Striving Toward Spiritual Perfection

Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 3:12-14

In Christ I Press on to Perfection: Paul, the Runner His
1. Frame of Mind
2. Exertion
3. Goal
4. Reward

Paul’s intense yearning and striving for spiritual perfection is expressed now under the symbolism of the familiar foot-race. In order to grasp the apostle’s meaning the underlying figure must be borne in mind at every point.

Frame of Mind

Much depends on the frame of mind. Paul completely rejects the idea that even now the race is as good as won. Says he, Not that I have already gotten hold or have already been made perfect. Paul was a firm believer in the doctrine of election “before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4), and accordingly also, as has been pointed out, in the possibility of assurance of salvation. But not in election apart from human responsibility, in salvation apart from human effort, or in assurance without constant recourse to the promises. Even though he had already sacrificed everything in his service for the Lord, he is certain of one thing, namely, that he has not yet completely gotten hold of the spiritual and moral resurrection that lifts one out from among those who are dead in sin; in other words, he is sure that he has not yet been made perfect. In principle, yes! But in full measure, no! Far from it! The struggle against sin, fear, and doubt is not yet over. The fact, moreover, that believers do not attain this perfection in the present life is the teaching of Scripture throughout (Psa_51:1-5; Mat_6:12; Mat_23:75; Luk_18:13; Rom_7:14-24; Jas_3:2; 1Jn_1:8). Paul continues, placing the positive over against the negative, as he often does, but I am pressing on (to see) if I can also lay hold on that for which I was laid hold on by Christ Jesus. Paul is pursuing with the purpose of overtaking and laying hold on. Has he not been laid hold on by Christ Jesus? When Paul was on his way to Damascus had not the exalted Lord and Savior commissioned him to a definite task? See Act_9:1-19, especially verse Act_9:15; also Act_22:15, Act_22:21; Act_26:15-18. Encouraged and enabled by this very fact, namely, that it was Christ Jesus who has laid a firm hold on him, so as to possess him completely, the apostle is now pressing on in hot pursuit of the objective assigned to him. Cf. Php_2:12-13; Php. 4:13; 2Th_2:13. He continues, 

Php. 3:13. Brothers, I do not count myself yet to have laid hold. This is no superfluous repetition of a confession of imperfection. On the contrary, something is added now. The very word that introduces the sentence — namely, brothers, a word of endearment and also in this case of deep concern (see on Php_1:12) — shows that the apostle is deeply moved. Far more clearly than before, he is now intimating that the church at Philippi is being vexed by people who imagine that they have laid hold on perfection. These errorists probably based this claim on the fact that, as they saw it, they had not only accepted Jesus as their Savior but were also scrupulous in their adherence to Judaistic rites (see above, on verses Php_3:1-3). The apostle summarily rejects their claims by saying, as it were, “Such has not been my experience. Legal rectitude, slavery to outworn ordinances, hindered me instead of helping me. Moreover, as a believer in Christ alone, I for one am still far removed from the goal of spiritual perfection. Whatever any one else may claim, I have not yet laid hold on it.”

This, however, does not mean that Paul is indolent or despairing. On the contrary, he refuses to acquiesce in sin. As a runner in the race he stresses his exertion.

Exertion

Paul writes, But one thing (I do). The runner in the race practises persistent concentration on one, and only one, objective, namely, to press on toward the goal for the prize. He permits nothing to divert him from his course. His aim is definite, well-defined.

So it is also with Paul. On reading his epistles one is amazed by this unity of purpose which characterizes the apostle’s entire life after conversion. Paul aimed at gaining Christ and perfection in him, a perfection not only of uninterruptible assurance but also of loving consecration: “Teach me to love thee as thy angels love, one holy passion filling all my frame.”

“Lord Jesus, I long to be perfectly whole;
I want thee forever to live in my soul,
Break down every idol, cast out every foe,
Now wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Whiter than snow, yes, whiter than snow;
Now wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.”
(J. Nicholson)

Such concentration is absolutely necessary. In everyday life distractions are often disastrous. Excitement about an impending trip to Asia distracts a motorist. The result: a serious accident. Similarly, in the spiritual realm worldly cares, the false glamor of wealth, and all kinds of evil desires enter in to choke the word of the gospel (Mar_4:19). Over-emphasis on sports, clothes, physical charm, etc., prevents the runner from reaching the spiritual goal. Real, undivided concentration is a matter of ceaseless effort on man’s part. It is at the same time the product of the operation of grace in the heart. It is the answer to the prayer, “Unite my heart to fear thy name” (Psa_86:11).

Such concentration presents its requirements. The first is mental obliteration of that part of the course which the runner has already covered. Paul says, forgetting what lies behind (me). The runner does not look back. He knows that if he does, he will lose his speed, his direction, and finally the race itself. Looking back while running ahead is always very dangerous.

So it is also spiritually. Here too looking back is forbidden. Remember Lot’s wife (Luk_17:32). Now when Paul says that he forgets what lies behind, he refers to a type of forgetting which is no mere, passive oblivion. It is active obliteration, so that when any thought of merits, piled up in the past, would occur to Paul, he immediately banished it from his mind. This is not Nirvana. It is not the state resulting from drinking the waters of Lethe. It is a constant, deliberate discarding of any thought of past attainments.

