“That I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if by any means, I may attain to the resurrection of the dead. Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on . . . I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
- (Phil 3:10-12a, 14)
One author writes concerning these verses: “Paul seeks sanctification if perhaps he may attain to the resurrection from the dead. As long as his attitude is always on the goal and the striving required to reach it, he may have relative assurance of reaching it. Should he ever stop running, resting in his present achievements, or should he begin a lifestyle of habitual sin, such would be an indication that he might not truly know God” (William Randall Johnson, “The Problem of Doubt in Philippians 3:11,” Unpublished Master’s Thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1979, pp 50-51, italics mine).
That writer was expressing a view common to some branches of Reformed theology, including Reformed Lordship Salvation. Absolute 100% assurance of salvation is not possible in this life, and we must strive and work to finally be saved.
I was privileged to go to seminary with two world-class runners who also happen to be great guys: Jeff Wells and John Lodwick. Jeff came in second in the 1980 Boston Marathon, and John finished third in 1982. They both have run under 2:11, and Jeff remains the American record holder.
John shared the following story with a high school Bible study I led.
John qualified for the Texas State Cross Country Championships his senior year in high school. His best time in the two mile race was just under ten minutes. His goal was to run the first mile in five minutes even and then run the second in 4:45 or so.
The first half of the race seemed to go well. John was running easily and at the front of the pack. He thought he was on pace. yet when he heard a meet official shout out his time, he couldn’t believe it. He heard, “eighteen, nineteen, twenty.” Mistakenly thinking he was well behind his desired pace, he started running faster. (Actually he came through the mile in 4:18!) He left the other runners behind and didn’t look back.
When he got to within 200 yards of the finish, his body began to give out. He couldn’t even jog anymore. He was forced to walk. At this point he was passed by the eventual winner. With eighty yards to go, he fell to the ground, unable even to walk. Yet he didn’t stop. John actually crawled the final eighty yards and still came in eleventh in the State Meet!
John’s story touched me. In spite of great difficulty caused by a misunderstanding as to his time at the midpoint of the race, John kept moving as best he could. He was determined to reach the finish line. John is a model of the type of perseverance that the Apostle Paul was talking about in Phil 3:10-14.
In vv 4 through 9 the Apostle Paul recounts his testimony. He gave up confidence in his Jewish heritage, his zeal, and his good works, and he placed his trust solely in Christ alone.
In vv 10 through 14 Paul explains what he aims for in the Christian life.
A major question arises because of v 11. What did Paul mean when he said that he hoped to attain “to the resurrection from the dead”?
Clearly, whatever he meant he did not mean that he was unsure of his salvation. This is crystal clear from passages like Romans 8, Galatians 1,1 Corinthians 15, and 2 Corinthians 5.
The word used for resurrection in v 11 is not the same one which is used in v 10. In fact, this is the only use of this word in the NT. The normal word for resurrection is anastasis. The word used in v 11 is exanastasis. A very literal translation, suggested by a number of commentators, is “the out-resurrection.”
It is evident from v 10, 12, 13, and 14 that the out-resurrection is only obtained by persistence in good works. A person must “press on” to obtain it. It is not a free gift and it is not secure until one dies.
Two views are consistent with the context, the rest of Scripture, and the Gospel: the rewards view and the spiritual resurrection view.
The rewards view says that the out-resurrection refers to eternal rewards which will be given to faithful believers (cf. Heb 11:35).
The spiritual resurrection view posits that the out-resurrection refers to the attainment of Christlike character in this life.
The spiritual resurrection view does not exclude a rewards understanding of the passage. While it doesn’t see v 11 as referring to rewards, it does see v 14 as doing so! (N.B. The Greek word for prize used in v 14, brabeion, is only used on one other occasion in the NT, in 1 Cor 9:24-27, a passage transparently dealing with rewards!)
Until recently I held the rewards view. Four factors prompted me to switch to the spiritual resurrection view. First, v 12 fits the spiritual resurrection view better. Christ lays hold of believers so that they may lay hold of spiritual maturity (v 12b; cf. Eph 2:10). Likewise, v 12a is a denial by Paul that he had already attained this. Rather, it was his lifetime goal. Second, the support for the rewards view is tenuous. While it is clear that the NT (and even this passage and Heb 11:35!) teaches rewards, it is not clear that v 11 does. Third, the spiritual resurrection view understands the passage as a whole in exactly the same way as the rewards view. Fourth, the concept of spiritual maturity as a spiritual resurrection is found elsewhere in Paul’s writings (cf. Rom 6:4,11-13; 8:10-17).
Our goal in life should be Christlikeness, spiritual resurrection. This requires endurance. Troubles will come. We may experience major illness, fatigue, discouragement, family and financial problems, and the like. If, in spite of such trials, we press on to maturity, we will receive an imperishable prize!
- “Let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart.”
- (Gal 6:9)