"Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I
do; forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those
things which are before, I press towards the mark for the prize of the high
calling of God in Christ Jesus." Phil. 3:13,14
first thing which strikes us on reading these verses
is, that the Apostle Paul places himself on a level with the
persons whom he addresses. He speaks to them as frail,
weak men, and he gives them in himself a specimen of what
frailty and weakness can achieve in the strength of Christ.
And it is for this reason that the passage before us is one of
the most encouraging in all the writings of St. Paul. For
there is one aspect in which the apostle is presented to us,
which is perhaps a depressing one. When we look at his almost
superhuman career, reverence and admiration we must
feel; but so far does he seem removed from ordinary life that
imitation appears out of the question. Let us select but two
instances of this discouraging aspect of the apostle's life.
Most of us know the feeling of unaccountable depression
which rests upon us when we find ourselves alone in a foreign
town, with its tide of population ebbing and flowing past us,
a mass of human life, in which we ourselves are nothing.
But that was St. Paul's daily existence. He had consecrated
himself to an almost perpetual exile. He had given up the
endearments of domestic life forever. Home, in this world,
St. Paul had none. With a capacity for the tenderest feelings
of our nature, he had chosen for his lot the task of living
among strangers, and as soon as they ceased to be strangers,
quitting them again. He went on month by month, attaching
congregations to himself, and month by month dooming
himself to severance. And yet I know not that we read of
one single trace of depression or discouragement suffered to
rest on the apostle's mind. He seems to have been ever fresh
and sanguine, the salient energy of his soul rising above the
need of all human sympathy. It is the magnificent spectacle
of missionary life, with more than missionary loneliness.
There is something almost awful in the thought of a man
who was so thoroughly in the next world that he needed not
the consolations of this world. And yet, observe, there is
nothing encouraging for us in this. It is very grand to look
upon, very commanding, very full of awe; but it is so much
above us, so little like any thing human that we know of,
that we content ourselves with gazing on him as on the gliding
swallow's flight, which we wonder at, but never think of
Now let us look at one other feature in St. Paul's character
his superiority to those temptations which are potent with
ordinary men. We say nothing of his being above the love
of money, of his indifference to a life of comfort and personal
indulgence. Those temptations only assail the lower part of
our nature, and it is not saintliness to be above these:
common excellence is impossible otherwise. But when we come
to look for those temptations which master the higher and
the nobler man ambition, jealousy, pride it is not that we
see them conquered by the apostle; they scarcely seem to
have even lodged in his bosom at all. It was open to the
apostle, if he had felt the ambition, to make for himself a
name, to become the leader of a party in Corinth and in the
world. And yet remember we not how sternly he put down
the thought, and how he labored to merge his individuality in
the cause, and make himself an equal of inferior men?
"Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers, servants,
by whom ye believed?"
Again, in respect of jealousy. Jealousy seems almost
inseparable from human love. It is but the other side of love,
the shadow cast by the light when the darker body intervenes.
There came to him in prison that most cutting of all
news to a minister's heart, that others were trying to supplant
him in the affections of his converts. But his was that
lofty love which cares less for reciprocation than for the well-being
of the objects loved. The rival teachers were teaching
from emulation; still they could not but bless by preaching
Christ to his disciples. "What then? Notwithstanding
every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached;
and I therein do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice." There
is not a trace of jealousy in these words.
Once more: Degrading things were laid to his charge.
The most liberal-minded of mankind was charged with
bigotry. The most generous of men was suspected of avarice.
If ever pride were venial, it had been then. Yet read through
the whole of the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, and say
if one spark of pride be visible. He might have shut himself
up in high and dignified silence. He might have refused to
condescend to solicit a renewal of the love which had once
grown cold; and yet we look in vain for the symptoms of
offended pride. Take this one passage as a specimen:
Behold, this third time I am willing to come unto you; ...
and I will very gladly spend and be spent for you, though
the more abundantly I love you, the less I am beloved.
In this there is very little encouragement. A man so
thoroughly above human resentment, human passions, human
weakness, does not seem to us an example. The nearer
Humanity approaches a perfect standard, the less does it
command our sympathy. A man must be weak before we can
feel encouraged to attempt what he has done. It is not the
Redeemer's sinlessness, nor His unconquerable fidelity to
duty nor His superhuman nobleness, that win our desire to
imitate. Rather His tears at the grave of friendship, His
shrinking from the sharpness of death, and the feeling of
human doubt which swept across His soul like a desolation,
These make Him one of us, and therefore our example.
