Straining towards What You Cannot Grasp (Philippians 3:11–16)

“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.” —Philippians 3:1

Perfectionism is a peculiar heresy. It is also a perpetual heresy. Part of its peculiarity is its perpetuity. How does this thing live on? A number of variations have afflicted the church throughout the years. All mutations of this virus are strains of Pelagianism. 

Pelagius was that British monk who balked at Augustine’s prayer from his Confessions, “My entire hope is exclusively in your very great mercy. Grant what you command and command what you will” Augustine confessed that man was bankrupt and dependent entirely on grace. Pelagius said man has what it takes in himself. There is grace to help, but it is not necessary.

Charles Finney, who is lauded by many evangelicals as a hero of the Second Great Awakening, was a rank heretic whose perfectionism had a strong Pelagian flavor. He denied original sin and total depravity. In contrast and yet developing from Finney, the most infectious forms of perfectionism today are semi-pelagian. They are an attempt to make pelagianism palatable, but pelagianism dressed in garb of grace is still the whore of works underneath.

Full blown pelagianism is the greater evil, but let’s give it this much, at least in pelagianism man may fully take responsibility for his delusion of perfection. Whereas in much perfectionism, man essentially “blames” God for the delusion.

Perfection may be redefined as not “knowingly sinning” as Wesley did. Since Wesley, most perfectionist theology has a strong experiential flavor as in the Keswick, Higher Life, Holiness, and second-blessing theologies. Through some “crisis experience” one comes to “entire sanctification.” Faith is often stressed in this, in contrast to Pelagius’ works.

But the most dangerous form of perfectionism for many is incipient perfectionism, perfectionism in the bud. You must realize that perfectionism finds prepped soil in the heart of every depraved sinner. In unearthing the origins of Finney’s perfectionism, B.B. Warfield, tracing it to New Haven, meaning Yale, and the professor N.W. Taylor, writes, “Pelagianism, unfortunately does not wait to be imported from New Haven, and does not require inculcating—it is the instinctive thought of the natural man.” Pelagianism is the instinctive thought of natural man.

Now if you don’t realize how subtle the danger can be and if you’re unable to identify this heresy as a sapling, consider this: you haven’t arrived even when you realize the flesh profits nothing and you count all as loss for Christ. You haven’t arrived when you realize you won’t arrive in this life.

The paradoxical position of the children of God is that in this life they are to press on towards that which they acknowledge they will never arrive at until the next. While it is premature to think one may attain perfection in this life, it is immature not to press towards taking hold of that for which you were taken hold of. The late R.C. Sproul once warned, “Sanctification is a process. It is a gradual process. Run for your life from those who promise you instant sanctification.” As Douglas Wilson says, the poison is so often found in the -ism. So you must run from perfectionism, and yet you must run towards perfection.

You must in this life run towards what you will only have in the next. If you’re not running, and using God’s grace as an excuse, then while denying perfection, you’re acting as though you already are.

Working Out “Working Out” (Philippians 2:12–13)

“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

—Philippians 2:12–13

“The Doctor” says of these verses, 

“I venture to put it to you, it is perhaps one of the most perfect summaries of the Christian life to be found anywhere. It was one of those perfect pictures which we tend to find so frequently in the writings of this Apostle. He was very fond of stating the whole thing over and over again; he liked to give a summary of the Christian life, and here is one of the most pregnant statements which even he himself ever made.”

Lloyd-Jones, David Martyn. The Life of Joy. Baker Publishing Group, 1989, p. 160.

As glorious as these two verses are, they have troubled many sola-affirming Protestants. Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone and here Paul is telling us to work out our salvation! Keep calm. Carry on. There’s no need to drop sola Scriptura at this point in order to keep the others. Working out the meaning of just two words should work out any difficulties you have with “working out our salvation.”

I’ll only briefly deal with the first here. Paul instructs these saints to work out their salvation. He does not tell them to work it up. He does not tell them to work it in. Paul does not tell them to work for their salvation. He tells them to work it out. We have an aversion to salvation and works ever being put into a concoction together, but we need to be more sophisticated chemists than that. While abhorring Galatian-chemistry involving salvation and works, we need to practice Philippian-chemistry involving salvation and works.

The second word is “salvation.” Our problem here is that we confuse Christianese with Biblical language. Biblical and theological language are not the problem, though people sometimes complain of them as though they are. No one complains when the football commentator speaks football. If you love the game you learn the language. Yes, we need to define our terms and help people along, but many complaints about Biblical language in the church are really just evidence that the church is full of people far more interested in other games.

