Philippians 3:15-16 As Interpreted By Grace-Unity Advocates

Mike Willis
Dayton, Ohio

Several passages have recently been used to promote the idea that the Christian remains in Christ even as he commits sins of ignorance and weakness of the flesh. The doctrine says that the blood of Jesus continues to cleanse the Christian, who is striving to walk in the light, of the sins he habitually commits in ignorance and through the weakness of the flesh without him becoming aware of his sin, repenting of it, confessing it to God, and quitting the sin.

Some have been so frantic to defend this doctrine of constant cleansing that they have misrepresented those of us who believe pardon is conditional by claiming we demand a confession in the form of a specific list or detailed recounting of sins. We go on record, again, as denying such an idea. If an erring Christian becomes conscious of a single specific sin which needs to be confessed to God, let him confess it. If he has been unfaithful over a period of time, generally negligent of his duties, or involved in the practices of religious error, let him repent of these habits. No one pretends he can or must specify all the sinful acts which have occurred. Some brethren are trying to find a provision of constant cleansing for sins habitually and constantly practiced throughout a lifetime, which accounts for the talk about pardon for sins from which a man never turns. This also accounts for the complaint about an imaginary demand that specific lists of all sins must be recounted in confession of sin. The provision some are seeking cannot be found in the Bible because God's Word does not teach that faithful Christians will constantly and habitually practice sin of any kind. The only provision made is for sins and errors into which we may fall but from which we turn in genuine penitence and earnest prayer for pardon (Acts 8:22-24; I Jn. I: 7-2:2).

Here is the dangerous application made of this doctrine of continuous or constant cleansing. Those who in ignorance use mechanical instruments of music in worship, support human institutions (missionary societies, colleges, orphan homes, old folks' homes, etc.) from the church treasury, involve the church in recreational activities (build fellowship halls and gymnasiums, sponsor ball teams and recreational outings, etc.), and participate in the sponsoring church form of organization are not separated from God by these sins because they are generally striving to walk in the light. Other men who believe some form of the constant cleansing doctrine do not make the same application as described above, but have fought liberalism so long and hard that none who are guilty of it have found any opportunity for compromise. However, those who do make the above dangerous application of compromise with liberalism are using the writings of these other men to justify the position which they hold and to defend themselves when they are challenged for their compromising conduct.

One of the passages which has been used to defend the position that a Christian is not separated by his habitual sins of ignorance and weakness of the flesh has been Philippians 3:15-16 which read as follows:

Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded: and if in any thing ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you. Nevertheless, whereto we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us mind the same thing.

The argument which has been made from this verse is this: Christ never said that I had to have a mature degree of knowledge or faith in order to be received by Him (2 Pet. 3:18). Rather, it is simply the fact that I have believed in Him, putting Him on in baptism (Gal. 3:26-27). This fellowship is maintained by my pressing on, continuing to walk according to the level of understanding I have attained (Phil. 3:13-16).

This argument maintains that one is able to maintain his fellowship with God so long as he is walking according "to the level of understanding" which he has attained, regardless of the sins which he may be committing habitually. The baptized believer who is ignorantly participating in an adulterous marriage is not separated from God by his sin; the baptized believer who uses instrumental music in worship in ignorance is not separated from God by his sin; the baptized believer who, because of ignorance, worships with a church involved in institutionalism, the sponsoring church arrangement, and church sponsored recreation is not separated from God by his sins. The next step relates to fellowship. If this man is in fellowship with God, he should be fellowshipped by other Christians.

Does Philippians 3:15-16 teach that one is not separated from God by his habitual sins of ignorance and weakness of the flesh so long as he is walking according to the level of knowledge to which he has attained? Let us see.

Is The Interpretation Consistent With The Bible?

The first step to consider in examining any interpretation of the Scriptures is this: "Is this interpretation consistent with what the rest of the Bible teaches?" What does the rest of the Bible teach regarding sins of ignorance or any other sins habitually practiced?

1. The man who blindly follows a blind guide will `fall into a ditch" (Mt. 15:14). In discussing those who corrupted Jewish worship by bringing in their human traditions, Jesus said, "This people draweth nigh unto me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrine the commandments of men" (Mt. 15:8-9). What will happen to those good, honest Jews who ignorantly follow these false teachers? Jesus continued, "Every plant, which my heavenly Father hath not planted, shall be rooted up. Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch" (Mt. 15:13-14). Any interpretation of Philippians 3:15-16 (or any other passage) which implies or explicitly teaches that a blind follower of a blind leader will go to heaven is wrong.

2. Men are held responsible for their ignorance of God's revelation. Several passages demonstrate this:

And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent: Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men in that he hath raised him from the dead (Acts 17:30-31).

