Press On Towards Christ
Nick Esch, 7/19/2020 Cornerstone Baptist Church
On Friday, 7/17/2020, at the age of 93, J. I. Packer, a reformed pastor, theologian, professor, and author entered into the joy of his Master. He entered into true communion with God in glory, where he will know and glorify His Lord and Savior and enjoy Him forever. Which is truly beautiful because that’s exactly what he dedicated his life to. Packer dedicated his life to knowing God and living for the glory of Christ, and helping others do the same. His most popular book is actually entitled Knowing God. And in all his writings and ministry he sought to help people do just that, so that they would not merely know God, or know about God, but so that they would truly know Christ, love Christ, live for Christ, and become more and more like Christ, until they made it home to Christ.
In fact, towards the end of his life, when he was asked if he had any final words to give the church, he said just four words: “Glorify Christ every way.” In other words, glorify Christ in all things in every way possible. Dedicate your life to knowing Him, loving Him, living for Him, becoming like Him, until we make it home to Him. This is what we should be zealous for; indeed, that should be out great aim in life. And that’s exactly what we’re going to see in our passage today. That out great ambition should be to glorify Christ, in every way: to know Him, love Him, live for Him, and become more and more like Him until we make it home to Him. So, with that in mind, look with me at Philippians 3:12-16.
Just before our passage, looking back on his life before Christ, and any possible reasons Paul had for boasting in the flesh, he said, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
And, as we saw last week, here Paul is saying that he is justified and counted righteous in Christ, and in this life he is being sanctified and transformed into the image of Christ, and then in eternity he will be resurrected with Christ, and given a glorified body that is totally free from sin and all it’s effects, for the glory of Christ. So everything about Paul’s life—his past, present, and future—is centered on and all about Christ. Therefore, Paul has dedicated Himself to knowing Christ truly and fully, until He completely gains Christ… That’s what matters most to Paul, because as he says, knowing Jesus, being with Jesus forever is of surpassing value. And that brings us to our text today, which continues along this same path.
Our passage begins in verse 12 with Paul saying, “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.” The this that Paul seems to be speaking of is both the current work of sanctification in his life in the present, and the final work of glorification in his life to come. Essentially what Paul is talking about here is maturity; that is, growth in Christlikeness. After passionately speaking of counting all things as loss for the supreme value of knowing Christ, being made like Christ, and being in communion with Christ for all eternity, Paul is now saying that he has not yet obtained all of these things… at least not perfectly.
Paul is already saved, because justification, being made right with God, is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. The moment we trust in Christ all of our sins are forgiven; past, present, and future sins are forgiven, because Jesus paid for them all. And because of Jesus’ passive and active obedience on our behalf; because of Jesus’ perfect life, sacrificial wrath-absorbing death, and death defeating resurrection, we are counted righteous in Christ. Our trusting in Him, our faith in Him acts as an outstretched hand that receives His righteousness.
God is infinitely holy and glorious, and we have sinned against Him. But, Jesus took our sin and guilt, and took upon Himself the wrath that we deserve for offending God’s infinite holiness and glory, so that we could have His righteousness, and the joy and status of being a child of God, that only He deserves. Jesus lived in our place, suffered in our place, died in our place, and rose again to save us from the infinite punishment due us for our sin, and to give us His perfect righteousness… And that’s exactly what happens when we trust in Christ by faith. Every Christian is counted righteous and just the moment we become a Christian. We are saved.
But, we are also being saved. That is, we are being sanctified. We are growing in holiness, and thus conformity to Christ. We are growing in Christlikeness; and we won’t be done growing in Christlikness until Jesus returns or brings us home, and we see Him face to face and are made like Him. And that day is leading to the final Day, when we will finally be saved, when Jesus returns and we are given resurrected glorified bodies that are perfectly Christlike—totally and finally free from sin and all its effects. No more tears, no more pain, no more sadness or sickness, no more death, and no more sin… Only perfect joy with Christ.