However, we are fluent in Christianese. Rather than speaking the foreign language of the Bible as heavenly citizens, we impose a foreign language on the Bible. And the sneaky thing about Christianese, is that it so often is just right enough to get you confidently wrong at some critical junctures. When Christians today hear “salvation” they think narrowly when most often the Scriptures speak broadly. Christians think only of the beginning of the race, when the Scriptures are speaking of the whole of it—from start to finish with all the sweat and exertion in-between. Perhaps I’m being a bit unfair. Maybe just as many Christians think of the end of the race as well. But most leave out the race itself. We are deists concerning God’s new creation. God has wound us up. Now we are on our own till the alarm sounds.

The Bible speaks of the salvation of the saints in all three tenses. We were saved; we are being saved; we will be saved. Salvation is not simply something that has happened to you. It is happening to you and it will happen to you. Salvation involves not just your regeneration, justification, and adoption. It also includes your sanctification and glorification. More than that, your salvation stretches further back than your experience. Your salvation stretches from eternity to eternity, from election to glorification.

So when Paul tells these saints in Christ Jesus (1:1) to work out their salvation, he is clearly referring to the nowness of salvation, assuming a past, advancing to the future. Paul is assuming regeneration, justification, and adoption in the past and calling for sanctification in the present towards glorification in the future.

What is sanctification? It is what Paul spoke of in 1:25, it is “progress and joy in the faith.” It is, as Jerry Bridges speaks of it with his various book titles (and very Biblical ones mind you), The Pursuit of Holiness, The Discipline of Grace, and The Practice of Godliness. Sanctification is the saints being sanctified. It is our growth in holiness, godliness, obedience, and discipleship.

But have I not just narrowed a term that I said was broad? Salvation remains broad; it’s the working out that is the narrow part. This part we call sanctification. Sanctification is working out your salvation past toward your salvation future. The salvation you are to work out is God’s salvation—the whole of it; but the working out of it is narrow, it is part of it.

Now, if you’r estill bothered, I have only two things for you at this point. The first is my weak words, linked below. The second is God’s strong word. When the Word causes you to stumble, it will be the word that steadies. Keep reading. When the Word confuses, it will be the Word that clarifies. Keep reading. The salvation you are to work out, is worked out for this reason, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (emphasis mine).

Tipping the Scales with Balance (Philippians 1:3–11)

“I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:3–11).

If you want the scale of your life to be heavy on thankfulness, you shouldn’t think that petitions burden the scale on the opposite side. When we notice that our prayer life is fat on request and slim on thanks, we can easily become the guy who chases down his steroids with protein shakes and hits the gym twice every day. Sure, he’s bulked up, but that ain’t healthy. What thankfulness is to contentment, we shouldn’t think petition is to discontent. You can’t fix thanklessness with petition-lessness.

In Paul’s prayer not only are thanksgiving and petition mingled, they’re rooted in the same soil. So rather than being puzzled at this odd connection, we must realize that they are unstable compounds when isolated. These two go together like sodium and chloride. They also separate like them. Thankfulness, all alone, is very well as corrosive as chlorine. If your prayers only communicate contentment and no longing, perhaps it’s that you’re at home in this world and merely blessing God for it. We readily note the danger of prayers full nothing but petition. Thing is, if we try to correct it by beefing up on thanksgiving, we’ll find we’ve carried over the same root problem. Both the glutton and the body builder can have the same root sin. What we’re after is wholeness and balance. Perhaps then we should label one side of the scale “holiness” and the other “sinfulness.” If you want the scale tipped towards holiness, you need balance in your life. Not a balance between things such as godliness and ungodliness of course, but a balance of things that both go together on the holiness side of the scale, things like godly thankfulness and godly petition.

Rather than thanksgiving or petition rooted in self, what we need are thanksgiving and petition rooted in the gospel of Christ. What Paul gives thanks for is, upon examination, what Paul petitions for. Paul’s joyful gratitude is rooted in the good work God has done in the Philippians and the gospel partnership that is the result. His petition for them to abound in love with knowledge is essentially a prayer that God will continue to do this good work, a good work Paul has already said he is certain of.

When you want to tip the scales with thankfulness, what you need isn’t less sodium and more chloride. What you need is more salt. Look to Christ. Anchor your prayers in the gospel. Then you will see reasons not only to give thanks; you will long for more.

