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Pressing On Salvation, Spiritual Growth and Holiness

I wrote this article shortly after the first of the year in 2009.  The principles, however, are relevant anytime during the year.

After the Christmas celebrations ends and the New Year begins, many Christians temporarily slow down and take stock of our lives.  After the joyous celebrations of the Christmas season, sadness and even depression can set in.  This can happen anytime, but seems to be especially prevalent at the beginning of a new year.  We often look back at a less than ideal year in which the valleys greatly outnumbered the mountaintops, and wonder if the current year will be any better.  Our spiritual growth seems extremely slow, even stagnant at times.  It is for those believers, like myself... or maybe especially for myself, who have experienced and struggled with these thoughts and doubts, that I write this article.

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New Year Resolutions

At the beginning of a new year, it’s only natural that we pause to reflect on our accomplishments and failures from the previous year.  During this time, many will make some resolutions for the year ahead.  Some common resolutions include vowing to spend more time with family, tighten the budget, get a promotion or a better job, saving more toward retirement, take a vacation, eat right, get more exercise, quit smoking or drinking, take a class, or volunteer to help others.

It is important to be concerned with our physical, mental and financial interests, but it is absolutely crucial that we not neglect our spiritual well-being.  We should say with the Psalmist, Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.  See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting (Ps 139:23-24).  Paul wrote to the Corinthians to judge themselves so that they would not be judged by God.  This judging was an evaluation for believers rather than a condemnation for unbelievers, affecting their fellowship with Him, but not their salvation.

From my own perspective, as I look back over the previous year, I see many accomplishments with our ministry, but I also fell short of many goals.  There are several articles and sections that I was hoping would be finished and loaded to our web site by now.  Personally, the progress that I’m making in my spiritual walk seems painfully slow.  I often seem to take one step forward and two steps back.

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Mountaintops and Valleys

I think most of us experience periods in our life when we’re on the mountaintop, feeling like we can conquer the world, but on other occasions, we’re in the valley feeling hopelessly ineffective.  Contrary to Joel Osteen and many other modern preachers, the Christian life is not one long high.  Neither is it one linear period of steady growth.  From the time we come to the cross and receive redemption to the moment of our arrival in heaven, our spiritual growth usually comes in spurts, interjected with periods of slow progress, stagnation and even some backsliding.

I believe God allows us to go through the valleys for our own benefit.  When we look back over our lives, nearly all of us would admit that most of our spiritual growth has occurred when we were in the valley rather than on the mountain.  Journeying through the valleys should also compel us to keep our focus on God instead of dwelling on our circumstances.  When on the mountaintop, we have a tendency to focus on and worship the highs (our feelings) rather than God Himself.  God allows us to go to the mountains for inspiration, but our work is done in the valleys.

Jesus took Peter, James and John to the mountaintop to witness His transfiguration (Mt 17, Mk 9).  After the appearance of Moses and Elijah, Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here.  Let us put up three shelters--one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah" (Mk 9:5).  I think most of us are like Peter, thinking "All right, this is the life.  I can get used to this.  Let’s put up some tents and stay awhile."  Instead, Jesus led them back to the valley because there was work to be done.

We must be thankful when God allows us on the mountain, but we should also be on guard.  Sometimes our greatest failures can follow our greatest accomplishments.  In Matthew 16 (also Mk 8 and Lk 9), Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, and Jesus calls him blessed that this confession was revealed by God.  Immediately afterward, Jesus predicts His death, but Peter rebukes Him, forcing Jesus to respond, "Get behind me, Satan! You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men" (Mk 8:33).  Another example is the prophet Elijah who, shortly after the victory over the prophets of Baal (1Kg 18), he asks God to take his life (1Kg 19) when threatened by Jezebel.