And you see, these last aspects of salvation are what Paul seems to have in mind when he says, “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.” Paul has not been fully sanctified, or finally glorified; he has not obtained the resurrection yet. Yes, he has been justified by faith, and in that sense he is saved. But he is still being saved, and he has still yet to be saved. He has not reached perfection yet, that is perfect Christlikeness…
Now, notice what he says after admitting that he is not yet perfect, that he has not arrived… he says that he presses on to make it his own. In other words, he goes hard after sanctification and glorification. He goes hard after knowing Christ, loving Christ, becoming like Christ, and being with Christ forever. He presses on after it. The Greek here translated to press on is actually the same language Paul used in verse six when Paul spoke of the zeal he had in persecuting the church before becoming a Christian. It was his great aim and passion in life; he went hard after the church in great zeal; he pressed on after them, seeking to persecute them… but that was misplaced zeal. Now his zeal, his passion, his great aim in life is to press on after Christ and Christlikeness.
And notice what fuels his zeal… He’s zealous for Christ because Christ Jesus has made him His own. The image here is that of God’s sovereign grace. That by grace alone Paul has been chosen by God, called by God, regenerated by God, converted by God, justified by God, and adopted by God… all because of the Son of God. Christ loved him and gave Himself for him. And now Paul totally belongs to Him. He is not his own, for he was bought with a price, namely the blood of Jesus.
And friends, do you realize that if you truly trust Christ that all of this is true for you as well? If you have been given the gift of faith, and you are trusting in Christ as your only hope, then God has made you His own… You have been adopted into God’s family. You have been saved by God’s sovereign grace in Christ. And that amazing grace should change everything. It should turn our whole world upside down, and give us a zeal, and all consuming passion, a great aim to pursue Christ and Christlikeness.
That’s what happened with Paul. Paul didn’t look at God’s sovereign grace in Christ and conclude that God’s sovereignty render his actions meaningless… Instead God’s sovereign grace motivated Paul to go hard after Christ. By God’s grace Paul had indeed been elected, called, regenerated, converted, justified, and adopted… But, Paul’s race was not yet finished. He had to press on after sanctification, perseverance, and glorification… And while it’s totally true that Paul would never be sanctified, persevere, and be glorified if not for the grace of God; it’s also true that God uses means, and our efforts matter.
We must press on, we must pursue, we must go hard after Christ… And if we don’t we have no reason to believe that we will be found faithful on that final Day. But, we must also understand, that though we must go hard after Christ, ultimately, as Paul said in Philippians 1:6, it is He who began a good work in us who will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. None of this would be possible if not for God’s grace. But, God graciously began His work in us, leading us to stretch out our helpless sinful hands to receive Christ’s righteousness… and just as both he and we worked in that action, so both He and we must work in order to pursue sanctification and glorification. We must press on to make it our own, but it’s only possible to do so because Christ has graciously made us and will continue to make us His own.
This is what Paul pushes even further when he says in verses 13-14, “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.” After laying out that he has not yet been perfected, but that he seeks to make Christ his own because Christ has made him His own… he now stresses that he indeed has not made it his own. By it here Paul means that he hasn’t yet finally made Christ his own; he hasn’t been fully sanctified and finally glorified; he hasn’t reached full maturity in Christ. Here Paul is saying that he still needs to know, love, and live for Christ more; he has not yet arrived.
In light of that truth he says that he’s therefore forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead. When Paul speaks of what lies behind he’s talking about his past; everything he just listed off in 3:4-7. And by pointing back to that he seems to be pointing back to his false confidence in the flesh: any notion that he could ever be righteous in and of himself… But, he’s not only pointing back to his false righteousness, but also to his zealous wretchedness. Paul zealously persecuted the church; he went hard after seeking to put the church into hardship… and no doubt that was a sin that weighed heavy on his conscience. But, Paul had been saved from his false righteousness and his zealous wretchedness. And so, committing himself to not being caught up and held back by his sinful past, or feeling too righteous for Christ or too sinful for Christ, he committed himself instead to being totally caught up in Christ.
For a while now my wife and I have been working with our youngest son, trying to help him learn to ride his bike. For the longest time he couldn’t pedal; it was like his legs were too little to pedal… But, now he’s starting to get pedaling down; the only trouble is he looks down at his feet a lot, and looks backwards a lot… And every time he does it throws him off. Either he’ll stop moving, or he’ll veer off to the right or to the left. This is what Paul is saying here. If we look backwards, or if we focus too much on ourselves we will get off track… Instead, we must focus on what’s before us… We must focus on Christ. Just as my son needs to learn that looking forward will help him balance and stay on track on his bike, so we need to learn that looking to Christ, and looking forward to all that’s coming in and with Christ, not at our life before Christ, or to false righteousness or zealous wretchedness, but looking to Christ and Christ alone will keep us on track and move us further down the track of sanctification towards glorification. We will never move forward if we keep looking back
So we are to be always forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead. And Paul says that means that we are to press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. We are to look forward to, to keep our eyes on Christ, seeking to grow in our knowledge of Jesus, love for Jesus, living for Jesus, and becoming more and more like Jesus until we make it home to Jesus, where He will make us totally like Him. So the goal that we are to press on toward is Christlikeness here and now. And the prize that is to come is perfect Christlikness in glory. And the upward call of God in Christ Jesus is the perfect fellowship and communion with God that we have coming in Christ; that we will be with Him and glorify Him and enjoy Him forever.
