No Confidence in the Flesh (Mike Riccardi)

Philippians 3:4–7   |   Sunday, September 29, 2013   |   Code: 2013-09-29-MR


“Faith” is a very popular attitude these days. It wasn’t long ago that the intellectual elite in our society regarded believing in something for which there was not tangible, empirical evidence as the height of folly. But these days it seems that “having faith” or “being a person of faith” is no longer thought of as a bad thing at all. It’s actually more common to hear someone praising someone else for their faith, or speaking highly (and even proudly!) of their own faith in their personal belief system. In fact, the concept of “having faith” is regarded so highly today that people seem not to care what people have faith in, just as long as they believe in something.


Have you encountered this attitude as you’ve lived, worked, and interacted with friends in our non-Christian society? My wife told me about a conversation she had with another nurse at the hospital where she works. She had the opportunity to share the Gospel with her and explain what the Bible says about salvation. At the end of the conversation, she thanked Janna for explaining the Gospel to her and said, “I really respect you for having faith—for believing something strongly.” Then this woman referred to another one of their co-workers whom she knew to be an atheist, and said, “Sally over there doesn’t believe in anything, and there’s just no merit in that. But I respect you for your strong faith.”


You see? This woman was not any more persuaded of the truths of the Gospel that Janna spoke to her. She had no intention of making any sort of judgment on the value or the veracity of what Janna was telling her. And that’s the common attitude. It doesn’t matter at all what I believe. It just matters that I believe in something. Anything, really. The common conception of faith in our culture has become little more than positive thinking—‘Just have faith that things will get better.’ This is grounded upon absolutely nothing in reality; the result of such a faith is not any actual benefit to the one who has this faith. It merely pacifies them with the sort of wish-upon-a-star mentality that shields them from ever having to seriously consider the truth and the consequences of living according to falsehood.


And it’s into this society and culture that is so massively confused about the nature of faith that we as Christians are sent to proclaim that true salvation from sin and punishment comes only as a result of faith in Jesus Christ. And so we are faithful to evangelize; we speak to our friends and family about the Gospel and we urge people to “believe in Jesus.” But given our culture’s pluralistic, self-focused, intellectually baseless understanding of faith, what do they hear when we present faith in Christ as the condition for salvation? Do we even know ourselves? What do we mean when we tell someone to believe in Jesus? What do we mean when we say that we believe in Jesus?


Are we saying we believe in Jesus like we believe in the Tooth Fairy, or in the Easter Bunny? Are we simply asking people to believe that a Jewish man named Jesus existed 2,000 years ago—that He’s not a made-up character like Santa Claus? Do we mean that Christians believe that certain facts about Jesus are true—that He was both God and man, that He lived a perfect life of righteousness and never sinned, that He died on a Roman cross, was buried, and rose again from the grave three days later?


Well certainly those things are part of what we’re asking people to believe. True, saving faith cannot be exercised apart from believing in the facts of Jesus’ deity and humanity, His birth, His life, His death and resurrection. But what we’re really after in preaching the Gospel to unbelievers—what it means to believe in Jesus—most foundationally means that we trust in Him for our righteousness before God. It means that we understand that the standard for fellowship and relationship with the Holy God who has created us is absolute, 100% moral perfection. And in the light of that standard of holiness, it means recognizing that every inherited privilege and every achieved accomplishment in our lives is worthless to meet that standard. No matter how good we may think we are, we don’t have what it takes to reach perfection. And it means that we believe that Jesus does have what it takes—that He is perfectly righteous. And it means that we rely on Him for our access and acceptance with God. We depend on the righteousness that He accomplished to admit us into the presence of the God of all holiness.


This is what the Gospel is really about. This is what you are asking your friends and family and the people you’re sharing the Gospel with to believe. This it is what it means to be a Christian. It means moving beyond a “believing that” and arriving at a “believing in.” Instead of trusting in ourselves and our privileges and our accomplishments and our achievements, we abandon all confidence in ourselves and we trust Jesus for righteousness; we rely upon Him for access to God; we depend upon Him for the provision of everything that is required for entrance into the presence of absolute holiness.


