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Fighting for Joy, Growing in Humility, Knowing Christ and the Peace that Passes Understanding: A Study of Philippians (39): Pressing on Toward the Goal

Series: Fighting for Joy, Growing in Humility, Knowing Christ and the Peace that Passes Understanding: A Study of Philippians

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on May 4, 2008

Philippians 3:12-16

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The Lord's Day Morning

May 4, 2008

Philippians 3:12-16

Fighting for Joy, Growing in Humility,

Knowing Christ and the Peace that Passes Understanding: A Study of Philippians

“Pressing On Toward the Goal”

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

Dr. Duncan: “O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good; His steadfast love, His covenant faithfulness, His lovingkindness, endures forever. Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, whom He hath redeemed from trouble and gathered from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south.” Let us worship God.

Dr. Thomas: Now let's come before God in prayer. Let us pray.

O Lord our God, we bow once again in Your presence. It is a fitting posture that our hearts are bowed, our hands stretched out in faith to lay hold upon You as You offer Yourself to us. We are unworthy servants, unworthy to come before You, unworthy to mention Your name. We have sinned; we have erred; we have strayed like lost sheep. We've done things that we ought not to have done, said things that we ought not to have said. We've left undone things that we ought to have done.

Father, we come before You conscious that You are thrice holy — “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts; heaven and earth is full of Your glory. Angels and archangels and cherubs and seraphim bow in Your presence and exalt You. The church triumphant sings Your praises, and we join with them now as a company of Your people here at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi. We join with that grand company on the other side. We thank You for the communion of saints. We bless You, O Lord God, that You are exalted in the praises of Your people, and we desire in the depths of our hearts that You would be exalted, and then some.

Our Father, we thank You for Your grace to us in the gospel. Thank You for redeeming love. Thank You for a Savior born in a stable, crucified on a cross, raised up into the clouds sitting at Your right hand in glory — the altogether lovely one and fairer than ten thousand. “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds in a believer's ear; it calms his sorrows and heals his wounds, and drives away his fear.”

We thank You, O Lord, for the covenant that is ordered in all things, and sure: a word of promise that You will never leave us nor forsake us; that in the depths of woe when we pass through the fire or the deep waters, You will not abandon us. You will not give us over to our enemies — our archenemy, even Satan himself, who prowls about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. We resist him steadfast in the faith; we lay hold of Christ and say with Luther, when he knocks on the door, that we don't live here anymore, but Christ lives here. And we slam that door shut in his face.

We thank You, our Father, for our adoption into the household and family of God; that we are heirs of God and join heirs with Jesus Christ; that eye hath not seen nor ear heard, neither has it entered into the heart of man what You have prepared for those that love You. You are so good to us even in trial, even in sorrow; even when You afflict, You do not afflict willingly. We thank You for a fatherly hand in every contingency and every circumstance, in every providence.

We thank You, O Lord, that there is a silver lining to every cloud — the silver lining of the sweet promises of the gospel. We thank You, O Father, this morning especially on behalf of our brothers and sisters and some who are here today… this morning in this service… who are aching–whose hearts break; who pass through deep waters; who are taking care of loved ones and watching them die and their bodies give out. And in the hope of resurrection promise that one day there will be no sin and no disease and no death and no graves to visit, we thank You for the new Jerusalem paved with gold, with a river that flows down, and trees on either side giving fruit in their season. We thank You for the new heavens and new earth in which we shall dwell. We cannot even begin to imagine the greatness and glory of what that will be when in newly transformed bodies, reunited with our souls, we shall live forever in a condition of ecstasy and blessing.

Our Father, we pray this morning as we worship You that we might catch a glimpse of it, that we might live for those things which are above where Christ sits at the right hand of God. Help us now to put aside those worldly cares and sorrows, and in the quietness of this hour know that You are in the midst of Your people; that by Your Spirit, You've come to dwell, to energize, to convict, to teach, to exhort, to comfort, to help, to heal. Lord our God, we cast ourselves upon You and upon Your word.

We do pray this morning for those who serve You in far off places… friends of ours who have gone to the uttermost parts of the world to preach the gospel… and we remember Don and Fran McNeill as they minister in Kampala in Uganda. We thank You for them. Thank You for all that they have done for the kingdom. We pray that they might be encouraged in the Lord. We pray that today, this morning, this afternoon for them…that You would draw near to them in a way that cannot be explained in human terms, and that they might know that round about and underneath are the everlasting arms.

