“…forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth
unto those things which are before…” —Philippians 3:13
As we look back on the year 2013, each of us, according to the New Man within us, will humbly confess to God with Jacob of old: “I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies and of all the truth which Thou hast showed unto Thy servant!” (Genesis 32:10). For, in spite of our many sins and shortcomings by which we transgressed His holy Law and earned for ourselves His righteous wrath and displeasure, God in His mercy for Jesus’ our Savior’s sake never failed to open His gracious hand to us anew every morning with innumerable blessings both temporal and spiritual. And yet, because of our sinful flesh, even we, who are His adopted children by faith in His Son, returned Him evil for good at every turn: Neglect for His faithfulness, indifference for His grace, and ingratitude for His bountiful goodness! As we review that miserable track record, we penitently thank God, that where our sin abounded, His grace to us much more abounded (Romans 5:20), so that, as we cling alone to Jesus’ perfect merits as our Substitute under the Law, we have the Lord’s own assurance that our sins have been forgiven and that all our filthiness is covered by our Savior’s righteousness.
Moreover, as we look ahead to the new year before us, “the love of Christ [constrains] us” (II Corinthians 5:14a) with the help of His Holy Spirit to want to amend our sinful life and, out of gratitude for His grace, to live ever better “unto Him which died for [us] and rose again” (v. 15). This sincere desire on our part is NOT, however, what worldly people commonly refer to as a “New Year’s resolution;” for the best-intentioned resolutions of unbelievers to “straighten out their lives,” “get their act together,” and “get right with God” are doomed to failure from the outset! Why?? Because “they that are in the flesh cannot please God,” the Bible tells us (Romans 8:8), and “without faith it is impossible to please Him” (Hebrews 11:6). Not only is their immediate future here in this world headed for disappointment, regret, and even despair, but their real, long-term future after this present life is over will be one of everlasting shame, contempt and punishment in hell!
For us Christians, however, even short-term resolves have their proper place, provided they express our earnest intention, with the aid of God’s Holy Spirit, to bring forth “fruits meet for repentance” in our lives as fruit and evidence of our faith to the glory of God’s grace. For such short-term resolutions stem from our first and foremost concern —concern for our eternal welfare. And, in the title-text of our article, the Apostle Paul addresses that long-term concern and the resolve that flows from it, not only at the turn of the year, but every day of our lives, namely, our resolve as Christians to strive onward to our heavenly goal. We carry out that Godpleasing resolve or “resolution,” Paul says, by “forgetting those things which are behind” and by “reaching forth unto those things which are before.”
The Scriptures, both in these (cf. especially v. 14) and other God-inspired remarks of St. Paul (cf. I Corinthians 9:24-27) and in the Epistle to the Hebrews (12:1-3; 12-13), liken our lives as Christians to a marathon race, an endurance race, which we must finish in order to obtain the prize (cf. Matthew 24:13). Moreover, we recognize that our sins of the past and even of the present, the sins which so easily beset us (Hebrews 12:1b), have held us back like weighted shoes in our race for the heavenly prize that awaits us. Our sins of commission, whereby we have done that which in His holy Law our God forbids, and our sins of omission, whereby we have neglected to do those things which He requires of us —ALL these manifold transgressions are the product of our old sinful flesh which clings to us like an albatross and “wars against” our New Man of faith (I Peter 2:11), seeking to bring him down! Thus Paul says of himself in Romans chapter 7: “The good that I would I do not; but the evil which I would not, that I do. …O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death!?”
Furthermore, our progress in sanctification of life, our steady headway in “the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1), has been severely hurt and hampered by lack of spiritual growth. Just as a marathon runner nourishes his body with proper food and then exercises it regularly to tone it up for the rigors of competition, so we Christians are to take care to nourish and exercise our souls for our spiritual race and for our ongoing battle against the devil, the world, and our flesh, all of whom in wicked consort seek constantly to trip us up along the way and to rob us of our prize! With Paul we freely admit that our spiritual conditioning is far from perfect, that we are far from being ideally fit-for-survival in this life-and-death struggle! For we have not permitted the Lord’s Word to dwell in us as richly as we should have (Colossians 3:16a), having often relegated it to some secondary place on our list of life’s priorities; and we have not grown as we could have in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior, as the Apostle Peter exhorts us to do (II Peter 3:18). And so our Christian life and conduct show weaknesses and gaps and scars which prevent us from walking in the Spirit as we should (Galatians 5:16), from bringing forth abundantly the fruit that we should (John 15:5, etc.), and from letting our light of faith shine before men as we should (Matthew 5:16), as a tribute and beacon to the glory of our gracious God.
“Not as though I…were already perfect,” says Paul in verse 12 just before our title-text. There is almost nothing as dangerous in athletic competition as over-confidence, or, as in the case of our Christian race, self-confidence and pride. And yet our flesh loves to vaunt itself and ascribe to itself strength of faith, unshakable steadfastness, superior knowledge, yea, even imagined perfection! And so we desperately need to hear the warning voice of our spiritual “Coach,” the Lord Himself, through His Apostle Paul, saying: “Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall!” (I Corinthians 10:12). And Paul writes to the Galatians, chapter six, stating what should be obvious: “If a man thinketh himself to be something when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself.”
