- Perfectly Saved in the Past [Philippians 3:12-16; Titus 3:5]
- Perfectly Saved in the Present [Philippians 3:17-20; 1 Corinthians 1:18]
- Perfectly Saved in the Future [Philippians 3:20-21; Hebrews 9:28]
Once upon a time, there was a perfect man who met a perfect woman. After a perfect period of dating, they had a perfect wedding. Their life together was, of course, perfect. One snowy Christmas Eve this perfect couple was driving along a winding road when they noticed someone at the roadside in distress. Being the perfect couple, they stopped to help. There stood Santa Claus with a huge bundle of toys. Not wanting to disappoint any children on the eve of Christmas, the perfect couple loaded Santa and his toys into their vehicle. Soon they were driving along delivering the toys. Unfortunately, the driving conditions deteriorated and the perfect couple and Santa Claus had an accident. Only one of them survived. Who was the survivor? The perfect woman. Because she’s the only one that really existed in the first place. Everyone knows there is no such thing as Santa Claus and there is no such thing as a perfect man. But if there is no perfect man and no Santa Claus, the perfect woman must have been driving. And this explains why there was a car accident.
Now that I have equally offended everyone here, you may have guessed that this morning we’re talking about being perfect since the passage we’re studying today begins with these words, “I don't mean to say that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me.” Yes, surprisingly to some, the Bible says quite a bit about perfection. But some of what the Bible says about it is still terribly controversial. Primarily, in my opinion, because we lack a thorough understanding of what the Bible writers mean when they use the term. So this morning, using verses 12-21 in Philippians 3 as our diving board, we’re going to take a closer at perfection and hopefully as our video clip implied, graduate to a more mature understanding of faith and how God saves us in every phase of our lives.
“12 I don't mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me.13 No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead,14 I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. 15 Let all who are spiritually mature agree on these things. If you disagree on some point, I believe God will make it plain to you.16 But we must hold on to the progress we have already made. 17 Dear brothers and sisters, pattern your lives after mine, and learn from those who follow our example.18 For I have told you often before, and I say it again with tears in my eyes, that there are many whose conduct shows they are really enemies of the cross of Christ.19 They are headed for destruction. Their god is their appetite, they brag about shameful things, and they think only about this life here on earth.20 But we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior.21 He will take our weak mortal bodies and change them into glorious bodies like his own, using the same power with which he will bring everything under his control.”
The year is 63 AD. It’s about 30 years after the apostle Paul’s conversion experience and about 2 years before his death. He’s already reminded the church in Philippi being attacked from within by control freaks that the grace based church must continue to be a praying church that is unapologetically Christocentric in its teachings—even of the end times. Yes, it will struggle, even with others in it, but in its struggles, it must not become preoccupied with self. Instead, it must encourage those in it and commend them for the good and Godly things they do to incarnate the Gospel so others outside of it and far from God, like they were once, can come a little closer and hopefully someday rejoice with them in knowing Jesus—whom knowing is life eternal.
But apparently, one of the theological controversies like a bent nail sticking out that needs a little more pounding was a corollary of perfectionism called sinlessness. Previously in verse 6 Paul said he “obeyed the law without fault.” But just in case some of the perfectionists causing trouble for the others in the church thought that meant Paul was saying he was sinless, he feels compelled to clarify just a few sentences later in verse 12. “I don't mean to say that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it.”
Paul emphasizes that the perfection he’s talking about is not sinlessness. If it were, the Bible would abound with examples of sinless people. And he would be one of them. But instead, he tells Timothy that he is the chief of sinners [cf.1 Timothy 1:15]. Yes, it’s true Genesis 17:1 says Abraham was perfect and that Job 1:1 says Job was too. But Scripture also says in Genesis 12 and 20 that Abraham lied like a rug! And it also reveals that Job himself said he was sinful. Job 14:16 says, “Instead of watching for my sins...you cover my guilt.” And at the end of Job, in Job 42:6 Job concludes his mea culpa, “I take back everything I said, and I sit in dust and ashes to show my repentance.”
If Job’s perfection was sinlessness, why must he repent? And why if God thinks he’s sinless does God accept Job’s repentance? No, Job knew that His Redeemer liveth and that he will stand upon the earth one day. And that after his body has decayed, after the resurrection, He would fly away and see God! He had that hope! Way back then in Job 19:25-26. Do you?
