Pressing Toward the Goal

Dr. Brian Allison

I was speaking to an associate of mine. He had not only come to the 'edge', he was going over. He announced that he could not take the pain any longer; that there was nothing worth living for any more; and that he could finish himself off pretty quickly. It was a dark period in his life. Similarly, I recently received a telephone call from a distressed young woman. She was alone. Her family had gone away for a few days. That apparently was not a good decision by the family. She despondently wondered whether she would be alive the following morning. She complained that no one loved her, that no one wanted her, that no one cared for her; and hence it was not worth staying alive. She too said that she could not take the pain any longer.

How about you? Maybe you are wondering about the futility of life, saying to yourself, "I cannot take the pain any more. It is pointless being here; there is no sense fighting to hold on any longer." And thus you may be ready to give up and 'throw in the towel'. You may be ready to 'roll over and die'. Are you feeling despondent, defeated, discouraged? Have you lost hope that there will be a brighter tomorrow, having sunk into a gloomy black hole? Have you lost the will to press on? Henri Nouwen, in The Wounded Healer, writes about a man who underwent surgery. It was not a serious surgery. He did not suffer from a life-threatening condition. Surprisingly, he died during surgery. The reason that Nouwen gives for this unexpected death is that the man did not have the will to live. He apparently had lost hope. It was not that his body gave in, but that his spirit gave in. Proverbs 18:14 reads, "The spirit of a man can endure his sickness, but a broken spirit who can bear?" Simply put, when someone is resolved or determined to press on, when he has made up his mind to move forward, then in that frame of mind, with that tenacious attitude, he can bear up with his bodily weaknesses, infirmities, and sicknesses. But if the person has become despondent or defeated, having lost a sense of purpose, then the outcome is dreary and hopeless.

Many people do not have the will to press on. They buckle under the load of distress, disillusionment, and discouragement. That is the tragedy, isn't it? Now, what is true in the physical realm is also true in the spiritual realm (which I suppose entails more serious consequences). There are professing Christians who are saying, "What is the point? I do not know if I can take this struggle any longer. The demands of discipleship are too great; the requirements of holiness and righteousness are too high. Quite frankly, I am tired of trying to live the Christian life and persevere. It is too much for me to press on." Are you thinking about giving up? Is that your present situation?

We will continually be faced with our imperfections. Self and sin are the reasons for our imperfections. But we should not allow the imperfections of this life – the struggles of sin and self – to discourage or defeat us. Even though we are faced with imperfections, we are to be neither complacent nor content. Rather than giving up in our dissatisfaction with how things are going, we should be inspired and motivated to press on. In Philippians 3:12-14, the apostle Paul affirms, "Not that I have already obtained it, or have already become perfect, but I press on in order that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus."

The apostle was dissatisfied with his spiritual condition, as well as with his present spiritual attainments. Yet he was neither defeated or discouraged, nor was he complacent or content. He was not a whiner, nor a complainer. He was a realist and he was determined to press on. My brothers and sisters, you need to press on. You need to persevere, regardless of your situation, regardless of the things with which you are struggling, regardless of the discouragements, regardless of the reactions by your friends, colleagues, or family members. You must show the same spirit as that of the apostle Paul.

The goal clearly in view

Now, if we are to press on, we need to have very clearly in view the end toward which we are pressing on. We need to have the goal clearly before us. The apostle uses the language of athletic competition, that of a race. There is an end point, a finish line, which must be reached if one is to win. There is a prize to be received, having reached the finish line. This particular prize relates to the 'upward call', that is, that which pertains to heaven. The prize concerns eternal life, full salvation, redemption. And we do not receive the prize unless we reach the goal. 2 Timothy 4:7,8 reads, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness [the prize], which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing." Paul obviously describes the prize in different ways; and in this text he refers to it as the crown of righteousness. In reaching the goal, we will enter into impeccable moral perfection in the presence of God. We will assume His character. That is the prize; and the apostle could say with confidence that he would receive this prize because he had fought the good fight and had finished the course, and thus had kept the faith.

Do you get a sense of what is the goal toward which we must press on in order to get the prize? I suggest that the goal to which Paul is referring (as implied in 2 Timothy 4:7,8), toward which we need to be steadily, progressively, and continually moving, is remaining or persevering in the faith, and thus remaining faithful to God. In Acts 20, Paul uses similar language. Having summoned the elders from Ephesus to Miletus, he gave a final discourse. He announced, "And now, behold, bound in spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit solemnly testifies to me in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions await me. But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, in order that I may finish my course, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God" (vv. 22-24). Paul's goal was to remain faithful to the Lord which meant to remain true to the faith, to persevere in the faith. Similar language is also found in 1 Timothy 6, not referring to a race, but to another athletic activity, suggesting that the apostle is referring to the same idea. He exhorted Timothy, "Fight the good fight of faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called" (v. 12); that is, "persevere in the faith, and thus remain faithful to God, and in so doing you will eventually secure eternal life because that is the prize."

