This morning we appear to shift gears a bit. We have been talking about relationships within the church, like-mindedness, and the proper perspective on leadership. Here in the beginning of chapter three, however, Paul seems to revert back to the theological controversy which characterizes his letters to the Romans and the Galatians. He says that he is going to “write the same things to you” implying that this is a topic he has talked much about in the past and one that is familiar to the Philippians. And that topic is, of course, justification by faith alone. It is Paul’s chorus, and even here in this letter to the Philippians which seems to not be interested in theological controversy, the bedrock doctrine comes out.
Now, this observation itself is important. You see, justification by faith alone isn’t so much the center of an axle, with all other doctrines ultimately leading back to it. No, that way of approaching things, though popular in many Reformed circles, is actually a little too simplistic and tends to run roughshod over the particularities of much of the New Testament concern. Every verse isn’t actually trying to get back to that one doctrine, and Paul doesn’t literally repeat it all the time. But, nevertheless, justification by faith alone is a foundational doctrine. This means it sits underneath later doctrines and, even if it is not mentioned, it is still essential to those other doctrines’ existence. This seems to be why Paul brings it back up here. We can’t hope to have healthy relationships with other people until we first have a healthy relationship with God, and this means that we have to understand how we can ever relate well to God, only through the righteousness which comes through faith in Christ.
Watch Out for the Bad Guys
A great deal of Philippians is concerned with church unity and like-mindedness, and so it is important to notice here that Paul is not calling for a universal acceptance of all sorts of people. No, the like-mindedness that he calls for is the mind of Christ, and he believes that there is a group of people who not only lack the mind of Christ but actually oppose it and prevent it from being shared in the church. These are the party of the circumcision, the Judaizing Christians who taught that justification came through faith in Christ and the faithful keeping of the law.
Paul is so hostile to this party that he writes, “Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the mutilation!” (Philippians 3:2). Calling them dogs was a typically first century slur and one that had a special place in Judaism. The irony, however, is that Paul is turning the tables on his opponents. You see, the Jews would refer to the Gentiles as dogs, and so the Judaizing Christians would have said that uncircumcised believers held that low status as well. Paul reverses this charge and says that the legalistic-minded Judaizers are the real dogs. Instead of being interested in good works, Paul says that they are “workers of evil” or “the evil-works people.” And then finally he uses the strongest language of all by calling them “the mutilation.” As commentators are point out, this is a play on words. The Greek word for circumcision, the thing which these false teachers were promoting, is peritome. What Paul calls them here, however, is katatome, a word which means “to cut up.” And if you think of the meaning of both of those words, you can understand that Paul is basically calling circumcision a sort of castration. He does the same thing in Galatians, “I could wish that those who trouble you would even cut themselves off!” (Galatians 5:12). If a little snip is so important, Paul says, then why not just go ahead and cut the whole thing off! This is strong language, impassioned polemic meant to show the severity of the matter under discussion.
You see the truth of circumcision, what it always meant, is that we ought to “worship God in the Spirit” and “have no confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3). The whole point was always to signify human weakness and dependency on another source. If you consider what circumcision literally involved, then it’s hard to imagine how it could be a sign of physical power and strength. No, it was a symbolic death, a cutting away of that very organ of reproduction. And it was meant to show reliance on God to fulfill His covenant, even in the absence of human ability. This is Paul’s argument at present.
The Judaizers were boasters. They thought that they were the “true believers,” the only ones bold and faithful enough to “take a stand.” They were willing to do all the tough stuff, to bear burdens that ordinary believers were too weak and too superficial to do. This is why they emphasized circumcision. It was an achievement. It required a sort of toughness and commitment that showed your zeal and allegiance to the cause. And in exactly this way it denied the gospel. This is why Paul could not allow such men to teach in the churches, and this is why he says that those promoting such views ought to be shown no tolerance.
But before Paul refutes the Judaizers’ teaching with the true gospel, he does want to make one point. He isn’t just preaching an “easier way.” No, he says that if anyone met the high benchmark of the Judaizers, it was him. It’s just that he chose to renounce such earthly confidence because of his faith in Christ. Paul writes:
For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh, though I also might have confidence in the flesh. If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. (Philippians 3:3-6)
Now, that last line does not mean that Paul was without sin. He’s using rhetorical language to make his point. Indeed, his “zeal” was so strong as a Jew that he persecuted the Christian Church, an act that he eventually came to view as a great sin. His point is that if you were looking for a “tough guy” who met every challenge and was a rigorous with torah as could be, then he was that guy. He “kept the law” by being attentive to all the details and following halakha. He did it all, and he did it better than you would have. Yet it wasn’t enough. “But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ” (vs. 7).
Counting Loss for Christ
No, worldly righteousness was not the way to true righteousness. Not even “religious” righteousness would do. And so Paul says that we must be done with the whole business of works-tallying, box-checking, and measuring ourselves over and against our neighbor:
But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. (vs. 7-11)
Here Paul rejects the whole Judaizing ideal. He says that he now considers things that were formerly thought of as assets and credentials as liabilities or loss. They are loss in comparison to knowing Jesus Christ as Lord. We might think of the words of Christ, “For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” (Matt. 16:26). But Paul’s special twist on this is that he isn’t just talking about riches, but also religious pride and supposed good-deeds done with a self-righteous motivation. Both forms of worldly “gain” are actually roadblocks on the way to knowing Christ.
Indeed, Paul says that all of these works which stand in the way of knowing Christ are “rubbish.” The word used is a strong one, considered semi-vulgar. It did not mean “dung,” as some suggest, but it did mean “refuse” or “waste,” something which was thrown to the dogs. In fact, we might connect this expression to Paul’s calling the Judaizers “dogs.” They eat the same things the dogs eat. A feast of rubbish, their vain works are a really just a dog’s breakfast.