A Drink from Brooks: Don’t Despise Less as Nothing for Envy of More

“Now, let no Christian say, that he has no communion with God in closet-prayer, because he has not such a full, such a choice, such a sweet, such a sensible, and such a constant communion with God in closet-prayer—as such and such saints have had, or as such and such saints now have; for all saints do not alike enjoy communion with God in their closets: some have more, some have less; some have a higher degree, others a lower; some are enrapt up in the third heaven, when others are but enrapt up in the clouds. What man is there so childish and babyish as to argue thus, that he has no wisdom, because he has not the wisdom of Solomon; or, that he has no strength, because he has not the strength of Samson; or, that he has no life, because he has not the swiftness of Ahimaaz; or, that he has no estate, because he has not the riches of Dives? And yet so childish and babyish many weak Christians are, as to argue thus: namely, that they have no communion with God in their closets, because they have not such high, such comfortable, and such constant communion with God in their closets, as such and such saints have had, or as such and such saints now have! Whereas they should seriously consider, that though some saints have a great communion with God—yet other saints have but a small communion with God; and though some Christians have a strong communion with God—yet other Christians have but a weak communion with God; and though some Christians have a very close and near communion with God—yet other Christians have but a more remote communion with God; and though some of God’s servants have a daily, constant, and uninterrupted communion with God—yet others of his servants have but a more transient and inconstant communion with God.” —Thomas Brooks, The Privy Key of Heaven

A Drink from Brooks: Death the Cure

And as death will cure all your bodily diseases, so it will cure all your soul-distempers also. Death is not mors hominis, but mors peccati, not the death of the man, but the death of his sin; peccatum erat obstetrix mortis mors sepulcchrum peccati, sin was the midwife that brought death into the world, and death shall be the grave to bury sin. Death shall do that for a Christian that all his duties could never do, that all his graces could never do, that all his experiences could never do, that all ordinances could never do. It shall at once free him fully, perfectly, and perpetually from all sin, yea, from all possibility of ever sinning more. —Thomas Brooks, A String of Pearls

A Drink from Brooks: His Mercy Is More

balance-1172786-1279x867.jpgThy afflictions are not so many as thy mercies, nay, they are not to be named in the day wherein thy mercies are spoken of. What are thy crosses to thy comforts, thy miseries to thy mercies, thy days of sickness to thy days of health, thy days of weakness to the days of strength, thy days of scarcity to thy days of plenty? And this is that the wise man would have us seriously to consider: Eccles. 7:14, ‘In the day of adversity consider,’—but what must we consider? – ‘that God hath set the one over against the other.’ As God hath set winter and summer, night and day, fair weather and foul, one over against another, so let us set our present mercies over against our present troubles, and we shall presently find that our mercies exceed our trouble, that they mightily over-balance our present afflictions; therefore let us be silent, let us lay our hands upon our mouths. —Thomas Brooks, The Mute Christian and the Smarting Rod

All Tarnish and No Silver (Jeremiah 6:16–30)

“I have made you a tester of metals among my people,
that you may know and test their ways.
They are all stubbornly rebellious,
going about with slanders;
they are bronze and iron;
all of them act corruptly.
The bellows blow fiercely;
the lead is consumed by the fire;
in vain the refining goes on,
for the wicked are not removed.
Rejected silver they are called,
for the Lord has rejected them” (Jeremiah 6:16–30)

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When God is after silver, bronze won’t do. Jeremiah, as God’s tester of metals, puts Judah into the furnace. During smelting, lead is added and the bellows are blown to introduce oxygen. This oxidizes the lead, so that it acts as flux, combining with impurities to form slag to be removed. All this is done in vain with Judah. The impurities cannot be removed because impurities are all that there are. Judah is all tarnish and no silver. She isn’t a soft malleable precious metal like silver or gold, mixed with some impurities. She is rebellious bronze and stubborn iron all the way through. Judah isn’t a diamond in the rough; she is a lump of coal.

Just because fool’s gold sparkles doesn’t make it valuable. Judah puts on a show of ceremonial obedience, but under the costume, her disobedience goes all the way to the heart (Jeremiah 6:16–20). Judah isn’t a dirty lamb in need of cleaning; she is a goat. Her sacrifices are impure because she is impure. The ore doesn’t need to be purified; it needs to be miraculously transformed.

