Straining Forward

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.  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 the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.  Philippians 3:12-14.

Now we come to a passage which has become a theme for me—mantra was the first word I thought of but it seemed out of place in this context.  As usual, I need to take this point by point to mine the rich truth embedded in it.

Paul does one of those Jewish rabbi expansion things where they say something in a sparse almost terse way, move another point then return to the original by way of saying it either slightly or completely differently with the same emphasis.

First he makes it clear he hasn’t been made perfect as yet; though he pushes on to grow towards this in Christ.  Using the phrase to take hold of he gives us a metaphor which points to his journey to become godly in Christ.  The next sentence denies actually being whole (perfect) so all this nonsense about Paul or any other apostle attaining sinless-ness except in the context of the blood is a complete waste of vocal cords.  The apostle proclaims succinctly he isn’t sinless, which should be a comfort to others who read his letters and feel like they don’t make the grade.

Yet once he makes it clear perfection is still a goal, he expands his original point by stating his determination to accomplish this through Jesus’ power.  It might be semantics for some but the fact that Paul makes a point of Christ taking hold of him for the purpose of perfection should wake us up to who really does the work.  We might hold on to Him for dear life but our efforts are not what change us, though by them we give God the “permission” to work in our lives.  Our submission is the means by which the Holy Spirit comes into our lives with His changing presence, and our work, as I’ve said before, is based more on keeping our submission current rather than a self-help list of pep-talks and attitude adjustments.

The next question we have to ask is why did Jesus take hold of us?

Jesus came to reconcile man to God and once that was accomplished mankind would become reconciled to themselves.  God didn’t need to be reconciled to man because, though we sinned, which means we betrayed and rejected Him, He worked out a way to save us, since He still loves us and wants a relationship with us.  That doesn’t describe someone who needs to be reconciled to me.  He doesn’t hold our sins against us and only for this reason would we need to mollify Him.  No, it’s man who holds the grudge not God, and is the main reason Jesus came to earth.  If this was Christ’s purpose in taking hold of us, then we press in to take hold of Christ, which means we have to be reconciled to Him to first.  Paul’s push to take hold of Jesus’ mission and claim not to have taken hold of it signifies that our entire lives are spent in the reconciliation process.  Don’t believe me?  Then why do we still wrestle with sin?

Anyone who is fully reconciled to another has no further work to do towards the process and operates in perfect harmony.  Paul’s declaration that he hadn’t accomplished all this or been made perfect says to me his life was in process of reconciling every part of himself.  None of us reach this point of full unity with God this side of glorification, since our bodies remain bound to death despite what our eternal spirits.  This is an important distinction because I know people right now who preach that a sinless state is possible for us.

I grew up with the understanding those who were alive when Jesus returned would be sinless.  Though I know the passages my church used to support their claim for this “doctrine,” I don’t know how they came to this conclusion with all the other references in Scripture disagreeing.  I’ve hear recently another church that preaches this kind of “perfection” to which one of my friends adheres most ardently.

Yet our “sinless” state on the Day has nothing to do with our performance or state of being without sin, rather it has to do with our connection to Jesus.  The robe of Christ’s righteousness covers our sin like the blood on the day of Atonement.  When we see Jesus face to face, we will not feel worthy to be with Him in and of ourselves, which means our salvation rest wholly on God’s mercy and grace.  Like one pastor had a habit of saying,  “When they ask me what I’m doing in heaven, I’m gonna’ say,  ‘I don’t know!  I’m with Him!’ “

Right there is where the difference comes for all of us.  The word “perfect” takes its primary meaning from a word in Greek which points to wholeness.  None of us will be completely whole this side of our bodies being glorified so any claims to contrary are a waste of time.

Why would Paul say, But one thing I do:  Forgetting what is behind and straining toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus, if he’d already arrived at wholeness?  The need to forget what is behind and strain towards something else points to a lack in the past, for no one needs unless they lack.  The prize for most Christians is eternal life, but I believe restored unity with God is what Paul is thinking of here.  Eternal life is a reward, to be sure, yet living forever without being reconciled to God would be hell.  What reason would Paul need to forget what was behind if he had already attained wholeness and reconciliation?

The short answer is:  None.

This passage only becomes encouraging to us when we realize Paul had to let go of his past mistakes and failures to be like Jesus the same way we do.  That knowledge gives us the greatest weapon against condemnation we could ever receive.  We step into a state of grace where mercy is the standard of operations.  Grace doesn’t ignore or deny sin; instead it solves it by being an agent of transformation, and any gratitude or loyalty to God on our part grows from this place.

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2 Responses to “Straining Forward”

  1. tlc4women Says:

    I had never heard of this sinless doctrine on the Day. If this is true, I hope Jesus comes in the morning because once my day starts, there’s no telling what mess I may get myself into!

  2. jonnysoundsketch2 Says:

    Me either. It’s one of the reasons I am reluctant to be a part of a congregation that practices performance based holiness rather than conviction with grace. I don’t deny sin’s existence nor its obvious bad effects. However, I don’t believe anyone will be sinless this side of our recreated bodies because Paul seems to make that clear.

    A couple of churches I’ve attended seem to think their forms of worship are holy and sacrosanct to the point they’ve become critical of anyone who doesn’t do it like they do. I don’t mind calling them my family in Christ, but they’re like the uncle and aunt who live in the woods and deny modern amenities for the sake of being one with nature. They’re welcome to it but I won’t join them.

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