And it is on this account that this passage seems to us so
full of encouragement. It is the precious picture of a frail
and struggling apostle - precious both to the man and to the
minister. To the man, because it tells him that what he feels
St. Paul felt, imperfect, feeble, far from what he would wish
to be; yet with sanguine hope, expecting progress in the
saintly life. Precious to the minister, because it tells him
that his very weakness may be subservient to a people's
strength. Not in his transcendent giftsnot in his saintly
endowmentsnot even in his apostolic devotedness, is St.
Paul so close to our hearts, as when he makes himself one
with us, and says, "Brethren, I count not myself to have
And we know not how otherwise any minister could hope
to do good when be addresses men who are infinitely his
superiors in almost every thing. We know not how else he
could urge on to a sanctity which he has not himself attained:
we know not how he could dare to speak severely of
weaknesses by which he himself is overpowered, and passions of
which he feels in himself all the terrible tyranny, if it were
not that he expects to have tacitly understood that in his
own case which the apostle urged in every form of expression:
Brethren, be as I am, for I am as ye are struggling,
baffled, but panting for emancipation.
We confine ourselves to two subjects:
I. The apostle's object in this life.
II. The means which he used for attaining it.
I. The apostle's object or aim in this life was "perfection."
In the verse before " Not as though I had already attained,
either were already perfect." Perfection was his unreached
And less than this no Christian can aim at. There are
given to us "exceeding great and precious promises," that by
means of these we might be partakers of the Divine Nature.
Not merely to be equal to the standard of our day, nor even
to surpass it. Not to be superior to the men amongst whom
we live. Not to forgive those who have little to be forgiven.
Not to love our friends, but to be the children of our Father
to be pure even as Christ is pure to be "perfect even as
our Father which is in heaven is perfect."
It is easily perceivable why this perfection is unattainable
in this life. Faultlessness is conceivable, being merely the
negation of evil. But perfection is positive, the attainment
of all conceivable excellence. It is long as eternity
expansive as God. Perfection is our mark: yet never will the
aim be so true and steady as to strike the golden centre.
Perfection of character, yet, even to the dying hour, it will
be but this, "I count not myself to have apprehended."
Christian life is like those questions in mathematics which
never can be exactly answered. All you can attain is an
approximation to the truth. You may labor on for years and
never reach it; yet your labor is not in vain. Every figure
you add makes the fraction nearer than the last to the million -
millionth; and so it is with holiness. Christ is our mark
the perfect standard of God in Christ. But be as holy as
you will, there is a step nearer, and another, and another, and
so infinitely on.
To this object the apostle gave himself with singleness of
aim. "This one thing I do." The life of man is a
vagrant, changeful desultoriness; like that of children sporting
on an enamelled meadow, chasing now a painted butterfly,
which loses its charm by being caught now a wreath of
mist, which falls damp upon the hand with disappointment
now a feather of thistle-down, which is crushed in the grasp.
In the midst of all this fickleness, St. Paul had found a
purpose to which he gave the undivided energy of his soul.
"This one thing I do I press towards the mark."
This is intelligible enough in the case of a minister; for
whether he be in the pulpit or beside a sick man's bed or
furnishing his mind in the study, evidently and unmistakably
it is his profession to be doing only one thing. But in the
manifold life of the man of the world and business, it is not
so easy to understand how this can be carried out. To
answer this, we observe there is a difference between doing and
being. Perfection is being, not doing; it is not to effect an
act, but to achieve a character. If the aim of life were to do
something, then, as in an earthly business, except in doing
this one thing the business would be at a stand-still. The
student is not doing the one thing of student life when he
has ceased to think or read. The laborer leaves his work
undone when the spade is not in his hand, and he sits beneath
the hedge to rest. But in Christian life, every moment and
every act is an opportunity for doing the one thing, of
becoming Christ-like. Every day is full of a most impressive
experience. Every temptation to evil temper which can assail
us to-day will be an opportunity to decide the question
whether we shall gain the calmness and the rest of Christ, or
whether we shall be tossed by the restlessness and agitation
of the world. Nay, the very vicissitudes of the seasons, day
and night, heat and cold, affecting us variably, and producing
exhilaration or depression, are so contrived as to conduce
towards the being which we become, and decide whether we
shall be masters of ourselves, or whether we shall be swept at
the mercy of accident and circumstance, miserably susceptible
of merely outward influences. Infinite as are the varieties
of life, so manifold are the paths to saintly character;
and he who has not found out how directly or indirectly to
make every thing converge towards his soul's sanctification
has as yet missed the meaning of this life.