And Paul, earnestly beholding the council, said, Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day (Acts 23:1).

I verily thought with myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 26:9).

And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me, for that he counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry; who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief (1 Tim. 1:12-13).

These passages clearly show that men are held responsible for knowing God's revelation.

The usual objection to these passages is that these verses apply of alien sinners. Are we to assume that God expects less of Christians than to alien sinners? Does God hold the alien sinner responsible for knowing God's revelation, thereby holding him accountable for whatever sins he might commit in ignorance, but excuses the Christian of whatever sins he might commit in ignorance? What verse makes a distinction between the sins of ignorance committed by a Christian and those committed by an alien sinner?

Someone objects, "But the Christian has the blood of Christ." So does the alien sinner. The alien sinner has the blood of Christ available to him if he will meet the conditions for receiving the forgiveness of his sins. The Christian has the blood of Christ available to him on the condition that he will meet the conditions for receiving the forgiveness of his sins. Is the objection implying, "The Christian has the blood of Christ unconditionally for certain sins and conditionally for other sins?"

3. Paul stated that sincerity was no proof of salvation for a Christian. He wrote, "But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man's judgment: yea, I judge not mine own self. For I know nothing by myself; yet am I not hereby justified: but he that judgeth me is the Lord" (1 Cor. 4:3-4). The plain argument of Paul is that, though he had a clean conscience, he was not therefore justified before God. Later he added, "For not he that commendeth himself is approved, but whom the Lord commendeth" (2 Cor. 10:18). Paul realized what the Proverbs taught:

All the ways of a man are clean in his own eyes; but the Lord weigheth the spirits (Prov. 16:2)

There is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death (Prov. 16:25)

4. The logical conclusion of this interpretation of Philippians 3:15-16 leads to spiritual absurdity. If a Christian is not separated from God by his habitual sins of ignorance and weakness of the flesh, we should leave him in his ignorance once he is baptized. We should just burn all of the Bibles and kill all of the preachers and let him go to heaven in his ignorance!

These facts should lead a man to question the interpretation of Philippians 3:15-16 which says that a man is acceptable before God so long as he is walking according to the level of knowledge to which he has attained. But what is the passage teaching?

The Text In Its Context

in responding to Judaizers, Paul showed his willingness to renounce everything in which man might trust and boast for salvation in order to gain Christ (Phil. 3:3-11). He forsook his ancestry, the Pharisee sect, and any effort to attain righteousness through perfect law-keeping in order to be saved through Christ. Paul forgot the things which were behind him (Phil. 3:13), counting them as mere refuse (Phil. 3:8). He pressed forward toward the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:14).

In this context, he wrote these words:

Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded: and if in any thing ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you. Nevertheless, whereto we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us mind the same thing (Phil. 3:15-16).

Although some commentators express the interpretation presented by those who say sins of ignorance do not separate us from God, I reject .their interpretation for reasons cited above and because it is inconsistent with the context.

After describing these Judaizing teachers as "dogs," "evil workers" and the "concision" or mutilation (Phil. 3:2), for Paul to imply that those who ignorantly follow these men are not separated from God is inconceivable. Later he continued to describe these wicked false teachers saying, "For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things" (Phil. 3:18-19). It is inconceivable that Paul could describe these wicked false teachers in these terms and then turn to say, "So long as the one who is following these men does not know better, he is not separated from God by his sin."

Verse 15 admonishes all Christians to have the same mind as Paul had ("let us therefore, as many as be perfect [teleois means mature, not sinless], be thus minded." The kind of mind he described is the mind to forget the things behind and press forward to the prize which lies before him. It is the mind which counts those things which cannot save as mere dung. J.B. Lightfoot explained it this way, ". . . let us make it our rule to forget the past and press ever forward" (Saint Paul's Epistle to the Philippians, p. 153).

Paul then added, ". . . and if in any thing ye be otherwise interpreting this sentence, the denominational commentaries begin to differ among themselves and to teach various false doctrines. One commentary says, "If only we be in earnest, pressing onwards in the Christian race with sustained perseverance, God will, by the manifestation of his Spirit in our heart, correct any minor errors of doctrine or of practice" (B.C. Coffin, "Philippians," The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 20, p. 115). This is sometimes joined with the Calvinist doctrine of enlightenment by the Holy Spirit to teach that God will illuminate the Christian to understand those areas in which he is wrong.

R.C.H. Lenski avoids the subjectivism of Calvinism's doctrine of illumination by emphasizing that God's revelation is given to us in the Bible (in the days of the apostles, it was given in the Old Testament and through the apostles and prophets).

