A Gospel-Driven Warning (Mike Riccardi)

Philippians 3:1–2   |   Sunday, September 1, 2013   |   Code: 2013-09-01-MR



Well we return again to our study of the Book of Philippians. And as we come this morning to the third chapter of Paul’s great letter to his friends in Philippi, we observe a bit of a transition. Ever since penning his thesis-sentence in chapter 1 verse 27, Paul has been instructing his friends in the church of Philippi on what it means to conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ. He desires that they live Gospel-driven lives. And we’ve observed from the very beginning how, in the life of the Philippian church, that was going to work itself out in unity among the brethren. If the Philippians were to have any hope of faithfully ministering the Gospel to the pagans of Greco-Roman Macedonia, they were going to need to be unified—standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel.


And so Paul devoted much of his time in the second chapter to exhorting them to Gospel-driven unity (2:1–2), and to the Gospel-driven humility that is the prerequisite for such unity (2:3–4). He has called them to Gospel-driven sanctification—the diligent pursuit of practical holiness, as they are to work out their salvation with fear and trembling (2:12–13), and to show themselves blameless and innocent in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation (2:14–16)—to shine the holiness of Christ into an unbelieving world just as the stars light up the blackness of the night sky. And in all these things, he called them to imitate the examples of the Lord the Jesus Christ (2:5–11), and of three Gospel-driven ministers: the Apostle himself (2:17–18), his dear son in the faith, Timothy (2:19–24), and his fellow-worker and fellow-soldier, Epaphroditus (2:25–30).


And so Paul has spent quite a bit of time making these very pastoral comments on relational matters in the church. And it’s not to say that these instructions have been devoid of any serious doctrine. We’ve seen with our own eyes the masterful way in which the Holy Spirit weaves the most practical issues of the Christian life together inextricably with the loftiest of doctrines. But even through that, there’s no denying that Paul’s emphasis in chapter 2 has been decidedly relational. And that’s a good thing. We need that emphasis in the church. It’s why I spent so much time underscoring it, and why Paul spent so much time underscoring it. We need to recognize that church is not merely an exercise in academics—that gathering as the Lord’s people on the Lord’s Day in the Lord’s name is about more than intellectual stimulation as we listen to preaching and learn sound doctrine. We need to understand that the church is the body of Christ, and that as members of the same body we all are intimately related with one another, and that that relationship with one another must be marked by unity, humility, holiness, and sacrificial service.


But as we come to chapter 3, we learn that Paul is just as concerned—not just that they’re unified, not just that they’re humble, not just that they’re progressing in sanctification and serving one another—but that they understand doctrine, and that they guard against false teaching vigilantly and diligently. Paul is zealous, not only that the Philippians conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel by being unified, and not only by being humble, and not only by standing firm against opposition from the persecutions of the outside world. But now he calls them to conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel by being steadfast in their battle against false teaching, which comes as a threat even from those who name the name of Christ. And while the tone of the letter up to this point has been remarkably positive, overflowing with the love and affection that Paul so plainly shares with the Philippians, we come to chapter 3 and we see a bit of a shift, as Paul uses some of the strongest—even the most violent—language that he uses anywhere in his letters. It was John Calvin who said, “The pastor ought to have two voices: one, for gathering the sheep, and another for warding off and driving away wolves and thieves” (Pastorals, 296). He was absolutely right. And he could observe that principle at work in the Apostle Paul here in the Book of Philippians.


The entirety of the third chapter of this great letter is devoted to defining what it means—and what it does not mean—to be a true Christian. In the opening 11 verses, Paul warns of the legalists—those who teach that righteousness is to be gained through faith in Christ’s work and the cooperative efforts of the sinner. In verses 12 to 16, he cautions them against the error of the perfectionists, who lay upon the people of God the burden of eradicating all traces of indwelling sin this side of Heaven. And then in verses 17 to 21 he calls them to be on guard against the antinomians—those who, as Jude says, turn the grace of our God into licentiousness (Jude 1:4) and preach that we should continue in sin that grace may abound (Rom 6:1).