And it is that very topic—the nature of saving faith and the marks of a true Christian—that Paul takes up in Philippians chapter 3. He begins this chapter by issuing to the church at Philippi what I have called a Gospel-driven warning against the damning error of the Judaizers. And you remember that the Judaizers, according to Acts chapter 15 verse 1, were professing Christians who were teaching that in order for Gentiles to be saved and counted righteous before God, they needed to believe Jesus, but they also needed to be circumcised and observe the Law of Moses. And Paul recognizes this teaching that righteousness is to be found anywhere else but in the sufficient work of Christ to be so severe, that he warns the Philippians to beware of those dogs, to beware of those evil workers, to beware of those mutilators of the flesh and of the souls of men, who undermine the grace of the Gospel by requiring that human righteousness be added to Christ’s work.


And since the nature of the Judaizers’ false doctrine is to distort what it means to be a true child of God, in verse 3 Paul outlines the nature of a true Christian. He says in verse 3 that the true circumcision—that is to say, those people who are united to Yahweh by covenant, those who have received the circumcision of the heart by the regeneration of the Holy Spirit—the true people of God are those who “worship by the Spirit of God, and glory in Christ Jesus, and put no confidence in the flesh.” You see, when it comes to the ground or the basis of our acceptance before God, the true child of God puts no confidence in any of his own righteousness—no confidence in the flesh, whether it be the identifying mark of circumcision, the religious ceremonial worship of God’s chosen people Israel, or his own goodness and moral uprightness.


And it’s at that point that Paul anticipates an objection—a response from the Judaizers. The Judaizers would have heard Paul downplaying circumcision, the ceremonial law, and confidence in the flesh, and they would have said to the Philippians, “Well of course you Philippians don’t understand the value of the Mosaic ceremonial worship! After all, you’re only Gentiles! And that Paul: sure he puts no confidence in the flesh and decries all the privileges of the covenant people of Israel! He’s just jealous because he’s never had them and can’t ever attain to them!” And Paul says, “Oh really? You want to play that game? The true child of God puts no confidence in the flesh, but”, look at verse 4, “I myself might have confidence even in the flesh. If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more.” He says, “If you want to play that game where we stack up our fleshly credentials, I’ll beat you on your own turf. If anyone’s religious résumé could serve as a ground of confidence before God, mine is at the top of the list.”


Now, it’s important to recognize what Paul is not saying. Paul is not saying that these fleshly advantages and attainments actually do achieve any merit before God. He’s not pridefully boasting in his own self-righteousness to demonstrate his superiority, like the Judaizers were doing. He’s doing this for the sake of argument. He’s saying, “If indeed it were the case that a privileged pedigree, an orthodox upbringing, and religious achievements actually did have any saving value, I’d have much more of a ground for confidence than these Judaizers would!” And this isn’t the first time that the Apostle Paul uses his enemies’ own weapons against them. The false apostles who were troubling the church in Corinth made it a practice to boast in themselves and to seek to discredit Paul. And so Paul says to the Corinthians, in effect, “Listen, Corinthians. If you’re being drawn away from the purity and simplicity of devotion to Christ—from this Gospel of grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone—because you’re attracted to the attainments of these false apostles, let me assure you that I’ve got far more grounds to boast!” But he tells them that he’s only doing it to beat them at their own game. In 2 Corinthians 11:17, he says, “What I am saying, I am not saying as the Lord would, but as in foolishness, in this confidence of boasting. Since many boast according to the flesh, I will boast also.” And so Paul is doing the same thing here in Philippians 3. For the sake of argument, he temporarily adopts the Judaizers’ practice of putting confidence in the flesh (a) to demonstrate that his doctrine comes from Christ and not from sour grapes, and (b) to demonstrate that with regard to self-righteousness he had been there and done that, and found it all absolutely worthless when it came to meriting acceptance before God.


And so in verses 5 and 6, Paul enumerates seven spiritual or religious advantages that he possessed apart from Christ in which, according to the religion of the Judaizers, he could boast. And they span the gamut of fleshly credentials: the first four are inherited advantages which Paul would have attained by birth and upbringing; and the final three are personal achievements that Paul would have earned by his own fastidious devotion.


