We value our freedom. We will die for our freedom. We declare our autonomy. We have a deep desire to make our own decisions free from coercion. I can do what I want to do as long as it does not hurt anyone else we argue. Don’t tread on me. I live in the home of the brave and the land of the free. Don’t judge me. Don’t lay your moral code on me. I will judge for myself. I will follow my own sense of moral right. Only I can decide what is right for me.
I think our autonomy is God given. We are unique persons with our own characteristics, abilities, desires, needs, goals, etc. We are made in God’s image. We can reason. We have emotion. We recognize beauty. We desire to create. We sense moral good and evil. We love. We freely make decisions and act on them.
But something is terribly wrong with our exercise of autonomy. If when applying our autonomy to real life situations we abandon what is true about ourselves, then we have a serious problem. Examples abound. When a man decides that he is not male, but female, something is seriously wrong. When a society decides that certain human beings, Blacks, or Jews, or Catholics for example are in fact not human then something is seriously wrong. In the name of personal freedom we now turn the definition of marriage on it head to the point that it has no meaning left in it. In the name of personal freedom we say that a baby in the womb is nothing but tissue suitable for harvesting or careless disposal. In the name of autonomy we lower our borders to any who would come into this country, many, not all but many, bring evil intent with them including murder, rape, robbery, and terrorism. In the name of autonomy we are destroying the very fabric of society. I have a right is our rallying cry with anarchy only a breath away.
Man is free, but dependent. Man does not create, he derives. God has placed us in a universe that uniquely supports us. Plants grow and can be harvested to our benefit. Animals can be domesticated to provide nourishment, clothing, even companionship. Within the world God has created for us we are free to eat vegetables, or meat, or both. We can seek our own kind of labor and profit from it. We can breathe the air around us and drink the water that fills our rivers. We can go and come as our whims lead us. Yet in our freedom we depend on what God has provided at every moment of our lives. I am not free from God’s natural law. Gravity wins every time.
There is another dependence that we pay little attention to as we extol our autonomy. We are made in a way that makes us respond to an external spirit. Our human spirit responds to a spirit that is apart from ourselves. God designed us to respond to the Holy Spirit. In our exercise of freedom we were to have God guiding us by His Spirit. We were not made to be robots, but we were made to depend on God to show us what was good in our lives. In the Garden of Eden we decided to assert our autonomy and be like God. We would decide for ourselves what was good or evil for us. In that moment we abandoned our dependence on God’s Spirit and we allowed Satan’s spirit to have sway over our free choices.
What we see today is the consequence of that decision. We are dependent, derivative beings. We depend on spirit to guide us. That is how we are made. We will follow the leading of spirit. We cannot avoid this truth anymore than we can avoid the effects of gravity. What we see in the world is the product of an evil spirit influencing mankind.
Most of us don’t think about the impact of a spirit on our lives. The presence of that spirit is hardly perceived. We only recognize what spirit is guiding us by the fruit that it produces. At the root of the relativism that surrounds us man insists on his autonomy. This includes his absolute freedom from God. He turns his back on God in ways that are beyond rational. In doing so the father of lies places his intent in them and manifests evil through them.
The evidence for man’s need to return to his dependence on God is vividly clear. We are not facing simply political, moral, or ethical issues that a consensus will cure. There is no political solution for our present state. We are facing a spiritual issue that can only be addressed by dethroning Satan’s spirit and replacing him with God’s very presence, His guiding Spirit. In a word, mankind needs to be saved. He needs to be saved from his own autonomy, from his own self-serving living under Satan’s influence.
People need to know the power of the Cross and the Spirit that flows from it. There and only there rests our hope. Christ in you the hope of glory.
The writer of Hebrews makes clear what Christ has accomplished for the believer:
Heb 10:14 For by one offering he has perfected for all time those who are made holy.
Grace teaching makes the point that we are made perfect, i.e. complete in Christ. The argument goes like this. God cannot associate with sin, yet God indwells the believer. There must be a real state within the believer where we are literally made clean in order for God to indwell us. We are born from above, born anew, and given a new nature, a new heart. The inner man is circumcised from our mortal bodies. We are made righteous and sanctified in Christ. Christ would not dwell in a sinful person, so he makes us a clean and a fitting dwelling for a righteous God. We are perfect, made complete, in the inner man even though we continue to live in a mortal body that drags us into acts of sin.
