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Free and Focused

Press on toward the goal—knowing Christ.

From the editor

Bev Savage's sermon on Philippians 3 has a few "twists" here and there. We're used to focusing on the biblical mandate to remember; Savage wants to help us see the biblical mandate to forget. We're used to reading this particular passage with an eye toward forgetting the bad we've done; Savage goes a step further and urges us to forget what good we've done (if it hinders the gospel cause). For all its oddity, Philippians 3 is actually fairly well known. But Savage has us take a second look for surprises we may have missed.


If ever a person deserved to be termed "outstanding," it was Saul of Tarsus. The apostle Paul deserved that title. In this passage he talks about what has become the most compelling, absorbing, and rewarding thing for which to live. He says, "One thing I do." When I hear the apostle Paul say something like that, I want to know what that "one thing" is. If this man—with all his experience, all his knowledge of God, all the extraordinary experiences through which he passed—says, "This is the one thing that drives me, compels me, motivates me," I want to listen to him.

Paul pictures himself as a runner in this passage. Like all good athletes, he first prepares for the race before him by getting himself into a certain frame of mind. Once he's focused, he's going to run. "This one thing I do;" he's got his heart set on it.

There are two important things that we're going to learn from our text. The first thing that Paul teaches us is to get free. The second thing is to be focused.

Get free from the bad done to you.

Get free—that's what Paul's really talking about in verse 13: "Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of this"—all the things that he's been thinking of and talking about previously—"but one thing I do, forgetting what is behind." Get free!

The word "forget" is an unusual, uncharacteristic word for Paul. He unashamedly says: I've spent my life reminding you.

"Remembering" is a key biblical word. "Forgetting" is not. The words "remind" and "memory" are used three to four times more than the word "forgetting." Because it's an unusual word, it immediately grabs our attention. Why would the man who reminds people of the great acts of God in human history ask them to forget something?

When Paul speaks of "forgetting what is behind," he cannot mean you should forget everything in the past. But what is it that you should forget—and why? Let me put it to you in very personal terms. As you look back over this past year, what is it that you need to forget? It would be worth it to take a moment to ponder that question. You might say something like this: "I need to get free from the memory of what was done to me." Some of you have suffered enormously, and you carry scars from the past that are too personal to share but control your life—depressing memories that hang over you and your heart and mind. When you're alone, when you stop to think or kneel in prayer, or when you have any free time, your memory goes back to that painful time.

I once watched part of a television documentary about some men in a remote part of the world testing the strength of their horses. This was their way of showing the great prowess they possessed as trainers. They harnessed their horses to a heavily loaded cart, locked the wheels, and proceeded to whip the horses. The horse that pulled the cart the furthest won the prize as the strongest horse in the competition. Some of the horses actually strained to such an extent that they were destroyed in the process and had to be put down. It was a brutal and vicious process—all for the pride of men.

As I watched the documentary, I remembered the faces of people I'd known and had worked with over the years. They were people I had pastored and had the privilege of being alongside. I pictured them as people harnessed to the past of a brutal father or mother or husband, of their upbringing, of their deprivation in youth, and so on. They were harnessed to the past, struggling to get out of that harness and move forward. They entered every new year with an unbearable load of shame, regret, anger, and sadness.

Paul could have remembered people like that. He certainly had many people who hated him and caused trouble for his ministry. The so-called believers who betrayed him hurt him most. He would go into cities and towns, and he would be left for dead sometimes. He was flogged, ridiculed, and imprisoned. When he went away, the church that was born seemed to kneel before the first false teacher that came along. He had every reason to look back on his past and feel that he'd somehow suffered at the hands of other people. The great thing about this man, though, is that he isn't trapped by those memories. How did he break free? There are some of you who may have that question this morning: "I've come from this background, from this marriage, from this childhood; I want to get free. But how do I get free? I want to forget, but I can't. What's the key to forgetting the things that have been done to me? How did Paul break free?"

This same man who wrote the words "forgetting the past," wrote, "Love keeps no record of wrongs." That's the key! As you look back on your past, you can turn horrible situations for good, because your Lord commands you to. You can say: "Whatever that person did, I'm going to love them: I'm not going to keep a record of that wrong. I'm not going to keep going over it. I'm not going to plan revenge.

Jesus puts it more radically than Paul. He said, "Love your enemies … Do good to those who hate you and despitefully use you." Love your enemies? Where does the power to do something like that come from? You say, "That's impossible." It may appear that way, but Jesus added something that gives us the key to how we can do it. He went on to say: By this you will show that you are sons of your Father in heaven, and this is how your Father in heaven behaves—"he causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous."

The greatest crime of the people who hurt you was not to hurt you; it was to reject the God of glory and his dear Son, Jesus Christ. Their biggest crime was to live as though he does not exist. There are moments in your life—weeks, months, even years—when they hurt you, but for a whole lifetime they're living without regard to the God of glory. But nonetheless, what does God do for them? Every morning they get out of their beds, and the sun comes up over the horizon.

God cares for you, too. When you were dead in trespasses and sins—when you did not have a moment for him—what did he do for you? He caused his sun to rise on you. He sent his rain to feed you. He made your life good. You say, "I can't do that for the person who hurt me." But you can if you have a Father in heaven. You demonstrate who your Father is by loving those who hurt you. Get free from the memory of what was done to you.

Get free from the bad you have done.