But as we look into these this morning it is absolutely essential that we don’t view this merely as a lesson in Christian history—as if Paul’s spiritual biography was unique to him but had no bearing on our own lives today. As we’ve said before, if that Judaizing spirit of self-righteousness had died with those men in the first century, we might be able to view this text merely as a history lesson. But it is the natural disposition of every one of our sinful human hearts to put confidence in the flesh—to trust in, and rely upon, and depend upon, not the righteousness of Christ alone, but our own good works and accomplishments. And if we have ears to hear this morning, through the pen of the Apostle Paul the Holy Spirit will teach us about what Pastor John has called, “Seven religious credits that don’t impress God”—seven fleshly grounds of confidence that have absolutely no value when we make them the basis upon which we stand before a holy God.


I. Ritual: Circumcised the Eighth Day


Well, let’s look at the first advantage. We see it at the beginning of verse 5, “Circumcised the eighth day.” Literally, the Greek says, “with respect to circumcision, an eighth-dayer.” At the very beginning, here, Paul strikes right at the heart of the Judaizers’ theology. The Judaizers’ chief contention was that Gentile believers in Christ must be circumcised according to the Mosaic Law. And as we’ve said in our messages on the opening verses of Philippians chapter 3, circumcision was the sign of the Abrahamic Covenant—the most fundamental mark of identity for the people of God.


But of course circumcision was administered under different circumstances. A Gentile convert to Judaism would have been circumcised at whatever moment he had joined the covenant community of Israel. It wouldn’t have mattered if they were 20 years old, 40 years old, or 60 years old; every male convert to Judaism would have undergone the surgery of circumcision when he became a proselyte. Besides converts, though, there were the Ishmaelites, who received circumcision when they were 13 years old, since according to Genesis 17:25 Ishmael was 13 when he was circumcised. But according to the Law of God in Genesis chapter 17 verse 12, every child of the covenant was to be circumcised when he was 8 days old. This was the strict requirement of God’s law upon all who were native Israelites.


And so Paul is saying, “I’m no proselyte who received circumcision as an adult,” and “I’m no Ishmaelite who received circumcision at 13. No. With respect to circumcision, I’m an eighth-dayer, in strict adherence to the Law of Moses.” And I can imagine Paul saying this to the Judaizers, and looking out among them and seeing that some, if not most, in the crowd were proselytes to Judaism, and so they wouldn’t have been circumcised on the eighth day. And more than that, the Judaizers were trying to get the Gentile Christians to submit to circumcision according to the Law of Moses, but they could never attain to the standard that the Law required for all the children of the covenant. No matter when they would be circumcised it would be after the eighth day—it would be second-rate in comparison to Paul. And so Paul looks them all in the eye and says, “With respect to circumcision, I’m an eighth-dayer. I’ve been at the very top of this ritualistic observance, and I tell you from experience that it is absolutely worthless to earn you salvation.”


And through this personal testimony, Paul is teaching us that salvation does not come through the practice of rituals and rites and ceremonies and sacraments. Salvation is not grounded at all upon participation in a Roman Catholic mass. Salvation is not grounded at all upon praying the rosary, or the “Our Father,” or the “Hail Mary.” Salvation is not grounded at all upon signing the cross or lighting candles or going to confession. Salvation is not grounded at all upon our baptism—whether infant baptism or adult baptism. And salvation is not grounded at all upon participation in the Lord’s Supper. No manner of participation in religious rituals and ceremonies contributes to our righteousness before God. All such righteousness, Paul will say in verse 8, is nothing more than garbage.


II. Birth: Of the Nation of Israel


Secondly, in addition to being an eighth-dayer with respect to circumcision, Paul says he was “of the nation of Israel.” The word nation there refers to ethnicity, ancestral stock. He’s saying, “While these Judaizers try to get you Philippians to join yourselves to the people of Israel by conversion, I want you to know that I am an Israelite by birth.”


