Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Paul’s letter to the Philippians, chapter 3, verses 12-14)
In the Greek games there was an event called the stade race. The stade was a measurement of distance and it was run in a straight line half a stade with a 180 degree return back. Sometimes there was a pole at one end to grab and swing around to return to the finish line. Runners were encouraged to throw their arms out in front of them to increase their speed. As in any footrace, looking back to see how far ahead you were could mean the loss of just enough speed to lose the race. The winner of the race would be called up upon a raised platform by the priest of Zeus and receive a garland crown in Zeus’ honor.
Paul was looking forward to the “prize of the upward call of God” (literal translation of “prize for which God has called me heavenward”) to receive the victor’s crown made possible by God Himself (He enables us to will and to do His good pleasure, 2:13). But the worst thing he could do while in the race was to look back on what he had accomplished. To lean on his accomplishments was tantamount to living as if it were his righteousness that got him there. He had counted his righteousness as rubbish (3:7-9).
So the right perspective for the believer was not the pursuit of perfectionism accomplished in one’s own power, but the pursuit of what Christ had laid hold of him for, to become righteous with the righteousness of Jesus himself. That meant forgetting what was behind, the distance he had already covered in the race, and straining for what was ahead, the finish line, the resurrection from the dead, the upward call to God given to all victors in Christ.
Whenever we get focused on what we have achieved in our Christian lives we have lost focus on Christ. There is always more that He has called us to. Perfection is His only standard because, after all, how could He condone less than pure love and holiness? But even though perfection is not obtainable in this life, for surely Paul would have attained it, it is what we want to be. We want to be like Jesus and He wants us to be like Him.
The true gospel around which we should unite ourselves is the one that focuses on progress, not proficiency.