Some of us are saying something like this: "It isn't what was done to me that bothers me; there are things I want to forget with respect to what I've done." We need to get free from the memory of the bad we have done. We have an enemy, the Devil, who accuses us of these things. That's his job, and he does it very successfully. He gets us into trouble and then accuses us for being in trouble.

Let me ask you this: Did you confess your sins? When I ask that question of people who are racked with guilt, very often they say, "I confess them every day—hundreds of times! I did it five years ago, and there's scarcely a day when I haven't confessed I did it." If you've confessed it, Christ has forgiven it. Why are you still hanging onto it?

The real problem behind hanging onto guilt is that you say to yourself, "I don't believe my heart is as rotten as the Bible says. I am so shocked at myself. I'm so ashamed of myself. I'm not like that; I'm something different. I'm better than that. I let myself down, and I can't forgive myself. That was an aberration; that's not what's in my heart. Righteousness and truth and justice and purity are in my heart, and then I went and did that." Don't you know that the Bible says, "The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked; who can know it?" Don't you know it says only the Lord knows how deep our dye in sin is?

Maybe you're clinging to the past—those guilty secrets that you carry—because you can't believe what your heart is like. Why not face it? You can be free. The apostle Paul knew what his heart was like, and he talks about the depth of sin that was in his heart.

I came across this quote from A. W. Tozer: "Self derogation is bad for the reason that self must be there to derogate. Self, whether swaggering or groveling, can never be anything but hateful to God. Boasting is an evidence that we're pleased with self; belittling that we're disappointed in it. Either way, we reveal that we have a high opinion of ourselves." Ouch! He's saying something pretty important there. Clinging to the guilt of the past is saying, "I'm too good for that." It's a much-too-high opinion of ourselves. You will free yourself of that by acknowledging what God's Word says. When people tell you the kind of person you are, don't jump to your defense. Say of yourself: I know a lot more than that. You think you've seen the worst of me; there's a lot more in there. But I'm clinging to a Savior, and he is the focus of my attention, not my own heart.

Get free from the good you have done.

This sounds odd, but Paul even stresses that we must sometimes free ourselves from the memory of the good we have done.

In this passage Paul has listed his pedigree: "If anyone has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more." He talks about his birth, his upbringing, and what he did to the church concerning legalistic righteousness. He gives us his pedigree and a list of his experiences. Do you know what Paul says every time he talks about the good that has happened to him or the good that he's experienced—even the kind of man he is? He says, "All of that is rubbish." Paul's attitude is this: I put no confidence in the flesh.

If you're a believer, do you ever feel nervous and embarrassed when people praise you? The Lord Jesus says, "That men may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven." If people praise you too much, you need to say, "Whoa, whoa, whoa. Wait a minute. Don't praise me. I'm going to let you down. Keep your eye on me, and there'll come a day when you'll have to criticize me. I've got feet of clay." It's part of our new nature in Christ not to horde even the good things we've done. That's what Paul is really writing about in this passage. The effect of hording the good things we've done is complacency. We rest on our laurels, thinking we've done enough.

If you're walking in the light of God's presence and you become aware of his glory, the other thing you're going to feel is your own darkness. You're going to feel your own poverty. When you come to the Lord's Table and eat and drink there, each time you'll be saying: "Lord Jesus, I hang on you today as I did the first day I came. Whatever has passed between now and then is nothing. I don't want to count my righteousness; I want to be found in Christ, having a righteousness that comes down, not a righteousness that I work up."

Paul was very aware of the way he was living. He was self-aware, but he was not self-absorbed, and he was not self-centered. He was able to say this before he died: There's a crown of righteousness laid up for me; I've finished the race.

Be focused on the goal.

My message is this: "Be free." Free yourself from the memory of what was done to you, of the bad that you have done, and of the good you have done, so you can start out afresh with a clean sheet, a new book, a new page. You mustn't be harnessed to the past. Instead, move forward in strength and courage for the future to glorify your Savior.

But you also must be focused. Paul writes: "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." Every nerve, muscle, and all of his being was disciplined to the race—to reach the goal and win the prize. The race is following Christ to the end of life. It's costly. It's time-consuming.

Paul uses racing imagery elsewhere. In 1 Corinthians 9, he writes: "Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize." 

Half-hearted Christianity is uncomfortable and useless. It's tepid Christianity. It's salt without savor. You're not at home in the world or at peace with God. Paul is not going to have anything of it; he doesn't want tepid Christianity. He wants to go on with the race in following Christ Jesus.


What's the goal? All the way through this passage, the goal is maturity. Paul summarized what that means: "I want to know Christ." What's the prize? As Paul approaches the prize-giving ceremony, he writes in 2 Timothy 4: "The time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing."

For your reflection:

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul?

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach?

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers?

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points?

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers?

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers?

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? (For help on what may require credit, see "Plagiarism, Schmagiarism")

Bev Savage is pastor of Arlington Heights Evangelical Free Church in Arlington Heights, Illinois. Bev has three adult children and six grandchildren in the UK.

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Sermon Outline:


In this passage Paul talks about what has become the most compelling, absorbing, and rewarding thing for which to live ("one thing I do").

I. Get free from the bad done to you.

II. Get free from the bad you have done.

III. Get free from the good you have done.

IV. Be focused on the goal.


The goal is maturity, and its reward is a rich one.