LAY HOLD ON LIFE
Prayer: Lord, send Your Holy Spirit to teach us not to place confidence in our good works – not to look at what we do – but to place all our trust in Christ Jesus our Lord – to look at You, what You’ve done for us and what You give to us in the gospel. Help us not to look back at our sins but to look forward to Your grace and mercy, for which can only give thanks to You. Amen.
Sermon Text: Philippians 4:4b-14.
Dear people loved and purchased by God, in Christ, to be His own: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
There’s a story here in Philippians 3. That’s not always the case in the epistles, the divinely inspired letters, of the New Testament. Paul shares some details of his life. We learn more about him. But he isn’t doing this to satisfy our curiosity or make it more interesting for us. It has a purpose.
Although Paul is imprisoned in Rome when he writes this, he’s in the midst of a battle.
He pictures the Christian life, as he does other times, as an athletic contest. He speaks of it as a long-distance race, with a finish line. Distance runners know that it’s not just a race, it’s a fight. First you compete against the other runners. Then you compete against yourself. It’s a struggle of the mind and the will to endure to the end. There’s strategy for winning the race. But there’s also self-discipline so you reach the finish line.
In these verses, with the help of this picture, first we learn about the struggle to have the right faith – the faith that saves you – and second we learn about the struggle to hold onto this faith and reach the finish line.
So why does Paul says these things? – that he underwent circumcision on the very day the law prescribed; that he was a Pharisee – and so observed all the laws very precisely; that he was so “zealous” for obedience to the law that he persecuted Christians; and – here’s the clincher – as far as “righteousness under the law,” he was “blameless,” that is, he could never be found lacking.
Why does Paul mention these things? It sounds like he’s boasting, but he isn’t. He’s saying that He did boast, or think he was something, before he became a Christian on the Damascus road. He says this, to teach something.
What’s going on is a discussion about what it takes to be in good standing before God. To be “in the right” with God. That’s what righteousness is: to be “in the right” with God. This makes us think of what we do. We think of how we are in the wrong, what we’re guilty of. We want to hide that. But we can’t.
One solution is to balance out the wrong we do, by doing more good than bad. It’s natural, if we feel guilty for the way we act, we think God must love us less; and that if we’re better in living godly lives, He’ll be happier with us. We think we’re better Christians if we live better as Christians; and if we slip into bad habits and our old sins, then we’re not good Christians.
Paul says that’s the way he thought, before. But he says to count on such things was not “gain” as he thought then, instead it was “loss” because he was counting on those things to be in good standing before God.
Here’s the point: By counting on yourself for righteousness, you’re leaving the path – or in the picture of a runner, the track – that leads to salvation. What is that path? He says it’s: “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ.”That verse is worth learning, or at least repeating! – “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ.”
That’s the Gospel. It wouldn’t be all the things Paul did as a Pharisee in the past. It also wouldn’t be what he did as an apostle. That’s the “righteousness of my own” doing. It’s never without sin, never good enough.
But the good news is: Christ came down from heaven to do it for you, me, and everyone. He did everything without sin. He perfectly feared, loved, and trusted in God above all things. He perfectly loved his neighbors. He was tempted like we are but was without sin. He never failed to show the love God’s commandments require. He has the righteousness that is good enough.
Now here’s the beautiful part: He gives it to you. Not only did Jesus take all your sins from you and pay for them in full in His death on the cross; but He also gives you His righteousness, so that God considers you – for Jesus’ sake – to be without sin, to be totally in the right with Him.
The way you have it is by faith. Back in Philippi, what did Paul say to the jailer? – “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.” I like to think of the jailer and his family, whom Paul and Silas baptized, now sitting in church, hearing this letter read, nodding their heads: “having the righteousness which comes through faith in Christ” – “Yep, faith in Christ, believing in the Lord Jesus Christ … Hey, so we have this righteousness!”
In Baptism, in the Word, and in the Lord’s Supper, through the words being spoken to you, God gives you faith to receive this – what Jesus did for you – as your own, to believe it, to believe in Him. His Word has power to give you this faith, and with this faith you have this righteousness. Paul says: “having the righteousness that comes by faith,” he says you have it.
That’s the first struggle: to have the right faith. Second is the struggle to hold onto this faith and reach the finish line. This is the picture of the race.
He says something amazing: that even though he has this righteousness and he is in the right with God, “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.”
You have to picture a runner, and she’s come all the way on this cross-country race, up and down all these hills, or in a distance race he’s come around the track all these times, around the curves, measuring themselves against other racers, falling behind, picking up steam, getting tired, exhausted, dragging, just feeling done. But then they can see the finish line. For a Christian, it’s Jesus at the finish line, with His arms open. And when you get to Jesus, as He said, you will never thirst and He’ll give you rest.
So Paul says you forget what’s behind. You don’t look back at the sins or regrets. You don’t look back at your losses. You don’t look back at the worries and fears. You don’t look back at the sufferings and sacrifices. He says you’re looking ahead to where there are no sins, no losses, no suffering. You’re straining and pushing ahead, eager, energized, filled with joy.
What’s he describing? It isn’t an idealistic picture. It isn’t hiding the crosses and difficulties in a Christian’s life. In fact it’s because the devil is always trying to rob us of salvation, to steal our joy, to take our hope away. It’s being aware of that, not saying, “I’ll always have my faith.” That’s trusting in self.
Even though Paul says he has this righteousness by faith, he acts like he doesn’t have it and he needs to take it with an active faith. He says: “I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me His own.”
This is fighting the good fight of faith. Although faith is a gift, your faith is making it your own, saying: “I do so believe,” when God says: “I forgive you, you’re My child.” This is laying hold on Christ and His salvation. If you’re afraid you don’t hold onto Christ tightly enough, never fear! Christ lays hold on us more strongly than we lay hold on Him. It’s why He comes to us in His Word and in His Supper: to lay hold on us, even as we lay hold on Him by faith. As you do, He says: “Don’t look back. Look here at Me. I Am the finish line. You’re laying hold on Life, eternal life, and I won’t let you go.” Amen!