So, during these times in the valleys, we can take comfort from the lives of the giants of the faith that have come before us, all of whom experienced both feelings of elation and dejection on occasion.  Perhaps the best example is King David, a man after God’s own heart, who recorded many of his alternating highs and lows within the Psalms.  Charles Spurgeon, the great preacher of the nineteenth century, struggled with clinical depression for many years.  Even the Apostle Paul, who many consider to be the greatest Christian who ever lived, expressed frustration at his propensity toward sin (Rom 7:14-25).  His letter to the church in Philippi has much to say about the times when we are in the valley, when God appears to be silent, and when our joy is fleeting.  The following passages in particular, offer great advice concerning our spiritual walk.

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Scripture Basis for Striving to Grow Spiritually

Of course, the Bible is loaded with exhortations concerning our spiritual growth and progress, but we’ll use Philippians 3:12 - 4:1 as the basis for this article.  We have also included verses 3-11, which help place our subject passages in context.  In this article, a "v" followed by any number in parenthesis will refer to these passages.  For example, (v15) refers to Philippians 3:15.

3:3For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh-- 4though I myself have reasons for such confidence.

If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.

7But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ--the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. 10I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

12Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

15All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. 16Only let us live up to what we have already attained.

17Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you. 18For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. 20But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

4:1Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends! (Php 3:3 - 4:1)

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Three Tenses of Salvation in Philippians 3

Paul wrote to the Philippians from a prison, probably his house arrest in Rome.  Even a house imprisonment would not be pleasant, particularly with the possibility of execution looming, so he wanted to assure the church that he was still in good spirits through his faith in Christ and that everything was happening for the advancement of the Gospel (Php 1:12-18).  Paul’s purpose in writing goes even further, encouraging the believers at Philippi to continue to make progress in their faith (1:25, 3:12-16).

This process of progressing in the faith is known as the Sanctification phase of our salvation.  The salvation process includes a past, present and future element.  That is, as Christians, we have been saved (Justification), we are being saved (Sanctification), and we will be saved (Glorification).  In the past, we were justified by grace thru faith, our sins were forgiven, and we were imputed with the righteousness of Christ.  Presently, we cooperate with God by yielding to the Holy Spirit’s leading as He continues to sanctify us by conforming us to the image of Jesus.  In the future (when we die), we will be glorified and become like Christ (1Jn 3:2).  To put it another way, Justification saves us from the penalty of our sin, Sanctification is saving us from the power of sin, and Glorification will save us from the very presence of sin.

The third chapter of Philippians provides us with an excellent picture of the three phases of salvation.  In verses 1-11, Paul turns away from his reliance on his own achievements and trusts in the grace of God and the sufficiency of Christ for his justification.  In verses 12-16, he exerts an all-out effort to press on to spiritual maturity during his sanctification.  Finally in verses 17-21, he looks forward to the coming of Christ and the transforming of his earthly body upon glorification.

Now, justification and glorification are very pleasant experiences, but sanctification can be a real pain.  In the one-time acts of justification and glorification, God does all the work, but with sanctification, we must participate as God works through us.  We certainly don’t mind being declared righteous and not guilty, and we look forward to finally seeing Jesus face to face, but the process of sanctification can require many sacrifices and hardships.  I sometimes think it might be nice to skip it altogether, but we are saved not just to be guaranteed a trip to heaven, but for doing good works here on earth (Jn 17:15, Eph 2:10) and to be conformed to the image of Christ (Rom 8:29, Eph 4:13, Heb 12:10).  We can also be confident that we do not labor in vain (1Cor 15:58) and that our spiritual growth is worth any sacrifices that we might make (v7-8, also Mt 19,29, Rom 8:18, 2Cor 4:17). 

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Holiness and the Doctrine of Christian Perfection

A few weeks ago, I heard a Bible teacher speaking on materialism.  In his introduction to the subject, he stated that most folks within the room were probably mature enough in their Christian walk that their primary problems were not with sin, but with the error of choosing the "good" rather than the "best" in certain situations.  This speaker is very orthodox and was merely attempting to compliment his audience rather than downplaying the seriousness of sin, however this brought a few thoughts to mind.  First, we should not compare our spiritual progress with that of others, but being human, as we observe everyone else on their best behavior at church, we sometimes wonder if we’re the only one struggling with sin.  Have many of our fellow Christians gotten past this point, and is this even possible?

