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Paul’s Perspective on Perfectionism (Phil. 3:12-21)

Introduction

I’ve bought and sold a lot of used cars over the years. Most cars I have purchased were not running at the time, and many of these I repaired for one of my children to drive. Recently I purposed to slow down on repairing broken cars, but when a “For Sale” sign appeared on a Volkswagen Fox just a couple of houses down the street, I could not resist calling the owner. He was a young fellow who was moving to California and needed to sell the car quickly. He told me the car would not run, something I had already figured out. It wasn’t that difficult to do; the car had a half-flat tire and had not been moved for several months.

The young man said he wanted $200 for the car. It was a reasonable price, but frankly I really did not want another project car. I already had two non-running cars in my driveway at the time. But one thing caused me to consider buying the VW: I had the parts from an identical car that had been wrecked which I had disassembled a couple of years earlier. I told the owner I really hoped he could sell the car for $200, and I meant it! I also told him that if he did not sell the car by the time he had to leave, I would give him $100 for it. Here was one deal I really didn’t care about.

I’m sure you have already figured out that the young man called me back the night before he left for California, asking if I would still give him $100. I gave him the money, having only looked at the car from the outside. I assumed that it would not run because that’s what the owner told me. I towed the car home after the owner was in California and decided to to try to find out how bad the problem was. It occurred to me that before I began any serious repairs, I should check out some basics. I turned on the ignition and looked at the gas gauge. To my amazement, the car was out of gas! I put some gas in the tank, and the car immediately started. That non-running car I purchased for $100 was merely out of gas!

My experience with this car reminds me of the Apostle Paul and his salvation experience, as he describes it in Philippians 3:2-11. This is the passage that immediately precedes our text for this lesson. The little Volkswagen looked good on the outside, which is why I bought it. But it had a very fundamental problem—it was out of gas. The Apostle Paul was a devout Jew; in fact, he was a zealous Pharisee. From all outward appearances, Paul was the best specimen of Judaism one could ever hope to find. But when the risen Savior confronted him on the road to Damascus, Paul came to recognize that he was “out of gas,” spiritually speaking. After he came to faith in Jesus Christ as his Savior, Paul’s whole value system was inverted. In Philippians 3:7-11, Paul tells us how the things he formerly viewed as assets he now looked upon as liabilities, because of Christ. And now, those things that he once looked on as liabilities Paul recognized as assets. Now, Paul considered it a privilege to enter into the sufferings of Christ, even to the point of identifying with Christ by being put to death for the sake of the gospel.

Our text in Philippians 3:12-21 takes up where Paul left off in verse 11. Our text has two main paragraphs, verses 12-16 and verses 17-21. In general terms, verses 12-16 explain Paul’s perspective on the past, the present, and the future. The Christian does not live in the past, but with an eye to the future. Verses 17-21 contrast Paul’s perspective on the past, the present, and the future with that of the enemies of the cross. They pride themselves in their past accomplishments and live for the present, ignoring the future. Paul does not take the saints who erred in verse 15 nearly as seriously as he does these unbelievers in verses 18-19. Together, these two paragraphs sharpen our focus on the goal toward which every Christian should be striving. Let us carefully listen and learn from these divinely inspired words, which are as applicable to us today as they were to the Philippians centuries ago.

Not Yet Arriving, But Still Striving
(3:12-16)

12 Not that I have already attained this—that is, I have not already been perfected—but I strive72 to lay hold of that for which I also was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself to have attained this. Instead I am single-minded: forgetting the things behind and reaching out for the things ahead, 14 with this goal in mind, I strive toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us who are “perfect” embrace this point of view. If you think otherwise, God will reveal to you the error of your ways. 16 Nevertheless, let us live up to the standard that we have already attained.73

My wife and I have five grown daughters. Years ago when our girls were young, we would load then all in the car each summer and set out from Dallas to visit our families in Washington State. After two hours on the road we would come to Wichita Falls, Texas. It was absolutely predictable. One of our girls was virtually certain to ask, “Daddy, are we at Grandma and Grandpa’s yet?” There was no way to tell them that we had covered only a little more than two hours and a hundred miles, and that we had three more days and over two thousand miles yet to go. We were on our way, but we had not yet arrived.

This is what Paul is trying to convey to the Philippians about his spiritual journey and theirs. When Paul was an unconverted Jew, he actually thought he had arrived spiritually.

If someone thinks he has good reasons to put confidence in human credentials, I have more: 5 I was circumcised on the eighth day, from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews. I lived according to the law as a Pharisee. 6 In my zeal for God I persecuted the church. According to the righteousness stipulated in the law I was blameless (Philippians 3:4b-6).

