Benjamin Franklin was the quintessential self-made man. His autobiography is his account of “the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.” Franklin started this project after trying out religion and finding it not to his taste. He made a list of twelve virtues that he thought desirable, then added a thirteenth—humility—when a friend kindly informed him that he had left something important off his list.
Knowing he would be unable to attain them all at once, he set out to master one after the other, setting up a chart with the days of the week so he could mark his progress. He would ask himself every morning: “What good shall I do this day?” And every night he would again ask himself, “What good have a done this day?” At one point, he dryly noted, “I was surprised to find myself so much fuller of faults than I had imagined.”
He found that pride was, indeed, his biggest fault. He wrote in his autobiography, “I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it.”
Like Franklin, we more often don’t really want to be perfect, just appear so.
Franklin went on to say about pride:
“There is perhaps no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride; disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive and will ever now and then peep out and show itself.”
He even acknowledged:
“You will see it perhaps often in this history. For even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I would probably be proud of my humility.”
We all struggle with faults, even sins, and intuitively we know that we are not perfect. But there are those who promote this very idea within Christianity.
John Wesley, a contemporary of Franklin and founder of Methodism, taught that perfection could be pursued and attained in this life. “Perfect love” is Wesley’s favorite term and he believed it could be attained this side of heaven.
Wesley, who was a prolific preacher, found that quite of a few of his converts reverted back to their pre-conversion sins. It befuddled him. Ultimately he came up with a second work of grace (actually the second baptism that is so prominent in Charismatic and Pentecostal teachings) that promised purity in the life of a believer.
In their view, there are two classes of Christians, some on the higher plane experiencing victory in Jesus and another class wallowing below.
I make reference to perfectionism because in our passage before us today, Philippians 3:12, Paul admits,
12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect…
We see here that Paul denies perfection.
Now, we must be clear. There is a sense in which we are “complete in Christ” and possess the righteousness of Christ so that when God looks at me He sees me clothed in Christ and His righteousness. That is what is called positional sanctification, because it is mine only on the basis of being united with Christ. It is also called definitive sanctification because once it occurs it cannot be undone.
But there is also progressive sanctification. This is the ordinary, day to day practice of spiritual disciplines and responding to Christ in both the ups and downs of life. This is “becoming conformed to the image of his son” (Rom. 8:29) as we move “from glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18).
Then, ultimate sanctification happens at that moment we see Christ, whether in death or at the rapture, because when we see Him we will become like Him (1 John 3:2).
It seems to me that, like Paul, we need to be honest about ourselves—that we have not achieved perfection in this life, but continue to strive for it.
The portion of Scripture we will be looking at over the next several weeks is Philippians 3:12-21. After expressing his intense passion and obsession in v. 10
10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,
This passionate declaration meant that every day witnessed the apostle’s relentless pursuit of an ever-deepening, ever-widening personal knowledge of the Christ whom he had already known intimately for over thirty years.
Had Paul attained it?
12 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. 17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.
This text has two main paragraphs, verses 12-16 and verses 17-21.
In general terms, verses 12-16 explain Paul’s perspective on the past, the present, and the future. The Christian does not live in the past, but with an eye to the future.
Verses 17-21 contrast Paul’s perspective on the past, the present, and the future with that of the enemies of the cross. They pride themselves in their past accomplishments and live for the present, ignoring the future. Paul does not take the saints who erred in verse 15 nearly as seriously as he does these unbelievers in verses 18-19.
Together, these two paragraphs sharpen our focus on the goal toward which every Christian should be striving. Let us carefully listen and learn from these divinely inspired words, which are as applicable to us today as they were to the Philippians centuries ago.
In verses 12-16 Paul uses athletic imagery, something he was very fond of because he knew that people around the Mediterranean had experience with the races and fighting bouts connected with these early athletic competitions.
He advocates in this passage, as well as in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 and 2 Timothy 2:5 that we should run to win. When it comes to life in general, we get more out of it the more we put in. That applies to business, to relationships, and also to our spiritual lives.
We can’t be lazy, just sit around or distract ourselves with life, and expect to win the prize in the spiritual race. And we shouldn’t have the attitude that because we got our ticket punched to go to heaven, that that is all there is to it.
Paul tells us that we need to passionately pursue the prize, that we need to run the race with purpose, focus and persistence.
Now, in Philippians 3 Paul has been sharing his personal testimony about how he came to value Jesus Christ above all the religious pedigree and performances that made him such a shining example of goodness under Judaism.
He was a really good guy! Every mother would want their daughter to marry him.
But he doesn’t stop with that experience in which he threw all those accolades and accomplishments in the trash for the sake of knowing Christ Jesus as His Lord. He wants to really know Christ personally and for the last 30 years he has been doing that, diligently.
Some might assume that after 30 years of fellowship with Christ and living out the righteousness of Christ within him, that he would be reaching that place where he could claim perfection
Possibly Paul is intentionally countering the Judaizer’s claims that adding circumcision and Sabbaths and religious works to Jesus Christ would make them perfect; or the Gnostics who believed that reaching a mystic knowledge would make one perfect.
So if we want to pursue the prize and gain it, what do we have to do?
Well, the first thing we have to do, which we have talked about in the past two weeks, is that we must desire it passionately, being willing to lose everything else for the sake of gaining it.