In pressing towards this "mark," the apostle attained a
prize; and here I offer an observation, which is not one of
mere subtlety of refinement, but deeply practical. The mark
was perfection of character, the prize was blessedness. But
the apostle did not aim at the prize of blessedness, he aimed
at the mark of perfectness. In becoming perfect he attained
happiness, but his primary aim was not happiness.
We may understand this by an illustration. In student
life there are those who seek knowledge for its own sake, and
there are those who seek it for the sake of the prize, and the
honor, and the subsequent success in life that knowledge
brings. To those who seek knowledge for its own sake the
labor is itself reward. Attainment is the highest reward.
Doubtless the prize stimulates exertion; encourages and
forms a part of the motive, but only a subordinate one: and
knowledge would still have "a price above rubies," if there
were no prize at all. They who seek knowledge for the sake
of a prize are not genuine lovers of knowledge they only
love the rewards of knowledge: had it no honor or substantial
advantage connected with it, they would be indolent.
Applying this to our subject, I say this is a spurious goodness
which is good for the sake of reward. The child that
speaks truth for the sake of the praise of truth, is not truthful.
The man who is honest because honesty is the best policy,
has not integrity in his heart. He who endeavors to be
humble, and holy, and perfect, in order to win heaven, has
only a counterfeit religion. God for His own sake Goodness
because it is good Truth because it is lovely this
is the Christian's aim. The prize is only an incentive; inseparable
from success, but not the aim itself.
With this limitation, however, we remark that it is a Christian
duty to dwell much more on the thought of future blessedness
than most men do. If ever the apostle's step began
to flag, the radiant diadem before him gave new vigor to his
heart, and we know how at the close of his career the vision
became more vivid and more entrancing. "Henceforth there
is laid up for me a crown of glory!" It is our privilege, if
we are on our way to God, to keep steadily before us the
thought of home. Make it a matter of habit. Force yourself
at night, alone, in the midst of the world's bright sights,
to pause to think of the heaven which is yours. Let it calm
you and ennoble you, and give you cheerfulness to endure
It was so that Moses was enabled to live amongst all the fascinations
of his courtly life, with a heart unseduced from his
laborious destiny. By faith... "esteeming the reproach of
Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt." Why?
"For he had respect unto the recompense of the reward." It
was so that our Master strengthened his human soul for its
sharp earthly endurance. "For the joy that was set before
him, He endured the cross, despising the shame." If we
would become heavenly-minded, we must let the imagination
realize the blessedness to which we are moving on. Let us
think much of rest the rest which is not of indolence, but of
powers in perfect equilibrium. The rest which is deep as
summer midnight, yet full of life and force as summer sunshine,
the sabbath of eternity. Let us think of the love of
God, which we shall feel in its full tide upon our souls. Let
us think of that marvellous career of sublime occupation
which shall belong to the spirits of just men made perfect;
when we shall fill a higher place in God's universe, and more
consciously, and with more distinct insight, co-operate with
God in the rule over His Creation. "I press towards the
mark for the prize."
II. We pass to our second topic. The means which St.
Paul found available for the attainment of Divine and perfect
character. His great principle was to "forget the things
which were behind, and to reach forward to the things which
were before." The wisdom of a divine life lies hid in this
principle. I shall endeavor to expand the sentiment to make
What are the things behind, which are to be forgotten?
1. If we would progress in Christian life, we must forget
the days of innocence that lie behind us. Let not this be
misunderstood. Innocent, literally, no man ever is. We
come into the world with tendencies to evil; but there was
a time in our lives when those were only tendencies. A
proneness to sin we had; but we had not yet sinned. The
moment had not yet arrived when that cloud settles down
upon the heart, which in all of after-life is never entirely removed:
the sense of guilt, the anguish of lost innocence, the
restless feeling of a heart no longer pure. Popularly, we call
that innocence; and when men become bitterly aware that
early innocence of heart is gone, they feel as if all were lost
and so look back to what they reckon holier days with a peculiar
fondness of regret. I believe there is much that is
merely feeble and sentimental in this regret. Our early innocence
is nothing more than ignorance of evil. Christian
life is not a retaining of that ignorance of evil, nor even a returning
of it again. We lose our mere negative sinlessness.
We put on a firm manly holiness. Human innocence is not
to know evil; Christian saintliness is to know evil and good,
and prefer good. It is possible for a parent, with over-fastidious
refinement, to prolong the duration of this innocence
unnaturally. He may lock up his library, and prevent the
entrance to forbidden books; he may exercise a jealous censorship
over every book and every companion that comes into
the house; he may remove the public journal from the table,
lest an eye may chance to rest upon the contaminating portion
of its pages; but he has only put off the evil hour. He
has sent into the world a young man of eighteen or twenty,
ignorant of evil as a child, but not innocent as an angel who
abhors the evil. No; we can not get back our past ignorance,
neither is it desirable we should. No sane mind wishes
for that which is impossible. And it, is no more to be regretted
than the blossom is to be regretted when fruit is
hardening in its place; no more to be regretted than the
slender gracefulness of the sapling, when you have got instead
the woody fibre of the heart of oak of which the ship
is made; no more to be regretted than the green blade when
the ear has come instead, bending down in yellow ripeness.
