In this fourth and final blog entry on Paul’s letter to the Philippians, I’d like to draw your attention to verses 10 and 11 of chapter 3:
Phil 3:10-11 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.
When was the last time any of us prayed to “share in the sufferings of Christ”? Paul is ready to be identified with Christ, so much so that he even considers it an honor to suffer for his sake. In fact, this is actually a common theme in the New Testament (Matt 5:10-12, Rom. 8:17, Phil 1:29, 1 Pet 2:20, 3:14, 4:16), a theme that is not particularly in sync with the 21st century message of having “your best life now.”
Phil. 3:12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.
Not that I have already obtained all this. This is a wonderful verse that shows that we are declared to be righteous (positionally) while still being unrighteous (inherently). This is at the heart of what Luther was getting at when he described the Christian as “simul iustus et piccator” (simultaneously both saint and sinner).
Again, Catholic theology had taught (and still does) that a person who makes use of the gracious gifts that God offers through the church actually becomes inherently righteous. That person remains righteous until he or she commits a venial sin, and that allows the grace to leak out of one’s life. Mortal sins, on the other hand, immediately drain away all of your grace. In either case, a person can fix the leak by means of penance, confession, etc., and then replenish his or her supply of grace by attending mass, receiving absolution, obtaining indulgences, performing good works, etc. Since no one can know whether he or she will die in a state of grace, one cannot have assurance of salvation; in fact, that very idea is called the sin of presumption.
In contrast, the Protestant Reformers argued that justification, at its most basic level, was a legal declaration (such as a “not guilty” verdict). From the perspective of God’s infinite holiness, “there is no one who does good” (Rom 3:12), all of us by nature deserve a guilty verdict, and only those in Christ are granted a full pardon, based completely upon God in his infinite mercy. With Isaiah, we confess that Christ makes “many to be accounted righteous, and bears their iniquities.” This is also the testimony of the author to the Hebrews, who in chapter 10 writes, “by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.”
So if we’re already perfect, why do we need to be made holy? The answer is that both justification and sanctification are in view in this passage. We are first declared to be positionally righteous, perfect and acceptable before God because of the work of Christ. In reality, we are still sinners struggling here on earth. Like Peter before us, we all have denied Christ, sometimes in subtle ways, other times more explicitly. But Jesus is conforming sinners into his own image; he is sanctifying us and transforming us day by day. We’re still imperfect, but we’re slowly being conformed to the image of Christ.
That is what Paul is saying here. Paul has not already been made perfect, but he presses on because he’s treated as if he was. He’s awaiting an inheritance that he didn’t earn.
Phil 3:13-16 Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained.
Pressing towards the goal. Paul here is thinking of the Christian life, along with all of his personal difficulties associated with preaching the gospel, as a long distance race. Though he feels nothing but pain in the here and now, his thoughts are in heaven with Christ and the joy of victory.
In verse 15, Paul does something very strange and counter-cultural (at least as far we’re concerned). He seems to value maturity. Today, not merely in the culture at large but also in the church, we seem to value immaturity and juvenile ways of thinking. We believe that worship should be like a rock concert with lighting effects and fog machines. We believe sermons should be funny, attention-grabbing stage performances. We freak out when our “best life now” doesn’t materialize.
According to Paul, maturity changes the way we view things. God, he says, will be at work in you to help you to mature and to see things more clearly.
Phil. 3:17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.
Grace and Redemption are at the heart of Christianity, but that’s not all there is. Yes, Christ alone is our righteousness. This is our promised inheritance that will be fully realized and experienced one day in the not-too-distant future.
But this inheritance also implies an adoption. If we have been adopted, we need to live in a manner consistent with our new family identity. Of course, this new life does not win our inheritance, since we’ve already been adopted. Therefore the new life is simply the grateful response of a heart set free. This is why Paul teaches Gentile believers in particular to follow the pattern of life he set before them. Though it’s not part of our justification, it is an important aspect of our discipleship!
It’s important to remember that sometimes even elders and pastors do not live in ways that are consistent with their profession. Paul writes of such an instance in Galatians 2:14 when he observed that even Peter had stopped eating with Gentiles, fearing the circumcision party. “But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” Thus, for Christians, even our sanctification is not primarily rooted in law, but is rooted in learning to recognize the truth of the gospel and those parts of our conduct that are out of step with our new identity.
Phil 3:18-19 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.
There are some striking parallels here to what we find in Matt 16. Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do men say that I am?” Peter responds by saying, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” Then, after Jesus spoke a few words about his coming death in Jerusalem, Peter rebuked him, saying, “This will never happen to you!” How did Jesus respond? “Get behind me Satan! You don’t have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” Peter was rebuked harshly, as if he was Satan himself, because he was speaking as an enemy of the cross, and his mind was on earthy things.
Let’s face it. We often live as enemies of the cross of Christ with our minds set upon earthly things. We sometimes identify God with our appetites, our feelings, or our opinions, even as Christians. Sometimes, like Peter, we have an immature, man-centered—or perhaps even Satanic—view of things.
But if Peter can be saved, we can be saved. At the end of the day, we are not saved by our own righteousness but by Christ’s. When confronted with a sin of this type, we should take the posture of David in Ps. 51, who not only confessed his sin, but also asked God to “create in him a clean heart, and to renew a right spirit within him.” As Jesus taught, his disciples are declared “clean” not on the basis of any work they have performed, but because of the words that he spoke to them (Jn 15:3). After all, if the job of spiritual renovation and cleansing were up to us, at the end of the day who would be able to say, “I have made my heart pure, I am clean from sin”? (Prov 20:9).
Phil 3:20-21 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 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.
The residents of Philippi had been granted Roman citizenship, along with all the rights and privileges thereunto. Here Paul makes use of this concept to speak of something much more important. If we believe in Christ, flee from our own righteousness, and refuse to add anything to his finished work on our behalf, then we are then declared to be citizens of heaven. One day in the not-too-distant future, he will grant us all the privileges associated with this new citizenship, and we will all be transformed to become like he is.