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Not Having a Righteousness of My Own, Blog 4 of 4

In this fourth and final blog entry on Paul’s letter to the Philippians, I’d like to draw your attention to verses 10 and 11 of chapter 3:

Phil 3:10-11 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

When was the last time any of us prayed to “share in the sufferings of Christ”? Paul is ready to be identified with Christ, so much so that he even considers it an honor to suffer for his sake. In fact, this is actually a common theme in the New Testament (Matt 5:10-12, Rom. 8:17, Phil 1:29, 1 Pet 2:20, 3:14, 4:16), a theme that is not particularly in sync with the 21st century message of having “your best life now.”

Phil. 3:12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.

Not that I have already obtained all this. This is a wonderful verse that shows that we are declared to be righteous (positionally) while still being unrighteous (inherently). This is at the heart of what Luther was getting at when he described the Christian as “simul iustus et piccator” (simultaneously both saint and sinner).

Again, Catholic theology had taught (and still does) that a person who makes use of the gracious gifts that God offers through the church actually becomes inherently righteous. That person remains righteous until he or she commits a venial sin, and that allows the grace to leak out of one’s life. Mortal sins, on the other hand, immediately drain away all of your grace. In either case, a person can fix the leak by means of penance, confession, etc., and then replenish his or her supply of grace by attending mass, receiving absolution, obtaining indulgences, performing good works, etc. Since no one can know whether he or she will die in a state of grace, one cannot have assurance of salvation; in fact, that very idea is called the sin of presumption.

In contrast, the Protestant Reformers argued that justification, at its most basic level, was a legal declaration (such as a “not guilty” verdict). From the perspective of God’s infinite holiness, “there is no one who does good” (Rom 3:12), all of us by nature deserve a guilty verdict, and only those in Christ are granted a full pardon, based completely upon God in his infinite mercy. With Isaiah, we confess that Christ makes “many to be accounted righteous, and bears their iniquities.” This is also the testimony of the author to the Hebrews, who in chapter 10 writes, “by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.”

So if we’re already perfect, why do we need to be made holy? The answer is that both justification and sanctification are in view in this passage. We are first declared to be positionally righteous, perfect and acceptable before God because of the work of Christ. In reality, we are still sinners struggling here on earth. Like Peter before us, we all have denied Christ, sometimes in subtle ways, other times more explicitly. But Jesus is conforming sinners into his own image; he is sanctifying us and transforming us day by day. We’re still imperfect, but we’re slowly being conformed to the image of Christ.

That is what Paul is saying here. Paul has not already been made perfect, but he presses on because he’s treated as if he was. He’s awaiting an inheritance that he didn’t earn.

Phil 3:13-16 Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained.

Pressing towards the goal. Paul here is thinking of the Christian life, along with all of his personal difficulties associated with preaching the gospel, as a long distance race. Though he feels nothing but pain in the here and now, his thoughts are in heaven with Christ and the joy of victory.

In verse 15, Paul does something very strange and counter-cultural (at least as far we’re concerned). He seems to value maturity. Today, not merely in the culture at large but also in the church, we seem to value immaturity and juvenile ways of thinking. We believe that worship should be like a rock concert with lighting effects and fog machines. We believe sermons should be funny, attention-grabbing stage performances. We freak out when our “best life now” doesn’t materialize.

According to Paul, maturity changes the way we view things. God, he says, will be at work in you to help you to mature and to see things more clearly.

Phil. 3:17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.

Grace and Redemption are at the heart of Christianity, but that’s not all there is. Yes, Christ alone is our righteousness. This is our promised inheritance that will be fully realized and experienced one day in the not-too-distant future.

But this inheritance also implies an adoption. If we have been adopted, we need to live in a manner consistent with our new family identity. Of course, this new life does not win our inheritance, since we’ve already been adopted. Therefore the new life is simply the grateful response of a heart set free. This is why Paul teaches Gentile believers in particular to follow the pattern of life he set before them. Though it’s not part of our justification, it is an important aspect of our discipleship!