Yes, God calls Abraham and Job perfect. But no, God does not mean either one was, is, or would be sinless. And neither does Paul. Yuliyan Filipov, pastor of the nearby Swanton and Northwood Adventist Churches is awesome on this. His Hebrew and Greek is way better than mine and he gave me permission to share this with you. Yes, the New Testament was written in Greek, but even the Greek was written with Hebrew thought patterns. And the bottom line is people like Dan Barker in his book Losing Faith in Faith, who insists that a person cannot be perfect and at the same time sinful, are simply wrong. Their objections are based on applying English definitions of words form the 21st century to Hebrews words and thought patterns from antiquity. And in this case, that simply cannot be done. Because according to God, they don’t mean the same things. And shouldn’t God be the one who gets to decide how the words he inspired to be written get to be defined?
So what does perfection mean to God? That’s a good question. We’ve already answered part of it. It doesn’t mean sinlessness. But what else does it mean? It means being mature in thought and action. It means being a man or woman of devotion and integrity who shuns evil. That’s what the rest of Job 1:1 says that some too quickly forget. It doesn’t mean abandoning God when bad things happen. It means abandoning yourself to God. Or on your worst day, at least wanting to. Unlike Job’s wife who suggested he “curse God and die”, Teresa of Avila prayed “I want to want you.” Because honestly, like David in Psalm 39:13, there are days when the most devoted and mature believers don’t want God. And that’s okay. Because on those days, God still wants us! He keeps telling us like he told the main character in the thought provoking novel The Shack that we read together in Soup for You on Wednesday nights, “I’m especially fond of you!”
But even when we’re hurting and angry or confused, we can say so to God. We can want to want God even when we don’t. And that’s good enough for God. Because he’s not looking for ways to keep us out. He’s looking for ways to keep us in! That’s what a God who loves us like crazy is like. Not just one day. But every day. He never changes! That’s what he’s like. We know this is true because Jesus said, “If you’ve seen Me, you’ve seen the Father.”
This becomes clearer when we read about one more Old Testament guy that illustrates the kind of perfection God defines. Just listen to these words from 1 Kings 9:4 from God to Solomon about David. “As for you, if you will follow me with integrity and godliness, as David your father did, obeying all my commands, decrees, and regulations,5 then I will establish the throne of your dynasty over Israel forever.” All English translators of this verse avoid the word perfect at the beginning because they know David slept with Bathsheeba, killed her husband, and did a host of other things that were morally offensive to everyone including God. But the Septuagint, which is a Greek translation of the Old Testament accurately captures the Hebrew thinking of this verse saying David had a “holiness of life.” Ancient Jewish targums or commentaries add that David had an “honest heart.” Honest actions? No! Honest heart? Yes!
So who cares? What’s the point? The point is the same Hebrew word translated “perfect” or “blameless” in Job 1:1 is the same word used to describe David in 1 Kings 9:4. Perfection, in Hebrew thinking, has always meant devotion and a maturing integrity, godliness, and love for God. That’s why Jesus could say to his fair-weather friends in Matthew 5:48, “But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
Can you see how the idea of sinless perfection was foreign to the Hebrew Bible and to the New Testament authors until at least Paul’s day? When Jesus’ appeal to be perfect was brought to the Greco-Roman world, it was misinterpreted and the Greek church fathers birthed something called Monasticism. And forms of this heresy continue to this day. Even in the Adventist church. Where some people say God is waiting for the church to stop sinning and be perfect and that until we do, Jesus can’t come. Well, if Jesus is waiting for us to stop sinning, He’s never going to come because all of us in here need a Savior!
Like the Greek church fathers, we have misinterpreted words. Specifically the words in a paragraph from the book Christ’s Object Lessons page 69 about the church being perfect while ignoring the context of that statement that defines perfection as sincere devotion and mature love. See me later if you want more info on that. Because Paul wants us to move on from this foolishness about being sinless. He says in Philippians 3:15, “Let all who are spiritually mature agree on these things. If you disagree on some point, I believe God will make it plain to you.” Was Paul adamant? Yes. Was Paul a control freak? No.
He continues in Philippians 3:16, “16But we must hold on to the progress we have already made.” And what is that progress? I think it is point number one: That while we aren’t sinless, we are still perfectly saved in the past. Titus 3:5, “He saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He washed away our sins, giving us a new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit.”