And so, just as the people of God are to be on their guard against any aspects of their behavior that are not in subjection to Christ, they are also, just as importantly, to be on their guard against doctrinal error that does not conform to the teaching and to the pattern of sound words that they had received from the Apostle Paul. As important as it is to eradicate disunity, pride, impurity, complaining, and selfishness from a congregation, it is just as vital to the health of a church that they be taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (cf. 2 Cor 10:5). In fact, it is pure and sound doctrine—understood in the mind and believed and treasured in the heart—that is the very foundation of the practical issues of obedience. Paul knows that. And so he turns to equip the Philippians to withstand false teaching—in the language of Jude 3, to contend earnestly for the faith once-for-all delivered to the saints—or to use the language that Paul himself used in Philippians 1:27: “to strive together for the faith of the gospel.”


And though our focus this morning will be on just the two opening verses of Philippians 3, we’ll read the first three verses together. Philippians 3, 1 through 3: “Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things again is no trouble to me, and it is a safeguard for you. Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the false circumcision [or, “the mutilation”]; for we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.”


As Paul endeavors to equip the church to withstand false teaching—to conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel by striving together for the faith of that Gospel—he issues what you might call a Gospel-driven warning. And that Gospel-driven warning consists two overarching admonitions that set the stage for his instruction throughout chapter 3. In one, he uses the shepherd’s voice that gathers and guides the sheep. And in the other he uses the shepherd’s voice that frightens and drives away the wolves. And as we study these two admonitions in verses 1 and 2, it will be helpful to keep the juxtaposition of these voices in mind, because the Church needs to hear both.  


And as we look into this text, we will find that just as for the Philippians, obedience to these two overarching admonitions is necessary for the biblical health and growth of Christ’s Church, in all ages. If we, as the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ in this place, are to conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel, we also must heed these two admonitions to (1) rejoice in the Lord, and (2) to beware of false teaching.


I. Rejoice in the Lord (v. 1)


And Paul delivers that first admonition with the voice of a shepherd who is comforting his sheep. Verse 1: “Finally,”—and that is better translated, “So then, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord.”


Now we’ve observed in our study of this letter that a key theme for Paul is the theme of joy and rejoicing. Paul mentions those terms no less than sixteen times throughout this letter, and we’ve seen them show up eleven times in the first two chapters. It barely even needs mentioning that Paul is concerned for his dear friends in Philippi to rejoice. After all, rejoicing is an activity that characterizes the Christian life; joy is the centerpiece of all Christian experience. It is at the top of the list of virtues which the Spirit produces in the life of the believer, Galatians 5:22: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, [and] joy….” In Romans 14:17, Paul says that the kingdom of God itself is “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” And the Lord Jesus Himself told the disciples that the goal of His Word revealed to them was their joy, when He said in John 15:11: “These things I have spoken to you that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.” The Psalmists command us to sing for joy in the Lord (Ps 33:1), to delight ourselves in the Lord (Ps 37:4), and to be glad in the Lord (Ps 97:12). Commentator Gordon Fee hits the nail on the head when he writes, “Joy…lies at the heart of the Christian experience of the gospel; it is the fruit of the Spirit in any truly Christian life, serving as primary evidence of the Spirit’s presence” (81).


And friends, if this is the way the Scriptures speak about joy and rejoicing, a question we all have to ask ourselves is, “Am I being obedient to this command?” Martyn Lloyd-Jones asks the searching question helpfully. He writes, “It is also true to say that this is a very thorough-going test of our profession of faith. Are we rejoicing? We claim to be Christians—well this is one of the results of being a Christian, this is one of the things to which the Christian is inevitably exhorted. The Christian is actually commanded to rejoice—are we experiencing joy and is this great statement true of us?” (Life of Peace, 13–14)


In order to answer that question accurately, we have to know more about the nature of true, Christian joy—what it is, what it isn’t, where it comes from, and so on. Well, of all the times that Paul has called the Philippians to rejoice, here in chapter 3 verse 1 is the first time that he adds the modifying phrase, “in the Lord.” And that tiny little phrase communicates an ocean of meaning. It teaches us that Christ is the source, object, and sphere of our joy.


