Paul recognises that he is not yet perfect. We are reminded of the wise saying of John Newton: ‘I am not what I should, I am not what I will be, but I am not what I was.’ This is what Paul is saying here. The triumphs that he has known in the Christian life are the equivalent of jumping over the obstacles in a race. They are not a sign that he has arrived, only a sign that he is moving onwards. He has an ambition in mind to which he is devoting all his energy; he wants to lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus laid hold of him.
When did Jesus lay hold of Paul? A first answer to this question is that Jesus took hold of Paul in the eternal covenant when the Father gave a people to his Son. There in the beginning-less eternity, this agreement was made in which the Son agreed to save the sinners that the Father gave him as a divine gift. The Son received them with a strong grip and has never let them go. Obviously, this is a hold by Jesus that we cannot understand, and it remains secret as far as anyone knowing who they were who were given to him.
When did Jesus lay hold of Paul? A second answer to this question is that Jesus laid hold of Paul on the Damascus Road. On that occasion, the hand of Jesus stopped Paul in his tracks. His hand did not tickle Paul, nor did it attempt to divert Paul into another path of pointless activity. Instead, the hand of Jesus stopped Paul from continuing in his race to a lost eternity. We can describe this hold as the hand of Jesus in providence. Unlike his grip in the eternal counsels, we can experience this firm taking-hold that Jesus does with his people. We can ask ourselves, Has the hand of Jesus stopped me from continuing in my path of sin? This grip can come suddenly, even when we are intent on sinning, as Paul himself discovered on the Damascus Road. The sense of being in the grip of Christ in this way is not pleasant because we discover that he knows about our sins (Paul also discovered this because Jesus told him about his persecution of Christians). Although it is not a pleasant grip, it is a good grip because it stops us in our sins.
When did Jesus take hold of Paul? A third answer to this question would be that at some stage in the next few days after his encounter on the Damascus Road Paul trusted in Jesus as the Saviour of his soul, his Saviour from his sins. At that moment when he trusted in Jesus, Paul felt the warm embrace of Jesus and realised that he was now held in the grip of a Saviour who would never let him go. This is a very wonderful grip to experience.