Getting rid of the garbage of self-righteous religiosity is how Paul could know Christ and the power of His resurrection. He had to first humble himself and even deny and negate himself in order to be “found in Christ” by faith. Indeed, this self-humbling on Paul’s part, the renouncing of even good works, was necessary in order for Paul to be able to share in the “fellowship” or “communion” of Christ’s sufferings and to be “conformed to His death” (vs. 10).
You see all this was itself an imitation of Christ who made Himself to be nothing, as we have said in the past, in order to serve. And so Paul does the same, and so too must all believers. We cannot serve others until we humble ourselves, and this has to go all the way to our heart. We know the power of Christ’s resurrection through going down into the grave with Him. We sacrifice ourselves, trusting in God to raise us up again. And this even applies to our righteousness.
Justification by Faith Alone is the Key to Humility
All of this brings us to the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Paul teaches it here, though in somewhat different words than in Romans and Galatians:
I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith (vs. 8-9)
Notice that line, “not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith.” Here we see that the kind of righteousness which Paul receives from God is “through faith in Christ” and is opposed to his “own righteousness” which would have come “from the law.” This is the classic Reformation doctrine, and it can be found in the Epistle to the Romans, especially chapters 3-4 and 10, and the entirety of the Epistle to the Galatians. It is true that both of those letters had to do with the controversy between Jews and Gentiles, but the heart of that controversy was pride and how a person believed that they were right with God. Even if the Judaizing Christians confessed a sort of grace, it was still the kind of grace which was dependent on faithful adherence to torah. How “faithful” a person was in their religious observances—keeping Sabbath, keeping kosher, separating from the goyim, and being circumcised— determined how they stood with God. The same root issue pops up in many outward forms. Here in Philippians Paul is clear, our “own” righteousness is not the righteousness which comes from God. That sort of righteousness is rubbish. And the true righteousness is through faith in Christ.
At the beginning of this sermon we said that justification was a foundation doctrine. It is the sort of doctrine that you build upon, and what you believe about justification will determine how you live your life and how you relate to church. If you believe that God considers you righteous because of your own righteousness, then you will develop strict and specific strategies for holy living, and these strategies will be considered sacrosanct. They will have to bear a huge burden, for they are what will ultimately make you right with God. They are, quite literally, the difference between heaven and hell. And so they will become precious to you. They will take over your life, having a sort of lordship and making you a slave. Self-righteous people are never free, no matter the rules or laws.
This sort of legalism will make you both prideful and suspicious of others. You can only relate to them as competitors, either those to be dominated by you or those who will, unfortunately, dominate you. But they cannot be true peers or friends, and you certainly cannot have true communion with them.
And, as you might guess, this will also affect your church life. Legalists have to have the perfect church. The slightest little details take on the greatest importance, and any disagreement is always and automatically personal. This is because pride cannot, by definition, have the mind of Christ. It cannot humble itself and put others first. No, pride, precisely because it is pride, must always bite and devour until the bitter end. And this is why Paul says that we need to get this garbage out of our lives. It’s standing between you and Jesus, and you need to throw it out to the dogs.
The true doctrine of justification, justification by faith alone, is very different. It isn’t about precise formulations and understanding how all the theological jots and tittles go together. It’s about trusting God and believing that Jesus Christ really did make us right. Jesus really did take all our sin—past, present, and future—and nail it to the cross. He really did wipe out the handwriting that was against us. He really did take away all condemnation, bear the burden and penalty of the law for us, and then overthrow Hell and death. What He did worked, and we put our trust in Him. We move from being self-centered to being Christ-centered, and instead of finding ourselves in ourselves—in our good works, our religious precision, and our ecclesiastical toughness— we instead find ourselves in Christ, that we “may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death” (vs. 10). This is where all our energy is directed, and this is, finally, the way in which we believe that we will “attain to the resurrection from the dead” (vs. 11).
Yes, the resurrection is important here. It is our final destination, even beyond heaven. It is the ultimate eternal triumph, victory over death, and the restoration of all things. As such, it is our final goal and hope, and the doctrine of justification by faith alone says that this too is achieved for us by Christ. We believe that He has secured it for us. The future is ours now by faith. And this allows us to suffer in this life. Nothing that happens to us now can change our destiny because we have confidence of our standing before God. No schemes of men nor contradictory outward evidence can dissuade or distract us. We shall not be moved. Because Jesus.
This sort of faith has a profound effect on a person’s relationship to the church. It doesn’t make the church unimportant. It doesn’t even make the specifics unimportant. But it does relativize them in light of eternal justice, the justice that is only ever ours freely by faith. The main thing is always Christ, and this means that we are free to put up with a lot in this life. We can put up with disappointment. We can put up with frustration. We can put up with disagreement. We can put up with failure. This is all true because we have a confidence that can never be diminished. And this is what gives us our freedom.
Since Jesus is Lord, we trust His reign. He is in charge, and He is in control. We expect only good things, even if those good things come to us through conformity to Christ’s death. Still, they are things willed by God for our good, and so in them we are more than conquerors. This faith gives us peace and peace of mind. It frees us up. And it lets us live with other people in the real world, knowing that they too are made right by Christ and they too are being found in Him and conformed to His death. So, whenever we struggle in our relationships with our fellow man, let us use such times to return to our relationship with God. The answer to both is found in Christ, and that answer is to be found in Christ by renouncing self-righteousness in reliance upon Him. Let us pray.