And besides showing up the Judaizers who might have been proselytes themselves, many Jews living in Palestine in that day couldn’t trace their lineage back to Jacob and the patriarchs. Through intermarriage with many of the neighboring peoples, many in Paul’s day were of “mixed stock,” so to speak. You see, Paul was a descendant of Abraham, but even the Ishmaelites could rightfully claim to be sons of Abraham. Paul, though, was a son of Isaac, the child of the promise (cf. Rom 9:7–8). But then, even the Edomites—the descendants of Esau—could claim to be sons of Isaac. But not only was Paul a son of Abraham and a son of Isaac, he was also a son of Jacob—Israel himself. And of course it was the Israelites, not the Ishmaelites or the Edomites, who were the special covenant people of God. It was the Israelites, Romans 9 says, to whom belonged the adoption as sons, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the Law, and the temple service and the [covenant] promises.” And so Paul says, “Listen, you can’t alter your bloodlines. And mine are pure. I am of the stock of Israel, the true, favored covenant people of God. And it doesn’t mean a thing in regards to salvation.”


And here Paul teaches us that salvation does not depend on any sort of nobility that passes through birth. It’s unlikely, in our day, for anyone to suppose that their particular ethnicity gives them pride of place with respect to salvation. But maybe others of you are deceived into thinking that other sorts of religious virtues are inherited by birth. You may say, “I was born and raised in a Christian household! My parents were believers, their parents were believers; I come from generations of faithful Christians.” Well can I tell you that that is absolutely wonderful! Give praise and thanks to God for the blessings of godly influences and natural protection from the evils of this world! But my friend, the moment you believe that growing up in a Christian household or being the child of believers provides any basis for your acceptance with God, you have believed in damnable doctrine.


III. Social Status: Of the Tribe of Benjamin


Well, not only was Paul circumcised on the eighth day and of the nation of Israel. He was, number three, “of the tribe of Benjamin.”  Now, it was uncommon even for the Jews of Paul’s day to be able to trace their tribal descent back to one of Jacob’s sons. Intermarriage during the years of exile had long blurred the tribal lines (MacArthur, 230). Of those Judaizers who weren’t proselytes, but were true Israelites, it is very likely that a great many of them had no hope of tracing their tribal descent. But Paul was able to trace his family’s descent straight back to Benjamin.


And the tribe of Benjamin was highly regarded in Israel, for many reasons. You may remember that Jacob had two favored sons from his favored wife, Rachel: Joseph, and Benjamin. Benjamin was also the only son of Israel that was born in the Promised Land (Gen 35:16–20). The first king in Israel, King Saul, was a Benjamite (1 Sam 9:1), and it very well may have been that Paul’s parents named him Saul after this most famous member of the tribe. Then, in 1 Kings 12:21, we learn that when the kingdom of Israel was divided, it was part of the tribe of Benjamin alone that remained loyal to the house of David. Together with the tribe of Judah, Benjamin became one of the only two tribes that made up the Southern Kingdom, which maintained the purity of ceremonial worship by not setting up altars outside of Jerusalem. According to Ezra 4 verse 1, it was only these two tribes—Judah and Benjamin—that persevered through the exile. And that great man Mordecai, whom God used mightily to preserve the Jewish people from slaughter during the Persian Empire. That great deliverer of Israel was a Benjamite. And on top of it all, it was within the borders of the land allotted to the tribe of Benjamin that the holy city of Jerusalem fell (Judges 1:21).


And so not only was Paul an eighth-dayer, not only was he of the stock of Israel, but he was also descended from this most illustrious and highly respected tribe of Benjamin. If you want to talk social status in Israel, it didn’t get any better than Paul’s associations. But Paul tells us in this passage that social status has absolutely no value with respect to salvation.


And again, I don’t expect many of you are tempted to believe any such nonsense that a higher or lower socioeconomic status contributes anything to your salvation. But social status in the church doesn’t exclusively concern whether your upper-middle class or lower-middle class. We have a social status in the church, don’t we? “Well, my father was a pastor.” “My son is a seminary professor.” “My daughter followed her husband to the mission field.” You yourself may have been trained in Bible college! You may have even graduated from seminary! And again, all of those can be wonderfully glorious privileges that you can thank God for. But not a one of them impresses God as a ground for salvation.