Many people think of joy as being a superficial emotional response to the circumstances of life. And so when things are going well we find it easy to rejoice, but when things aren’t going so well we find it difficult to rejoice. But if there’s one thing that Paul has taught us it’s that true, Christian joy is in no way dependent upon our circumstances. Remember where he’s sitting as he’s writing this letter: on house arrest in Rome, chained 18 inches away from a Roman soldier, waiting to stand trial before Nero, who would decide whether Paul would be released or whether he would die as an enemy of the state. But he says, chapter 2 verse 17, “Even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith”—which is to say, “Even if I die for the sake of my ministry to the Gentiles—“I rejoice and share my joy with you all.” So, verse 18, “You too, I urge you, rejoice in the same way and share your joy with me.”


And on top of that, while he’s in prison, unable to move about freely and take the Gospel to other places where Christ isn’t named, there are other Christian preachers in Rome who are dragging his name through the mud as they preach the Gospel. Paul says they’re preaching out of envy and rivalry and selfish ambition, thinking to cause Paul distress in his imprisonment (1:15, 17). But through all of that, Paul says he’s rejoicing. And that would be impossible if true joy was a superficial, surface-level, phony cheerfulness that came as a response to circumstances! But look at what Paul says in chapter 1 verse 18: “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice.” What was the source of Paul’s joy? It wasn’t his circumstances. It was that the glory of the Lord Jesus was being put on display in the preaching of the Gospel. What was the object of Paul’s joy? He wasn’t rejoicing in prominence or reputation. He wasn’t rejoicing in an easy life or in worldly comforts. He was rejoicing, verses 19 to 21, in the exaltation and magnification of Christ. And he could count on Christ to exalted and magnified in his body—whether he lived or whether he died—because to him to live was Christ and to die was gain! Or to say that another way: because he was more satisfied by Christ than by all that this life can offer, and all that death can take!


And that, my friend, is where your joy is to come from! Joy doesn’t come from fame, or power, or riches, or ease. It doesn’t come from a trouble-free marriage, or a better job, or this or that human relationship. And it certainly doesn’t come from whipping yourself up into a sentimental or emotional frenzy, as if joy could be emotionally engineered! True joy comes from the experience of the all-satisfying vision of the glory of Christ displayed to the eyes of your heart! And I’ve got to tell you: in this sinful world with all of its distractions, and with our sinful hearts not yet fully free from the presence of sin, that’s not just going to happen. “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love!” No, if we’re going to obey Paul’s command to “Rejoice in the Lord,” we have to be blood-earnest about turning the eyes of our heart away from every sinful pleasure that can never truly satisfy us, and then saturating the eyes of our hearts with that all-satisfying vision of the glory of Christ! Joy is to be found in the Lord, brothers and sisters, and so if we’re going to run our race with endurance we must fix our eyes on Jesus, who is the author and perfecter of our faith (Heb 12:1–2).


And when you have disciplined your heart to find all your joy in Him—when you obey Paul’s command to rejoice in the Lord—you become unshakeable! You know why? Because He never leaves you. I love the way Martyn Lloyd-Jones captures this reality. He says, “His promise is: ‘I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee’ (Heb 13:4), so if my rejoicing is in him I am in an invulnerable position, for nothing can come between me and the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. They could throw Paul into prison, but they could not rob him of his Christian joy. They could persecute and strip him and malign him; they could try to rob him of his character and of everything else, but it did not matter. Here is something that can never be touched, that is beyond the reach of man and all his machinations and efforts to destroy; it is a joy that never fails and of which we can never be despoiled” (Life of Peace, 17). “And so, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord.”