Who could attain any more than this? Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ opened his eyes to the fact that he had not arrived at all. He was not furthering the cause of God; he was opposing it. He had not arrived; he was not even on the right path. He was going in the wrong direction!

Having come to faith in Christ for his salvation, Paul knew that he was on the right path and going in the right direction. But he also realized that he had not yet arrived, and that there was a difficult course ahead, which required perseverance and discipline.

23 I do all these things because of the gospel, so that I can be a participant in it. 24 Do you not know that all the runners in a stadium compete, but only one receives the prize? So run to win. 25 Each competitor must exercise self-control in everything. They do it to receive a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. 26 So I do not run uncertainly or box like one who hits only air. 27 Instead I subdue my body and make it my slave, so that after preaching to others I myself will not be disqualified (1 Corinthians 9:23-27; see also Hebrews 12:1-13).

This is not to say that Paul was pursuing sanctification by his own strength, but that in the strength God provided he was pressing on in his walk, living out the life of Christ, and stretching forward to the upward call (Philippians 3:14).

There have always been those who have sought to portray a very different image of themselves than that which Paul conveys here. They want us to believe that they have already arrived spiritually. If they could, they would have us believe that they live above the struggles, temptations, and trials of this life. They are not open and transparent about their struggles and failures in their Christian life. They would be very reluctant to admit their failings, and some would deny that they sin any longer. If we were to believe such folks, then we would be very inclined to follow them because they are so much more spiritual than we are.

Paul does call upon his readers to “follow his example,” but he does not do so claiming to have already arrived. Paul calls upon us to “follow his example” in striving toward the goal of maturity in Christ. Paul is not a super spiritual man who has arrived, who is beckoning to us to follow the trail he has already blazed; Paul is on the pathway, pressing onward toward maturity, urging us to join with him in his pursuit of maturity in Christ.

Paul’s words were intended to correct an error known as “perfectionism.” In its simplest form, perfectionism is the belief that one can arrive at perfection in this life. Believe it or not there are those who actually believe that one can reach sinless perfection in this life. I’ve never really known a person who claimed to have arrived in this sense, but I have known a number of people who think that they have arrived in the sense that they are a whole lot further down the path of perfection than others. Comparatively speaking, they think that they are a great deal more spiritual than others. I must say that they seem to think they are much more spiritual than others think they are, others who know them well.

Paul is absolutely emphatic about the fact that he has not yet arrived, so emphatic that he repeats himself twice: “I have not yet arrived” (see verses 10-11, 14, 16). By inference, he does so more often than this. Paul has been gloriously saved (3:4-9), and his salvation experience has commenced the process of his sanctification. But that process, commenced at his conversion, is not complete.

If the Apostle Paul has not arrived spiritually, then certainly no one else has either. The consequence of this fact is that no one is free to sit back, resting upon their laurels, as though all they must do is to wait for our Lord’s return. The Christian is not to be content with the status quo, but must press on toward the goal that has been set before him. And that is precisely what Paul does, while challenging us to follow his example. The goal is two-fold; it is both general and specific. The general goal toward which every Christian is to strive is that of the “upward call”—either the day of our death, or the day when our Lord returns for His saints, to snatch them up from this world to be with Him forever. In one sense, this is an event in the future, which draws nearer by the passing of time. In another sense, it is a future event which we are to pursue, and to seek to hasten.

Let me attempt to illustrate. Suppose that a young man has become engaged to a lovely young woman, whom he has not seen for several months because she has been in Europe thousands of miles away. He receives word that she is returning and that he can meet her plane at a certain place and time. He could merely wait for her at home, until she arrives from the airport. But you and I know that he will not do so. He will go to the airport to meet her there. And when she gets off her plane and comes into the gate area, he will immediately rush to her when she comes into sight, so that he can be with her all the sooner. That is the way we should be with respect to our upward call. We should be pressing toward our Lord, as He draws nearer to us.

There is a second goal toward which we should be striving. The first goal was a general one; the second goal is more specific. We should be striving toward that particular purpose for which Christ called us. We were saved “unto good works” (Ephesians 2:10), and we know that God has a particular plan for each one of us, just as He had for Paul (see Acts 9:15-16; 26:15-18). We have each been saved for a particular purpose, for a particular role in the body of Christ, and for a unique ministry to that body (see 1 Corinthians 12). Paul expressed his eagerness to fulfill his calling, and we should do likewise.

Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62).

So I do not run uncertainly or box like one who hits only air (1 Corinthians 9:26).

5 You, however, be self-controlled in all things, endure hardship, do an evangelist’s work, fulfill your ministry. 6 For I am already being poured out as an offering and the time for me to depart is at hand. 7 I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith! 8 Finally the crown of righteousness is reserved for me. The Lord, the righteous Judge, will award it to me in that day—and not to me only, but also to all who have set their affection on his appearing (2 Timothy 4:5-8, emphasis mine).

1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, we must get rid of every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with endurance the race set out for us, 2 keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. For the joy set out for him he endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:1-2).

If we are going to press on toward the goal before us, then we cannot keep looking behind. That is why Paul tells us that we must be “forgetting the things behind and reaching out for the things ahead” (verse 13). Just what are the “things behind us” that we are to forget? I would be inclined to think of these “things to forget” in two categories: (1) things from our non-Christian past; and, (2) things from our past as believers.

First, let’s consider the things of our pre-Christian past. When Paul came to faith in Jesus Christ, he realized that all of the things in which he had boasted were really “dung.” He also realized that in persecuting the saints he had been opposing his Lord. Paul would certainly not wish to cling to the past in terms of these “accomplishments,” because they were not accomplishments at all, spiritually speaking. But he also needed to accept the fact that when he came to faith in Christ, he became “a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17), and that the guilt of his past had been washed away by the blood of Christ. There was no great profit to his agonizing over his past. Paul was deeply committed to the doctrine of sovereignty, and thus he must trust that God had used even his wicked deeds against the saints for their good, and for God’s glory (Romans 8:28).

Second, let’s consider the things of our Christian past. If we are to fix our eyes on what lies ahead, then we cannot be obsessed with anything in our past, even our past as believers. Let me suggest some of the things in this category that we should “forget.”

We should forget the sins and failures of our past.74 We must first have dealt with these issues, for Paul is surely not giving us an excuse for failing to deal with matters that require some kind of action on our part. Debts should be paid. Confession should be made and reconciliation sought. Lessons should be learned, and changes should be made. But once we have dealt with our failures, we should leave them and move on. Having dealt with the past, we should not dwell on the past.

We should forgive and forget the sins that others have committed against us. We need to learn to forgive those who have sinned against us, and to leave their offenses behind us (Matthew 5:43-48; 18:21-35; Luke 11:14; Ephesians 4:32). Bitterness is the lingering hostility that results when sins are not forgiven and forgotten, and thus it is forbidden (Ephesians 4:31; Colossians 3:19).

We should forget our apparent successes in the past. How easy it is to rest on our laurels and to dwell upon past successes. We cannot look back if we are going to press on. We do not win races by looking backward, but by focusing on the finish line. I should also caution that those things we may consider to be successes may prove to be something else when we stand before Him who knows all:

2 Now what is sought in stewards is that one be found faithful. 3 So for me, it is a minor matter that I am judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. 4 For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not acquitted because of this. The one who judges me is the Lord. 5 So then, do not judge anything before the time. Wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the motives of hearts. Then each will receive recognition from God (1 Corinthians 4:2-5).

I should hasten to add that there are many things that we should remember, but these reminders are to serve as incentives for us to press on. We see this in Peter’s second epistle:

10 Therefore, brothers and sisters, make every effort to be sure of your calling and election. For by doing this you will never stumble into sin. 11 For thus an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, will be richly provided for you. 12 Therefore, I intend to remind you constantly of these things even though you know them and are well established in the truth that you now have. 13 Indeed, as long as I am in this tabernacle, I consider it right to stir you up by way of a reminder, 14 since I know that my tabernacle will soon be removed, because our Lord Jesus Christ revealed this to me. 15 Indeed, I will also make every effort that, after my departure, you have a testimony of these things (2 Peter 1:10-15, emphasis mine; see also Romans 15:15; 1 Corinthians 4:17; 2 Timothy 1:6; 4:11-14; Titus 3:1; 2 Peter 3:1ff.).

The things we are to remember are those things that will cause us to set our eyes on Jesus and to press on to the goal of our upward call.

The goal that Paul pursues is the “upward call.” This certainly seems to be a reference to the rapture of the saints, when our Lord comes to take His saints home (see 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). Therefore our race is not finished until we have either died or have been raptured into heaven. No one is permitted to slack off until the finish line, until their race is won. Why is it, then, that there are some professing saints who look back to their salvation, years earlier, but who have been “on vacation” ever since? Over and over in this epistle, Paul has his eyes on the finish line, which is still ahead and toward which we must strive (see 1:6, 10, 21; 2:9-11, 16; 3:11, 20).