Paul writes to the Philippians (my emphasis):
Phil 1:3-7 I thank my God every time I remember you. I always pray with joy in my every prayer for all of you because of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now. For I am sure of this very thing, that the one who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. For it is right for me to think this about all of you, because I have you in my heart, since both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel all of you became partners in God’s grace together with me.
Verse 1:6 (underlined) is highly controversial. It is a proof text for Reformed theology and is used to support progressive sanctification. Most interpretations overlook the context for this verse. The church at Philippi had given financial support to Paul’s ministry. They have partnered with him in disseminating the gospel. The good work of verse 6 is the outflow of Paul’s proclaiming the gospel through the Philippians and into the world. God began that work in the church of Philippi and it will see completion in the day of the Lord’s return. See Grant Richison’s commentary on this verse for a fuller argument. Make sure to read the comments section where he reinforces his argument greatly. This verse has no direct connection to sanctification, or to our growing into perfection.
The key is that Paul and the Philippians have partnered in promoting the gospel message. That process will see completion at Christ’s return. The church at Philippi shares in Paul’s joy in what God is doing. Later Paul writes:
Phil 1:9,-11 And I pray this, that your love may abound even more and more in knowledge and every kind of insight so that you can decide what is best, and thus be sincere and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God.
Phil 2:12, 13 So then, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence but even more in my absence, continue working out your salvation with awe and reverence, for the one bringing forth in you both the desire and the effort – for the sake of his good pleasure – is God.
Phil 3:8-10 More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things – indeed, I regard them as dung! – that I may gain Christ, and be found in him, not because I have my own righteousness derived from the law, but because I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness – a righteousness from God that is in fact based on Christ’s faithfulness. My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death,
Paul makes it clear in these verses that the life of a believer rests in Christ. Our willing and our doing come from God. Our righteousness is from God and rests on Christ’s faithfulness. Paul longs to know Christ and the power of his resurrection. Thus he longs for the day when he too will be resurrected with Christ in heaven. These verses are looking forward. They have an end in mind.
Paul writes Philippians from prison. His future is uncertain. He does not know if he might be put to death in Rome, or be set free to once again visit Philippi. In either case he rejoices because the gospel goes forth no matter the circumstances.
With Paul’s possible impending death and future physical resurrection in mind (last verse in bold above) he says this:
Phil 3:12-16 Not that I have already attained this – that is, I have not already been perfected – but I strive to lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus also laid hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself to have attained this. Instead I am single-minded: Forgetting the things that are behind and reaching out for the things that are ahead, with this goal in mind, I strive toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Therefore let those of us who are “perfect” embrace this point of view. If you think otherwise, God will reveal to you the error of your ways. Nevertheless, let us live up to the standard that we have already attained.
How has Paul not been perfected? He is righteous and sanctified in Christ. What does he lack? He has yet to die. He has yet to share in Christ’s resurrection. Paul is not yet perfected in this way and he strives to lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus also laid hold of him. Christ calls Paul upward towards Paul’s heavenly resurrected body.
Speaking to those who are perfect, Paul says have this same view in mind. In your sufferings look forward to the your heavenly calling, and your new spiritual body. Yes you are perfect here and now, but in this one sense you are incomplete. You will be made perfect when you die and receive your immortal bodies.
Paul says live up to the standard already attained. No view of progressive sanctification in that phrase. Paul is saying that while we are yet in our mortal bodies we should live in the reality of who we are in Christ. The standard Paul is talking about is Christ in you. Paul is saying in the meantime before our dying let us live in the reality of our completeness in Christ.
For Paul, the Philippians, and Christians generally there is a joy in this life despite our suffering, because we have something better coming. Paul says that the gospel goes forth no matter what our circumstances. Paul is not telling us to strive towards some idealized perfection in this life. He spends much time in this letter describing how futile, crap he calls it, his extensive portfolio of human produced and measured righteousness was. He soundly rejects such an approach to his life in Christ. Paul’s striving is part and parcel to Christ’s call on his life. Paul senses that he might soon die. The Philippians could suffer the same fate. Keep moving forward with joy, says Paul. As we give up our imperfect bodies we will soon obtain perfect ones. In the meantime live in Christ. Live in the reality of His perfection within you and the gospel will go forth to His glory and that gospel will go forth until His return.