Now those of you who are astute listeners may be saying, “Mike, Amen. This all sounds great. We need to rejoice in the Lord. But what does that have to do with being equipped to battle false teaching? That’s what Paul is beginning to write about, right? How does this fit?” And that is a good question. I hope at least one of you was asking it. And the answer is: The command to rejoice in the Lord—to be seeking all our satisfaction and delight in the person and work of Jesus—is the surest safeguard against any false gospel, because the essence of a false gospel is to cause us to rejoice and glory in something other than Christ. The legalism of the Judaizers, which we’ll explore further in just a moment, tempts the child of God to glory and boast in the good works that he performs in addition to the sacrifice of Christ. And the antinomianism of the libertines that we’ll see more of toward the end of chapter 3 tempts us to find our joy and satisfaction in the sinful pleasures that can never truly satisfy us. The legalists glory in their flesh (cf. 3:2–4), and the antinomians, verse 19 tells us, glory in their shame. But the true child of God rejoices in the Lord (3:1) and glories in Christ Jesus (3:3), and in Christ Jesus alone! And if we are satisfied and rejoicing in Him, dear friends, then we will be immunized against all the deadly viruses of false doctrine!


And so be sure to heed Paul’s first admonition to rejoice in the Lord.


II. Beware of False Teaching (v. 2)


The second overarching admonition that is necessary for the health and growth of the Church, number two, is Beware of False Teaching. Read our text with me again. “Finally,” or better, “So then, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things again is no trouble to me, and it is a safeguard for you. Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the [mutilation].”


And if Paul’s first admonition to rejoice in the Lord was delivered in the voice of a shepherd who is gathering and comforting his sheep, it’s plain that this second admonition is delivered in the voice that frightens and drives away the wolves who would devour the flock. As the Apostle turns from this warm, positive note of joy and affection to the sober task of warning against danger, you observe in his words the tenor of increasing gravity and severity. And as we survey these words from the inspired pen of the Apostle Paul, we learn with the utmost clarity that false teaching—doctrine contrary to the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ—is no mere trifle! Paul doesn’t consider these issues to be theoretical quibbles over esoteric abstractions! It’s not just a minor hang-up for the overly strict and narrow among us, no! Doctrinal soundness is of paramount importance to the Apostolic church, because believing the wrong things about the Lord Jesus Christ and the nature of His salvation can actually destroy your soul.


Observe the number of ways Paul heightens the severity of his admonition. First there is the fact that he’s going to repeat something that he’s told them before out of concern for their own safety. He says, “To write the same things again is no trouble to me, and it is a safeguard for you.” He’s basically telling them, “Listen, I know you’ve heard me say this to you before. You’ve heard me say it to you in person many times, and you’ve even heard me make reference to it earlier in this very letter. But I make no apology for repeating myself, because, frankly, you can’t hear the precise truth about the nature of justification and the Gospel enough.” The Apostle Peter said something very similar in 2 Peter 1 verses 12 to 15. He says, “Therefore, I will always be ready to remind you of these things, even though you already know them, and have been established in the truth which is present with you. I consider it right, as long as I am in this earthly dwelling, to stir you up by way of reminder, knowing that the laying aside of my earthly dwelling is imminent, as also our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. And I will also be diligent that at any time after my departure you will be able to call these things to mind.” Peter says, “I know you know these things, but I’m going to say them anyway, so that I can be sure that after I’ve gone to heaven and I can’t say them to you anymore that they’ll be burned into your minds.” Doesn’t sound like Peter and Paul are dealing with mere trifles, does it? Sounds like what they’ve got to say is immensely important!


