1 If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. – Colossians 1:1-3 ESV
13 But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.…
19 …they think only about this life here on earth. 20 But we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior. 21 He will take our weak mortal bodies and change them into glorious bodies like his own, using the same power with which he will bring everything under his control.– Philippians 3:13-14, 19-21 NLT
There is a very real sense in which the doctrine of sanctification has come to be understood as a byproduct of human effort. When we read verses that tell us to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12 ESV), we can’t help but assume that Paul expects us to put some sweat equity into this thing called the Christian life. We’ve been indoctrinated with the sage wisdom contained in such homespun phrases as “there’s no free ride” and “you don’t get something for nothing.”
We have no problem believing that our salvation was a gift from God, but for some reason, we have taken full responsibility for our sanctification. After all, didn’t God command us to be holy, just like He is holy? That sounds like a call that’s going to requires some serious effort to be achieved.
Paul asks us, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize?” Then he follows it up with the admonition, “So run that you may obtain it” (1 Corinthians 9:24 ESV). The New Living Translation puts it this way: “So run to win!”
There are literally dozens of passages that call us to live out our faith, and all of them require effort on our part. The Christian life is not intended to be a spectator sport. It requires our full participation and our whole-hearted commitment. Which is why Paul told the Philippians, “you must live as citizens of heaven, conducting yourselves in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ” (Philippians 1:27 NLT). He shared the very same message with the Ephesian believers, pleading with them “to lead a life worthy of your calling, for you have been called by God” (Ephesians 4:1 NLT).
But the problem lies in how we perceive and apply these kinds of verses. Is Paul suggesting that our quest for living a worthy life is all up to us? Is he teaching that Christlikeness is achieved through self-effort and discipline?
Do you see the subtle danger underlying this mindset? If we’re not careful, we can turn sanctification into a works-based doctrine, where we become responsible for achieving a higher state of righteousness and earning favor with God. But here’s the problem: If we’re the ones who put in all the work, we end up believing that we deserve all the credit. We wrongly assume that we became more holy through hard work. It was all the time we put into reading the Scriptures, going to Bible studies, attending worship, praying, giving, serving…doing.
But Paul won’t allow us to go there.
God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. – Ephesians 2:8-10 NLT
Notice that Paul stresses the God-ordained nature of our salvation, but also of our sanctification. He says we were created anew so we can do the good things He planned for us long ago. God not only came up with the plan, but He provided the power to pull it off. We are His masterpiece. Not our own.
This does not mean we are puppets on a string, helplessly dependent upon the whims of God, the divine puppet master. We are not mindless robots, programmed by God to do His bidding, with no effort required on our part. We are new creations, individuals who have been created anew in Christ Jesus so that we can do what we were incapable of doing before: Serve God faithfully and obediently. Because of the Holy Spirit’s presence within us, we have a capacity we didn’t have before. We have access to a power that was formerly unavailable to us. Which is why Paul was able to say, “I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13 NLT).
So, what is our role in all of this? If we’re not puppets on a string, but we’re also not the masters of our own fate and the determiners of our own holiness, what part do we play? How hard are we to work at this thing called our sanctification?
The answer to these questions lies in the balance we maintain between muscle and mind or, to put it another way, effort and thought. You might say that the motivation behind the use of our motor skills is the key to understanding our role in our sanctification. We have to constantly ask the why behind what we do. If the goal behind all our effort and expenditure of energy increased righteousness in this life? Is all our running done in order to reach the prize of holiness here on earth? Or, as one author has put it, to achieve “your best life now”?
Paul presents us with a vital piece of advice, of which many of us are either ignorant or simply choose to ignore.
…seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth – Colossians 3:1 ESV
There is a real sense in which we run the race to win the prize in this life. We live with the mistaken impression that all of God’s blessings are supposed to come in the here-and-now, not the hereafter. For some reason we have been trained to expect pain-free, joy-filled lives this side of heaven. We want happy marriages, successful careers, obedient children, and glorified bodies now, not later. We want to live forever and do everything we can to prolong our lives here, while forgetting that our citizenship is in heaven. Which is why our mindset has so much influence over how we expend our energy.
Paul said he strained forward to reach what lies ahead. He pressed on “to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us” (Philippians 3:14 NLT). He was focused on the return of Christ and the resurrection of his own earthly body. Paul knew that the key to his future glorification or his ultimate arrival at sinless perfection was based on the resurrection of his body. That was the goal he ran towards. His mind was set on the finish line. And because he constantly had the end of the race in mind, it determined how he ran every step. He ran to win, but he didn’t expect to receive the prize in this life.
All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. So I run with purpose in every step… – 1 Corinthians 9:25-26 NLT
Paul was purposeful. He was diligent. He said, “I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should” (1 Corinthians 9:27 NLT). But what was the motivation behind all his discipline and training? The finish line. And what was that finish line? The future resurrection of his body.
…we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior. He will take our weak mortal bodies and change them into glorious bodies like his own, using the same power with which he will bring everything under his control. – Philippians 3:20-21 NLT
That’s the goal. It is God planned from before the foundations of the world. What we experience here is temporary and fleeting. It is not meant to last. Which is why we are to focus all our efforts and energies on what is to come. God has not promised us our best life now, but He has assured us of eternal life to come. Which is why the apostle John lovingly warns us:
Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever. – 1 John 2:15-17 NLT
Eternal life. That’s the goal. That’s the objective. And that never-ending life will include sinless perfection made possible by glorified bodies. That is why Paul encourages us to seek the things that are above and to set our minds on the things above. In other words, we have to get our heads right, so that our hearts are right. And when we do, we’ll end up putting all the muscle we can into running the race in this life, because our minds are set on the prize of eternal life.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.