Saturday, May 06, 2006

Philippians 3:15-17 -- Marks of Christian Maturity


Walk into any Christian bookstore and you will find T-shirts, bumper stickers, key chains, and a number of other paraphernalia which are emblazoned with the expression, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” To those of us who understand the practical struggles against which we all wrestle understand the intent of that message. It means that none of us have reached a level of sinless perfection, but God has given those who are in Christ the amazing gift of forgiveness by His grace because of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and His glorious resurrection. In fact, discuss moral purity in any group of Christians, and you will hear it like a mantra – “Nobody’s perfect.” And there will be a hearty AMEN from the whole group.

However, I wonder how many times we rely on this idea as a copout for our own moral failures and a mask for our hypocrisy? We say it to comfort ourselves and justify ourselves for our sins rather than recognizing the enormity of sin and bringing that sin to Jesus in repentance. And if you think that the world around us doesn’t recognize that, you are sorely mistaken. This slogan, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven,” is an affront to moral people who find nothing attractive in the Christian faith that they see and hear professed by believers in their homes, their workplaces, and their communities. It is one of many slogans, which bear a resemblance to truth in their root, and which were championed with purest intentions perhaps, but which ultimately fail to convey the real biblical truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This becomes dangerous because the slogans are easy to remember and pass on. They fit nicely on a bumper sticker. And over time, the slogan is divorced from the principles on which they were based, and the slogan becomes a lens through which we read the Scriptures and a filter through which we screen our theology. I am an advocate of abandoning the pseudo-gospel of slogans and labels in exchange for doing the harder work of actually examining the Scriptures and letting them dictate our theology.

If you use the KJV or NASB, you will notice in Philippians 3:15 that Paul refers to “as many of us that are perfect.” If it is true that none of us are perfect, then how does Paul claim affiliation in this number? The translators of the NIV have tried to avoid this conundrum by rendering the Greek term teleios as mature rather than perfect. I suggest that we have, by and large, misunderstood the meaning of mature and perfect.

The word that Paul uses here was used twenty times in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, often to translate the word we know as shalom. Most of us associate that word with peace, but it is perhaps more accurate to suggest its meaning as encompassing wholeness and well-being. It is used to describe the heart of a person who has turned fully to God and trusted completely in Him. Other ancient writings demonstrate that the word indicates those who are experiencing the fullness of God’s will in their lives. In the New Testament, it is used to describe God, and the degree to which His people are to reflect His character.[1]

So, who are the perfect? They are apparently a group of which Paul considers himself. Yet there is a seeming paradox here, because in verse 12, he says that he has not yet become perfect. So perfection is apparently a condition in which some are already and not yet. While we have not yet attained to the condition of absolute moral perfection in the practical outworking of our lives, there has been a forensic declaration of God spoken over those who are in Christ Jesus declaring them to be righteous. This is the act of justification of which Paul speaks in verse 9 – a righteousness not of my own derived from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. God has offered us a free gift of His grace the opportunity to be engulfed in the righteousness of Jesus – a level of perfection that we could never attain on our own efforts – if we will turn to Him in saving faith and repentance.

So, does Paul mean perfect, or does he mean mature? I believe the answer is yes. While we may chant the mantra, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven,” Paul would disagree and offer instead, “Those who are in Jesus Christ have been declared perfect by God Himself, and the more they grow in their relationship with Him (the more they mature in their faith), the more their lives resemble that declaration.” That just doesn’t fit quite as well on a bumper sticker, but I hope that it sticks well to our hearts and minds today as we consider three marks of Christian maturity that Paul deals with here in the text.

I. Mature Christians share a common Attitude (v15)

Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, have this attitude…

You remember I hope that the word therefore is a trigger word. It should trigger a question in your mind: What is that there-for? This word therefore connects what Paul is saying here to that which has been said in the preceding verses. As we review them quickly, we will discover the attitude that the mature Christian is to have. But not all Christians have this attitude. There are apparently two kinds of Christian according to this verse: those with a mature attitude and those whose attitude is different.