Now that’s progress! That’s good news! For Abraham, Job, and David! Hebrews 10:14 adds, “For by that one offering he forever made perfect those who are being made holy.” So not only are we saved in the past, we are also perfected in the past. Because of what we’ve done? No! Because of what Christ has done. Or from that side of the cross, from what Christ would do. But the same good news about being saved and perfected in the past also applies to the present.
“Dear brothers and sisters,” Paul continues in verses 17-19, “Pattern your lives after mine, and learn from those who follow our example.18 For I have told you often before, and I say it again with tears in my eyes, that there are many whose conduct shows they are really enemies of the cross of Christ.19 They are headed for destruction. Their god is their appetite, they brag about shameful things, and they think only about this life here on earth.20 But we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives.”
Yes, we live on earth. In North America. As part of the United States of America. But long before we pledge allegiance we are first and foremost citizens of heaven. Because we have been bought with a price [cf. 1 Corinthians 7:23] and adopted into the family of God [cf. John 1:12]. We have been saved and perfected in the past. And the cool thing is we are also simultaneously being saved and perfected in the present.
The things of this earth are indeed growing strangely dim even while this broken world is falling apart at the seams. The events of the last few days in Tunisia and Egypt remind us of this inevitable truth. There are many in this world heading for destruction. Their god is abusive power or control or money. But all these things will pass away and you can’t take any of it with you. So why cling so tightly to it?
1 Corinthians 1:18 says, “The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God.” After Easter this year, we’re going to be studying the last couple chapters of John and learning about the resurrection power of God that not only pulled Jesus from the tomb but also empowered previously timid fair-weather friends of Jesus hiding in an upper room to take the everlasting Gospel to the ends of the earth. That same dunamis power is available to us today. So we’re going to talk about that. But before we do, don’t miss number two [hey that rhymes! I love that.].
Point number two: We are perfectly saved in the present. We are citizens of heaven on earth. Even though earth is in chaos, we have peace that passes understanding. And we who are being saved know that peace and power comes from God not us. 2 Corinthians 7:1 adds, “Because we have these promises, dear friends, let us cleanse ourselves from everything that can defile our body or spirit. And let us work toward complete holiness because we fear God.” That phrase “work toward complete holiness” is perfecting in the NKJV.
I remember when I first learned points number one and two about God saving and perfecting me in the past and the present. I was in this smelly basement classroom in the seminary in a class taught by Jon Paulien. He had just finished lecturing about all this heavy duty theology and when he was done, he asked all of us converted Christian soon to be pastors to kneel down and accept what Jesus had given us. I did and after he said amen, I ran out of that classroom and into the parking lot shouting for joy. I called my brothers later and asked them if they knew the Good News was really this good. I don’t think I made a bit of sense to them at the time and I didn’t care.
I was still a sinner. Am still am. But if God is crazy enough to see me as saved and perfect, I decided then and there to start seeing myself the same way. That may seem like foolishness to some. If so, it gets even more foolish. Because there is life before death! Everyone these days believes in some form of life after death. But what they rightfully wonder is if there is a life worth living before death? And Paul believed there was.
Philippians 3:20-21 says, “And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior.21 He will take our weak mortal bodies and change them into glorious bodies like his own, using the same power with which he will bring everything under his control.” We can live eagerly in this world now. Because some of Jesus is better than all of anything else. And even if it weren’t, we still have the future!
Point number there: We are perfectly saved in the future too! Hebrews 9:28, “So also Christ died once for all time as a sacrifice to take away the sins of many people. He will come again, not to deal with our sins, but to bring salvation to all who are eagerly waiting for him.”
Good news! Jesus is coming again! And when He does, the question is, will he find you eagerly waiting for Him? There will be sheep and goats. Light and dark. Those inside the ark and those outside it. The Bible paints numerous metaphors for the two kinds of people that will be alive and remain when Jesus comes again. Revelation 6:16 describes one of those groups of people who when they see Jesus would rather the rocks would fall on them so they can hide from the one who sits on the throne. But Isaiah 25:9 describes the other group who will say, “This is our God! We trusted in him, and he saved us! This is the LORD, in whom we trusted. Let us rejoice in the salvation he brings!”
Once upon a time there was a perfect man. And a perfect woman. Their life together was, of course, perfect. Not because they were sinless. But because Christ was and because they were in Christ. When Jesus returns, may we be perfectly saved like them and found eagerly waiting too.