Our Father, we do continue to pray for our country: for the election process, that You would grant to us a president who would rule and govern wisely and justly; that You wouldn't give to us what we deserve, but that You would give to us in mercy and in grace. We pray for a president that will advance the cause of the kingdom of God and allow it to flourish and allow it to do the work that You've called us to do; and if that not be the case, help us to be good soldiers. Help us, O Lord, to take on that responsibility which brothers and sisters of ours in other parts of the world have been doing for decades and centuries, working for Christ in the midst of opposition and persecution and tyranny. Lord, You know our hearts’ desire, but we pray, O Lord, that our hearts might conform to Your will and to Your overruling purpose for us in these days.

Now bless us. We pray for Ligon now as he opens up the word, as we taste the sweet fruits of Paul's letter to the Philippians, filled as it is, with joy, urging us on to holiness and righteousness, and the standard of our commitment to You based firmly on the foundation of gospel principles. Help him, we pray. Be unto him now all that he needs, and through him may we hear the Spirit speak to us through the word on this the Lord's Day. Hear us, O Lord.

Teach us now to pray, as our Savior taught His disciples to pray, saying:

‘Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name.
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.’

Dr. Duncan: Amen.

If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Philippians 3. We’ll be looking at verses 12-16.

You’ll remember from our study last week, the Apostle Paul left us in verses 10 -11 with this important assertion about what he wanted to do in life. He said that he wanted to know Christ. He wanted to know the power of Christ's resurrection, he wanted to share in the fellowship of His sufferings, he wanted to become like Christ in His death, that he might attain the resurrection from the dead. Paul makes it clear that he's looking forward to a time when he is made completely like the Lord Jesus Christ–and that will come at the resurrection of the dead, but in the meantime he is pursuing likeness in Christ. He is pursuing holiness through the power of the resurrection. It's the Holy Spirit that is bringing to bear the power of the Lord Jesus Christ's resurrection on Paul's life, in Paul's life, so that he might become more like Jesus. Even the sufferings that he is experiencing in this life all conspire by God's design and God's providence to make him more like Jesus, so that he is becoming like Jesus in His death. That is, even as Jesus died so that we would die to sin and live to righteousness, so also Paul, because he has trusted in Jesus Christ and been united with Him, is dying to sin in His death, and being raised to newness of life in His resurrection. And so the Apostle Paul pulls together two glorious things in verses 7-11: one, he is absolutely assured that he is accepted by God not because of anything that he has done, but because of the righteousness of Christ which he receives by faith, and therefore he is secure; and, at the same time, he is pressing on in the pursuit of holiness. He wants to be more like Jesus. He wants to be more holy. And at the Last Day, he wants to stand perfect before his God and Savior.

Now it's that that is in the background of what he says in Philippians 3:12-16. That, and the fact that there are some people in the Philippian congregation who have fallen under the influence of a false teaching, and that false teaching is perfectionism. Now, by perfectionism, we mean the view that some very sincere Christians hold that believers can become perfect in this life — that they can move beyond the struggles with sin and with the remnants of the old nature and the old man in the flesh and they can reach a state of perfect maturity — entire sanctification, perfect love.

Now in order to teach that, you have to either scale down what you mean by sin, or you have to scale down the requirements of holiness, or both. Brister Ware was telling me between the services of a man came up to a minister who had just preached a sermon in which the minister said that he had achieved this state of perfection. And the man said, “Do you mind if I ask your wife whether you've achieved the state of perfection?” And the minister responded, “Well, you can ask her, but she doesn't believe in that doctrine yet!” Yeah! Well, I can tell you why she doesn't believe in that doctrine yet!

Now that kind of teaching is around today, and in the modern world it actually flows from the teaching of a very sincere and godly man. John Wesley, studying this very passage, looked at Philippians 3:12 and said, ‘You know, Paul there says that he's not perfect. But if you look at verse 15, he speaks of those who are perfect.’ And so John Wesley got the idea that Christians were not going to be perfect in some things but that they could be perfect in other things, and that they ought to strive for that perfection, and that some of them could reach that perfection in this life.

Now his concern was a concern that you and I would share. He ministered in a time when the Church of England was characterized by dead formalistic faith, and he wanted to see real vibrant holiness in the lives of believers. Praise God for that…it's just that his doctrine is wrong on this point.

But that's not the problem actually that's happening here with the perfectionism in Philippi. It's probably the Judaisers, those Jewish Christians who wanted the Philippian Christians to believe Paul's teaching about Jesus the Messiah but also wanted people to strive for holiness by doing what? By keeping the Law of Moses, especially the ceremonial law — the ritual law. That the way to be complete, mature, perfect, was to not only believe in Jesus, but also to keep the laws of Moses: circumcision; the food laws; the various ritual ordinances of the Old Testament that have passed away. And in that context Paul speaks these very, very helpful words.