A. When the Christian’s attitude is mature …

This attitude that mature Christians are admonished to share is the one Paul shares in vv7-14. If I could put it all in one sentence, I would say that the mature Christian attitude is a self-denying, Christ-prioritizing, righteousness-receiving, resurrection-pursuing, limitation-recognizing, past-forgetting, forward-reaching, onward-pressing attitude. You got that? These are not attitudes (plural), but according to Paul in v15, an attitude (singular). So we keep it all together. What kind of attitude? A self-denying, Christ-prioritizing, righteousness-receiving, resurrection-pursuing, limitation-recognizing, past-forgetting, forward-reaching, onward-pressing attitude. Let me put it in slow motion.

V7: self-denying

V8: Christ-prioritizing

V9: Righteousness-receiving: The mature Christian does not boast of his own goodness, because he recognizes that he doesn’t have any. The mature Christian recognizes that any goodness that is to be found in him or her was placed there through faith in Christ by God’s grace. The righteousness that believers in Christ is known as an alien-righteousness – it comes to us from the outside by imputation. God grants His very own righteousness to those who come to Him in repentance in faith.

V10-11: Resurrection-pursuing.

V12: Limitation-recognizing.

V13-14: Past-forgetting/forward-reaching/onward-pressing.

Paul says, after saying all of this, Let us THEREFORE have this attitude. Who has this attitude? As many as are perfect. When you see this kind of attitude, you are seeing Christian maturity. But, I confess I think this attitude is rare. In fact, a very troubling reality is how seldom I see this attitude when I look at the face of the guy who stares at me in the mirror every morning. I’ve got to get him straightened out before I start preaching at you folks. So that brings me to the need to talk about …

B. When the Christian’s attitude is different …

I guess this is where we really need to focus, because most of us would probably say that many days go by when we don’t have a self-denying, Christ-prioritizing, righteousness-receiving, resurrection-pursuing, limitation-recognizing, past-forgetting, forward-reaching, onward-pressing attitude. We find ourselves in that different category. Well, here is the thing, if you find yourself there, thank God for revealing it to you. Paul says if your attitude is different God will point it out. This is what we call CONVICTION. But rather than hiding from it, or cowering under it, or ignoring it like an unwanted Christmas fruitcake, we need to EMBRACE this conviction and praise God for calling our attention to it so that we can set things straight and begin the process of mind-renewing transformation. When our attitude is different, and we recognize it, we need to take an inventory. With the aid of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God we need to ask some questions:

- What is my current state of self-denial? Have I told myself “No” lately?

- Does the thought of standing face-to-face with Christ evoke joy or terror in my heart?

- Have I been boasting of my own natural abilities or religious performance instead of trusting in the righteousness God gives by faith?

- Has the so-called spirituality I have been flaunting been just a veneer over pride and arrogance?

- Have I been failing to reach forward for Christ because of a failure to abandon the past – either a besetting failure or a triumphant victory?

As we ask ourselves these questions, we allow the Holy Spirit to work in us to shape us and to transform us by the renewing of our minds so that we begin to shape our attitudes in ways that are in keeping with Christian maturity. Attitudes are a mark of Christian maturity or an indicator of the lack thereof. What does yours say about you?

II. Mature Christians share a common Standard (v16)

Let us keep living by that same standard to which we have attained. That is how it is rendered in the NASB. The italics give away that the translators are being interpretive in their handling of the Greek here, because this is a difficult sentence to translate literally. The meaning is perfectly clear, but the wording is very complicated. Literally, it would read, “However, in what we arrived at, in this to march in line.” You can see that there is good reason for opting for a little smoothing out in the translation. Basically the idea is that we will march together in line with something. What is that something? It is that to which we have already arrived. But what is that? Here is where that already and not yet thing comes back into play.

Already, we have been declared righteous. Not yet are we able to fully live that righteousness out. However, instead of lowering the bar to some attainable standard, such as “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven,” Paul says, “You know the standard – now march in line with it.” The standard is perfection. God has declared all those in Christ Jesus to have attained it by faith in Christ. Therefore, they should all now seek to live by that standard. Christ’s righteousness is our standard, and we are to march in line with Him.