It’s important to remember that sometimes even elders and pastors do not live in ways that are consistent with their profession. Paul writes of such an instance in Galatians 2:14 when he observed that even Peter had stopped eating with Gentiles, fearing the circumcision party. “But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” Thus, for Christians, even our sanctification is not primarily rooted in law, but is rooted in learning to recognize the truth of the gospel and those parts of our conduct that are out of step with our new identity.

Phil 3:18-19 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.

There are some striking parallels here to what we find in Matt 16. Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do men say that I am?” Peter responds by saying, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” Then, after Jesus spoke a few words about his coming death in Jerusalem, Peter rebuked him, saying, “This will never happen to you!” How did Jesus respond? “Get behind me Satan! You don’t have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” Peter was rebuked harshly, as if he was Satan himself, because he was speaking as an enemy of the cross, and his mind was on earthy things.

Let’s face it. We often live as enemies of the cross of Christ with our minds set upon earthly things. We sometimes identify God with our appetites, our feelings, or our opinions, even as Christians. Sometimes, like Peter, we have an immature, man-centered—or perhaps even Satanic—view of things.

But if Peter can be saved, we can be saved. At the end of the day, we are not saved by our own righteousness but by Christ’s. When confronted with a sin of this type, we should take the posture of David in Ps. 51, who not only confessed his sin, but also asked God to “create in him a clean heart, and to renew a right spirit within him.” As Jesus taught, his disciples are declared “clean” not on the basis of any work they have performed, but because of the words that he spoke to them (Jn 15:3). After all, if the job of spiritual renovation and cleansing were up to us, at the end of the day who would be able to say, “I have made my heart pure, I am clean from sin”? (Prov 20:9).

Phil 3:20-21 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.

The residents of Philippi had been granted Roman citizenship, along with all the rights and privileges thereunto. Here Paul makes use of this concept to speak of something much more important. If we believe in Christ, flee from our own righteousness, and refuse to add anything to his finished work on our behalf, then we are then declared to be citizens of heaven. One day in the not-too-distant future, he will grant us all the privileges associated with this new citizenship, and we will all be transformed to become like he is.

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Not Having a Righteousness of My Own, Part 3

In the last blog piece I discussed Paul’s use of the word “dung” to describe not his sins, but his righteousness. He goes on to say that he desires to be “found in [Christ], not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.” (Phil 3:9)

Here, we are confronted with one of the crucial components of the gospel message. Sometimes Catholics will argue that the Protestant doctrine of justification amounts to a “legal fiction.” That is, if you say that you are still a sinner but that you are righteous “in Christ” (what Luther called simul justus et peccator), then you are actually telling a kind of untruth or fiction.

But this criticism actually exposes a critical flaw. If our doctrine is to be condemned on the grounds of a legal fiction due to our belief in the idea that we are declared righteous while we are actually not, then what are we to do with the idea that Jesus was considered a sinner when he was in fact personally righteous? In other words, if you stick with this argument, you’ll ultimately undermine the substitutionary atonement.

The idea of an alien righteousness is the witness of both the prophets and the apostles. Paul here is focusing not on his own works, but on Christ’s. Similarly, Jeremiah wrote of coming day when a righteous branch would finally spring up out of the house of David, resulting in salvation for God’s people. “And this is the name by which he will be called, ‘The Lord is our righteousness'” (Jer 23:6).

This is also the witness of the early church. Some have tried to argue that Luther came up with this idea of justification by an imputed righteousness. Though it is true that this particular doctrine had been obscured for centuries (and had in a real sense been recovered by Luther), we find it clearly articulated in the writings of various church fathers. A good example of this is Mathetes, who observed in 130 AD:

Christ Himself took on Him the burden of our iniquities, He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for them that are mortal. For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! That the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors!