Are you gold? Are you silver? When you baptize a goat, you don’t get a sheep, you get a wet goat. Many professing Christians don’t need sanctification; they need regeneration. They don’t need to be purified; they need to be born again as a new creation. They need the Midas touch of King Jesus to graciously transform them from being rebellious bronze to repentant silver, from being impure iron to precious gold.

Because Jesus bore the fire of judgment, all who trust in Him are no longer part of the impure ore of this earth doomed for eternal flames; instead, they are precious gold, being refined for the new heaven and the new earth. The flames of purification temporarily burn now for the saints, whereas the flames of destruction will burn eternally for the wicked. If you have not been touched by the King, the flames of this world do nothing for you but expose the impurity that you are.

A Drink from Brooks: Sin is a Straight Flush, but Faith Is a Royal Flush

“Sin always dies most where faith lives most. The most believing soul is the most mortified soul. Ah! sinner, remember this, there is no way on earth effectually to be rid of the guilt, filth, and power of sin, but by believing in a Saviour. It is not resolving, it is not complaining, it is not mourning, but believing, that will make thee divinely victorious over that body of sin that to this day is too strong for thee, and that will certainly be thy ruin, if it be not ruined by a hand of faith.” —Thomas Brooks, Precious Remedies against Satan’s Devices

A Drink from Brooks: Why Isn’t Sanctification Instantaneous?

“Consider, …the reasons why the Lord is pleased to have have people exercised, troubled, and vexed with the operations of sinful corruptions; and they are these: partly to keep them humble and low in their own eyes; and partly to put them upon the use of all divine helps, whereby sin may be subdued and mortified ; and partly, that they may live upon Christ for the perfecting the work of sanctification; and partly, to wean them from things below, and to make them heart-sick of their absence from Christ, and to maintain in them bowels of compassion towards others that are subject to the same infirmities with them; and that they may distinguish between a state of grace and a state of glory, and that heaven may be more sweet to them in the close.” —Thomas Brooks, Precious Remedies against Satan’s Devices

Who not How (Psalm 24)

“The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof,
the world and those who dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1).

The God of Israel is the God of all, and His majesty exceeds His domain, for His domain is finite, but His glory infinite. And thus the question,

“Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD?
And who shall stand in his holy place?” (Psalm 24:3).

Does the answer of the psalmist distress you?

“He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not lift up his soul to what is false
and does not swear deceitfully” (Psalm 23:4).

What of grace and justification by faith alone? Note that the question is not how, but who—same three letters, very different meanings. The grounds upon which the saints come before the Holy One ever remains Christ and Christ alone. But here we do not have an explanation of how we come before God, but of who comes before God.

The hill of Yahweh is Jerusalem and His holy place is the Tabernacle. God dwelt in the midst of His covenant people who He had redeemed by the blood of the lamb. Before bringing them into the promised land He brought them to Sinai to receive His law so that they might be holy as He is holy. The people of God are a holy people because the God of their salvation is a holy God. The saved are saints. We are not fit for His presence, but He is making us so.

Make no mistake about this, if you would see God, you must be holy. Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:3). Elsewhere we are instructed to “strive…for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). J.C. Ryle warns,

“Most men hope to go to heaven when they die; but few, it may be feared, take the trouble to consider whether they would enjoy heaven if they got there. Heaven is essentially a holy place; its inhabitants are all holy; its occupations are all holy. To be really happy in heaven it is clear and plain that we must be somewhat trained and made ready for heaven while we are on earth.”

He continues,

“The favorite idea of many, that dying men need nothing except absolution and forgiveness of sins to fit them for their great change, is a profound delusion. We need the work of the Holy Spirit as well as the work of Christ; we need renewal of the heart as well as the atoning blood; we need to be sanctified as well as to be justified. …What could an unsanctified man do in heaven, if by any chance he got there? Let that question be fairly looked in the face, and fairly answered. No man can possibly be happy in a place where he is not in his element, and where all around him is not congenial to his tastes, habits, and character. When an eagle is happy in an iron cage, when a sheep is happy in the water, when an owl is happy in the blaze of noonday sun, when a fish is happy on the dry land—then, and not till then, will I admit that the unsanctified man could be happy in heaven.”

God saves none but sinners, but every sinner saved is a saint being sanctified. Sinners who come with open hands, claiming no righteousness of their own, will find those hands cleansed by the God they come to in the blood of the Lamb who is their righteousness.