There is a doctrine of Christian Perfection which states that, after conversion, a Christian can eventually mature  in the faith enough to attain the state of sinless perfection by a second filling of the Holy Spirit.  This doctrine, endorsed by a faction commonly referred to as the Holiness Movement, has been associated with the followers of Methodists John and Charles Wesley and theologian Charles Finney, among others.  The best known modern proponent of this doctrine is the Salvation Army.  The great evangelist Harry Ironside, in his 1914 book, Holiness – the False and the True, wrote of the time early in his ministry career that he spent with the organization, revealing many struggles of his fellow officers in their attempts to obtain this perfection.  The SA is well recognized for their great humanitarian efforts, including the building of mental hospitals, but what is not so well known is the fact that many rooms were filled by their own members, driven there by their inability to obtain perfection.  Mr Ironside writes of the time he checked himself in, only to find many other officers already admitted that he had thought had achieved perfect holiness.  They were likewise surprised to see him there.  It was then he began searching elsewhere, re-examining the Scriptures along with many notes from his Christian mother, when he realized that perfect holiness was not possible in this life, and that oftentimes we must simply fall back on grace.

The doctrine of Christian perfection must also be rejected on the basis of Holy Scripture.  The Apostle John writes, If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.  If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives (1Jn 1:8-10).  What a great encouragement that these same verses which repudiate our perfection, also declare the good news of His promise of forgiveness upon confession of our sins.

We’ve already mentioned the struggles of many Biblical characters and other saints, but we can also turn to the scriptures for more evidence.  In verse 15 of our subject Scriptures, when Paul writes, "All of us who are mature should take such a view of things," the same Greek word (teleios) for "mature" is translated as "perfect" in verse 12.  What he’s saying here is that, those who are really "perfect" or mature should realize that they are not perfect.  The fact that we realize that we’re not perfect is actually a sign of maturity.  On a related note, we could add that, the closer we get to God, the more we see ourselves as we really are.  As we mature and our minds become more like Christ’s, we develop an increased sensitivity to our sins.  So, even though we sin less often, we’re more aware of the sins that we do commit, which explains why we often think we’re sliding backward when we’re actually going forward in our spiritual walk.

Yet, despite our progress, we’ll never reach perfection this side of heaven.  Elsewhere, Paul writes to the Corinthians that "The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know" (1Cor 8:2).  We’ve already mentioned Paul’s struggles with sin as recorded in Romans 7.  It’s also very important to note that he wrote these Scriptures not as a new convert, but after he’d been a Christian walking with the Holy Spirit for over twenty five years.  So, if the Apostle Paul, one of the greatest Christians to ever live, who saw the risen Christ face to face on the road to Damascus (Acts 9) and was caught up to the third heaven in a vision (2Cor 12:2-4), continued to struggle with sin, how much more will we?  This does not give us a license to sin without regret or repentance, but allows us to forget what is behind and press on to our goal for which God has called us.

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Spiritual Growth

In Philippians 3, Paul not only exhorts us to press on in our spiritual walk, he also tells us how.  He gives us several principles and methods by which we may continue to grow spiritually.

As with most other aspects of the Christian life, we must begin with prayer and obedience to the Bible.  It is by prayer and study of the Scriptures under the guidance of the Holy Spirit that we connect to God, drawing upon the power of the resurrection (v10).

Next, our growth requires an effort on our part.  The phrase "let go and let God" is catchy, but we must actively participate in our growth process.  We can’t just sit on the couch watching television and expect God to grow us.  There are times to wait on the Lord, but this is usually an active waiting, that is, time spent in prayer,  study and seeking His will, not merely doing nothing.  The Greek behind "press on" (v12) speaks of an energetic endeavor, straining every muscle in a maximum effort to win the prize.  Paul places great emphasis on this, as evidenced by the phrase "but one thing I do" (v13).  We must always balance our faith with works, which is our response to God's calling.