It is true, nobody’s perfect, but that realization must never become an excuse for our failure to strive to demonstrate the righteousness of Christ that God has imputed to us. Rather, the imputation of that righteousness by faith ought to drive us to live accordingly, lest our failure to do so call God’s character into question. If God has called us perfect, yet we do not strive to demonstrate that righteousness in our daily lives, we are in essence making Him out to be a liar. This compounds our guilt before Him, because not only are we now guilty of a specific sin involving the omission or commission of some word, thought, or deed; we are also now guilty of blasphemy because our actions have violated the proclamation of God. So, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness by faith becomes a motivator for us to live lives that reflect that standard, rather than turning the grace of God into a license for sin.

A mature Christian understands that God has satisfied the standard of perfection for us in Jesus Christ and has granted us the merits of that righteousness. And the mature Christian is not content to go on living any old way in the wake of that. A mature Christian says, “What God has declared, I now desire. What God has pronounced, I want my life to proclaim. What God has worked in me, I want others to see working out of me.” And that is a standard of righteous perfection that we are marching in line with as we follow Christ. We will fall short of it – no doubt – but the mature Christian doesn’t blame his or her failure on the standard. He or she gets back up, and falls back in line marching steadfastly after Christ.

III. Mature Christians share a common Example (v17)

Let there be no confusion: there is only one ultimate role model for Christians, and that is the Lord Jesus Christ. When you want to know how to live hard for God, you look to Him and NEVER will you be led astray. But, there is a sense in which we need our role models to be a little more easy to identify with. I can ask WWJD – What Would Jesus Do? – and I might even be able to answer that question, but I still need someone I can look to who can tell me, or better yet show me, how to do it. I know that I can never be just like Jesus until I am transformed into His likeness at the resurrection. But maybe, just maybe, by God’s grace, I can be like Paul.

Paul is someone I can relate to. He was not a perfect man, but I would suggest that he served Christ with more passion, more zeal, and more effectiveness than anyone in history. Before becoming a follower of Christ, he hated the Christians and the church, but afterward, he was a man on fire for God’s glory. When I look at Christ, I see perfection. He was perfect from day one. But when I see Paul, I see someone whom God changed from a severely flawed past to a faithful life of ministry. And while I may not find perfection in a human role model, I can find maturity and a life that strives to demonstrate the righteousness he or she has received by God’s grace.

Paul says, “follow my example.” That my sound arrogant to some. Who does Paul think he is, setting himself up as an example of Christian maturity? Well, in another place, he uses more words to say the same thing, and to clarify exactly how he can say this. In 1 Corinthians 11:1, he says, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.” If in some way, Paul’s life fails to be an imitation of Christ, he would not want you to imitate him there. But where his life is a reflection of the life of Christ – that is where we can follow his example.

Notice also that Paul does not consider himself the only spiritual example for maturing Christians. In addition to, “follow my example,” he says, “observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us.” God has provided countless others down through the ages (some well known, others not) who have continued to demonstrate this example of what it means to follow Christ. If you know nothing of church history, these names will not mean anything to you, and I would recommend you write down some of these names and investigate their lives. But as I think about great examples of Christian maturity, I see a parade of saints: Polycarp, Chrysostom, Athenasius, Augustine, Patrick, Peter Waldo, Francis, John Wycliffe, Jan Hus, Martin Luther, Balthasar Hubmaier, John Calvin, John Knox, Jonathan Edwards, William Carey, Charles Spurgeon, Adoniram Judson, Luther Rice, Lott Carey, Lottie Moon, Gresham Machen, C. S. Lewis, Billy Graham. These are well-known examples of people who have been examples to us of Christian maturity. But for every one of these, how many of hundreds of others were there who were not very well known outside their own church family. How many Paul Earlys or Mark Corts have their been? How many Sunday School teachers, Christian business professionals, ordinary laymen who live faithfully for Christ every day of their lives? They don’t have to be famous. God has called us to be faithful. And when you see a faithful display of Christian maturity, Paul says, they are walking according to this pattern, and you should observe them and follow their example.