This idea of the great exchange, though clearly taught in Scripture, has at various points been controversial in the church. This was especially true at the time of the Reformation. In a tract called “The Necessity of Reforming the Church,” John Calvin summarizes the thinking of his day:

It’s true Jesus is called a Redeemer, but this is understood in a manner which implies that men also, by their own free will, redeem themselves from the bondage of sin and death. True, he is called righteousness and salvation, but in a way that men can still procure salvation for themselves, by the merit of their works… True, Christ is said to have reconciled us to the Father, but with this reservation, that men, by their own satisfactions, buy off the punishments which they owe to the justice of God. When supplementary aid is sought… no more honor is paid to Christ than to saints such as Cyprian or Cyricius. For, in making up the treasury of the Church, the merits of Christ and of martyrs are thrown together in the same lump.

This Christ and this approach is exactly what frustrated Paul about the Judaizers. The Judaizers said that, in addition to believing in Jesus, one also needs to be circumcised in order to be saved. Unfortunately, this same spirit is plaguing the church in our day, even in Reformed circles. There are some who teach, for example, that we are saved by Christ, and by our own obedience or faithfulness to the covenant, and that, on the last day, the basis of our final justification will partly rest upon our good works.

But Paul does not say that if we do good works, we will be justified, but rather, “there is therefore now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1). Peter also addresses this in his first epistle when he says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you…” (1Pet 1:3-4). It’s an inheritance, not a wage; it’s rooted in God’s mercy, not our works; and it’s in heaven right now, waiting for us, rather than something that we currently possess.

In Phil 3:10-11, Paul then says, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” Here again we’re met with the verb “to know.” Many Christians in our day might wish to state this a little differently, something to the effect of, “I want to experience Christ and the power of his resurrection.” It’s certainly true that our knowledge of Christ has an experiential dimension to it (since we don’t merely know things about our savior, but we know him in relationship). But when “experience” or “relationship” becomes unmoored from doctrine and content, it quickly turns into mysticism, which is a huge problem in our time.

In the next blog post, we’ll draw some conclusions as we finish up with Philippians chapter 3.

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Not Having a Righteousness of My Own, Part 2

In the last installment of this blog series, we introduced Paul’s letter to the Philippians as a companion to our current White Horse Inn series. In this piece, and for the remaining three installments, we’ll be focusing exclusively on Philippians chapter 3. In this chapter, Paul walks us through his own background as a “Hebrew of Hebrews,” a background which he ultimately presents as a hindrance to the gospel.

In the opening of chapter 3, Paul writes:

Phil. 3:1 Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you. 2 Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh.

Who is Paul referring to as “dogs” in verse two? Jewish people regularly described Gentiles as “dogs,” but here Paul is using this word in a different sense. He says, “Look out for the dogs… those who mutilate the flesh.” This phrase might be mysterious on its own, but the next verse goes on to explain that he is thinking of the circumcision party. Also referred to as the Judaizers, these were Jewish believers in Christ who taught that a person needed to continue to keep all the laws and ceremonies of Moses in order to be saved. Paul addresses this issue most clearly in his epistle to the Galatians, even to the point of calling it another gospel (Gal 1:6).

What’s amazing here is that Paul uses the word “dogs,” which had formerly been used to describe Gentiles or those “outside the covenant,” including Jews who professed faith in Jesus’ messianic identity. Paul is saying here that race doesn’t matter and, ultimately, neither does denominational affiliation. Being Jewish is not enough, nor is belonging to a Bible-believing church. It’s not even enough to believe in Jesus if you end up adding your own works to the finished work of Christ. This is what places a person outside the covenant, and it is why Paul refers to these Judaizers as “dogs.”

3 For we are the real circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh—

In Colossians chapter 2, Paul explains more fully what he means by this idea of “the real circumcision.” Starting with verse 11, he says,

In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh [literally: in the stripping off of the body of flesh], by the circumcision of Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.