If you read commentaries on this passage, you quickly find a spiritualization of Paul’s “upward call” and you find the insertion of process sanctification built upon Paul’s “striving” and his use of the word “perfect.” When Paul says, ” Therefore let those of us who are “perfect” embrace this point of view.” some commentators say that he is using the word “perfect” here with some irony because of course none of us are perfect. They then give various arguments why Paul can’t be saying what he is saying. In essence their understanding takes Paul’s strong stand against “crap,” against his former life of striving for righteousness with zeal and with strict adherence to the law, and reintroduces that striving into Paul’s Christian life. They also deny the truth of the Hebrews verse quoted at the beginning of this blog.
I think the intensity of Paul’s situation is sinking in and he sees his last days unfolding very quickly. He has run a race. It is time to refocus and to forget what went before and to set his sights on the finish line. When he crosses over that line he will win the prize, he will receive his physical resurrection in Christ.
When Paul uses the Greek word for “perfect” he has in mind a specific meaning. It is not our understanding of perfection, but rather the connotation of being complete, being fully functional. Believers are fully functional in Christ. They have the very presence of God in them actively acting in and through them. In this way they are perfect. Paul along with all believers are not fully perfect in one crucial way, we are temples of God, but those temples are made of clay. Our flesh, emotions, mental state all lack the same redemption that our inner man experiences. The flesh must die for us to be complete as we receive our spiritual bodies in heaven. That is what Paul’s upward call is about.
Notice how upside down the gospel becomes when we read into these passages the need for Christians to press on to some idealized upward call of perfection. We reintroduce the very legalism, the works righteousness that Paul so forcefully and graphically rejects.
Col 2:6-11 Therefore, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and firm in your faith just as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. Be careful not to allow anyone to captivate you through an empty, deceitful philosophy that is according to human traditions and the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him all the fullness of deity lives in bodily form, and you have been filled in him, who is the head over every ruler and authority. In him you also were circumcised – not, however, with a circumcision performed by human hands, but by the removal of the fleshly body, that is, through the circumcision done by Christ.
The flesh appears to have a power of its own. It will protect itself at all costs. It will make sure it is fed and watered and nurtured. It forms habits that seem impossible to break. Its emotions drag us from a mountain top to a dark valley in moments. We give the flesh credit for the good things we do and blame it for the bad. We identify with the flesh. We preen it and we do what we can to mold it to an acceptable image. We look in a mirror and we say “that is who I am.” This is an illusion, because this is not who we are in Christ.
When God looks at us he does not look at our flesh. He looks at our new heart and our new mind and He sees Christ in us. How can that be? It is in part because Christ has cut away our flesh. We have been circumcised. Much of our futile human effort to control and to mold the flesh is pure folly. We are trying to accomplish what only Christ can do for us. The truth is that we have been separated from the flesh as surely as Abraham was separated from his foreskin. Like Abraham we struggle to produce life out of our obedience, our good works, our good intentions, our efforts to make pretty our dying flesh. Like Abraham, we can not produce the life that only God can produce. Life is not found in the flesh. The flesh stares us in the face every day. It is seen. Its foibles are there for all to see, often despite our best efforts to hide them. We can always find sin in our flesh.
Col 2:9 For in him all the fullness of deity lives in bodily form, 10 and you have been filled in him, who is the head over every ruler and authority. Take those words to heart. This is who you are. A dwelling place for Christ who in Him the fullness of deity lives. You have been filled with Him! He is head over every ruler and authority and He has dealt with your flesh once and for all eternity. Don’t let anyone deceive you and tell you otherwise. Believe me, there will be voices and pressures surrounding you every moment of every day trying to get you to believe that your identity in Christ lies in your perfecting your flesh. Don’t for a moment believe that lie. Only Christ can perfect us. Only Christ can produce His life in and through us.
How do you hold on to this wonderful truth? You hold on in the same way you were saved, by faith, by trusting in Christ to do all He promises to do in your life. “Christ in you the hope of glory.” You have been given the ability to see the things above and to focus on them and no longer on the things of this world, including your flesh.
Walk in this world knowing that you are filled with God, with Christ and that is who you are, a new creature in Christ. Christ has removed your flesh.