Straining Toward the Goal
12 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.
I first heard the phrase “progress not perfection” a few years back listening to a sermon by Pastor Matt Chandler. Since then it’s been a truth that I have preached to myself in times when I am faced with failure or feel the weight of my sinfulness. It is a truth filled with hope for the everyday Christian in their pursuit of holiness.
It’s Not about Perfection
Many people will attest to the fact that they can never be perfect and that no amount of effort could ever be put in to reach perfection. Yet, even though we acknowledge this fact we still attempt to be perfect or at least appear that way. This can be seen in the way that the world views failure.
Failure is criticized, mocked, and even put on social media for people to laugh at and enjoy. The culture of failure is that we must do our best to not be a part of it. We must not fail or else we’ll be the most shared video on Facebook. Our attempt and effort to never fail can also be seen as a pursuit of perfection for perfection cannot be obtained if there is failure. It’s quite ironic that we see people try so hard not to fail and to make everything so perfect when the general consensus is that perfection cannot be obtained.
This irony can also be seen in our Christian lives and in our pursuit of holiness. We as Christians have an understanding of our sinfulness yet we strive to be “perfect” Christians. We end up focusing so much on the process of sanctification (becoming more like Christ) that we lose sight of God himself. We agree that we cannot be perfect but do our best to never mess up or break God’s law.
Scripture gives us a radically different picture of both perfection and failure. What Apostle Paul says in Philippians 3:12 is that he is not yet perfect. He admits right away that he’s not a perfect Christian and not fully like Christ and that he has a long way to go. This is encouraging for us because it helps us see that it’s not about perfection. Paul knew that it’s not about being the best person or the best Christian because perfection wasn’t something he could ever attain in this lifetime. He knew and understood his sinfulness and so humbly admitted that he was far from perfection. By understanding this, Paul was able to lay down the burden of striving to achieve an unattainable perfection.
It’s About Progress
If it’s not about perfection what is about then? Does this mean that we can do whatever we want? Should we even do anything if we can never be perfect anyways?
These questions can be answered in the same verses where Paul admits that he’s not perfect. As soon as Paul says that he’s not perfect in verse 12, he goes on to say that he “press(es) on to make it (his) own”. Although he knows he’s not perfect and can never be, he still puts in the effort to be more like Christ. Paul knew that sanctification was a process that needed effort for there to be progress.
What Paul also understood was the difference between pursuing holiness and legalism (conviction that law keeping is the ground of our acceptance with God). The difference between holiness and legalism is not in the action but in the heart behind the action. The reason that Paul “pressed on to make (holiness) his own was because Christ Jesus made him his own”.
Reading the bible, praying, serving the church, and the like are not actions that are limited to a person who is legalistic. A godly Christian who earnestly seeks a deeper relationship with God must also do these very things. However, the legalist puts in effort toward this with perfection in mind. The Pharisees put in effort toward holiness not to know God more but because they viewed moral perfection as the grounds of acceptance. The Christian, however, puts in effort because there is an understanding that God has made us His own.
Christians press on toward holiness and righteousness because we know the truth of the Gospel. We know that God sent Jesus to die on the cross through which our sins were forgiven and paid for. We know that God raised Jesus from the grave and was thus satisfied with the payment. It is through this that we were made sons and daughters of God. We are no longer our own but God’s as he made us His own through the blood of Christ.
It is this truth that we hold onto and this truth that drives our effort and our sanctification.
Perfection in Our Progress
What we will come to see is that in our progress there are many times when we will fail. There will be moments when God seems so far from us, and in our sinfulness, we seem so far from Him. In these moments, we must remember that there is a perfection in our progress: the perfection of Christ.
Because Christ died for us on the cross, His perfection is viewed as our perfection (2 Corinthians 5:21). So, even in our failures, our imperfections, and our sins, God still sees the righteousness of Christ when he sees us.
It is Christ’s perfection that we hold onto in our progress for it brings us hope and comfort in our failures and imperfections. We hold onto Christ knowing that our progress is driven by the grace of God and that all our failures and sins were paid for on the cross.
We must remember that it’s about progress and not perfection, and in the process, we hold onto the perfection of Christ which brings us hope and comfort.
Photo by Bruno Nascimento