Now all these things that in the past have hindered our growth in sanctification, have held us back like weighted shoes in our Christian race “for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (v. 14) —our many sins and shortcomings first of all, then our lack of spiritual growth, and finally our fleshly over-confidence in our personal steadfastness— ALL these things we are to “forget,” Paul says in our title-text. Just how can we do that? How can we truly “forget those things which are behind”? Only because God in heaven, for Jesus’ sake, has Himself already forgiven them and has “cast [them] into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19). Yes, the Lord has put all our sins behind His back (Isaiah 38:17), having both forgiven and forgotten them; for He assures us through the Prophet Jeremiah: “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (31:34; cf. Hebrews 8:12). And the Apostle Paul, as the mouthpiece of the Holy Spirit, urges us to do likewise, leaving us his own example; for he writes in our title-text: “Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended [that is, laid hold on the prize], but this one thing I do: Forgetting those things which are behind…” May God by His Holy Spirit, because of His perfect forgiveness of all our sins of the past, enable us to put them now behind us by sincere repentance, surely not just sweeping them “under the rug,” as if they had been “no big deal” in the first place, but throwing them off (Romans 13:12) as useless “dead weight” which we abhor and want to be rid of, so that we can continue our Christian race unhindered (cf. Hebrews 12:1)!
But now St. Paul points out that merely “forgetting” the sins of the past is not sufficient for the attainment of the prize. We ought ever to be “reaching forth unto those things which are before,” he tells us. “I follow after,” he writes, “if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus” (v. 12). That word “apprehend” means simply to “grab hold of” something. As we run our Christian race, so that we may one day lay our hands on the prize of our salvation (for which purpose the Lord Jesus laid His precious hands on us and snatched us from the very jaws of Satan and from everlasting death), we are to “follow after,” that is, we are compelled by His great love, in true faith, to follow in Jesus’ steps on the road to heaven. Now, as we noted before, we can never achieve perfection in this endeavor, even though the Lord requires it of us, saying, “Be ye therefore perfect!” But that is certainly no excuse for falling short of the mark! On the contrary, we are to “follow after” as does a little child who tags along behind his father through drifts of snow. His little feet on his short legs cannot possibly match his father’s stride, and he often stumbles and falls; but, if he is not to be left behind, he must continue to strive on and on, after being set back on his feet by his dear daddy, to fit his little boots into the footprints ahead of him. “For even hereunto were ye called,” writes Peter in his first Epistle, “because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow His steps” (2:21).
And that “following after” is no easy task. It takes fervent, zealous effort on the Christian’s part, by God’s enabling grace alone, to take up our crosses, whatever they may be, and to follow our Lord Jesus, to achieve real progress, real steps forward in sanctification. As we, therefore, “reach forth,” stretch forward as a runner does when nearing the finish line in a race, we dare never forget who it is that enables us so to run; for the Bible tells us: “It is GOD which worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). Let us, therefore, make it our constant prayer that the Lord grant us a rich measure of His grace to continue our race without faltering, “reaching forth unto those things which are before,” those promised blessings which still lie ahead for us as Christians, not becoming “weary in well-doing,” (Galatians 6:9a) but rather “abounding more and more in all knowledge and in all judgment” (Philippians 1:9) based on His precious Word alone, and abounding also in love and good works toward our Lord, His precious Church, and one another; “for in due season,” writes the Apostle, “we shall reap, if we faint not” (Galatians 6:9b).
“I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus,” Paul tells us. We must sprint onward, unrelenting, toward the finish-line that is even now before our very eyes; for the prize is already held out to us, having been purchased and won for us by our dear Savior, our Redeemer, our Champion, our Hero, and our faithful Coach. Earthly runners press on to obtain a “corruptible crown,” Paul writes to the Corinthians (I, 9:25), a mere wreath or garland of olive leaves (the customary reward in those days); and that victor’s wreath soon dried up and crumbled away, leaving only memories of the prize. But OUR prize, laid up for us in the heavens, is incorruptible, “a crown of glory that fadeth not away” (I Peter 5:4). —And even though we must “follow after,” “press toward the mark,” and “reach forth unto those things which are before” with conscious effort and zealous work, nevertheless (unlike earthly prizes which are earned in competition), that “crown of life” is a reward of God’s pure grace in Christ Jesus, which we merely “apprehend” or lay hold on by faith in our Savior. Boasting and pride are excluded when we “finally overcome and obtain the victory” (Luther, Sixth Petition); for our victory is really the victory of Jesus, “who, for the joy that was set before Him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.” And the Lord Jesus Himself, speaking through the Apostle John in the Book of the Revelation, adds concerning our own sharing of His glory as “the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus:” “To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with Me in My throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with My Father in His throne” (Revelation 3:21).
Oh, what a prize, what a goal, beloved of the Lord! There can be no higher reward! This is the glorious future that awaits us by God’s wondrous grace in Christ Jesus —not a future of uncertainty and doubt, not a future of failure and despair (such as the children of this world have to face each and every day of their lives in spite of their “New Year’s resolutions”)! And as we now get a “fresh start,” as it were, in our race as Christians, spurred on by the exhortations of God’s Holy Word, let us remember our resolve, our Christian “resolution” for the New Year of 2014, namely, by His grace to strive onward to our heavenly goal, by “forgetting those things which are behind,” and by “reaching forth unto those things which are before.” Yea, “let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us; and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith!” (Hebrews 12:1-2).
Thus the Lord, our gracious God, grants to each and every one of us the happy, yea, the unspeakably joyful anticipation of His abiding blessings, “not by works of righteousness which WE have done, but according to His mercy” (Titus 3:5) which endureth forever in and through His Son, so that, by confidence in His merits alone, we may “apprehend” or lay hold on the precious “prize” of salvation by grace, both in the New Year and in all eternity, for His blessed Name’s sake!
— D. T. M.