Those who are truly mature,75 Paul writes, will concur with what he says. In other words, they will agree that salvation is just the “starting gun,” just the beginning of the race that we are all to run, and that the goal will not be reached until after our death or our upward calling. They will agree that no Christian “arrives” in this life, but keeps pressing on toward the goal. Those who think otherwise, God will correct.

Verse 15 is not an excuse for looking the other way when our brother or sister is overtaken in a fault (see Matthew 18:15-20; Galatians 6:1-2). We are “our brother’s keeper.” We are instructed to admonish, rebuke, and correct (see 1 Thessalonians 5:14; 2 Timothy 3:14-17). In Philippians 4:1-3, Paul will seek to bring about the reconciliation of two disputing women—Euodia and Syntyche. Paul is speaking about a particular point of view here, as I understand him. He is speaking to those who would suppose that they can arrive or have already done so. We need not wear ourselves out trying to convince them that they are still struggling with sin. God will make that all too plain to them in time.

I am reminded of the story of a man who was speaking at a seminary years ago. This man believed he had gained complete victory over sin in his life. As he and another saint were walking along, a young lad began to bother the old gentleman. Finally, in irritation, the older man pushed the young lad away, and the boy (as I remember the story) stumbled and fell. The older man was ashamed and embarrassed because of his sinful conduct. He turned to the fellow with him and said, “I never knew I had that in me.” The other gentleman replied, “Oh, I knew it all the time.” There are times when we need to leave the correction of some matters to God.

Paul ends this paragraph with a word of exhortation: “Nevertheless, let us live up to the standard that we have already attained” (verse 16). Paul has been encouraging us as saints to join him in pressing on in our faith and walk. We have yet to finish the race, but we must fix our eyes on the goal and strive in His strength to reach that for which we were called. The one thing we must never even consider is turning back. There is no level of attainment that is high enough—we must press on, forgetting the past. There is no level of attainment so high that we are allowed to slack off, performing beneath that level which has already been attained. Put as briefly and pointedly as possible, THERE IS NO EXCUSE FOR BACKSLIDING.

Follow Me, Avoid These
(3:17-21)

17 Be imitators of me, brothers and sisters, and watch carefully those who are living this way, just as you have us as an example. 18 For many live (about whom I often told you, and now say even with tears) as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end will be destruction. Their god is the belly. They exult in their shame. They think about earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven—and we also await a savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform these humble bodies of ours into the likeness of his glorious body by means of that power by which he is able to subject all things to himself.

In verses 12-16, Paul conveyed the Christian’s perspective and practice regarding the past, the present, and the future. When he comes to Christ, the Christian has not arrived. He must forget the past (bad and good) and press on to that for which he was called in Christ. He must press on toward the upward call. One’s conversion is the starting line, and one’s death (or the rapture) is the finish line. We dare not slack up in our striving toward the finish line, until we have reached the goal. No Christian has “arrived,” and thus they must continue to strive.

In verses 17-21, Paul exposes the danger of a very different perspective of the past, the present, and the future. Paul began this chapter with a word of warning concerning the Judaisers who believed in salvation by works. He now turns his attention to this group76 once again. There is one significant change here, which should be noted. Earlier in this chapter, Paul has dealt with error on a more doctrinal level. The “dogs” he warned of were those who took pride in human works and fleshly efforts. They trusted in themselves (or in their heritage as Jews) rather than in Christ alone. They thought they had arrived, while Paul knew that he had not. Now, Paul calls our attention to the works of those who are the enemies of the cross. It is the lifestyle of the false teachers which often betrays them, not just their professions or doctrinal creeds:

15 “Watch out for false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are voracious wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruit. Grapes are not gathered from thorns or figs from thistles, are they? 17 In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree is not able to bear bad fruit, nor a bad tree to bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 So then, you will recognize them by their fruit. 21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven, only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22 On that day, many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, and in your name cast out demons and do many powerful deeds?’ 23 Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you. Go away from me, you lawbreakers!’” (Matthew 7:15-23).