The second indispensable requisite of effective concentration is unwavering progression. Hence, Paul continues, and eagerly straining forward to what lies ahead. The verb used in the original is very graphic. It pictures the runner straining every nerve and muscle as he keeps on running with all his might toward the goal, his hand stretched out as if to grasp it.

No less necessary is unwavering progression in the spiritual sphere. But if it be true that Paul on this side of the grave never reaches ethical-spiritual perfection — the perfection of condition, that is, holy living, and of constant, never-interrupted, full assurance of his state —, then why strive so eagerly for it? Is not the apostle foolish when he strives with such constancy and ardor to reach a goal which he knows he cannot fully attain in this life? The answer is twofold:

a. Although a person cannot actually reach this objective here and now, he can, indeed, make progress toward it. This matter of ethical-spiritual perfection is by no means an all-or-nothing proposition. As Paul himself teaches everywhere, there is such a thing as making progress in sanctification. The line of progress may indeed be zig-zag, but this does not rule out the possibility of real progress. In fact, such advancement, such gradual development when the seed of true religion has been implanted in the heart, must be considered normal (Mar_4:28; Php_1:6, Php_1:9, Php_1:26; Php_4:17; then Eph_4:12-13; Col_1:9-11; 1Th_3:12; 1Th_4:1, 1Th_4:10; 2Th_1:3; 1Ti_4:15; 2Ti_2:1).

b. Such spiritual perfection in Christ, considered as God’s gracious gift, is actually granted only to those who strive for it! The prize is given to those who press on toward the goal (verse Php_3:14; cf. 2Ti_4:7-8).
Concentration, obliteration, progression, accordingly, are the key-words of that spiritual exertion which results in perfection. It is by these means that one presses on toward the goal.

Goal

Php_3:14. So Paul continues, I am pressing on toward the goal. By derivation, the word translated goal is that on which one fixes his eyes. Throughout the race the sight of that pillar at the end of the track encouraged the contestant to redouble his exertions. He was ever running goal-ward, that is, in accordance with the line from his eyes to the goal.

In the spiritual race that goal is Christ, that is, ethical-spiritual perfection in him (see Php_3:8, Php_3:12). With all his heart the apostle desired to be completely raised above sin. He sought eagerly to promote the glory of God by every tool at his disposal, particularly by being a witness to all men (Act_22:15, Act_22:21; Act_26:16-18), that he might by all means save some (1Co_9:22).

Reward

Never does the runner forget the prize (1Co_9:24-25; 2Ti_4:8; Heb_12:2). Hence, Paul continues, for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. At the end of the race the successful runner was summoned from the floor of the stadium to the judge’s seat to receive the prize. This prize was a wreath of leaves. At Athens after the time of Solon the Olympic victor also received the sum of 500 drachmai. Moreover, he was allowed to eat at public expense, and was given a front-row seat at the theater.

Probably some of these facts were in the background of Paul’s thinking when he stated that he was pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. However, underlying figure and spiritual meaning do not completely correspond here — do they ever? —, for though the prize in both cases is awarded at the end of the race, the upward call of which the apostle is here speaking was issued already at his conversion, hence not only at the end of the race. Here as elsewhere in Paul there is the effective gospel call. It is the heavenward call, the holy calling, a calling to holiness of life. Thus God is summoning Paul upward continually. See NTC on 2Th_1:11, p. 162, footnote 162 there; also NTC on 2Ti_1:9. Nevertheless, the prize which corresponds to this call, and is given to those in whom this call has performed its work, is awarded when the race is over and has been won. Then Paul, too, together with all the saints, is called upward to meet the Lord in the air and to remain forever with him in the new heaven and earth (1Th_4:17). It is only in Christ Jesus that this upward call, this holy calling, is possible. Without him it could neither have been given nor obeyed. Apart from his atoning sacrifice the glorious prize to which the call leads the way could never be awarded.
Is there a real difference between goal and prize? In a sense they are the same. Both indicate Christ, perfection in him. Nevertheless, goal and prize represent different aspects of the same perfection; as follows,

a. When this perfection is called goal, it is viewed as the object of human striving. When it is called prize it is viewed as the gift of God’s sovereign grace. God imparts everlasting life to those who accept Christ by living faith (Joh_3:16). He imparts perfection to those who strive to attain it. Though it is true that this believing and this striving are from start to finish completely dependent on God’s grace, nevertheless it is we who must embrace Christ and salvation in him. It is we who must strive to enter in. God does not do this believing and striving for us!

b. The goal rivets the attention on the race that is being run or was run; the prize upon the glory that will begin in the new heaven and earth. Thus, bringing sinners to Christ, and doing this with perfect devotion, pertains to the goal. Perfect fellowship with these saved ones on and after the day of the great consummation pertains to the prize. Hence, it is correct to distinguish between goal and prize, as Paul also does both here and, by implication, in 2Ti_4:7-8.
With this glorious prize in mind — namely, the blessings of everlasting life; such as perfect wisdom, joy, holiness, peace, fellowship, all enjoyed to the glory of God, in a marvelously restored universe, and in the company of Christ and of all the saints — Paul is pressing on toward the goal.

– William Hendriksen, BNTC Commentary on Philippians 3, Baker Book House