And notice Paul’s language here: he says he’s straining forward, he’s pressing on, he’s zealously pursuing these things… In other words, this is Paul’s great aim in life. I wonder, what is your great aim in life? What are you living for? Right now the world seems to be full of passionate causes seeking to acquire our attention. And while some of them are good and right, none of them are as good and right as this great cause of pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. More than anything else we should be dedicating ourselves to knowing God and glorifying Christ. And I say that not to make you feel guilty, but to point you to true joy and satisfaction. For this is why you exist: to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. And until you dedicate your life to doing just that, something will always be missing; you will always be lacking the joy that can only be found in Christ alone. For it is He and He alone who is of surpassing value.
Now, with that in mind look at the last two verses of our passage. In Philippians 3:15-16 Paul says, “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 attained.” As we have seen, the thing Paul is speaking of here, what he’s pursuing and seeking to obtain is ultimately sanctification and glorification in Christ, which he does not yet have fully, but is pursuing here and now by seeking maturity in Christ. And here in verse 15 Paul directly addresses those who are mature in Christ. Which at first comes off sarcastic or ironic; but, I think Paul is being sincere here. What he seems to be doing is telling those that are genuinely mature in Christ that they have not yet arrived. That’s what he’s been saying about himself, and now he’s calling these people to think the same way, to have the same mindset he does. In other words, he wants them and us to know, that no matter how mature we may get, we will never reach the goal until Christ returns or brings us home. So as long as breath is in our lungs, as long as we are alive we are to seek to know Christ more, to love Christ more, to live for Christ more, and to become and more and more like Christ until we are with Christ.
Though we are to be satisfied in Christ alone, though we are to be content and joyful in Christ, in this life we are never to be content with our knowledge of, love for, obedience to, and imitation of Christ. We are to always be hungering and thirsting for more… for more of Christ. And Paul says if we are thinking otherwise God will reveal to us the fault in our thinking. If you give your life’s ambition to anything but Christ, God will show you the error of your ways. At some point you will realize that Jesus, and Jesus alone should be the cause of your life; that you are to be all about going hard after glorifying Christ in every way. No matter how well you know Him, no matter how much you love Him, it is not enough, because He is infinitely glorious. So, we should always want more.
But, lest we misunderstand and think that in doing this we are seeking to attain our own righteousness or salvation, Paul says that if we are to know Jesus, love Jesus, live for Jesus, and become more and more like Jesus, we must hold true to what we have already attained. In other words, we must remember, as Paul has already said, that Christ has already made us His own. By grace alone we have been chosen by God, called by God, regenerated by God, converted by God, justified by God, and adopted by God… all because of the Son of God. This is what we have attained in Christ. So, we must marvel at this grace that we have received, and let that amazement, and our identity in Christ as God’s people motivate us to go hard after Christ all the more. If we are going to holdfast to Him, and grow in Him in every way we must remember how He has and He is holding fast to us. Our sanctification must flow from our justification. The legal righteousness we have already attained in Christ is what must lead us to obtain the practical righteousness we need in Christ.
So beloved, let’s seek to have the mindset of Paul here and go hard after Christ. Let’s seek to be like J. I. Packer, and make our great aim, our great ambition in life to glorify Christ in every way by knowing Him, loving Him, living for Him, and becoming more and more like Him until we are with Him forever. And let’s remember that we can’t do any of that without God’s grace. But in Christ that’s exactly what we have. We can more and more make Christ our own, because Christ has made us His own. By grace, we are His. That is what we’ve already attained: His grace. And by His grace we can do all that God’s Word calls us to here. By grace we can go hard after Christ. So let’s give our lives to doing just that… by grace, and grace alone…