XIV. CHRISTIAN LIFE A RACE.
"Not that I have already obtained, or am already made perfect: but I press on, if so be that I may apprehend that for which also I was apprehended by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I count not myself yet to have apprehended: but one thing I do, forgetting the things which are behind, and stretching forward to the things which are before, I press on toward the goal to the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded: and if in anything you are otherwise minded, even this shall God reveal to you: only, whereunto we have already attained, by that same rule let us walk.
"Brethren, be you imitators together of me, and mark them which so walk even as you have us for an ensample." — Phil. iii. 12-17 (R.V.).
Various passages in this Epistle suggest that the Apostle's Philippian friends or some of them were relaxing in diligence; they were failing perhaps to lay to heart the need of progress, less sensitive than they ought to be to the impulse of Christianity as a religion of effort and expectancy. Some of them, it might be, were inclined to think of themselves as now pretty well initiated into the new religion, and as pretty thorough adepts in its teaching and its practice; entitled therefore to sit down and look round with a certain satisfaction and complacency. If it were so, the tendency to division would be accounted for. Arrogance in Christians is a sure preliminary to heats and disputings. At all events, however it might be at Philippi, an insidious complacency in little improvements and small attainments is not unknown among Christians. It is, one may fear, a common impression among us that we are fair average Christians, — a feeling perhaps not so cherished as to make us boast, but yet so cherished as to make us feel content. And, alas! the very meaning of Christianity was to inspire us with a spirit that would refuse so to be contented.
Some feeling of this kind may have led the Apostle to lay stress on the onward energising character of Christianity as he knew it. This was the manner of his regard to his Lord. At the foundation of his religion there was, indeed, the faith of a wonderful gift of righteousness and life. That gift he welcomed and embraced. But it created in him eagerness of desire, and intentness of purpose, to secure and have all that this gift implied. It stirred him to activity and progress. His was not the Christianity of one who counts himself to have already obtained all into possession, nor of one who finds himself landed already in the state at which the Christian promises aim. Rather he is one set in full view of a great result: some experience of the benefits of it is already entering into his history; but it is yet to be brought to pass in its fulness; and that must be along a line of believing endeavour, Christ working and Paul working, Christ faithful with Paul faithful. "I follow after, if that I may lay hold and extend my grasp, seeing Christ has laid hold with His grasp on me." Christ had a purpose, and has mightily inaugurated a process through which this purpose may be achieved in the history of Paul. And as Christ lays His grasp on Paul, behold the purpose of Christ becomes also the purpose of Paul, and he now throws himself into the process with all his force, to apprehend that for the sake of which Christ apprehended him.
Here Paul signalised one distinguishing attribute of genuine Christianity as he knew it. He did not yet count himself to have laid complete grasp on the whole of Christian good. In a very important practical sense salvation was still something ahead of him, as to the final, secure, complete possession; Christ Himself was an object still before him, as to the knowledge and the fellowship for which he longed. But one thing is vital and distinctive. "This Saviour with His salvation holds me so, that I count all but loss for Him. He holds me so, that forgetting all that lies behind, I bend myself to the race, stretching out towards the goal at which the prize of the high calling of God in Christ is won. That is my Christianity." He who had suffered loss of all for Christ, he who so burned with desire to know Him in His righteousness, in the power of His resurrection, in the fellowship of His sufferings, is far from thinking he has reached the goal. Because the knowledge of Christ is so great a thing in his eyes, therefore, on the one hand, all he has attained as yet seems partial and imperfect; but for the same reason, on the other hand, he feels the great attraction by which all his powers are drawn into the endeavour which so great a prize shall crown.
The question may here be put how the consistency of the gospel can be made out if we are called to rest and rejoice in Christ, and if, at the same time, we find ourselves committed to so absorbing a struggle for a prize. If God will have us, it may be said, to seek and strive that we may obtain, then we must do so because it is His will. But where is the connection of things that will avert inconsistency, and bring out a reasonable continuity of principles, between the call to rest on Christ for full salvation, and the call to run a race, and so run as to obtain? For answer it is to be remembered, in the first place, that (as commonly happens in matters where life and its activities are concerned) the difficulty concerns only the adjustment of our theory; it begins to vanish when we come to practice. When we are in vital contact with the spiritual realities themselves, we find both elements of the case to be true for us, and each indispensable to the truth of the other. The rest of faith and the fight of faith belong to each other. But not to dwell on so general a consideration, two lines of thought may be suggested to those who are conscious of embarrassment at this point.