Paul gives us here three key truths that guide us in our sanctification, that guide us in our living of the Christian life, that help us in our growth in grace in the Christian life. And those three teachings are: We are not there yet; two, press on with zeal; and, three, strive by grace. Paul teaches here that we believers are not the fellowship of the arrived. We are not there yet. We have not gotten to our goal. But we do press on towards that goal; we do pursue holiness with zeal. But, three, we do it dependent upon God's grace. We strive, we press on, but we do it from God's grace…dependent upon God's grace. It's those three things that I want to look at with you today. And before we do so, let's look to God in prayer as we read this, His holy word.

Heavenly Father, we ask that You would open our eyes and take the blinders off, that we may see wonderful truth in Your word. This we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.

This is God's word:

“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have obtained.”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

In the first couple of years that I was in Jackson teaching at Reformed Theological Seminary, a very godly, mature young couple showed up in my office one day after class. They had been very encouraged by something that they had heard in class at RTS, but they were very confused by something that they had learned in Bible College. They were headed for the mission field. They had graduated from a Bible College together. The husband was studying for his Master of Divinity degree; the wife was taking courses in the M.A. curriculum. I think, if I remember, they wanted to be Wycliffe Bible translators, and they wanted to be a part of translating the New Testament into a language that had never been translated before, so that people in that language could read the Bible for themselves and hear it read in their own words. And they were very, very mature–mature beyond their years. They were in their twenties, but they had their sights set on Christian service. But they were deeply discouraged and filled with guilt because in their last semester at their Bible College the president of their Bible College had preached a sermon in which he said that he had not sinned in three years. And he went on to explain that he had reached this higher life, this entire sanctification, and he encouraged everyone in the Bible College audience that day to pursue the same because of the way that it would free them for gospel service to attain this level of maturity and perfection in the Christian life. This had deeply discouraged this young couple, because they knew they were still sinners. Like many young couples, they loved the Lord and they loved one another deeply, but they had issues with one another; they had issues with their parents; they were struggling to grow in grace. They knew deeply their continuing fight with sin, and they thought that because they were in that fight with sin something must be wrong with them.

Now if I were to tell you the name of this person who preached that sermon that day, many of you would know him and you would revere him — and revere him rightly, because he did so many wonderful things over the course of his life. But on this point his doctrine was diametrically opposed to the Bible and to the Apostle Paul, and had deeply discouraged that young couple.

Well, the Apostle Paul is dealing with just that kind of fallout from the false teaching of perfectionism here in Philippi. And in the course of that he does three things. He tells us three things that are vital for our knowing how to live the Christian life. As I said, we are not there yet; nevertheless, we are pressing on; and, third, we are striving by grace…from grace…dependent upon grace. Let's look at how Paul lays that out in the passage before us.

I. We are not yet there yet (sanctified).

First look at verses 12-13, and in each of those verses look at the first half of those verses. Here Paul makes it clear that Christians do not and cannot attain perfection in this life. Notice what he says in verses 12:

“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect….”

And then in verse 13:

“Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own.”

Now what is the it? The perfect holiness about which he spoke in verses 10-11. ‘I don't think I've made that my own.’ Paul is making it clear that he's not there yet. He's saying, ‘Philippians, understand. I am pressing on. I have a zeal to become more like Jesus like you can't believe! But I'm not there yet! I have not arrived at that perfection, and I will not arrive at that perfection until the final resurrection.’

Well, you say, ‘Why, then, does he talk about the perfect in verse 15?’ Take a look at the words: “Therefore as many as are perfect.…” (In your translation — if you’re reading the ESV — it probably says mature. That's a good translation.) But I think what Paul may be doing here is doing a little play on words. He's saying, ‘For those of you who are ‘perfect’, you need to recognize that none of us are perfect yet. And we will not be until the day that God stands us before His throne in glory with exceeding joy, by His grace, in entire perfection. Until then, we're on the way. Life is a pilgrimage. It's growth in grace, it's not perfection.’ The church is not a place where perfect people gather, but it's a hospital where sick sinners get well, as Augustine said so many years ago. And Paul is pressing this point in this passage. In other words, he's giving us the first of three mottoes for the living of the Christian life: “We are not there yet.”

