“Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected, but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me.”
No Christian is perfect, not even the apostle Paul. He had not “attained” his life ambition set forth in verse 10. He was still actively pursuing the knowledge of Christ. He had grown over the 25 years, but he still had some distance to go to reach his goal. The Christian life is a process, not an event.
“Not that I have already attained”
The word “attained” means to receive, grasp, appropriate, lay hold of. We use the word “arrived” today. Paul did not want to give the impression that he had arrived in his pursuit of the excellent knowledge of Christ. Most of us want to give the impression that we are “super-saints.” We want to make the impression that we have arrived. When we do this, we are in trouble, for we delude ourselves into believing we do not need to grow any more.
As long as Paul was alive, God had a purpose for him. For whatever purpose Paul remained on the earth, it was not completed yet. Since he knew this, he was not shaken by the dire events swirling around him. God would keep him on earth until he was finished with him.
“or am already perfected”
There are three levels of sanctification of the saint. First, the saint is sanctified positionally. He/she holds the same status that Jesus holds before the Father. This sanctification can never improve. It was given to us fully at the point of salvation. We stand perfect in our status, not in our experience. In experience we sin. Our status in God’s eyes is perfect because of Christ’s work on the cross.
The second level of sanctification is progressive, experiential sanctification. If all things are equal, every day we grow more like the Lord Jesus (2 Co. 3:18). When we stop growing, we become static. When we are static, we become stagnant. When we stagnate, we become rancid—our Christian life smells!! Our life should be a beautiful aroma, but instead we give out a stench. Some of us have not grown much in the last 10 years. We have little appetite for the Bible. We are temporally dead in our spiritual life. We are in a spiritual rut. A rut is a grave with the ends knocked out.
The third level of sanctification is ultimate sanctification. In eternity we will be free from sin and the sin capacity. This is the level Paul was talking about in the phrase “am already perfected.” This is the perfection God gives the believer upon his arrival in heaven.
Our Christian life must remain vital.
We need to grow our Christian lives every day (2 Pet. 2:2;3:18). We never arrive. A stalemate in chess is when the game can go no further because both players have reached an impasse. The Christian can never reach that stalemate in time. Nothing can so daunt the Christian that he/she cannot continue to grow.
On the other hand, we cannot “arrive” spiritually in this life on earth. There is always room to grow more like the Lord Jesus and be conformed into His image. Every Christian can say that we are not what we once were. We can also say that we are not what we shall be. Are you different today than you were a year ago? Are you going on with the Lord Jesus?