First, let it be considered that the faith of a Christian embraces real relations with the living God, different from anything that is possible to unbelief. Through Christ we believe in God. Those relations are conceived to be real and vital from the first, though the perfect experience of all that they imply belongs to the future. Faith means that from the outset of believing we are to be to God, and God is to be to us, something different from what the flesh perceives. Christ believed in is an assurance that so it is and shall be. But now, the state of men is such, as long as they have to carry on a life of faith in a world of sense and sin, that this faith of theirs presently meets with flat contradiction. The course of the world treats it all as null. Sin in their own hearts, and many experiences of life, seem to negative the pretensions and the claims of faith. And strong temptations whisper that this high fellowship with a living God not only does not exist, but that it is not desirable that it should. So that from the outset and all along, faith, if it is not content to be a mere dream, if it will count for a reality, must contend for its life. It must fight, "praying always with all prayer," to make good its ground, and to hold on to its Lord. It is indeed the nature of faith to rest, for it is a trust; not less certainly faith is under necessity to strive, for it is challenged and impeached.
It lies therefore in the very nature of the case that, if faith is in earnest in embracing real and progressive salvation, it must find itself drawn into conflict and effort to assert the reality and to experience the progress. The opposition it meets with ensures this.
On the other hand, it is the nature of the gospel to set men free for active service. It supplies motives, therefore, for enterprise, diligence, and fidelity; and it provides a goal towards which all shall tend. So men become fellow-labourers with their Lord. And if it is intelligible that the Lord should exert continual care for them, it ought to be intelligible also that they are to be exercised in a continual care for Him; care, that is, for the discharge of the trust which they hold from Him.
The Apostle dwells on all this, evidently because he felt it to be a point of so great importance in practical Christianity. In this world the right Christian is the man who knows well he has not attained, but who devotes his life to attaining. Paul brings this out by means of the image of a race for a prize, such as might be seen in the public games. This is a favourite illustration with him. His use of it illustrates the way in which things that are steeped in worldliness may aid us in apprehending the things of God's kingdom. They do so, because they involve elements or energies of man's nature that are good as far as they go. As the Apostle thought of the racers, prepared by unsparing discipline, which had been concentrated on the one object; as he thought of the determination with which the eager runners started, and of the way in which every thought and every act was bent upon the one purpose of success, until the moment when the panting runner shot past the goal, it stirred him with the resolve to be not less eager in his race; and it made him long to see the children of light as practical and wise as, in their generation, the children of this world are.
As usual in the case of illustrations, this one will not hold in all points. For instance, in a race one only wins, and all the rest are defeated and disappointed. This is not so in the Christian race. The analogies lie elsewhere. In order to run well the runners submit to preparation in which everything is done to bring out their utmost energy for the race. When the race comes each competitor may possibly win: in order to win he must put forth his utmost powers; he must do so within a short period of time; and during that time nothing must distract him from the one aim of winning. He does this for a benefit embodied in, or symbolised by, the prize which rewards and commemorates his victory. These are the points in which the races of public games afford lessons for the Christian race. In the former the fact that the success of any one competitor deprives the others of the prize they seek, is the circumstance that puts intensity into the whole business, and makes a real race of it. So also in the spiritual antitype there are elements which make the race most real, though they are elements of another kind.
The prize can be nothing else than the life eternal (1 Tim. vi. 12) which comes, as we have seen, into full possession at the resurrection of the dead. He whose favour is life confers it. The bestowment of it is conceived as taking place with gladness and with honourable approbation: "Well done, good and faithful servant; enter you into the joy of your Lord." The prize stands in strict connection with the perfecting of the believer: the time of receiving the prize is also the time of being presented faultless. Neither prize nor perfectness is attained here; neither is attained unless sought here; and the blessedness presented as an honor is connected in fact and measure with the faith and diligence expended on the race. On all these accounts the prize is spoken of as a crown: a crown of glory, for it is very honourable; a crown of life, incorruptible, that fades not away, for it shall never wither on the brow, as the wreaths of those earthly champions did. Now to run his race was for Paul the one thing. He had not yet attained; he could not sit still as if he had: it was his living condition that he must run, as one not yet there, following on in earnest that he might actually have the prize.