IV. Tradition: A Hebrew of Hebrews


A fourth advantage, still in verse 5. Paul says he was “a Hebrew of Hebrews.”  Now, he’s not just repeating that he’s an Israelite here. He’s not using “Hebrew” as just a synonym for someone who was Jewish. A “Hebrew” referred to a Jewish person in the Dispersion who didn’t adopt the language and the customs of the Greco-Roman world.


And this is helpfully illustrated by a conflict that arose in the early church. Turn with me to Acts chapter 6. Acts chapter 6 verse 1, Luke tells us: “Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food.” So you see what was happening. There were two groups or classes of Jewish people in the church at Jerusalem. There were the Hellenists; these would have been the Jews who spoke Greek and who lived by Greco-Roman customs. And there were the Hebrews—the same word as in our text in Philippians. The Hebrews probably also knew Greek, but they also spoke Aramaic. It’s very likely that they would have attended a synagogue where the service was given in Hebrew. The Hebrews were fastidious to protect their social and cultural customs from the corrupting influences of Hellenistic culture. Their politics, social interactions, educational curricula, religious rituals, and many other things would have been distinct from that of the surrounding culture (Hansen, 224).


And so Paul says, “Not only have I maintained the purest form of the rite of circumcision. Not only do I have pure Israelite blood running through my veins. Not only do I descend from the socially illustrious tribe of Benjamin. But my parents have raised me so as to be kept from the corrupting influences of Gentile culture. I am a Hebrew of Hebrews. If anyone has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more!”


But, as he said in verse 3, the true people of God put no confidence in the flesh. And that can only mean one thing, my friends: that salvation has nothing to do with observing religious traditions. Earlier this week I was speaking with my youngest brother who is a relatively new believer. He was speaking about the Gospel of Christ to one his friends from high school, who belongs to the Punjabi religion of Sikhism. And he was having a difficult time so he texted me some questions about how to answer certain objections. And one thing his friend said was really striking to me. She said, “I believe you should stay in the religion and culture that God brought you in this world with. There was a reason for that. We shouldn’t change it and neither should we try to change that for anyone else. … [Sikhism] is my place. That’s where I belong. Everyone has a place where they belong. I hate people who convert.” Now there is someone who believes in the merit of remaining loyal to religious tradition!


And I hear this kind of thing all the time! I have relatives—and I’m sure you have relatives—who say things like, “My parents were Catholic, I was born Catholic, I was baptized in a Catholic Church. I can’t be anything other than a Catholic.” Or, “I’m a Lutheran because my parents are Lutherans and their parents before them were Lutherans.” Or even, “I’m a Baptist because I come from a long line of Baptists, and I couldn’t disown that heritage from my forebears.” But friends, can you see that this text right here in front of us puts the lie to that kind of devilish reasoning?! Paul says, “Listen, my parents and I were so fastidiously devoted to maintaining the purity of our religious traditions against all kinds of external pressures. I was a Hebrew of the Hebrews. But when Christ invaded my life on the road to Damascus and gave me eyes to see, I found out it was all worth nothing! All my cultural conservatism and preservation of my traditions couldn’t contribute one iota to the righteousness that God requires of me.” And the same is true for us, my friends. Loyalty to religious traditions for their own sake has nothing to do with true salvation.


V. Religious Devotion: As to the Law, A Pharisee


Well, those first four advantages had to do with privileges that the Apostle Paul inherited. But just as inherited privileges cannot earn our acceptance before God, neither can our personal achievements contribute to our righteousness. And Paul includes these last three to teach us that.


The fifth advantage comes at the end of verse 5. Paul says, “As to the Law, a Pharisee.”  Now, you’re all familiar with the Pharisees because of our Lord’s dealings with them in His earthly ministry. And even though the Pharisees of Jesus’ day had so perverted the Word of God so as to nullify it by their own traditions, Pharisaism began as a sect of Judaism that was wholly devoted to the pure teaching of Scripture. In fact, the word Pharisee means “separated one,” speaking of the fact that Jews in the inter-testamental period had separated from other Jews who adulterated their religion by mingling it with Greek culture. The Herodians had sold themselves out to politics. The Sadducees were the religious liberals who only accepted parts of Scripture and denied its supernatural aspects like the existence of angels and the resurrection of the body. But the Pharisees rejected these excesses and clung to the purity of the Word of God. Pastor John writes, “To be a Pharisee was to be a member of an elite, influential, and highly respected group of men who fastidiously lived to know, interpret, guard, and obey the Law” (MacArthur, 231).