And dear friends, I believe we can glean a principle of application for our own lives from these words from Peter and Paul. And that is that the faithful repetition of essential Christian truths is a vital component of a pastor’s responsibility (cf. Martin). And if that is the case, then a vital component of a Christian’s responsibility is to bear with and even seek out such repetition, rather than disdain it. Some people have this attitude, “Oh, there goes the preacher with his script again! Saying the same thing about the Gospel week in and week out! Doesn’t he realize that we’ve got the basics down by now?” And that is just the wrong attitude! Lloyd-Jones hits the nail on the head again when he counsels us, “Let us never assume that we have arrived at a position in the Christian life where we do not need to be frequently reminded of the first principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This repetition is necessary; there is always the danger of slipping away from the truth and of assuming that we are right on fundamentals when sometimes we are not. Paul repeats himself and he makes no apology for doing so” (Life of Peace, 22). And so we ought to love to hear the essential truths of the Christian faith repeated again and again. It’s no trouble for your teachers, and it is a safeguard for you.


And then, besides Paul’s repeating a familiar theme, we behold the gravity and urgency of his admonition in the threefold repetition of the word beware. And here we come to the heart of this Gospel-driven warning: “Beware the dogs. Beware the evil workers! Beware the mutilators!” Every repetition of the word, “Beware!” is like the slapping of a judge’s gavel, demanding the attention of everyone in the courtroom. And every commentator even somewhat familiar with the Greek languages comments on how abrupt and how rhetorically powerful this threefold warning is. And Paul is not given to undue exaggeration. He’s not just flying off the handle here. No, the subject he now begins to treat is so vitally important that he will spare no pain to awaken the Philippians to the severity of the danger they face.


And of course he’s calling them to beware of the Judaizers. These were professing Jewish Christians who, according to Acts chapter 15 verse 1, “began teaching the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’” “The righteousness of Christ achieved in His life and in His death, received by faith alone, is not enough to secure your salvation. You must ‘complete’ your faith by performing certain good deeds.” And Luke tells us that there was such great dissension and debate between these men and Paul and Barnabas, that the Apostles and elders convened a council at Jerusalem to decide the matter. And the Judaizers’ doctrine was roundly condemned as perverting the Gospel of the grace of God—that a man is justified by grace through faith alone, apart from works of the Law (Rom 3:28).


But notwithstanding this condemnation, the Judaizers continued to propagate their heresy among the churches, and Paul’s letter to the Galatians is evidence of how pernicious this false gospel proved to be in those early days. And Paul is saying to the Philippians, “You may not have had to deal with these men just yet, but they aren’t going anywhere. You’ll have to deal with them soon. And so you be on your guard against these dogs who nullify the grace of God and make a mockery of the sufficiency of the death of Christ.”


And that brings us to the final mark of severity: the strength and the violence of the language used to describe the Judaizers. The commentators describe Paul’s words as “fiery vehemence” (Hendriksen, 149), “full of invective and sarcasm” (Fee, 294), as he “flings derisive epithets” at the false teachers (Hendriksen, 150).


A. Dogs


The first of these severe instruments of reproof is the word dogs. “Beware the dogs!” Now this requires some explanation, because our culture and the culture Paul lived in are worlds apart in their estimation of dogs. In our culture, a dog is a “man’s best friend”—loveable, huggable pets that seem so much a part of our family we can justify spending thousands of dollars to keep it healthy, well-fed, and in some cases even well-dressed. But in Paul’s day, dogs were regarded “as the most despicable, insolent, and miserable creatures” (TDNT, 3:1101). They were wild scavengers that roamed the streets looking to eat anything they could get their mangy mouths on. Often times this meant feeding on garbage, dead animals, dead humans, and many times—if they were hungry enough—they would become vicious and even attack people. That society had great contempt for dogs.


And the Jews especially hated dogs. Because they were willing to eat anything, including garbage and even their own vomit, dogs were regarded as ceremonially unclean animals. You remember in Luke 16 the story of the rich man and Lazarus, where Lazarus’ poverty and tribulation were illustrated by the fact that “even the dogs were coming and licking his sores” (Lk 16:21), just as if he were road kill. Because of a dog’s uncleanness, it became a derogatory term that the Jews used to refer to those who were ceremonially unclean—the Gentiles who didn’t submit to the Jewish dietary laws. The Lord Jesus Himself said to His disciples, “Do not give what is holy to dogs…or they will…turn and tear you to pieces” (Matt 7:6). And the Apostle John in the final chapter of the Book of Revelation surveys the glory of the New Jerusalem, and in Revelation 22:15 says, “Outside [of that great city] are the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying.”


