thinks of himself as the PhD of sinners, the Nobel prize winner of sinning. Paul has just been telling us about his own personal experience, of course, but the apostle John more generally tells us, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us,” (1 John 1:8).
It is no significant thing for us today to admit that we are not perfect. Someone has to be an egomaniac of a supreme caliber to think they are perfect. But, interestingly, there are ways we may functionally deny what Paul is saying here. I’ll give you three:
1. We become defensive and touchy when other people point out our sin. We justify it, blame it on others, or turn the tables back on the other person: who do you think you are?
2. We airbrush our sins into the most attractive, understandable possible interpretation of the facts so that if anyone were to hear us confess our sins they would think it to be totally understandable.
3. We redefine “sin” into a more therapeutic concept of “weakness.” We aren’t “guilty” we are “broken”—we made a “mistake.” We may even make light of it, the way so many young people today almost flaunt their laziness and lack of responsibility (“I don’t know how to adult, haha”). These are subtle shifts, and they aren’t all necessarily wrong, for instance we see in Romans 5:6 “weak” is used to describe our sin, and we shouldn’t be too serious about ourselves. But all of this may reveal that we are not willing to take responsibility for our sins—we are less morally culpable for being “broken” or “weak” than if we are just “adulterers” or “liars,” or if you make it seem silly and laughable, it distracts you from its seriousness.
In 1521, Martin Luther’s friend Melanchthon wrote to him with a troubled conscience. Luther responded with a letter where he gives his friend this hearty advice: “If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world…Do you think such an exalted Lamb paid merely a small price with a meager sacrifice for our sins? Pray hard for you are quite a sinner.”
Luther here is not endorsing sin. He doesn’t have a the more the merrier mentality towards sin. Rather, Luther is encouraging his friend to own up to the full weight of the reality of his sin. We need not entertain some fanciful notion that we are really better than we are, we don’t need to lie about ourselves, or present ourselves as if we are some superpowered version of ourselves. If you or I struggle to be honest about the reality of our sin, if we attempt to distract ourselves when convicted it may be because we have never truly admitted that we are sinners. Perhaps we have forgotten what Paul reminded us of just a few verses earlier, “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ,” (Phil 3:9). Paul’s honesty about his sin, about his imperfection here is only possible by him putting his total confidence in Christ’s obedience to the Law, Christ’s atoning work for his sins, and nothing in himself. He is free to not be only an “imaginary sinner” but a real sinner, with strong sins, but who has a stronger Savior and real mercy.
Paul’s admission of his sin doesn’t crater him into a pit of despair. Rather, we are told: “but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 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, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 3:12-14)
Paul employs the image of foot race and he is striving towards the finish line and with “one thing” he does: he presses on. But the “I press on” in verse 14 is clarified by two things Paul does to accomplish it: he (1) forgets what lies behind and (2) strains forward to what lies ahead.
Paul employs Christian forgetfulness in his race of faith. But what is he forgetting? “What lies behind.” What lies behind him? In the context of a race, “what lies behind” a runner is the part of the race they have already run. So, Paul could mean that he is not looking over his shoulder at yesterday’s spirituality to propel him today. He isn’t living in the nostalgic glow of that season where he worked hard for the Lord and get very serious about his faith, hoping that yesterday’s mercies are sufficient for today. No, Paul doesn’t look backwards, but looks forward, eager for more of God today.
However, there is something else that “lies behind” a runner in a race, and that is what the runner was doing before the race even began. So, perhaps Paul is referring to his old life of Judaism which he recounted back in Phil 3:5-6, when he was placing “confidence in the flesh” to achieve his own righteousness through his obedience to the Law. So, here Paul could mean that his forgetting is to completely abandon the way he used to think about God, and the law, and righteousness before meeting Christ. I am more inclined to think this is what Paul means here given the wider context of the passage. But I think we can press the meaning of this forgetting even further.
The Christian life is a life of duality, in some senses. We are people who have been filled with the Holy Spirit, but still experience the temptations of the flesh. We have been given the power of the resurrection now, but await its fullness and continue to struggle with sin. Paul himself can say that, “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand,” (Rom 7:21). He even likens us as to being two different people at times: “put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness,” (Eph 4:22-24). If we are to “forget what lies behind” than that means that we no longer identify ourselves with our old selves and their manner of life. That isn’t who we are anymore. We continue to experience temptation, we are not perfect, we have not arrived, but we are not who we once were. God is at work in us to mold us into who He wants us to be.
The word used for the “straining forward” literally means to stretch out forward. So, picture a runner sprinting towards the finish line with everything they got, and stretching their neck and head forward to cross that finish line before anyone else. It is a deliberate and intentional work of focusing all our energies toward a particular goal. Paul speaks similarly in the passage that was read earlier:
“24 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. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” (1 Cor 9:24-27)
Paul invites us to, again, compare the Christian life to that of a race, or that of an athletic competition. Athletes exercise self-control diligently. James Clear writes of the British cycling team, which had historically doon dismally in all cycling events, new commitment to diligent scrutiny of even the smallest matters:
“They redesigned the bike seats to make them more comfortable and rubbed alcohol on the tires for a better grip. They asked riders to wear electrically heated overshorts to maintain ideal muscle temperature while riding…The team tested various fabrics in a wind tunnel and had their outdoor riders switch to indoor racing suits, which proved to be lighter and more aerodynamic…They hired a surgeon to teach each rider the best way to wash their hands to reduce the chances of catching a cold. They determined the type of pillow and mattress that led to the best night’s sleep for each rider. They even painted the inside of the team truck white, which helped them spot little bits of dust that would normally slip by unnoticed but could degrade the performance of the finely tuned bikes.” (Atomic Habits, James Clear)
And the results? “During the ten-year span from 2007 to 2017, British cyclists won 178 world championships and 66 Olympic or Paralympic gold medals and captured 5 Tour de France victories in what is widely regarded as the most successful run in cycling history.”
