GOING HARD AFTER THE HOLY GOD
Our theme for the week of prayer has been, “Going Hard after the Holy God.” Last week we focused on the Holy God. Today we focus on “going hard.” The phrase is adapted from A.W. Tozer, whose little book, The Pursuit of God, has a chapter entitled, “Following hard after God.” Tozer wrote this book in 1948 but if anything it is more relevant today. After showing how Moses and David and Paul and all the great hymn writers were even thirsting after more of God he writes
How tragic that we in this dark day have had our seeking done for us by our teachers. Everything is made to center upon the initial act of ‘accepting’ Christ and we are not expected thereafter to crave any further revelation of God to our souls. We have been snared in the coils of a spurious logic which insists that if we have found him we need no more seek him. This is set before us as the last word in orthodoxy, and it is taken for granted that no Bible-taught Christian ever believed otherwise. Thus the whole testimony of the worshipping, seeking, singing Church on that subject is crisply set aside. The experimental heart-theology of a grand army of fragrant saints is rejected in favor of a smug interpretation of Scripture which would certainly have sounded strange to an Augustine, a Rutherford or a Brainerd (pp. 16-17).
So Tozer rejected the false logic which says: if you have found God in Christ you need no more seek him. I reject that, too. And I join Tozer in replacing it with these words, “To have found God and still to pursue him is the soul’s paradox of love, scorned indeed by the too-easily-satisfied religionist, but justified in happy experience by the children of the burning heart” (p. 15). Or as St. Bernard sang it:
We taste Thee, O Thou Living Bread,
And long to feast upon Thee still:
We drink of Thee, the Fountainhead
And thirst our souls from Thee to fill.
Matthew Henry is right: “Wherever there is true grace there is a desire for more grace. When Paul said, “Don’t be drunk with wine but be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Eph. 5:18), his aim was to make God-aholics out of all believers. The Spirit is not deadening, He is addicting. The evidence that you have him is that you want more of him. Continued indifference to growth in grace is a sign of no grace.
This morning I would like to show from Philippians 3 why we must go hard after God and how we can go hard after God. I want to persuade you that the pursuit of God is not optional even after conversion and I want to give practical help in the performance of this duty.
First: why do I insist that you must go hard after God, or, which is the same thing, why must we go hard after Christ? There are at least six reasons given by the apostle Paul in Phil. 3:7-14. I’ll only mention four. The first two answer the question why by referring to the future rewards of the pursuit. The last two answer the question why by referring to the past causes of the pursuit. First, we must go hard after Christ in order to know him. Verses 7 and 8: “Whatever gain I had I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Paul went hard after Christ, forsaking all the things people normally boast about; and he did it in order to know him. Notice verse 7 is past tense — probably referring to conversion (“I counted all loss”). But verse 8 is present tense: he continues to renounce everything that hinders his getting to know Christ.
Why? Because knowing Christ is a value that surpasses everything else. The evidence of conversion is whether you become a Christian Hedonist. Christian Hedonists always go hard after the highest value. They sell everything joyfully for the buried treasure and pearl of great price (Mt. 13:44-45). We must go hard after Christ, because not to means that we don’t want to know him. And not to want to know Christ is an insult to his value and a sign of spiritual stupor or deadness in us. But when you go hard after Christ, to know him, the reward is your joy and his honor.
Paul prays for us in Ephesians 3:18-19 that we “may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” There is so much of Christ yet to be known! His wonders are inexhaustible to all eternity. You who claim that he is your pearl of great price and your treasure chest of holy joy and yet who do not go hard after him to know him, are caught in a contradiction that cannot go on. You must go hard after Christ, or eventually surrender your claim to own him as the Lord of joy. When a man falls in love he is driven by an inner compulsion to know his beloved. And therefore he goes hard after her and spends time with her. When a student admires his professor and treasures his wisdom and that professor invites the class to his home the student goes! I had a great teacher in seminary. And when he offered a course in his home called “Hermeneutics for Eggheads” I signed up immediately. It didn’t matter what the title meant. It was my teacher’s course. It was my teacher’s home. That’s all I needed because I wanted to know him. The first reason to go hard after Christ is to know him.