And in absolutely biting irony and sarcasm, Paul uses the term “dogs”—the very term that the Judaizers would have used of unclean Gentiles, and probably even Christians who didn’t submit to the Mosaic Law—the very derogatory term that signified viciousness, uncleanness, and impurity—Paul uses it of them! “Beware of those dogs! Those false teachers who pride themselves on being ceremonially clean and ritually pure are nothing but ravenous, unclean, filthy dogs!” Friends, Paul did not say, “Now, Philippians, be careful of our dear misguided brethren.” No! “Beware the dogs!” Paul wasn’t exactly helping the advance of ecumenical dialog, was he?


B. Evil Workers


He goes on: “Beware of the evil workers!” Those Judaizers are evil workers. Now, in many instances in the New Testament, the word “workers” refers to Christian workers—to missionary workers. And Paul’s just given two wonderful examples besides himself in Timothy and Epaphroditus of what a Christian missionary worker—of genuine servants of Christ—looked like.


And the Judaizers, they were workers all right. Everywhere Paul would go these false teachers would dog his steps, and just as soon as Paul came and preached the Gospel and left a city, these men would swoop in and say, “Oh, yes, that dear Apostle Paul. He preaches a wonderful gospel. But unfortunately he just simply doesn’t go far enough! If you want to be a true Christian, you need to be circumcised. You need to keep the Law of Moses. After all, isn’t that God’s Word? And after all, doesn’t the New Covenant promise to put the Law within your heart (Jer 31:33; cf. Ps 40:8)?” You see how plausible their arguments were? These were workers all right. Like the Pharisees, they traveled around on sea and land to make a proselyte (Matt 23:15). But when they made one, they’d make him twice as much a son of hell as themselves, because their doctrine of human achievement undermined the Gospel of the sufficient work of Christ and the free grace of God.


And so they are workers, but they are evil workers. Perhaps even with good intentions, in seeking to help the Church, they do nothing but ruin and destroy it, because they draw attention away from Christ and the sufficiency of His accomplished redemption, and assign His glory to a law that was never able to impart life (cf. Gal 3:21) and to man and his own dignity and willpower. And so all of their labors, are evil labors.


And friends, that goes just the same for any false religionist that would seek to persuade you to trust on your own merit—on your own “so-called” good works—for your righteousness before God. It doesn’t matter how much of a practical benefit they might be. They may feed the hungry, they may shelter the homeless, they may care for the orphans, they may preserve the environment, and they may devote their entire lives to making this world a better place. But if they trust in their good works to satisfy the wrath of God against them—and if they teach others to rest on their own moral achievements to admit them into the presence of a holy God—they are evil workers! Because they dull men’s senses to their need for divine grace, and lead them to believe that they can be their own savior when they can do no such thing! And so millions of people watching Oprah and Joel Osteen and any other positive-thinking guru go to their graves confident in their religion of human achievement to take them to heaven, and they face nothing but the fires of eternal judgment. Dear friends, those who would persuade you to trust even partly in yourselves for your righteousness before God are evil workers. Beware of them.


C. The Mutilation


Not only are they dogs. Not only are they evil workers. But now, with the most serrated sarcasm, Paul warns the Philippians to “Beware of the mutilation.” The NAS translates this “false circumcision,” but the term is “mutilation,” “mutilators of the flesh,” “butchers.” And the reason the NAS uses “false circumcision” is because the translators are trying to bring out the wordplay that Paul is using in the Greek. You see, the word for “circumcision” in Greek is peritome, and the word for “mutilation” is katatome. It’s the same root word with a different prefixed preposition.


