“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 attained.” (Philippians 3:12-16)
In John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, the protagonist, Christian, endures an array of trials along his journey. After refreshing himself by a river, he continues toward the Celestial City on an increasingly difficult path. But just over the fence, running alongside his own path, he spots a better way through By-path Meadow. Despite his companion Hopeful’s warnings, they venture down this new road, meeting a fellow sojourner named Vain-confidence on the way.
As night falls, they lose Vain-confidence to a pit designed to catch the overly confident. Thunder and flooding ensue. “Oh, that I had stayed on my path!” laments Hopeful.
This miscalculation serves as a cautionary tale. In Philippians 3, Paul highlights the superiority of the way of faith over the deceptive path of self-righteousness. He acknowledges that he has not yet achieved perfection in Christ, nor will he until his life is complete (v. 12a). Rather, he presses on toward this goal for which Christ powerfully took hold of his life (v. 12b) on the road to Damascus (see Acts 9:1-19).
The apostle labors the point: “Brothers, I do not consider that I have made [perfection in Christ] my own” (v. 13a). Despite an exemplary Christian life marked by costly obedience, Paul is careful not to rest on his laurels. Just as a marathon runner would refrain from turning back to admire his progress, so too Paul leaves his spiritual victories behind and strains onward to the finish line (v. 13b). Concerning those past victories, John Gill reasons, “yet he forgot them in point of dependence on them, and trust to them; and having put his hand to the plough, he did not look back, nor desist, but went on in his laborious way, not thinking of what he had done and gone through, nor discouraged at what was before him[.]”
The obedience of yesterday is often an impediment to the obedience needed today. Even mature Christ-followers are easily tempted to rely on past successes to excuse present inaction, drifting from the pilgrim way. When we do so, like Christian and Hopeful, we trade our confidence in the righteousness of Christ for our own sense of self-worth. When this happens, Paul’s words here call us to return and persevere.
Paul strives for “the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (v. 14). The call of God had initiated Paul’s race and would see him through to the end. He runs because his Lord beckons him, and the prize is the beatific vision: life forever in the presence of God.
Finally, Paul addresses his dissenters, saying that those who think they have reached peak Christian maturity will, in time, be shown otherwise by God (v. 15). He concludes: “Only let us hold true to what we have attained” (v. 16). The Christian life must be lived in light of the truth that has been revealed to us. “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him” (Colossians 2:6).
Let us be on guard against thinking that we have obeyed Christ “enough” and can coast through the remainder of our heavenward journey. If Paul, with all his achievements, refused the easy path of discipleship, we must do the same—lest we too fall into the pit of Vain-confidence. May we, with Paul, fix our eyes on the straight, narrow path paved by our Lord.
I thank you that you have called me to yourself and taken hold of me. I repent for the many ways in which I have rested in my own achievements and spun elaborate excuses for my lack of zeal and devotion to you. Renew my strength and help me to run my race with indifference towards what lies behind. Keep my eyes fixed upon the goal of experiencing your full presence, where there is fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11).
In Jesus’ name,
- Pray that you, your family, and your church would persevere in spiritual growth, not content with meager progress.
- Pray for God to guard your church from the temptation to take the path of least resistance. Seek the Lord for boldness and courage in godly pursuits.
- Pray for the pastors and missionaries you know to press on, fixing their eyes on the prize of eternal life.