What Paul is saying in this text is that there is no need for the ceremonial act of circumcision, since this particular blood oath covenant was merely a temporal placeholder that pointed to the ultimate and eternal blood oath covenant that we find in the cross of Christ. He suffered the stripping away not merely of the foreskin, but of his entire body, and this greater circumcision becomes ours by faith.

Phil 3:3 For we are the real circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh

Paul here appears to be echoing Christ’s words to the woman at the well: “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). In John 6:63 Jesus says that “the spirit gives life, the flesh profits nothing. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” Later, in John 15, Jesus says,that the Holy Spirit ” will testify about me” when he comes. Worshiping by the Spirit of God, then, is not related to ecstatic or exuberant worship experiences, as it is often misunderstood in our day. Instead, it is directly related to those who, as Paul says here in our text, “glory in Christ and put no confidence in the flesh.”

Phil 3:4 …though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness, under the law blameless.

We know, of course, that Paul was not inherently righteous or blameless. In Rom 7: “If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness.” So here, when he speaks of blamelessness under the law, he is likely thinking exclusively of outward conformity. Inwardly, he was unclean. This is exactly what Jesus regularly communicated to the Pharisees during his earthly ministry: “Woe to you, for you are like whitewashed tombs which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matt 23:27).

Phil 3:7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.

Any goodness that Paul had claimed previously he is now putting in the debit column. All his outward obedience, all his zeal, all of it, he says, is worthless apart from Christ. Concerning his fellow Jews, Paul writes in Romans 10: “For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (10:2-4). In Phil. 3:8, Paul speaks of the “surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Some people in our day don’t like to focus on this knowledge element, saying “I don’t want to know about God,” or “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship.” But zeal without knowledge is a serious problem. At the end of the day, we cannot trust someone we know nothing about, for otherwise we end up having faith in the idea of relationship rather than in Christ himself.

Paul goes so far as to call all his outward obedience rubbish. Not wanting to offend our sensibilities, most English Bible translators end up choosing the least offensive of the various translation possibilities for the word Paul uses here. In actuality, skubalon is a little cruder. According one Greek lexicon, the way this word is used by other ancient writers of the period makes the sense closer to “dung, filth, excrement, manure, or crud.” And what’s interesting is that Paul isn’t merely thinking of all his sin as dung, but his righteousness. We find this same sentiment in Isaiah 64:6: “all our righteous deeds are like filthy rags.”

In the next installment of this series, we’ll continue this discussion of Philippians chapter 3. We will pick up in verse 9, where Paul places his trust in a righteousness that is not his own.

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Not Having a Righteousness of My Own

Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians sometime between 60 and 62 AD. So who exactly were the Philippians, and what was Paul’s relationship to them? According to the IVP Dictionary of Paul & His Letters:

Philippi was already a very old and historic city when Paul arrived and later wrote his letter to the Christians there. Philip of Macedon had built it in 358-57 BC. on the site of an ancient Thracian city located eight miles from the sea in a spring-filled, fertile region. He fortified it and named it after himself. Later Philippi became part of the Roman Empire and was made one of the stations along the main overland route connecting Rome with the East. Destroyed by wars, it was rebuilt by the Emperor Octavian, who established it as a military outpost, populated it with veterans of his wars, made it a Roman colony and gave it thehighest privilege obtainable by a provincial municipality. Consequently, as the citizens of Rome, so the citizens of Philippi could buy and sell property, were exempt from land tax and the poll tax and were entitled to protection by Roman law.

Google Maps places the ancient city of Philippi about 6 hours north (by car) of Athens. Romans predominantly inhabited it, but many Macedonian Greeks, along with a strong Jewish population, lived there as well. Its people were proud of their city and its ties with Rome.