Perhaps some one may regard it as objectionable to conceive practical Christianity as a race for a prize. This seems, it may be said, to subordinate the present to the future, this world to the other world, and, in particular, virtue to happiness; because in this way the efforts of goodness here are conceived only as a means to enjoyment or satisfaction there. We reply that the prize does indeed include joy, the joy of the Lord. But it includes, first of all, goodness, consummate in the type of it proper to the individual; and gladness is present no otherwise than as it is harmonised with goodness, being indeed her proper sister and companion. Besides, the elements of the gladness of that state come in as the expression of God's love — a love both holy and wise. Communion with that love is the true security for goodness. It is equally absurd to suppose, on the one hand, that when that love fills the heart with its unreserved communication there can fail to be gladness; and, on the other hand, to suppose that fellowship with it can be other than the proper and supreme object of a creature's aspiration.
There is no unworthiness in devoting life to win this prize; for it is a state of victorious well-being and well-doing. The highest goodness of all intervening stages is to aspire to that highest goodness of all. Whatever we may do or be, meanwhile, is best attained and done as it confesses its own shortcoming, and hopes and longs to be better and to do more.
It is true that a complete gift of eternal life is held out to us in Christ, and it is faith's part to accept that gift and to rest in it. But yet part of that gift itself is an emancipation of the soul; in virtue of this the man becomes actively responsive to the high calling, reiterates his fundamental decision all along the detail of mortal life, affirms his agreement with the mind and life of his Lord, approves himself faithful and devoted, and runs so as to obtain. All this is in the idea of the gift presented as an honor, and is unfolded in the experience of the gift received. So the prize is to arise to us as the close of a course of progressive effort tending that way: the reality of the prize corresponds to the reality of the progress; the degree of it, in some way, to the rate of that progress. The progress itself is made good, as we have said, by perpetually re-affirming the initial choice; doing so in new circumstances, under new lights, with a new sense of its meaning, against the difficulties implied in new temptations; yet so as ever, in the main, to abide by the beginning of our confidence. With all this let it be remembered that the time is short; and it will be understood that the Christian life, so viewed, assumes the character, and may well exhibit the intensity and pressure, of a race.
How far short men fall of the great idea of such a life — how they flinch from the perfectness of this Christian imperfection — need not be enlarged upon. But if any life is wholly untrue to this ideal, the Apostle seemingly could not count it Christian. This one thing he did, he bent himself to the race. For if the ultimate attainment has become very attractive, if the sense of present disproportion to it is great, and if, in Christ, both the obligation and the hopefulness of reaching the perfect good have become imperatively plain, what can a man do but run?
Verses 15 and 16 state the use which the Apostle desires his disciples to make of this account of his own views and feelings, his attitude and his effort, — "As many of us as are perfect."
Since the Apostle has disclaimed (ver. 12) being already perfected, it may seem strange that he should now say, "As many of us as are perfect." His use of language in other places, however, warrants the position that he is not speaking of absolute perfection, as if the complete result of the Christian calling had been attained. Rather he is thinking of ripe practical insight into the real spirit of the Christian life — that is to say, advanced acquaintance, by experience, with the real nature of the Christian life. He uses this word "perfect" in contrast to "babes" or "children" in Christ. These last are persons who have been truly brought to Christ; but their conceptions and their attainments are rudimentary. They have not attained to large insight into the means and ends of the Christian life, nor to any ripe acquaintance with the position of a Christian man, and the relation he holds to things around him. They are therefore unready to face the responsibilities and perform the duties of Christian humanity. Hence the translators of the Authorised Version, in some passages, render the same word so as to bring out this sense of it. So 1 Cor. xiv. 20, "Be not children in understanding: however in malice be you children, but in understanding be men" (τἑλειοι), and Heb. v. 14, "Strong meat belongs to those that are of full age" (τελεἱων).