And they do all of this for a “perishable wreath”, but us? We exercise diligence for an eternal one, so how much more should we strive diligently?
Hebrews tells us, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,” (Heb 12:1). Christians are not people who are looking to contribute the bare minimum amount of effort required for godliness. No, we are people who are looking to lay aside both “weights” and “sin” which hinder us. And that is significant—we should have a category for things that are not explicitly sinful, but are not helpful in pursuing godliness. So, maybe your screentime habits are not inherently sinful, but are they helping you? Or are they leaving you feeling bogged down and sluggish in your pursuit for godliness?
Just to make this point even more pointedly: the word that Paul uses in verse 14, “I press on,” which he also used back in verse 12, “but I press on to make it my own,” is actually the word used most commonly in the New Testament for persecuting others. For example, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecuteyou and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account,” (Matt 5:11). When Paul described his former life he explained that he was “a persecutor of the church,” (Phil 3:6). The word means to pursue something intensely. So, think of the way religious zealot pursues with single-mindedness the victim of their assault. Paul says that he has now turned that kind of focused passion towards pursuing Christ. This is who he is now.
What is Paul straining forward to? “What lies ahead.” His prize.
“I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus,” (Phil 3:14). If you enter a race, you need to know where the finish line is. If I asked you if you wanted to run a race, your first thought would be What kind of race is it? Where am I running to? How long is it? If you, for some reason, found yourself running a race and had no idea what the goal was, you would become discouraged fairly quickly. So, in the race of the Christian faith, what is our goal? The upward call of God in Christ Jesus. What is that?
The call of God is something that takes place at the beginning, not the end, of our Christian life. Paul explains, “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified,” (Rom 8:30). From before time began, God predestined His people for salvation, and then, at some point in their life those people go from being spiritually darkened and hardened to God to suddenly, like a flip of a switch, sensing a draw and pull on their life that brings them to God and eventually to conversion, to put their faith in Christ and then be justified, and those who are justified will, one day at the completion of their race, be glorified. This is why under point twelve “Of the Perseverance of the Saints” in our statement of faith, it states, “We believe that all genuine Christians endure to the end. That their persevering attachment to Christ is the grand mark which distinguishes them from superficial, false “Christians.” That a special Providence watches over their welfare and they are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation.”
Those whom God calls, God keeps. Did you notice Paul’s little comment in verse 15: “Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you,” (Phil 3:15). God is even going to go so far as to help you understand how to think!
But also, those whom God calls, God works in to create in them the desire to employ every effort, forgetting what lies behind, straining forward to what lies ahead, in their pursuit of Christ. The sovereign grace of God is not at odds with human effort and responsibility, it is the grounds of it. So we receive this call from God which opens the doors of our Christian life, but it is the consummation of that call that we strive after: the upward call of God in Christ. That is, the conclusion of our labors, the ceasing of sin, the final rest where we shall be brought into God’s presence. We are not perfect or complete now; we have not arrived, we struggle in many ways. But our sin does not stop us from pursing Christ. We forget what lies behind us, we are not marked and defined by our sin any longer, and we strain forward, we toil with all the grace-driven effort God supplies to our goal: our final Sabbath rest in eternity with Him. Hebrews reminds us:
“So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.” (Heb 4:9-11)
That is the consummation of the upward call of God: the same kind of rest that God enjoyed once creation was complete. There will be a day when our labors cease, when we rest.
Eventually, the tide of the war in the Pacific had turned, and the American army was pushing up from the South and beating the Japanese forces back. A small platoon of Army rangers and Filipino guerillas planned a daring escape of the soldiers who remained in Cabanatuan, and on January 30th, 1945 they stormed the camp in the dark of night and overpowered the Japanese forces there, liberating all of the men. The captives were ghosts of men, walking skeletons who had spent the last three years being ground down to the barest nub of a humanity, hollowed out by deprivation, fear, and loss. And yet, against all odds, they persevered through titanic suffering and unthinkable opposition for their moment of release, for the moment to see their captors fall, their prison burn, and their hopes vindicated.
One author describes their exit from the camp, “Along the way they saw an American flag set in the turret of a tank. It wasn’t much of a flag, writhing weakling the breeze, but for the men of Cabanatuan, the sight was galvanizing. Sergeant Hibbs said his heart stopped, for he realized that this was the first Stars and Stripes he’d seen since the surrender. All the men in all the trucks stood at attention and saluted. Then came the tears. “We wept openly,” said Abie Abraham, “and we wept without shame.” (Ghost Soldiers, Hampton Sides, p. 399)
Friend, you may be weary, you may be tired, you may feel discouraged. Maybe you’re thinking about checking out of Christianity. But hold on. There is a homecoming that awaits you, a prize of eternal rest before you, there is an omnipotent God working in you, and a loving Savior who has died for you. Press on.