Their problem was that they were so religiously devoted that they added to Scripture’s commandments, and regarded the interpretive traditions contained in their oral law as equally binding as Scripture (O’Brien, 373–74). And so Paul in Acts 26:5 said that he “lived as a Pharisee according to the strictest sect of our religion.” And no matter how far the Judaizers might have wanted to make the Philippians go in their observance of the Mosaic Law, they would never have been able to attain to the level Paul achieved in his Pharisaic devotion to the law (Hansen, 226).


But even at the level Paul achieved, he said that religious devotion contributes nothing to salvation. And we cannot be deceived, friends, into thinking that if we attend church, and attend fellowship group, and attend Bible study, and meet with people for coffee to talk about spiritual things, and read our Bibles, and pray, and read Christian books, and even teach Scripture to others—all of these acts of religious devotion are glorious fruits, glorious evidences, of a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. But not one of these things, nor the whole of them taken in aggregate, can function as the ground of your righteousness. You can be as religious as you can possibly be—wearing the funny hats and the huge robes and the humungous pendants around your neck; you can take vows of poverty and live in solitude, and seek to punish yourself (even physically) to try to atone for your sin. But no matter what you do, you won’t be able to earn the kind of righteousness that admits you into the presence of God, because salvation does not depend at all upon religious devotion.


VI. Sincerity: As to Zeal, a Persecutor of the Church


Number six, at the beginning of verse 6: Paul says, “As to zeal, a persecutor of the church.”  Now, in order to understand the significance of this statement, you have to understand the importance and the nobility attached to zeal in the Jewish culture. One commentator writes that, “Zeal was the code word in Paul’s time for ‘a fervent commitment to defending the purity of Israel’s religious practice and of her communal institutions, even at the cost of life itself’” (Hansen, 226).


And the prototype of this kind of zeal was Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron the priest. Numbers 25 tells us that in the midst of Israel’s idolatrous worship of Baal, one of them presented a Midianite woman to his relatives for marriage. This was high-handed neglect of the command of God to not intermarry with the nations who would entice them to serve foreign gods. When Phinehas saw this, he grabbed a spear and pierced both the man and the Midianite woman through, killing them both. And Psalm 106:30 and 31 says that Phinehas’s zeal “was reckoned to him for righteousness.”


Well in the same way that Phinehas killed those who sought to pollute Judaism and the law of God, Paul viewed the early followers of Jesus Christ as those who were corrupting the purity of the Word of God. And so Paul persecuted Christians even unto death, perhaps supposing that like Phinehas his zeal would be reckoned to him as righteousness. It was to such a degree that Luke, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, could describe Paul as “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1–2). Persecuting Christians was as natural and reflexive for Paul as breathing! (cf. Acts 8:3; 22:4–5; 26:10–11). But the Judaizers had known none of this kind of zeal. Sure, they may have been zealous to make converts. They may have proselytized, but Paul persecuted. Paul himself, in Galatians 1:14, described his lifestyle of persecution as “being more extremely zealous for his ancestral traditions.”


What is Paul teaching us here? That salvation does not come as a result of sincerity or earnest devotion. That’s such a common statement nowadays, isn’t it? “Oh, well it doesn’t really matter what you believe as long as you’re sincere.” The other day, Pope Francis wrote a letter to an Italian newspaper explaining that atheists can be admitted to heaven as long as they obeyed the dictates of their conscience. My friends, Paul obeyed the dictates of his conscience, and he killed people for his religion! He murdered Christians, and his conscience said it was an honorable thing to do! It doesn’t get any more sincere than that! If sincerity could garner favor with God, surely Paul would have been the one to earn that favor!