1 But false prophets arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. These false teachers will infiltrate your midst with destructive heresies, even to the point of denying the Master who bought them. As a result, they will bring swift destruction on themselves. 2 And many will follow their debauched lifestyles. Because of these false teachers, the way of truth will be slandered. 3 And in their greed they will exploit you with deceptive words. Their condemnation pronounced long ago is not sitting idly by; their destruction is not asleep…12 But these men, like irrational animals—creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed—do not understand whom they are insulting, and consequently in their destruction they will be destroyed, 13 suffering harm as the wages for their harmful ways. By considering it a pleasure to carouse in broad daylight they are stains and blemishes indulging in their deceitful pleasures when they feast together with you. 14 Their eyes are full of adultery that do not stop sinning; they entice unstable people. They have trained their hearts for greed, these cursed children! 15 By forsaking the right path they have gone astray, because they followed the way of Balaam the son of Bosor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness, 16 yet was rebuked for his own transgression (a dumb donkey, speaking with a human voice, restrained the prophet’s madness). 17 These men are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm, for whom the utter depths of darkness have been reserved. 18 For by speaking high-sounding but empty words they are able to entice, with fleshly desires and with debauchery, people who have just escaped from those who reside in error. 19 Although these false teachers promise such people freedom, they themselves are enslaved to immorality. For whatever a person succumbs to, to that he is enslaved (2 Peter 2:1-3, 12-19, emphasis mine).

It is no accident that in Acts 20:28-32 Paul warns the Ephesian elders concerning false teachers (some of whom will arise from their own number). In the verses preceding this warning, Paul emphasized that he had taught them all they needed to know (see 20:20, 27), and by inference indicating that there was no need for “new” teaching, beyond what he had taught.77 And so Paul first warns about the content of the false teachings, because it will depart from the truth. But immediately after verses 28-32, Paul speaks of his conduct in the gospel ministry, and how he did not covet the gold or silver or clothing of those he served. Paul labored with his own hands, so that he would not be a burden on the saints. Instead of being supported by them, he supported them. No false teacher would live this way, and so Paul contrasts his conduct with that of the false teachers. They can be known both by their content (doctrine) and their conduct.

In our text, Paul takes the same approach. He tells the Philippians to imitate him in his lifestyle and to identify others who live the same way (men like Epaphroditus and Timothy come to mind because of Philippians 2:19-30). Paul then contrasts the “enemies of the cross of Christ” with himself and others like him in verses 18 and 19.

18 For many live (about whom I often told you, and now say even with tears) as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end will be destruction. Their god is the belly. They exult in their shame. They think about earthly things.

Paul’s label for these intruders is significant. He calls them the “enemies of the cross of Christ” (verse 18). By this expression, I take it that they are opposed to the pure gospel. I would assume that they do not preach the forgiveness of sins and the assurance of eternal life based upon the shed blood of our Lord Jesus on the cross of Calvary. But I think Paul goes beyond this. They are enemies of our Lord’s cross, I believe, in the sense that they want nothing to do with bearing a cross themselves, as Jesus instructed:

24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25).

There would be no denial of self for these counterfeit saints of whom Paul warned. Far from taking up their cross in this life, and living in the light of eternity, these folks are hell-bent for eternal destruction because they are consumed with the present, and not with the future. They are not compelled by Christ and His gospel; they are dominated by their own appetites. Their “god” is their belly. I don’t think it is just the belly and food that Paul is referring to, but their appetites, which includes the whole range of physical desires. They find joy in those things that are their shame. Their value system is upside-down.

In verses 20 and 21, Paul contrasts the perspective of the Christian with that of the counterfeit saint in verses 18 and 19. The Christian knows that his true “home” is in heaven, and not on earth. Even the Old Testament saints knew this:

13 These all died in faith without receiving the things promised, but they saw them in the distance and welcomed them and acknowledged that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth. 14 For those who speak in such a way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 In fact, if they had been thinking of the land that they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they aspire to a better land, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:13-16).

But these mere earthlings to whom Paul is referring are those whose home is this world, and whose rewards are fleshly, experienced now. The Christian knows he is a foreigner in this world; the counterfeit is completely at home here and now.

The Christian eagerly awaits the return of the Lord Jesus to this earth, knowing that when He comes, He will transform our humble bodies into glorious bodies, like His own glorious body (verse 21). In other words, Paul is once again speaking about “that day,” the day of our Lord’s return, and of the marvelous resurrection which we await, and which takes the terror out of death. The same power that enables Him to resurrect and transform our mortal bodies is the power which He possesses to subject all things to Himself. What a contrast there is between a true believer and a counterfeit saint. It is evident in their doctrine; it is evident in their attitudes; it is apparent in their conduct.