Second, we must go hard after Christ to confirm our justification. Justification refers to the wonderful act of God in which he forgives all our sins and imputes to us his own righteousness through our faith in Christ. Start with the second half of verse 8: “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as refuse that I may gain Christ, and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” Notice: present tense, “I am counting all things as refuse”; I am forsaking them; I am pursuing Christ. Why? In order that I might gain Christ and share in God’s righteousness. What does it mean to gain Christ and share God’s righteousness? Paul is a Christian and is straining forward to this. So surely it means at least gaining Christ’s acceptance when he comes to judge or when we die. To lose Christ would be to lose everything. To gain him would be to enjoy his fellowship forever. Paul is speaking as a Christian and looking into the future and doing what he must do to gain Christ and be found clothed in God’s righteousness and accepted into heaven. What must he do? He must pursue Christ. He must count all things as rubbish and go hard after Christ.
But wait! Isn’t justification by faith? Yes. Verse 9 is clear: the righteousness Paul pursues is based on faith. But he is pursuing it! As a Christian he counts all things as loss in order to have this righteousness. (Compare the words for “pursue” and “‘obtain” in Romans 9:30 and Phil. 3:13.) Conclusion: the faith which justifies is a faith which forsakes earthly values and pursues Christ. If justification depends on faith, and if forsaking the world as refuse is necessary for having the benefits of justification, then it is plain: saving faith is not merely a one-time decision for Christ. Saving faith is an ongoing preference for Christ over all other values. The pursuit of Christ is the evidence of genuine faith in Christ as our treasure. Therefore, we must go hard after Christ in order to confirm our justification.
There are at least two more reasons we must go hard after Christ, which look not to future rewards (like knowing him, enjoying justification, and the two I have left untouched: sharing his power, v. 10, and being raised from the dead, v. 11), but which look to past causes. The first of these is found in verse 12: we must go hard after Christ because we are so imperfect. “Not that I have already obtained or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own.” We must go hard after Christ because we are so deficient. A failing student should pursue a special tutor. Nearsighted people should pursue an optometrist. People with strep throat should take antibiotics. Alcoholics should pursue a support group. Young apprentices should follow their master at his work. Not to go hard after Christ means that either you don’t trust his power and willingness to change your imperfections, or that you want to cling to your imperfections. In either case, Christ is scorned and we are lost.
The final reason why we must go hard after Christ is that he has gone hard after us and indeed, has by faith made us his own. Verse 12 again: “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ has made me his own.” This sentence explodes the false logic Tozer referred to which says that if Christ has found us we need no more seek him. If he has laid hold of us, we need not press on to lay hold of him. Paul reasons exactly opposite to this: I press on in order to gain Christ because Christ has already gained me. Paul’s conversion was not a cage to hold him back but a catapult into the pursuit of holiness. The irresistible grace of Christ overcoming Paul’s rebellion and saving him from sin did not make Paul passive; it made him powerful!
The best commentary on Phil. 3:12 is Phil. 2:12-13; “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you.” Go hard after Christ, because Christ is at work in you! “Strive for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14), for the Lord is working in you what is pleasing in his sight (Heb. 13:21). The reason the Bible can make our salvation depend on our pursuit of holiness without turning us into self-reliant legalists who have no assurance is that it makes our pursuit of holiness depend on the sovereign work of God in our lives. Work out your salvation because God is at work in you. Your work is his work for his glory when done in dependence on his power. The most fundamental reason why you must go hard after Christ is that Christ is in you, moving you to go hard after him.
Now we turn from the why of our pursuit to the how. Here we will focus all our attention on verse 13 which tells how Paul presses on: “Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own (or: I do not regard myself to have obtained); but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on ” There are three steps here in the way Paul goes hard after Christ. The first has to do with the way he views himself. Literally it says: “I do not regard myself to have obtained.” Paul’s pursuit of Christ rises out of a profound dissatisfaction with the way he is. Could it be that there is a connection between how little earnest pursuit of God there is today in the church and how much we are told to think well of ourselves? It is a wonderful thing to have been taken possession of by Christ. But it is a thousand times more wonderful when we realize that he has taken possession of people who remain sinful.