Seriously striving toward the goal

My brothers and sisters, it is not how well you start the race (that is ultimately pleasing to God), as it is how well you finish it. You must persevere in faith in order that, as the apostle Paul, you "may attain to the resurrection from the dead" (Php. 3:11b). The apostle had a sober hesitancy. He did not take his salvation for granted. He was not characterized by fleshly self-confidence. In effect, he said, "No, I must press on; I must do all in my power, by God's grace, to press toward the goal." Now, take note. This is the great apostle Paul talking. He did not rest on his laurels, and say, "Well, I believe in the sovereignty of God, everything is going to be okay. I made that profession of faith; I publicly showed my allegiance to Christ." If anyone could justifiably have a confident smugness, it was the apostle Paul. But we see anything but that. We see a man striving for the sake of eternal life, and so must we.

There are those who have professed Christ's name and attend Church who think that things are spiritually okay for them; when really things are not. There are believers who have a very complacent and casual attitude toward spiritual matters and the Church, and they think that things are going to turn out all right in the end for them. And yet, the apostle Paul, in effect, affirmed, "I have given up everything. I have sacrificed everything. I need to hold of eternal life." My concern is that many are sorely self-deceived about where they stand spiritually before God. The irony is that many professing believers, for some reason, entertain the assurance of salvation, and yet evidence no determination, no effort, to press on, with the realization that this kind of commitment is one of the most important issues in their life.

The apostle Paul understood something that many professing Christians do not – that it really does matter that we expend the energy and effort, by God's grace, to take hold of eternal life. And yet a prevailing attitude is, "Well, I am already saved. Once saved always saved." Pastors can preach and warn, and can talk about the deeper life, and can stress commitment and sacrifice; and often there is no response to such language and appeals. Many Christians answer, "The pastor is some kind of fanatic. He is extreme. He is talking about a high flown Christianity. He is trying to project his own aspirations on me." I ask you my brothers and sisters, in the presence of God, your conscience bearing witness, has your pastor said anything other than what the Scriptures have said? The question often is not whether anything has been said other than what the Scriptures teach, but whether you have heard anything other than what the Scriptures actually teach. The Scriptures themselves use this kind of strong, intense, absolute language. It was Paul who said, "I have given up everything." It was Paul who said, "I have abandoned everything." It was Paul who said, "I have sacrificed everything in order that I may attain to the resurrection" (Php. 3:7-11). Your self-justification will not sit well with God on the day of judgement. He will not accept the excuse, "They were simply the pastor's opinions and ideas." No, we preach God's Word, and I am exhorting and encouraging you to press on and to take hold of eternal life.

Pressing on (that is, diligently pursuing) toward the goal will practically mean that you watch how you think. You will not allow your imagination to run away with you and cause you to think of that which is questionable; but, by His grace, you will harness and focus your thoughts on that which is good and wholesome, knowing that you need to take hold of eternal life. Further, it will mean that you will not allow your appetite for pleasure and self-indulgence to overcome you; that you will endeavour to slay the first risings of carnal urges and fleshly desires, knowing that the eternal welfare of your soul is at stake. Moreover, it will mean that you will not waste and fritter away your time on things that really do not matter. Now, I am not opposed to recreation, T.V. watching, and so on (and sometimes we should attend to these things), but whatever you do in word or in deed you are to do to the glory of God.

Again, the goal before us is to remain faithful, to remain in the faith; and we must keep focused on that goal. As the apostle elsewhere writes, "[F]ight the good fight, keeping faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith" (1 Tm. 1:18b,19). Listen my brothers and sisters, if you think you are standing, take heed, lest you fall. You see, it was the same apostle Paul who could write that he did everything in his moral power to grow in holiness, lest when he had preached to others, he himself should be a castaway (see 1 Cor. 9:26,27). You may retort, "What are you talking about, Paul? What about the perseverance of the saints? Didn't you make that profession of faith?" Yes, he did, but he was a realist and kept things in perspective and balance. He understood the tension between the "I will be saved," and the "I must be saved." God can do, and will do, everything that is required to bring His elect to glory, but a believer must do everything for which he or she is responsible to ensure that he or she arrives in glory.

Following hard after Christ toward the goal

I submit to you that many professing Christians do not have this serious attitude. If you do not reach the finish line, you are sunk. No goal, no prize. Do you have the same concern, the same burden, as the apostle? Are you inwardly exercised in the same way? Let me change the language in order to more fully appreciate this teaching. Paul is referring to having a passion for Christ when he uses this language of pressing on toward the goal. He affirms, "But whatever things were gain to me, those I have counted loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ" (Php. 3:7,8). Simply put, the apostle Paul followed hard after Christ. Christ is the prize; and to press on toward the goal means to follow hard after Christ. He should be ever before faith's eye. He is at the finish line in all His fullness.