Conclusion

What a difference there is between the sinner and the saint. It is especially evident in our attitude and actions regarding the past, the present, and the future. The Christian does not live in the past; he does not dwell on the things of the past, but presses on toward the “upward call” of our Lord. The certainty of His return, of our resurrection and transformation, and of out eternal bliss is such that it motivates us to “take up our cross” in this life, knowing that our eternal rewards await us in the next. The sinner sees things in exactly the opposite way. They tend to dwell on the past and their perceived accomplishments. They ignore or deny the future, the coming of our Lord, and particularly His judgment. Instead of living for tomorrow, they live only for today, indulging themselves in every conceivable pleasure.

Paul is deeply aware of the incredible transformation that Christ has brought about in his life, as he came to faith in Jesus as his Savior. But he is also deeply aware that he was called for a purpose. He knows very well that he has not arrived, and that the road of sanctification lies before him, requiring discipline and endurance and sacrifice. Paul calls upon you and me to follow him in the path of discipleship, pressing on until the time of our “upward call.” He warns us to watch out for those who live for today, and who are enemies of the cross of Christ, living in self-indulgence and shame.

There are two evils Paul urges us to avoid in our text. One is hedonism, the all-out pursuit of fleshly pleasures, and the consequent denial of the cross of Christ. We have just spoken of this evil. The other evil we spoke about earlier in this lesson—the evil of perfectionism. This is the super-spiritual, arrogant assumption that we have arrived spiritually. Paul does not see it this way. Coming to faith in Christ is hearing the starting gun of a race. Our race is not finished until we cross the finish line, and that line is our upward call.

Let me suggest some forms in which we might encounter perfectionism today. For some, perfectionism may occur by “promotion.” Some foolishly believe that becoming a leader is proof that one has arrived spiritually. Often, it is the young and the immature who are susceptible to this error. Paul warned of this when he set down the qualifications for church leadership:

6 He must not be a recent convert or he may become arrogant and fall into the punishment that the devil will exact. 7 And he must be well thought of by those outside the faith, so that he may not fall into disgrace and be caught by the devil’s trap (1 Timothy 3:6-7).

Another form of perfectionism may come through a false elevation of education. Some people think they have arrived when they attain a certain degree, or series of degrees. They often work hard to let you know of their “higher education.” Education can be a wonderful thing, but we should also remember Paul’s warning that “knowledge puffs up, while love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1)

Spiritual gifts were sometimes misused as a benchmark for having arrived spiritually. This is very apparent in the Book of 1 Corinthians, especially chapter 12. The more visible and vocal gifts of the Spirit were more highly esteemed, even though Paul seemed to indicate that the better gifts were less visible (see 1 Corinthians 12:20-25). To possess a particular gift—one that was highly regarded—was to be more spiritual, to have “arrived.” In contrast to this attitude, in chapter 2 of Philippians, Paul tells us that the more Christ-like we are, the more humble we are.

And so I simply ask you now, my friend, how do you measure up by Paul’s standards? Do you think you have arrived, or do you know that you must strive? Are you living for the present, or are you living for the future? Is the finish line ahead of you or behind you? These are very important matters, my friend, and they often spell the difference between a true believer and a counterfeit. May God give us the grace to “fix our eyes on Jesus”:

1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, we must get rid of every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with endurance the race set out for us, 2 keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. For the joy set out for him he endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:1-2).


72 It must be with a strong sense of irony that Paul chose this word, for it is the same word that is translated “persecuted” in verse 6. The one who pursued Christians as felons to persecute them now pursues the same Savior they served.

73 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

74 Occasionally I hear someone say, “You need to forgive yourself. . . .” I don’t ever see this in the Bible. We are to forgive others, and we are to seek the forgiveness of those whom we have offended. We are assured that if we confess our sins to God He will forgive us (1 John 1:9). We don’t need to forgive ourselves; we need to accept the fact that we are forgiven, and righteous, in Christ (Ephesians 1:4, 7; Philippians 3:9; Colossians 2:8-15).

75 This is the same word “perfect” that we find in verse 12 (“perfected”). In verse 12, it must mean “mature,” as it also does in verse 15. Those who are mature know full well that they have not arrived, but that they are en route.

76 One could possibly argue that this is not the same group, nor the same error as Pharisaic legalism, which he described earlier. If not, it is an equally deadly error.

77 In verse 30, Paul warned that these false teachers would teach “perversions of the truth.” As a preacher friend of mine used to say, all heresy is either the Bible plus, or the Bible minus. These false teachers needed to add something to the apostles’ doctrine, because this was their unique twist of the truth.

Related Topics: Sanctification