The first step in going hard after the holy God, then, is to develop a holy dissatisfaction with your spiritual life. Stand in front of the mirror of the Word and recognize that you have not yet arrived. The hearty admission of our spiritual imperfections is the starting point for the pursuit of God.
Let’s pause and clarify this. Many people today would say, “Piper, you are utterly out of touch with real people. People do not need a negative appeal to think more about their guilt. The malaise of American culture inside and outside the church is an epidemic of guilt and bad feelings about ourselves. Don’t tell people that what they need is to develop more dissatisfaction about themselves. Do you really think the people in your congregation like themselves?”
No, I don’t. But I think real humbling guilt is extraordinarily rare. And I think 99% of our bad feelings about ourselves is rooted in pride. For example, suppose you go to a dinner party and find out when you get there that you are dressed wrong, and then you spill your coffee and then you don’t know which fork to pick up first and then the joke you attempt falls flat, and when you are leaving you call your hostess by the wrong name. How do you feel about yourself when you get home? Rotten. You hate yourself. You’re depressed. You don’t want to show your face. You feel like quitting your job. What’s the use when you’re such a klutz? Now I ask where does all that low self-image come from? Whence all these depressing, immobilizing, self-denouncing feelings? Is the answer: God’s offended glory or your offended pride? People who are depressed and immobilized and angry because their behavior has injured the glory of God are very, very rare. But people who are depressed and immobilized and angry because their behavior has prevented them from having a reputation of being cool and competent are very, very common.
When I plead with you to develop a holy dissatisfaction with your spiritual life, I am asking for something rare, not common. I’m not asking you to feel worse about your inability to appear cool and intelligent. I’m asking you to feel worse that you possess so little of Christ. The first step in going hard after God is to feel bad about the right things. Develop a holy dissatisfaction with your spiritual life.
The second step in going hard after God is to forget those things which lie behind (v. 13). I take this to mean that anything in your background which hinders your pursuit of God you should put out of your mind. Don’t take this to mean that memory has no place in our spiritual artillery. It does. Some battles are won by remembered mercies (Psalm 77:11; Hebrews 11). The point is not: never look back. The point is: only look back for the sake of pressing forward. Never substitute nostalgia for hope. Memories of successes can make you smug and self-satisfied. Memories of failure can make you hopeless and paralyzed in your pursuit of God. Never look back like that. Give humble thanks for successes; make humble confessions or failure; then turn to the future and go hard after God.
The final step in going hard after God is to strain forward to what lies ahead (v. 13). Paul provides his own illustration of straining forward in 1 Cor. 9:25-27, “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” The way to go hard after God is with all the discipline and self-denial of an athlete. I doubt that there has ever been a Christian who reached heights of knowledge and joy and obedience without plan and discipline and self-denial. God does not promise his riches to aimless people. Paul did not run aimlessly or beat the air. He lived with spiritual goals in view and controlled his passions for the sake of those goals.
Here’s an example of how Jonathan Edwards followed Paul’s example. Sereno Dwight writes,
He carefully observed the effects of different sorts of good, and selected those which best suited his constitution, and rendered him most fit for mental labor In this respect he lived by rule, and constantly practiced great self-denial; as he did also with regard to the time passed in sleep. He accustomed himself to arise at four or between four and five in the morning: and in winter spent several of those hours in study which are commonly wasted in slumber. In the evening he usually allowed himself a season of relaxation in the midst of his family.
Whether you follow Jonathan Edwards or not, I urge you, on the basis of Paul’s example, to be like an athlete. Set yourself a goal to know more of the word of God, to grasp more of the will of God, to love more of the wonder of God; and then make a plan of prayer and study and worship and go for it with all your might.
In sum, the word this morning is this: Develop a holy dissatisfaction with your spiritual attainments, put out of your mind anything in the past which hinders your pursuit of God, strain forward like an athlete in 1984. For imperfect as we are, it is God who is at work in us to will and to do his good pleasure. We do not run in our own strength and, all the more therefore, we can be assured that going hard after the holy God will bring us to know him deeply and enjoy the sweet confirmation of our justification.