Now if there are unbelievers who are here in our midst today — those who have not yet trusted in Jesus Christ for salvation…or perhaps you’re watching on the television — it's important for you to understand that Christians still struggle with sin. Some of you who do not believe on the Lord Jesus Christ have rejected the gospel because you have encountered Christians who you believe are hypocrites because they've sinned. Perhaps they've sinned against you in some significant way. It is very important for you to understand that Christians do not believe that we have somehow become perfect. We do not excuse our own sin thereby; we're still responsible for our sin. We ought to be different, and I would challenge you, unbelievers, to hold us to account. We claim that God's grace has done a work in us so that we can live in ways that are different and better than the unbelieving world around us, so you hold us to account. But don't think that you can reject the gospel because you've caught a Christian sinning, because Christians do not claim to be perfect. In fact, there are very often Christians who have done really, really bad things who have subsequently come to faith in Christ, and they still have to pay for the consequences of their sin.

There's a great story in Chuck Colson's book Loving God, where he talks about going to a prison in Michigan with a judge. And they’re visiting prisoners in that prison, but they have a luncheon scheduled with the governor of Michigan, and Chuck Colson is very conscious of that and wants to leave on time. Their last part of the visit is on death row, and the judge goes into one of the cells and he stays a long, long time. And Chuck Colson gets very impatient, and he keeps walking back to the cell and motioning to the man to come on out. And he doesn't come out. And finally he gets angry and irritable about it. And finally the judge comes out of the cell, and as they’re on their way (late) to the governor's luncheon, Chuck Colson says to him, “Why were you in there so long?” And the judge said, “Well, as it so happens I sentenced that man to death, and he is scheduled to die. But since he has been in this prison he has become a believer in our Lord Jesus Christ, and we are now brothers in Christ. And we wanted to pray together one more time before we meet in glory again as brothers.”

That man still had to pay for the consequences of his sin. He was a Christian, but there were consequences that still had to be paid. So if you’re an unbeliever thinking that Christians are immune from the consequences of sin or that Christians claim to be perfect, we don't and we aren't.

But if you’re a believer today, let me just say this: the fact that you are not there yet is your charter of hope in this life. You know, it's the truth of my present imperfection and that God is progressively changing me and molding me to be more and more like Jesus Christ that keeps me from giving up, because if I thought where I am now was as far as I was ever going to get, I'd give up today. I'd just completely give up today. I'd have no hope. But the fact that I have not arrived there yet, the fact that God's sanctification process will not be ended until the final day, that gives me hope. That gives me comfort.

II. We press on.

Secondly, Paul goes on to say though we are not there yet, nevertheless we press on with zeal. There's the second motto for the Christian life: we're not there yet, and we press on with zeal and passion and energy. In other words, Christians are always desirous and active in growing in holiness, in becoming more mature in Christ, in pursuing godliness. Notice the language that Paul uses in verses 12, 13, 14 and 16: “I press on... I strain forward… I forget what is behind… I strain forward to what is ahead… I hold true to what we have attained.” In other words, the Apostle Paul says, ‘My pursuit of holiness is active and passionate: I desire to be more like Jesus Christ, and I press on to attain that.’

Now again it's important: if you’re an unbeliever listening to me today, I'm not telling you that this is the way that you are saved. If this is the way that you’re saved, you’re in big trouble! This is not the way that you’re saved. The way that you’re saved is by embracing the gospel. What is the gospel? That God made us and cares for us, but we have chosen to worship ourselves and to turn our backs on Him, and that this has resulted in His righteous judgment of us, and of our harming others, and of our own self-destruction, and our estrangement from Him. But God himself in His love and mercy has come to us in the person of His own Son, Jesus Christ, to save us from God's just judgment and from ourselves. His Son lived a life that we haven't and can't, in our place. And He died a death that we should have, but that He shouldn't have, in our place, for our forgiveness and acceptance with God. And all who respond in faith and repentance to that good news freely receive forgiveness and are welcomed into God's family, and are reintroduced into fellowship with Him. That's the gospel.

When you hear Christians urging one another to press on, to strive to grow in holiness, they’re not talking about how they’re made right with God. They’re talking about having been made right with God by grace…how they become more like the Lord Jesus Christ who saved them by grace. That's what we're talking about today.

But for believers, we come to this passage and we hear Paul say, “Press on,” and we know that this means we must never ever rest with where we are today, with regard to godliness. We must always press on, cultivating a holy dissatisfaction about our present state of growth. And isn't it amazing how Paul is able to do that and it doesn't compromise his assurance at all? Paul knows that he is saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone; and yet, he is utterly dissatisfied with staying with where he is in his present state of godliness. He wants to be more like Jesus. Isn't it like that in every place in the Christian life?