But he didn’t! His sincerity was worthless! Why? Because you can be sincere, but you can be sincerely wrong. Paul says that very thing in the opening verses of Romans chapter 10, where he says, “I testify about them that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. For not knowing about God's righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God.” You see? All of the zeal for God in the world means absolutely nothing when that zeal is employed as a means of establishing your own righteousness.


And so by all outward reports, you may be a zealous “Christian.” Your Bible may be highlighted in five different colors with the pages falling out. You may pray for multiple hours a day. You may fast weekly. You may be the one who spends all your free time evangelizing, handing out tracts and Bibles and sharing the Gospel with people. You may be the one volunteering at the homeless shelters and the pregnancy centers and the soup kitchens. But the moment you begin relying upon your religious zeal to serve as the ground of your acceptance with God, your zeal becomes out of accord with knowledge. It becomes your paltry attempt at seeking to establish your own righteousness. And that will do nothing but send you straight to hell.


VII. Self-Righteousness: As to the Righteousness which is in the Law, Found Blameless


And finally, Paul says, “As to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.” Now, understand that Paul is not here claiming to have been sinless before his conversion—otherwise what need would there have been for conversion, right? And not only this, but such a claim would contradict both (a) the very heart of Jewish theology and the Scriptures that Paul sought so zealously to uphold, and (b) Paul’s own testimony in Romans 7 where he says that the commandment not to covet aroused the sin within his heart to produce in him coveting of every kind. And so Paul is not claiming sinlessness.


What he is claiming is that he had so scrupulously adhered even to the Pharisaic interpretation of the Law—with all of its fine-tuned prescriptions for Sabbath observance, dietary restrictions, and ceremonial cleanness (Fee, 309)—that no one observing his conduct could justly censure him for falling short of the standard he required for others. As far as anyone could tell, from a the perspective of outward observation, Paul was not one of those Pharisees who laid moral and ethical demands upon the backs of others when he sat in the seat of Moses, and then lived his life as he pleased on his own time. He says, as it concerned the kind of external righteousness that the Old Testament Law and the Pharisaic tradition prescribed, no one could justly reproach him. Surely, the great majority of the Judaizers wouldn’t have dared to make such a claim of themselves. And so if anyone was going to have a ground for confidence in his own works of self-righteousness, surely it was Paul.


Conclusion: From Gains to Loss


And so you’re able to behold the wisdom in his argument. We have these Judaizers coming and tempting these Philippians—these Gentiles, who could never be eighth-dayers with respect to circumcision, who could never claim to be of bloodlines of Israel, who could never belong to such an illustrious religious and social standing as to be of the tribe of Benjamin, who had no hope of ever achieving what Paul did with respect to the strictness of the Mosaic Law and the kind of good works to contribute to one’s own righteousness—and like the most tender of shepherds he urges his beloved friends, “Dear Philippians, don’t be deceived by this false gospel! Listen, if these Judaizers have any merit in their arguments, I have much more to commend to you in the way of inherited privileges and fleshly achievements than they do! And if that’s the case, why did I come to you resolving to know nothing other than Christ and Him crucified? Why didn’t I urge you to follow my example of confidence in the fleshly attainments regarding circumcision and keeping the Law of Moses? O dear friends! It’s because I had been there! And in the awesome light of divine holiness not one of those advantages proved to be any sure ground of confidence in the presence of God! All of them amounted to nothing but sinking sand!”


Indeed, he says in verse 7, “But whatever things were gains to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ!” And here Paul takes up the language of accounting and mathematics. He pictures himself as an accountant with his ledger book opened up in front of him. And he says, “In the past as I reflected on my life and all my fleshly advantages—my adherence to ritual, my noble birth, my high social standing, my traditionalism, my religious devotion, my earnest zeal, and my legal self-righteousness—I listed all those advantages out in my ledger book, and do you know what I saw next to each one of them? Pluses. Every one of these advantages were written in black ink in the “credits” column, in the “assets” column. And as I contemplated the day that I would eventually stand in judgment before the Holy God of Israel, oh my heart trusted and rested so securely in the fact that I had a ledger full of pluses! Full of assets! Full of gains!”