This tells us one more thing – when you follow this example, you become an example to others. Three figures that loom large in the New Testament are Barnabas, Paul and Timothy. Barnabas is known as an encourager; he led Paul to Jesus. Paul was the great theologian of the early church, preaching the gospel and spreading the glory of Christ through the entire known world. Timothy was the young Christian who traveled with Paul and learned from him how to serve Christ. As I think about these three men, I think about how each of needs a person like this in our lives, and need to be this person in others lives. We all need a Barnabas – someone to encourage us and believe in us when no one else will. But we also need to be a Barnabas for someone else – maybe that person is going to be a Paul, but not without us being Barnabas to them. We all need a Paul. Someone wiser in their walk, who can teach us the deep things of God. We are like a Timothy to that person, learning from them how to serve God faithfully. But we all need to be a Paul as well. We need to take a Timothy under our watchcare and shepherd him or her toward Christian maturity. In doing this, in being Barnabases, Pauls and Timothys, we are both following the example of Christian maturity, and setting that example for others to follow.

So, are there any perfect Christians? Paul seems to think so. But perfect doesn’t necessarily mean someone who never sins. Perfect means spiritually mature. And a person who is spiritually mature is one who has a certain attitude, who strives to live up to a certain standard, and who follows a certain example. If you aren’t there yet, don’t give up. This passage is not meant to discourage but to encourage. You can do it. God’s grace and power are at work in you shaping you toward maturity. The mark of a mature Christian is that his or her life is ever moving closer to Jesus. Maturity is more of a direction than a destination. And I want to move in that direction for the rest of my days. And my prayer for you is that you will as well.

As we bring this to a close, I want to challenge you to respond. If God is speaking to you today about your attitude, don’t be disheartened about your present state. Thank God that He is challenging you to reevaluate things, and then commit this matter to Him and allow Him to revolutionize your mindset and your priorities. How about the standard you are living by? If you are content to strive for anything less than excellence, purity, and absolute righteousness, you are contending against the declaration God has spoken over you. He has called you righteous, and you should seek to live by that standard. What about your examples? Who are your role models in the faith? Who are you being a role model for? I guarantee you someone is looking at your life and you are setting an example for them. Maybe a friend, a child, a grandchild, a neighbor, a coworker: What does your example tell them about following Christ? If your heart is burdened today about any or all of these concerns, then I challenge you to commit these things to the Lord and ask His guidance and direction to lead you to spiritual maturity.

Perhaps He would begin leading you there today by convicting you of the need to take the first step. There very well may be someone reading this who has never trusted Jesus Christ as his or her personal Lord and Savior. Why should you do that? Because your sins stand between you and a holy God. But He loves you so much that He has taken the initiative to save you by wrapping Himself in human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, and satisfying the righteous demands of the Law on your behalf, and dying in your place to take the penalty you deserve. And in raising from the dead, He has sealed your pardon, purchased your redemption, and offers for you to receive eternal life with Him as a free gift of His grace. He took your sins upon Himself, and offers to place His righteousness over you in exchange. If you have never turned to Him in repentance and in absolute faith and trust, then I want to speak to you about that at this moment, with hopes that you will today. Please email me or leave a comment to this posting, so we can dialogue together about God’s plan for your life.


[1] Peter T. O’Brien, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 434.

1 comment:

"Cav" said...

Verses 7-9

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in [a] Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.

Inspired the following:

This world holds nothing for me - only heartache and pain
This world sucks the life from me - so much to lose, yet nothing to gain.
I hear so many suffering,
What can I do to ease their pain?

Pray that you will comfort them - pray you'll light their way.
Yet when my prayer is over,
everything appears to be the same.

But YOUR love has reached out to them through the tears that pour like rain.
And I know you are listening
Though sometimes I don't see the change.

My faith in you does not falter - my love for you remains unchanged.
LORD help me reach out to others - Help me love them in you name.

Though this world holds nothing for me
I withstand all those heartaches and the pains - for I know that you are with me and with you I have everything to gain.