When Paul says, "This, too (even this), God will reveal to you," he is not turning them over to God because he himself does not know what else to do. Nor may we think of an immediate revelation. Kai, "even" or "also" implies that God has revealed to these mature Christians all that had brought them to their maturity, all their knowledge of Christ and his righteousness, and all their earnest, zealous Christian life; and God had done this by the Spirit who works through the Scripture Word (the Old Testament in this case) and through Christ's apostles (John 16:13-14), the doctrine and the instruction which spread all the truth and make it a power in the hearts of Christians. Paul says that God will thus enlighten the Philippians on even any minor point that may yet be left and that is not fully clear to them either in itself or in its value for them. In fact, in this very epistle Paul is presenting anew to the Philippians a good deal of God's revelation which ever penetrates our hearts more deeply. Our constant experience is that even we mature Christians see many a point more clearly as time and our own personal experience go on (The Interpretation of St. Paul's Epistles To the Galatians, to the Ephesians, and to the Philippians, p. 854).

Hence, God's means of revealing more of His will to me today is through the Bible. The verse does not condone a diversity of doctrinal beliefs but directs those holding diverse ideas to the revelation of God for a correction of them.

Verse 16 then adds, "nevertheless, whereto we have already attained, let us walk by the same" (cf. several translations for study of the textual variant readings). The loose interpretation of some brethren (that is, a man is acceptable before God so long as he is walking according to the level of knowledge of God's work which he knows) does not do justice to this passage.

What Paul is saying is this: So far the Christians had been living by the rule of God as given earlier by Paul. They should not depart from that rule but should resolve to continue in that same rule in the future. H.A.W. Meyer used this graphic illustration to make this clear:

The line A, B, C indicates the course of life in which God demands that the Christians walk. The Philippians had progressed from point A to point B. Paul is admonishing them not to depart from that line but to continue on from point B to C. A departure to D or E would be apostasy. Hence, in keeping with the course of conduct in which they had walked so far, they should continue in the future. (For more detailed exposition of this, read Critical And Exegetical Hand-book to the Epistles to the Philippians and To Philemon by H.A.W. Meyer, pp. 140-145.)

Other commentaries stress the same point.

The literal Greek is, "walk by the same." The context speaks of a path. Translation: Only one thing, so far as we have come, let us keep our lives in the same path (Kenneth S. Wuest, Word Studies, Vol. II, p. 100).

Or, more literally, "Only, to what we have attained, with the same let us keep in line." The rule has been established. The principle - namely, "We are still far from perfect, but in Christ we should strive to become perfect" - has been enunciated and exemplified. Let our lives be regulated by the consistent application of this principle. It must never be surrendered (William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary; Exposition of Philippians, p. 177).

The thought is the same as that expressed in Gal. 6:16: "as many as are keeping in line with this canon" or rule (the one stated in Gal. 6:15). Stoichein = to stand and march like a soldier, each in his place in rank and file.

Paul by no means says that being minded differently in some respect is a matter of indifference just so we keep to the main thing, faith in Christ. He is not an indifferentist regarding even the least point. He is the soundest unionist that ever lived, who united in the completest inner union of heart and life all whom he taught. The Philippians, lined up and ever keeping in line with all that by God's grace and revelation they have thus far attained, will by this very means attain also one mind in any minor matter that may st~l need one-mindedness. Perfect oneness in the Word (revelation), with one heart and one spirit, is the prayer of Jesus (John 17:17-21) and the preachment of all his apostles. Paul's effort is a completely united front against the errorists of his day (R.C.H. Lenski, op. cit., p. 855).

He is anxious for two things - that they should keep on the same course, and that all should keep on together. In both senses he addresses the perfect; he will have them understand that they have attained only one thing - to be in the right path, and that it is for them to continue in it; he also. bids them to refrain from setting themselves up above the imperfect... (David Lipscomb and J.W. Shepherd, A Commentary on the New Testament Epistles: Philippians, p. 210).


There is nothing in Philippians 3:15-16 to warrant the conclusion being drawn that habitual sins of ignorance and weakness of the flesh do not separate a person from God or that God will accept the Christian who is walking the best he knows how to walk or the basis of knowledge to which he has attained. Such an interpretation is being given to this verse in order to justify the practice of extending the right hand of fellowship (Gal. 2:9) and holding out the hope of salvation to those who are involved in using instrumental music in worship, church support of human institutions (missionary societies, colleges, orphan homes, hospitals, old folks' homes, etc.), the sponsoring church arrangement, and church sponsored recreation. Some who are not content with the limits imposed by God's word regarding fellowship are seeking some means of justifying their predetermined conclusion to fellowship those who are not content to walk in God's word.

Guardian of Truth XXVII: 8, pp. 226, 243-245
April 21, 1983