It cannot be doubted, however, that the word is used here with a certain emphatic significance in reference to the previous disclaimer, "I am not yet perfected." In the Philippians, or in some of them, Paul apprehended the existence of a self-satisfied mood of mind, such as might perhaps be warrantable if they were now perfect, if Christianity had brought forth all its results for them, but on no other terms. In contrast to this he had set before them the intense avidity with which he himself stretched out towards attainment and completeness which he had not reached. And now he teaches them that to be thus well aware how far we are from the true completeness, to be thus reaching out to it, is the true perfection of our present state: he only is the perfect Christian who is "thus minded"; who knows and feels how much remains to be attained, and gives himself up to the effort and the race under that inspiration. It is as if he said: Would you approve yourselves to be believers, advanced and established; would you show that you have come to a larger measure of just views and just feelings about the new world into which faith has brought you; would you have the character of men well acquainted with your Lord's mind about you, with your own position in relation to Him; in short, would you be perfect, fully under the influence of the Christianity you profess: — then let you and me be "thus minded"; let us evince the lowly sense of our distance from the goal, along with a living sense of the magnificence and urgency of the motives which constrain us to press on to it.
For is there such a thing attainable here as a Christian perfectness, a ripe fulness of the Christian life, which exhibits that working of it, in its various forces, which was designed for this stage of our history? If so, what must it be? That man surely is the perfect man who fully apprehends the position in which the gospel places him here, and the ends it sets before him, and who most fully admits into his life the views and considerations which, in this state of things, the gospel proposes. Then, he must be a man penetrated with a sense of the disproportion between his attainment and Christ's ideal, and at the same time set on fire with the desire and hope of overcoming it. Has a man experienced many gracious dealings at his Lord's hands, has he made attainments by grace, has he come to a Christian standing that may be called full age, would he be what all this would seem to imply, — then let him listen and pay attention to be "thus minded." Otherwise he is already beginning to lose what he seemed to have attained.
It is not so surprising, and it is not so severely to be reprehended, if those fail in this point who are but children in Christ. When the glorious things of the new world are freshly bursting into view, when the affections of the child of God are in their early exercise, when sin for the present seems stricken down, it is not so wonderful if men suppose danger and difficulty to be over. Like the Corinthians, "now they are full, now they are rich, now they have reigned as kings." It has often been so; and at that stage it may be more easily pardoned. One may say of it, "They will learn their lesson by-and-by; they will soon find out that in the life of a Christian all is not triumph and exultation." But it concerns those who have got further on, and it is expected of them, that they should be "thus minded" as the Apostle Paul was. It is a more serious business for them to be of another mind on this point, than for those who are only children in Christ. It tends to great loss. Are we, says the Apostle, come to a point at which we may be thought to be — may hope we are — experienced believers, well acquainted now with the salvation and the service, men in Christ? Then as we would ever act in a manner answerable, at this stage, to the gospel and to our position under the gospel, let us be thus minded; forgetting that which is behind, reaching forth to that which is before, let us press toward the mark. For at each stage of progress much depends on the way in which we deal with the position now attained, with the views which have opened to us, and with the experiences that have been acquired. This may decide whether the stage reached shall be but a step towards something better and more blessed, or whether a sad blight and declension shall set in. There are Christian lives to-day sadly marred, entangled and bewildered so that one knows not what to make of them, and all by reason of failure to be "thus minded."
A man is awakened to the supreme importance of Divine things. At the outset of his course, for years perhaps, he is a vigorous and growing Christian. So he comes to a large measure of establishment: he grows into knowledge of truth and duty. But after a time the feeling creeps into his mind that matters are now less urgent. He acts rather as a man disposed to keep his ground, than as one that would advance. Now he seems to himself to lose ground somewhat, now to awaken a little and recover it, and on those terms he is fairly well contented. All this while it would be unjust to say that he does not love and serve Christ. But time passes on; life draws nearer to its close. The period at which God's afflictions usually multiply has arrived. And he awakens at last to see how much of his life has been lost; how extensively, though secretly, decay has marred his attainments and his service; and how little, in the result, of that honourable success has crowned his life which once seemed fair before him.
"Let us be thus minded." Let Christians be admonished who have for some time been Christians, and especially those who are passing through middle life, or from middle life into older years. There is enchanted ground here, in passing over which too many of Christ's servants go to sleep. Leave that which is behind.