You may be committed to the Lord. You may be loyal to Him. You may faithful to Him. But you still may not be following hard after Him. Think, for instance, of the time when you were pursuing a degree. You indefatigably studied. You poured the time, the energy, the effort, into your course of studies. You were following hard after that degree. Think about the time when you were trying to win and romance that woman or that man whom you loved and admired. Again, you gave your time and energy to the pursuit. That person preoccupied your mind. You followed hard after him or her. You do your devotions, you pray, you serve the Lord, but are you really following hard after Christ? Is He the One who takes up your thoughts and captures your desires each day? Is knowing and pleasing Him the most important thing to you each day? Do you live your day in such a way that He is, and has, the priority? Do you spend more time fellowshiping with Him than you do watching T.V. or engaging in a hobby? I am not asking you whether you love Christ. I am not asking you whether you believe in Him. I am not asking you whether you do your devotions, or whether you pray or attend the Church. I am asking you whether your life is so ordered that it is clear (especially to God Himself) that you are following hard after Christ, just as, and even more so than, you are following hard after anything else? Am I being too extreme? I don't think so. We need to run the race with determination and earnestness. Ask yourself the question, "Lord, do I really take the Christian calling and life seriously enough – that many are called, but few are chosen; that on that judgement day, You will say to many of those who professed Your name that You never knew them, and that they must depart from You into hell fire (see Mt. 7:21-23)? Do I take these things seriously enough? Do I believe Your Word?"

Doing everything possible to reach the goal

We are not to be passive or indifferent, but realists concerning our salvation. We are to be people with purpose; people that believe God's Word as being true, and not watering it down, nor reinterpreting it to suit us and to accommodate us spiritually. Again, listen to the language of the apostle Paul (let's really hear what he is saying), "Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize [just one; and he says have this attitude, this mind, in you that you will run in such a way that you may win]" (1 Cor. 9:24). The 1998 Winter Olympics will soon be upon us. Let me ask you, what kind of commitment, involvement, expenditure of energy and effort have these athletes given in order that they may win the competition, the race? I'll tell you. Years – ten, twelve, fourteen hours a day – training, exercising, and conditioning themselves. Why? They are 'going for the gold'; they are going for the prize; and it will take everything they have to give.

We read further in 1 Corinthians 9, "And everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things [not just some things, but in all things – in your recreational life, in your family life, in your sex life, in your work life, etc.]. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. [Now Paul makes personal application.] Therefore I run [I have given the exhortation, I have given the teaching but I am concerned about my own soul] in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified" (vv. 25-27). Do I disagree with the perseverance of the saints? Absolutely not! Do I believe that we are kept by the power of God? Most definitely! But listen, it is in our perseverance that we have the proof of God's preservation; and Paul knew that.

Christ desires us to reach the goal

Why press on? Why pursue the goal? – "But I press on in order that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus." Paul states, in effect, "I want to secure that for which Christ has secured me. That is why I am pressing on. I am persevering in the faith because I want to fulfil Christ's desire and plan for me. Christ has called me. He has put His hand upon me to bring me to a glorious and wonderful end, and that is my confidence. And yet, I have the responsibility to persevere that there might be a fulfilment of Christ's desire and plan for me. I want to lay hold of the glory, eternal life, full redemption, heaven's blessings, etc. for which Christ has destined me." This is our comfort and our confidence. This fact ought to motivate and inspire us, so that we may say, "I am pressing on, and I will secure the goal, concerning which Christ first put the desire and power in me to secure. I want to fulfil His desire and plan for me. By His grace, I shall remain in faith and faithful."

So, again, we need not feel defeated nor discouraged; but in perseverance and diligence, we must press on. Again, in our perseverance and diligence, we have the assurance of success, for these motivating graces are the very proof that He has laid hold on us. He demands from us that which He has also supplied. If we are persevering diligently, then we have confidence and peace that we will indeed reach the goal. Thus, be encouraged saint. Your striving toward the goal will not be in vain. You will see its realization. If He has laid hold on you, then you will endeavour to lay hold on what He has set before you; and if such is the case, then you will certainly lay hold on it. It can be no other way. This is the logic and way of God. One necessitates the other.

Again, perseverance is the evidence of His preservation; determination is the result of His inworking. So we may say, even as the apostle Paul did in Philippians 2, that we can, and must, work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Why? "For it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure" (Php. 3:13). Again, that is our confidence and peace. If He is working in, you will be working out. Are you pressing on? Are you really pressing on? Do you think that this message is too hard? I would rather that you charge me with being a fanatic and an extremist, than that you stand before Christ on that day with the indictment that I did not speak God's unadulterated Word, that I did not warn, that I did not exhort, that I did not set the high standard, which is God's standard. What would you rather me do?