I was at a conference a couple of weeks ago, and some ministers were talking about how they struggle with dissatisfaction with their preaching. You know, they preach a sermon and then they go back to their office after the sermon and they say, “Boy, did I wiff that one!” and how frustrated they can get wishing that they could do better in their preaching. And they were all trying to encourage one another in the struggles of discouragement. And then R.C. Sproul spoke up, and he said, “Should you ever be pleased with your sermon? Shouldn't you always want to do better? Isn't that a good thing?” And everybody looked around the room and said, “Y-e-e-s. We ought to all want to do a better job of preaching.” Nothing wrong with that…you don't want to be discouraged, but you ought to want to do better.

Well, how is Paul able to be confident and assured in Christ and to be wholly dissatisfied with just staying how he is now? Because he knows that that his salvation is entirely based on the grace of God in Christ, and that he is not satisfied with being what he once was. He wants to be like the Lord Jesus, and he is pressing on to that end.

III. We strive by grace.

But how is he pressing on? Well, that's the third point, because the third motto is (along with “We’re not there yet” and “We’re pressing on with passion and zeal and energy”)…the third motto is “We’re doing this (we're striving) not by our own strength, not so that we can be accepted by God (because He's already accepted us in Christ), but we're striving by grace.” We’re striving from grace.

In other words, Christians want to grow not so that Christ will accept us, but because Christ already has. Christians want to grow, not so that we will be embraced by Christ, but because we already have been embraced by Christ. Christians want to grow because of what we already have by faith in Christ Jesus.

Listen to what Paul says. Look at verses 12-13:

“I press on to make it my own…” [What's the it? That perfect holiness in the resurrection day.] “…I press on to make it my own because Christ Jesus has made me His own.”

Christ Jesus has made me His own. Now does that lead Paul to say, “Well, nothing more for me to do?” No. What does it do? It impels him to the pursuit of holiness, because he has been accepted in the beloved, because he has been embraced by Jesus Christ. Because the Lord Jesus Christ has made him his own, it makes him want to be more like Jesus Christ.

And then listen to what he says in verse 14: “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God…” [listen to the last three words] “…in Christ Jesus.”

I think that Paul there is telling you how it is that he presses on. How does he do it? In Christ Jesus. In other words, he pursues holiness in and from his union with Christ. How does the Holy Spirit change our hearts from the inside out? By uniting us to Jesus Christ, so that all that is His becomes ours. How are we united to Jesus Christ? By faith. So the Holy Spirit causes us to trust in Christ, and as we trust in Christ our sin is imputed to Him, His righteousness is imputed to us, and the power of His resurrection begins to work in us doing what? Renovating us. And the Apostle Paul is saying, ‘I am dependent upon that resurrection power that I have because I trusted in Christ and I'm united with him. I'm dependent upon that resurrection power changing me to make me more like the Lord Jesus Christ.’

Now, unbelievers who are listening today, let me just say this. If you want to change your life, it's got to start with you realizing that you can't change your life. Christianity is not offering you yet another program or package or schtik about how you can change your life. Jesus has to change you before you can change.

And by the way, one of the ways that you can tell whether those guys on TV and radio are preaching the gospel or not is if they tell you the things that you can to do change your life; then they’re not preaching the gospel. But if they tell you what Jesus has done in order to change your life and talk about your responding in faith and repentance to that free offer of what Jesus has done, then they’re preaching the gospel.

But believers, our security is not based upon how well we do in this pursuit of holiness. Our security is based on Jesus Christ having embraced us, on our union with Christ. But what that leads us to is not laziness. It leads us to energy and passion and zeal in the pursuit of godliness. And those three truths that Paul lays out in this passage are life-transforming, if we’ll just understand and practice them.

We are not the fellowship of the arrived. We are not there yet. But we press on. And we do it not in our own strength, but from and by God's grace.

May the Lord bless His word.

Let's pray.

Heavenly Father, thank You for Your rich and precious word. By Your Spirit, bring this truth to bear deep, deep in our being; and cause it to overflow from our hearts all through our actions and lives. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.

Would you turn with me in your hymnals to No. 576. This hymn… though at the top of the page it says Hebrews 12:1…Hebrews 12:1 really only gives you the image of stanza two. Really, the rest of this hymn is just a beautiful, accurate, poetic exposition of Philippians 3:13-14. Just look at how this hymn expounds the passage that Paul has just preached to us. Let's stand and sing it to God's praise.

[Congregation sings: Awake, My Soul, Stretch Every Nerve]

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

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© First Presbyterian Church.

This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.

Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.