Let us be thus minded: but this proves hard. One may see it in a general way to be most reasonable, but to come up to it in particulars is hard. In all particular cases we are tempted to be otherwise minded. And in many particulars we find it very difficult to judge the manner of spirit that we are of. Were all right in us, absolutely right, rectitude of disposition and of moral action would be in a manner instinctive. But now it is not so. With reference to many aspects of our life, it is very difficult to bring out distinctly to our own minds how the attitude that becomes us is to be attained and maintained. The difficulty is real; and therefore a promise is annexed. "If in anything you be otherwise minded." That may realise itself in two ways. You may be distinctly conscious that your way of dealing with some interests which enter into your lives is unsatisfactory, is below your calling and privilege as a Christian; and yet you may find it hard to see how you are to rise into the worthier life. It is like a problem which you cannot solve. Or, again, you may fear that it is so; you may fear that if things were seen in the true light it would turn out so. But you cannot see clearly; you cannot identify the faulty element, far less amend it. Here the promise meets you. "If in anything you be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this to you." Keep your face in the right direction. Be honestly set on the attainment, and the way will open up to you as you go. You will see the path opening from the point where you stand, into life that throughout is akin to the aspiration and the achievement of the life of Paul.
Paul here has regard to a distinction which theorists are apt to overlook. We have a sufficient objective rule in the word and example of Christ. This may be summarised in forms easily repeated, and a man may, in that respect, know all that need be said as to what he is to do and to be. But in morals and in spiritual life this is only the beginning of another process — namely, the subjective individual entrance into the meaning of it all and the practical appropriation of it. I know the whole of duty on the human side: I am to love my neighbour as myself. It is most essential to know it, and a grand thing to have consented to make a rule of it. But, says one, there remains the difficulty of doing it? Is that all? I reply. There is another previous difficulty. I can preach a sermon on loving my neighbour as myself. But what does that mean, for me, not for any one else, but for myself, on a given day in November, at half-past one in the afternoon, when I am face to face with my neighbour, who has his merits, and also his defects, being, perhaps, provoking and encroaching, with whom I have some business to arrange? What does it mean then and there and for me? Here there opens the whole question of the subjective insight into the scope and genius of the rule; in which problem heart and mind must work together; and commonly there has to be training, experience, growth, in order to the expert and just discernment. Short of that there may be honest effort, blundering most likely, but honest, and lovingly accepted through Christ. But there ought to be growth on this subjective side.
Moreover, when progress has been made here it imposes responsibility. Have you been carried forward to such and such degrees of this subjective insight? Then this ought to be for you a fruitful attainment. Do not neglect its suggestions, do not prove careless and untrue to insight attained. Whereto we have attained, "by the same rule let us walk," — or, as we may render it, "go on in the same line." So new insight and new achievement shall wait upon our steps.
Generally, if their Lord had carried the Philippians forward to genuine attainments of Christian living, then that history of theirs was a track which reached further on. It was not a blind alley, stopping at the point now reached. It had had a meaning; there was some rationale of it; it proceeded on principles which could be understood, for they had been put in practice; and it demanded to be further pursued. There is a continuity in the work of grace. There is a rational development of spiritual progress in the case of each child of God. What God means, what the direction is in which His finger beckons, what the dispositions are under the influence of which His call is complied with and obeyed, — these are things which have been so far learned in that course of lessons and conflicts, of defeats and backslidings, restorations and victories, which has brought you so far. Let this be carried out; keep on in the same road. Whereto you have attained, go on with the same.
But such an admonition at once raises a question; the question, namely, whether we are at any stage in the pathway of Christian attainment, whether there is for us as yet any history of a Divine life. Among those who claim part in Christ's benefits are some whom the grace of God has never taught to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts, and to live soberly, righteously, and godly; for they have been persistently deaf to the lesson. There are some who do not know how Christ turns men from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God. To them the line of admonition now in hand does not apply: to exhort them to "walk on in the same" would be to perpetuate for them a sad mistake. Their course has been dark and downward. Therefore to the admonition already given, the Apostle adds another. "Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark (keep sight of) them who walk so as you have us for an example." Do not mistake the whole nature of Christianity; do not altogether miss the path in which God's children go. It is one spirit that dwells in the Church; let not your walk give up the fellowship of that spirit. Christians are not bound to any human authority: Christ is their Master. They must sometimes assert their independence, even with respect to the maxims and manners of good people. Yet there is one spirit in God's true Church, and there is in the main one course of life which it inspires. God's children have not been mistaken in the main things. In these, to give up the spirit and the way of Christ's flock is to give up Christ.
From the Epistle to the Philippians by Robert Rainy, D.D., Principal of New College. Edinburgh. Published by FUNK & WAGNALLS COMPANY in 1990. Digitally produced by Colin Bell, Julia Neufeld and the Online
Insights of the past for the present
To the Philippians - R. Rainy
ON THE BOOK SHELF
May your insights be worthy.