And of course, the Judaizers prided themselves, as almost all Jews did, in their circumcision. This was the sign of the Abrahamic covenant—given to all Jewish males beginning with Abraham and all his household—that identified the Jewish nation as the people of God (Gen 17:10–14). And even Gentiles who wanted to convert to Judaism and become part of the people of the One, True, and Living God would need to be circumcised at their conversion. Circumcision was the baseline mark of identity for the Jews. In fact, when Moses himself failed to circumcise his son at the behest of his Midianite wife, Exodus 4:24 says that Yahweh met him and sought to put him to death!


And that carried right on through to the New Testament—so much so that the Jews referred to themselves as “the circumcision” and to the Gentiles as “the uncircumcision.” We see that in Galatians 2:12, where Paul tells us that Peter stopped eating and fellowshipping with Gentile believers because he feared the party of the circumcision. Or in Ephesians 2:11, where Paul says the Gentiles “are called ‘Uncircumcision’ by the so-called ‘Circumcision.’” And so the Judaizers were teaching that those Gentiles who were now grafted into the blessings of the Abrahamic Covenant should also bear the sign of that covenant. And unless they submitted to circumcision, along with performing the other ceremonial rituals of the Mosaic Law, they weren’t true Christians.


And so as I said, in the most intense irony and biting sarcasm, Paul says, “These false teachers think they are of the party of the circumcision. But because they undermine the grace of God displayed in the Gospel of Christ by mingling human works with Christ’s righteousness, their circumcision is nothing more than katatome—than ritual pagan mutilation.” That’s what the word referred to: to the pagan religious ritual of making cuts to the body—the very practice that was forbidden in Leviticus 21:5 and Deuteronomy 14:1. And of course the most salient illustration of that is in 1 Kings 18 with Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. Elijah wants to demonstrate to the people that Baal doesn’t exist, and so he challenges the prophets to prepare an ox for sacrifice, but not to kindle any fire under it. Then they were to pray to Baal to miraculously consume the sacrifice with fire. And of course they couldn’t do it. But as an act of religious devotion, thinking they could earn favor with their god by religious display, 1 Kings 18:28 says, “So they cried with a loud voice and cut themselves according to their custom with swords and lances until the blood gushed out of them. When midday was past, they raved until the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice; but there was no voice, no one answered, and no one paid attention.”


And the Judaizers would have recognized that work for “cut” from the Greek translation of that Old Testament story. And they who would have sided with Elijah in mocking the impotence of false religion have now become those who are mocked because of the impotence of their false religion. Paul says, “They call themselves the circumcision. They’re no better than pagans.” Because they trusted in their circumcision and added that work to the work of Christ in the Gospel, what was the surest sign that they were God’s people became the surest sign that they had absolutely no participation as the people of God. Romans 9:30: “But Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works. … For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes!”


And Paul takes it a step further in Galatians 5:12, where he says, “I wish that those who are troubling you would even mutilate themselves!” And the word for “mutilate” in that verse is an even stronger word than katatome. And the NIV brings out the force of it. The NIV translates this verse: “As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” “You trust in circumcision for righteousness, do you? Well then, why don’t you go the whole way and castrate yourself? The more you cut the more righteousness you’ll have, right?” You say, “Pastor Mike, please! This is church!” I didn’t write the Bible, my friends! You take up your complaint with the Holy Spirit.




And that’s how many professing Christians today react to these kinds of texts. “Paul, good grief! Dogs? Evil workers? Mutilators? Castration? Take it easy! These people believe in the inerrancy of Scripture! Old and New Testaments! They believe in Christ, that He was God and man, that He was sinless, that He died for sins and rose from the grave, and that salvation is to be found in no other name! Now sure, they may have some doctrinal issues, but how can you be so divisive over such a minor point of doctrine?! We need to be more like the Lord Jesus!”