Our innocence is gone, withered with the business-like contact
with the great world. It is one of the things behind.
Forget it. It was worth very little. And now for something
of a texture more firm, more enduring. We will not
mourn over the loss of simplicity, if we have got instead
souls indurated by experience, disciplined, even by fall, to
refuse the evil and to choose the good.
2. In the next place, it is wise to forget our days of youth.
Up to a certain period of life it is the tendency of man to
look forward. There is a marvellous prodigality with which
we throw away our present happiness when we are young,
which belongs to those who feel that they are rich in happiness,
and never expect to be bankrupts. It almost seems
one of the signatures of our immortality that we squander
time as if there were a dim consciousness that we are in
possession of an eternity of it; but as we arrive at middle age,
it is the tendency of man to look back.
To a man of middle life, existence is no longer a dream,
but a reality. He has not much more new to look forward
to, for the character of his life is generally fixed by that
time. His profession, his home, his occupations, will be for
the most part what they are now. He will make few new
acquaintances no new friends. It is the solemn thought
connected with middle age that life's last business is begun
in earnest; and it is then, midway between the cradle and
the grave, that a man begins to look back and marvel with a
kind of remorseful feeling that he let the days of youth go by
so half enjoyed. It is the pensive autumn feeling it is the
sensation of half sadness that we experience when the longest
day of the year is past, and every day that follows is
shorter, and the lights fainter, and the feebler shadows tell
that nature is hastening with gigantic footsteps to her winter
grave. So does man look back upon his youth. When
the first gray hairs become visible when the unwelcome
truth fastens itself upon the mind that a man is no longer
going up the hill, but down, and that the sun is already westering,
he looks back on things behind. Now this is a natural
feeling, but is it the high Christian tone of feeling? In
the spirit of this verse, we may assuredly answer, No. We
who have an inheritance incorruptible and undented, and
that fadeth not away, what have we to do with things past?
When we were children, we thought as children. But now
there lies before us manhood, with its earnest work; and
then old age, and then the grave, and then home.
And so manhood in the Christian life is a better thing
than boyhood, because it is a riper thing; and old age ought
to be a brighter, and a calmer, and a more serene thing than
manhood. There is a second youth for man, better and holier
than his first, if he will look on and not back. There is a
peculiar simplicity of heart and a touching singleness of purpose
in Christian old age, which has ripened gradually and
not fitfully. It is then that to the wisdom of the serpent is
added the harmlessness of the dove; it is then that to the
firmness of manhood is joined almost the gentleness of womanhood;
it is then that the somewhat austere and sour character
of growing strength, moral and intellectual, mellows
into the rich ripeness of an old age made sweet and tolerant
by experience; it is then that man returns to first principles.
There comes a love more pure and deep than the boy could
ever feel; there comes a conviction, with a strength beyond
that which the boy could never know, that the earliest lesson
of life is infinite, Christ is all.
3. Again, it is wise to forget past errors. There is a kind
of temperament which, when indulged, greatly hinders growth
in real godliness. It is that rueful, repentant, self-accusing
temper which is always looking back, and microscopically observing
how that which is done might have been better done.
Something of this we ought to have. A Christian ought to
feel always that he has partially failed, but that ought not
to be the only feeling. Faith ought ever to be a sanguine,
cheerful thing; and perhaps in practical life we could not
give a better account of faith than by saying that it is,
amidst much failure, having the heart to try again. Our
best deeds are marked by imperfection; but if they really
were our best, "forget the things that are behind" we shall
do better next time.
Under this head we include all those mistakes which belong
to our circumstances. We can all look back to past life
and see mistakes that have been made, to a certain extent
perhaps, irreparable ones. We can see where our education
was fatally misdirected. The profession chosen for you perhaps
was not the fittest, or you are out of place, and many
things might have been better ordered. Now on this apostolic
principle it is wise to forget all that. It is not by regretting
what is irreparable that true work is to be done,
but by making the best of what we are. It is not by complaining
that we have not the right tools, but by using well
the tools we have. What we are, and where we are, is God's
providential arrangement God's doing, though it may be
man's misdoing; and the manly and the wise way is to look
your disadvantages in the face, and see what can be made out
of them. Life, like war, is a series of mistakes, and he is not
the best Christian nor the best general who makes the fewest
false steps. Poor mediocrity may secure that; but he
is the best who wins the most splendid victories by the retrieval
of mistakes. Forget mistakes: organize victory out
Finally, past guilt lies behind us, and is well forgotten.