That is what we found in vv. 4-11. Paul was totally sold out for Jesus Christ. Everything that was once important to him was thrown in the trash. Why? Because Jesus Christ is worth it.
We are aware that Olympic athletes put themselves through tremendous deprivations and agonizing disciplines for several years because they want to win the prize.
The farthest thing from Paul’s mind was retirement, just resting on his laurels.
He did NOT have the attitude of the ditty that says:
I wake up each morning and dust off my wits,
I take up the paper and read the obits,
If my name is missing, then I know I’m not dead,
So I eat a good breakfast and go back to bed.
The reason Paul did not have a retirement attitude or go on vacation is because he valued Jesus Christ, and His relationship with Christ, far too much. He was willing to sacrifice everything because he had found a treasure worth sacrificing everything for.
Wilbur Rees once wrote the following describing the average man’s view of God:
“I would like to buy $3 worth of God please, not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine. I don’t want enough of him to make me love a black man or pick beets with a migrant. I want ecstasy, not transformation; I want the warmth of the womb, not a new birth. I want a pound of the eternal in a paper sack. I would like to buy $3 dollars worth of God please.”
But Paul wasn’t the average man, and we don’t have to be the average person either. We can optimally value and passionately pursue Jesus Christ as well.
So, first we must desire it passionately, being willing to lose everything else for the sake of gaining Christ.
Second, we must be consistently dissatisfied with our present condition.
We are not dissatisfied with Christ or the spiritual blessings we possess in him. Rather, we are dissatisfied with our current enjoyment of Christ and those blessings. We come to recognize that although we valued Christ enough to be saved, since then we have been looking to other things to satisfy our desires.
In fact, far too many Christians today are satisfied with themselves and dissatisfied with Christ. They imagine that Christ is not enough, that the world has better things to offer, and they imagine that they are good enough to merit God’s favor even though they are doing nothing to deserve it.
Let me make clear, obedience does not merit God’s love or forgiveness, but obedience does win God’s favor. And to enjoy God’s favor we have to continue to pursue Christ, reaching with all our might to the finish line to win the prize.
Also, when I say “dissatisfied with our present condition” I don’t mean we should be dissatisfied with our position in Christ. Our position in Christ is complete and perfect. Being in Christ we are completely accepted. Positionally we are complete and mature and righteous in Christ. Nothing could be better.
But we are called to pursue Christlikeness and deepen our relationship with Christ. Warren Wiersbe states:
“A divine dissatisfaction is essential for spiritual progress.”
Our position is perfect, but our condition needs progress.
George Muller put it like this:
“Just as a little child is a perfect human being, but still is far from perfect in all his development as man, so the true child of God is also perfect in all parts, although not yet perfect in all the stages of his development in faith.”
And Charles Spurgeon pointed out the value of reading biographies of the great saints of the past:
“Brethren, it is a very healthy thing for us who are ministers to read a biography like that of M’Cheyne. Read that through, if you are a minister, and it will burst many of your windbags. You will find yourselves collapse most terribly. Take the life of Brainerd amongst the Indians, or of Baxter in our own land. Think of the holiness of George Herbert, the devoutness of Fletcher, or the zeal of Whitfield. Where do you find yourself after reading their lives? Might you not peep about to find a hiding-place for your insignificance?”
That pursuit starts with the dissatisfaction of an honest confession contained in that first line of verse 12: “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect…”
His language here is arresting because he literally said, “Not that I have already received” (without referencing the object), so that the sense is much the same as in English when we say, “Not that I have arrived,” stressing the incompleteness of his spiritual journey.
Paul had not “received,” and neither was he “perfect.” This was conscious reality for the apostle. Paul was under no illusions about his attainments and would not promote fictions about his having become “perfect.” So we immediately observe that Paul’s magnificent quest to know Christ fully was matched by a magnificent humility.
Paul’s enemies claimed to have reached a state of perfection that made them possessors of all the blessings of salvation, in effect the arrival of Heaven itself. Heavenly perfection was theirs now, they argued. If we imagine that “we have Heaven now” is a far-fetched notion, we must understand that certain groups today claim the same thing — namely, that “mature” Christians will stay healthy and enjoy material prosperity and wholly overcome sin. TV preacher Kenneth Copeland, who preaches freedom from sickness and poverty, proclaims, “The world’s shortages have no effect on someone who has already gone to heaven. Therefore, they should have no effect on us here who have made Jesus Lord of our lives.”
But Paul’s confession allowed no such thinking, then or now. Here the Apostle Paul, the most spectacular Christian who ever lived, confessed that he had not arrived or become “perfect.” Paul admitted his own need to grow into maturity.
His confession stands as a warning against a super-spiritual kind of Christianity that imagines that the blessings of the age to come can be had now before the resurrection.
The reality is, the more we come to know Christ, the more we will come to sense our need to grow. And when we imagine that we have arrived, stagnation sets in.
We must understand that Paul’s prayer — “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” — is a prayer of humble dissatisfaction that opens us to the blessing of God — and to a sublime cycle of dissatisfaction and satisfaction and dissatisfaction and satisfaction. . . . It brings on a life that knows more and more of Christ and then desperately wants to know more and indeed does know more and more and more and more. Spiritual dissatisfaction is a blessed state. When we are hungry we know we need to eat, when we are thirsty we know we need to drink. We should experience spiritual dissatisfaction so that it moves us to pursue Christ.
Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6).