And friend, I tell you: that’s exactly what Paul was doing! He was following in the footsteps of His Lord, who in His day on the earth called these legalists ravenous wolves (Matt 7:15), who called them whitewashed tombs full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness (Matt 23:37), who called them blind guides of the blind (Matt 15:14). Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, called those who would lay upon men’s shoulders the burden of contributing even in part to their own salvation “sons of hell” (Matt 23:15). Why?! Because the gospel of “Christ-plus”—the gospel of faith in Christ mingled with human effort and human merit—is a soul-destroying doctrine of demons (1 Tim 4:1)! Paul’s disagreement with the Judaizers was not some minor doctrinal debate; it was the difference between heaven and hell!


And so those who cry that such strong language is unloving simply do not perceive the great severity of the issue! I love the way William Hendriksen puts it. He says, “To be sure, there is here something bordering on fiery vehemence. But an incisive caution against a dangerous foe is not necessarily a sign of lovelessness. On the contrary, the warmer a father’s affection for his son, the deeper will be his distress when that son’s life is being persistently threatened by shrewd enemies, and the more earnest will be his warnings” (149–50).


You see, dear friends, this is a Gospel-driven warning! We speak so severely because the very Gospel is at stake! And so because we love you with the affection of a father for his children, we do not hesitate to warn you in the plainest language to beware of the dogs who call themselves the “Church of Christ,” who teach that your faith in Jesus Christ is incomplete until you undergo the rite of baptism! Beware of the dogs among the Seventh-Day Adventists who require the keeping of the Sabbath for salvation! Beware of the evil workers of Mormonism and those who call themselves Jehovah’s Witnesses, who make Jesus to be either nothing more than a mere man or the spirit-brother of Satan, and in so doing place the burden for attaining righteousness upon the backs of depraved sinners! And beware of the dogs of the Roman Catholic Church, who are mutilators not of the flesh but of men’s souls, as they anathematize the Gospel of Christ in the 24th Canon of the Council of Trent when they teach, and I quote, “If anyone says that the [justification] received is not preserved and…increased before God through good works but that those works are merely the fruits and signs of justification obtained, but not the cause of the increase, let him be anathema.” Dogs! Evil workers! Butchers of the souls of men, who become blind guides of the blind, who refuse to submit to the words of Scripture: “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace” (Rom 11:6)!


J. Gresham Machen said, “It [is] the difference between a religion of merit and a religion of grace. If Christ provides only a part of our salvation, leaving us to provide the rest, then we are still hopeless under the load of sin. For no matter how small the gap which must be bridged before salvation can be attained, the awakened conscience sees clearly that our wretched attempt at goodness is insufficient even to bridge that gap. … Such an attempt to piece out the work of Christ by our own merit, Paul saw clearly, is the very essence of unbelief; Christ will do everything or nothing, and the only hope is to throw ourselves unreservedly on His mercy and trust Him for all” (Christianity and Liberalism, 21).


Some of you still think that such a display of emotion in reaction to false teaching is imprudent. But dear friends, can we regard these things so lightly when it is so plain that Paul took them so seriously? Can we relegate the difference between (a) good works as the evidence of salvation and (b) good works as the ground of salvation to a mere doctrinal quibble among people who are overly-narrow and academic, when the Apostle Paul under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit of God could write so severely? Words, dear friends, ideas, doctrines and teachings—they are the difference between an eternity in heaven, with fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore at the right hand of God (Ps 16:11), and an eternity in hell, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power (2 Thess 1:9).


And friend if you’re here this morning, and you’re not sure which eternity you’re headed for, I want to you to be sure today. And so I point you away from yourself and the filthy rags of your own righteousness (cf. Isa 64:6). Put all that filth of your own good works away. Turn to a perfectly sufficient Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who accomplished all the good works necessary for your acceptance with the Father, who counts you to be righteous—just as if you had lived the perfect sinless life of Jesus—when you trust in His righteousness and His righteousness alone for salvation.


Turn from the shifting sand and perennial uncertainty of your own moral accomplishments, and set your feet upon the rock of the perfect righteousness of Christ that is yours through faith alone.


Christ will do everything, or He will do nothing. Your only hope is to throw yourself at His mercy and trust Him for all.