There is a way in which even sin may be banished from the
memory. If a man looks forward to the evil he is going to
commit, and satisfies himself that it is inevitable, and so
treats it lightly, he is acting as a fatalist. But if a man partially
does this, looking backward, feeling that sin when it
is past has become part of the history of God's universe, and
is not to be wept over forever, he only does that which the
Giver of the Gospel permits him to do. Bad as the results
have been in the world of making light of sin, those of brooding
over it too much have been worse. Remorse has done
more harm than even hardihood. It was remorse which
fixed Judas in an unalterable destiny; it was remorse which
filled the monasteries for ages with men and women whose
lives became useless to their fellow-creatures; it is remorse
which so remembers by-gone faults as to paralyze the energies
for doing Christ's work; for when you break a Christian's
spirit, it is all over with progress. Oh, we want every
thing that is hopeful and encouraging for our work, for God
knows it is not an easy one. And therefore it is that the
Gospel comes to the guiltiest of us all at the very outset with
the inspiring news of pardon. You remember how Christ
treated sin. Sin of oppression and hypocrisy indignantly,
but sin of frailty "'Hath no man condemned thee ?' 'No
man, Lord.' 'Neither do I condemn thee; go, and sin no
more.'" As if he would bid us think more of what we may
be than of what we have been.
There was the wisdom of life in the proverb with which
the widow of Tekoah pleaded for the restoration of Absalom
from banishment before David. Absalom had slain his
brother Amnon. Well, Amnon was dead before his time;
but the severity of revenge could never bring him back
again. "We must all die," said the wise woman, "and are
as water spilt upon the ground, which can not be gathered
up again." Christian brethren, do not stop too long to weep
over spilt water. Forget your guilt, and wait to see what
eternity has to say to it. You have other work to do now.
So let us work out the spirit of the apostle's plan. Innocence,
youth, success, error, guilt let us forget them all.
Not backward are our glances bent,
But onward to our Father's home.
In conclusion, remember Christian progress is only possible
in Christ. It is a very lofty thing to be a Christian; for
a Christian is a man who is restoring God's likeness to his
character; and therefore the apostle calls it here a high calling.
High as heaven is the calling wherewith we are called.
But this very height makes it seem impracticable. It is natural
to say, All that was well enough for one so transcendently
gifted as Paul to hope for: but I am no gifted man;
I have no iron strength of mind; I have no sanguine hopefulness
of character; I am disposed to look on the dark side
of things; I am undetermined, weak, vacillating; and then
I have a whole army of passions and follies to contend with.
We have to remind such men of one thing they have forgotten.
It is the high calling of God, if you will; but it is the
high calling of God in Christ Jesus. What the world calls
virtue is a name and a dream without Christ. The foundation
of all human excellence must be laid deep in the blood
of the Redeemer's cross, and in the power of His Resurrection.
First let a man know that all his past is wrong and
sinful; then let him fix his eye on the love of God in Christ
loving him even him, the guilty one. Is there no strength
in that no power in the knowledge that all that is gone by
is gone, and that a fresh, clear future is open? It is not the
progress of virtue that God asks for, but progress in saintliness,
empowered by hope and love.
Lastly, let each man put this question to himself, "Dare
I look on?" With an earnest Christian, it is "reaching
forth to those things which are before." Progress ever.
And then just as we go to rest in this world tired, and wake
up fresh and vigorous in the morning, so does the Christian
go to sleep in the world's night, weary with the work of
life, and then on the resurrection-day he wakes in his second
and his brighter morning. It is well for a believer to look
on. Dare you? Remember, out of Christ, it is not wisdom,
but madness to look on. You must look back, for the longest
and the best day is either past or passing. It will be
winter soon desolate, uncheered, hopeless, winterold age,
with its dreariness and its disappointments, and its querulous
broken-heartedness; and there is no second spring for
you no resurrection-morning of blessedness to dawn on the
darkness of your grave. God has only one method of salvation,
the Cross of Christ. God can have only one; for the
Cross of Christ means death to evil, life to good. There is
no other way to salvation but that; for that in itself is, and
alone is, salvation. Out of Christ, therefore, it is woe to the
man who reaches forth to the things which are before. To
such I say; My unhappy brethren, Omnipotence itself can
not change the darkness of your destiny,