We must also fix our eyes on the target (v13).  Very few races are won by looking backward.  This does not mean that we should forget the past, else we would not learn anything from it.  It means that we should not dwell on the past, either on our accomplishments or failures.  We should also guard against backsliding since we are held responsible for the revelation given to us (v16).  We must keep our eyes on the ultimate goal, to be conformed to the image of Christ (v21).

Keeping our eyes on the goal also helps prevent us from being distracted by the enemies of the cross (v18-19).  We are warned all through the New Testament about false prophets (Mt 7:15, 24:11 and Acts 20:31 for example).  The best way to discern and guard against these hidden enemies is by knowing the Word of God through diligent studying of the Scriptures so that we aren't being misled by their false teachings.

Another effective method of growing spiritually is by finding mature Christians to imitate.  Paul himself urged the Philippians to follow his example (v17, Php 4:9).  Paul was a model of virtue, service, stewardship, humility, courage, patience, self-control and other aspects of the victorious Christian life.  Other Biblical examples are found in 1Cor 11:1, 1Tim 4:12, Heb 13:7 1Pt 5:1-3 and throughout Heb 11, not to mention all the passages exhorting us to imitate Christ.  There has been a tendency over the past couple of generations to lower our standards for what we consider to be Christian role models.  We must continue to hold ourselves and our leaders to the norms set forth in Holy Scripture.  That said, we can also take comfort that, though we fail on occasion, God can still do great works through imperfect people.

Finally, Paul does not leave us without any motivation.  In verse 14, he mentions winning the prize.  This prize ultimately involves inheriting the heavenly kingdom and forever dwelling face to face with God, but he also mentions many crowns in his various canonical letters.  We discuss these in our article Going for the Gold.

In this material age, many of us have become too preoccupied with earthly values.  Modern preachers have contributed to this mindset by an increasing emphasis on immediate prosperity and self-gratification while practically ignoring the subject of heaven.  We must refocus our attention on the eternal things that really matter.  Paul writes that our citizenship is already in heaven (v20), so we look forward to being like Christ (v21, also 1Jn 3:2).  We can be sure that He who began a good work in us will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Php 1:6 ESV, see also 1Cor 15:12-28).

Because of this, even when we’re struggling through the valleys, we can be content in any circumstance.  Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all.  The Lord is near.  Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Php 4:4-7).

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Pressing On

A few years ago, a few contemporary recording artists such as Larnelle Harris, First Call and others, released a compilation of songs based upon the spiritual journey of the Apostle Paul.  The project was fittingly entitled "Pressing On".  The title cut is performed by Michael O’Brien, former lead vocalist for Newsong, one of my all time favorite groups.  This song has been a great inspiration to me during my times in the valley.

Discouraged, when I look around,
And all the news that comes
Only brings me down.
When I look within,
At the weakness that I find
As I struggle with my sin.
Yet I’ll rise to face one more day,
And I'll walk one more mile
On the road called faith.

Oh, I'm pressing on.
He is my strength when the journey grows long.
Till my eyes finally see his kingdom dawn,
I'm pressing on.

Before me,
Work he's calling me to do.
I look out on a world so in need of truth.
And in this field
I may water, I may sow.
Yet always in the end,
It's God who makes things grow.
And although it's not clear what's in store,
I want to be faithful to my lord.

So I'm pressing on.
He is my strength when the journey grows long.
Till my eyes finally see his kingdom dawn,
I'm pressing on.

When we persist in this labor of love,
There's a harvest to reap
If we don't give up.

So I'm pressing on.
He is my strength when the journey grows long.
Till my eyes finally see his kingdom dawn,
I'm pressing on.

Michael O’Brien - Pressing On

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