Philippi is the primary setting for the events recorded in Acts 16, which takes place early in Paul’s second missionary journey (likely 49 AD). While in Philippi, Paul and Silas are dragged before the local magistrates after some claimed that they were disturbing their city (vs.19-20). The two were then put in jail, but while they were praying, an earthquake occurred and the prison doors were opened. This caused the Philippian jailer to ask of Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they answered him, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (vs. 29-31). According to Acts 17, when they arrived in neighboring Thessalonica, Paul reasoned with the Jews in the synagogues. Some of the unbelieving Jews formed a mob, which set the city in an uproar (1-5).

Interestingly enough, we know from a secular source that something identical to this happened in the city of Rome during this same year. The historian Suetonius records that in 49 AD, Jews were expelled from the capitol city of Rome for a time because they “caused continuous disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus” (Life of Claudus 25). According to many of the early church fathers, it was common for Romans to mistake Christus for Chrestus, since the latter was a common Roman name. For example, Lactantius writes, “But the meaning of this name must be set forth, on account of the error of the ignorant, who by the change of a letter are accustomed to call Him Chrestus.” Similarly, Turtullian complained to one of his opponents that it is merely “by a faulty pronunciation that you call us ‘Chrestians.'” It is for reasons like this that there is general consensus among historians that the expulsion of the Jews from Rome under Claudius in 49 AD was a result of the chaos that resulted in the Jewish community as people were beginning to take different sides on the question of Jesus’ identity. Was he the messiah, or wasn’t he?

In other words, exactly what we read from Acts 16 & 17 in the cities of Philippi and Thessalonica is also happening in the capital city of Rome itself. Jews from Rome, you will recall, were present on the day of Pentecost some two decades earlier. No doubt by this time word about him had spread throughout Jewish communities that were longing for the fulfillment of OT promises. Suetonius says these particular disturbances among the Jews in Rome were continuous, so that the Emperor Claudius himself had to be called in to arbitrate. Luke records this same event in Acts 18:1-2, saying that when Paul arrived in Corinth, “he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome.”

Thus the overall picture we discover is one of tremendous upheaval in the middle of first century Judaism throughout the Greco-Roman world. All of it centers on Jesus’ famous question to Peter, “Who do men say that I am?” If we fast-forward another decade to around 59 AD, we discover that Jews had been allowed to return to Rome and that Paul is with them, though in prison. It is from here that he writes his letter to the Philippians.

In the opening lines of his epistle Paul writes to the Philippian congregation, saying, “To the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons.” So right off the bat we discern a particular ecclesiastical structure. This structure is discovered when we focus on the words saints, elders, and deacons. In other words, it wasn’t simply every believer for himself. There were teaching elders who were called to look after the sheep, and there were deacons who were appointed to serve. But even more importantly, whether they were Jews or Gentiles, they were all referred to as saints. They were pure, consecrated, holy, sanctified, purified.

It is common for Paul to use the word “saints” in the introductions of his epistles, so it’s easy to overlook. However, we should stop and think about the significance of this word for a moment. Needless to say, it was uncommon for first century Jews to refer to a group of uncircumcised Gentiles “saints.” One would more likely hear the word “dogs.” We even get a hint of this in an analogy that Jesus himself uses, saying to a Gentile woman, “It’s not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

So what happened? Why does this particular Pharisee refer to a congregation made up of mostly of uncircumcised gentile “dogs” as “saints”? He explains in verses 2-5. In Christ Jesus they have grace and peace. So whether they are Jews or Gentiles, these believers together have a partnership in the Gospel. This gospel is not about new resolutions, ethnic identity, social justice, or anything that any of us can invent. Rather, it is about the good news concerning the events in the life of one particular man who “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but he emptied himself by taking the form of a servant” (2:6-7). This is substance of the Christian gospel that Paul goes on to outline in his letter to the Philippians.

In the next 3 installments of this blog series, we’ll focus primarily on Paul’s arguments in Philippians chapter 3 about his own background as a “Hebrew of Hebrews” and why he came to the conclusion that all of his righteousness was rubbish.

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