But now he says, “Whatever things that were gains to me—whether it was those seven advantages, or any other advantages that you can think of—those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ!” While he was still on his way to beat and imprison and murder more Christians, while he was still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, the Lord Jesus Himself appeared from Heaven in a blazing light, knocked Paul straight to the ground, and struck him blind! And though he couldn’t see with his physical eyes, the eyes of his heart were finally opened for the very first time, and he could finally see the glory of this Jesus whom he had been persecuting! And in that moment, in the light of that glory, for the very first time, he saw himself as he truly appeared before God, in all the filth of sin and uncleanness.


He says in the light of that glory of Jesus, with the eyes of his heart, he looked again upon that ledger book of his, with the list of all his religious attainments and spiritual credits. And he says, “All the pluses disappeared.” And he didn’t just find things marked down 50% or 75%. In fact, he says he didn’t even find zeros! In the light of the glory of Jesus, every fleshly advantage that he had written in the “Assets” column had been moved to the “Liabilities” column. As the glory of Christ in the light of His holiness shone on the pages of Paul’s ledger book, all the black ink turned into red. All of his gains, he had counted as one, huge, overwhelming, colossal loss!


The word for “loss” there speaks of a detriment, of damage, of forfeit, of loss. The only other place this particular word is used as a noun in the New Testament is in Acts 27, as Paul suffers shipwreck on his voyage to Rome. They had been battling a volatile sea for several days. And Luke says in Acts 27:18, “The next day as we were being violently storm-tossed, they began to jettison the cargo.” Verse 38 tells us that the men sought to “lighten the ship by throwing out the wheat into the sea.” What had happened? The cargo on that ship set for Italy was at one time considered to be gain for the merchants, for the owners of the ship, and for potentially hungry people. But when those men came to the realization that that cargo and that food was standing between them and life, they didn’t just count them as worthless. They counted them as loss—as positively harmful to them—and they cast them into the sea! And friends when Paul realized that everything in his life that he had counted on to be gain stood between him and the life that is to be found in Jesus Christ and in Him alone, Paul counted everything that he might have put his confidence in for righteousness—everything that he ever considered himself to be—not just as worthless, but as loss, and chucked it overboard into the sea, happy to never to see it again!


You see, friends, being born in a Christian home, being raised by Christian parents, being in the habit of going to church to gather with the Lord’s people on the Lord’s Day, reading your Bible, praying and fellowshipping with the saints, zeal for Christ and for His Word, all of your obedience to the Scriptures—all those things are wonderful evidences of God’s grace in your life. But the moment you begin to regard them not as evidences of salvation but as the ground of salvation, they have not just become worthless, they have become positively harmful to your soul. Why? Because they damn you, straight to hell, under the deception that they’re sending you to heaven. Paul says, “Christ struck me blind on that Damascus road, but he opened the eyes of my heart. And in the light of His glory I could finally see, and I counted all my self-righteousness as loss.”


Dear friends, have you seen Him? Has the beautiful, ravishing sight of Christ’s glory taken your heart captive? Has the loveliness of His righteousness caused you to look at your own righteousness and count it but rubbish, as nothing but garbage? Has there been this radical disruption of the very center of your life, the very core of your being? Have you so totally and thoroughly renounced yourself, all that you are, all that you were—every inherited privilege you may have enjoyed, every achieved accomplishment that you may have earned in the sight of men—such that you can say with Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ—everything I am, my hobbies, my interests, my achievements, my character traits—everything I am has been nailed to the cross—and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me! He is all my righteousness! “My hope is built on nothing less / than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. / I dare not trust the sweetest frame / but wholly lean on Jesus’ name! / On Christ, the Solid Rock, I stand. / All other ground is sinking sand! … Dressed in His righteousness alone, / Faultless to stand before the throne.”


That is what Christianity is, friends. That is true, genuine, saving faith. That is what we mean when we speak of “believing in Jesus.” Not just a confession you make with your lips. Not just a mental assent to certain facts of history. But abandoning all trust and reliance upon yourself for your righteousness—even in part—and wholly leaning—entirely depending upon—an alien, external righteousness to take you to Heaven: the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ.