What people in the church need to hear more today than anything else is doctrinal teaching. This is not, however, the ordinary theological lecture we might suppose, but rather the theological exaltation of God that reveals the depths of the wisdom of God. We do not need the moralistic therapy that comes from the lips of many preachers, seeking to help you “cope” with the “mistakes and issues” of your life. “Just stay positive,” the preacher says, “You’ll be fine. Just take it easy and do better next time.” This is not the gospel, and this is not helpful. There has to be more than sin management and sin minimization. You need a savior—an obedient savior no less—one who can stand in your place on your behalf.

If we honestly think about it, we are all guilty of saying these types of things. In fact, several of us are guilty each and every year as we “turn over a new leaf” after the holidays and make a promise to ourselves that we will get more exercise and eat right. We vow to do better, think better thoughts, and try hard not to say something disrespectful to someone. None of these are necessarily evil, but they are not enough. Behavior modification has changed no man’s heart.

As a pastor, I counsel with many different people. More often than not, the central issue that I end up getting back to is the heart and its role for the person (Prov. 4:23). For example, in marriage counseling scenarios, not only do I hear a lot of complaints about the other person (and no ownership of their own sins!), I also find that many problems end up being an issue of gender-role confusion and the heart’s response to God’s purposes. The man is not leading as he ought, and the woman is trying to take his leadership role. The origin of this discussion is the issue of the heart: you have issues in your marriage, or whatever circumstance you find yourself in, and instead of examining your own heart, you point the finger. If I only tell this couple to think better thoughts about themselves and each other, I never get around to the gospel and their identities, which is the real problem. Suddenly, behavior modification is all they have to work on, and they will never get anywhere because their hearts are the problem, not just their behavior. To illustrate, this is like a person who wants to kill the weeds in their yard by using scissors to cut off the very top, rather than ripping it out by its roots. Said another way, it’s like putting a Band-Aid on a shotgun wound—it is not sufficient. The solution must fit the problem.

Looking back on my pastoral ministry thus far, I have become convinced of one thing with absolute certainty: more gospel has never hurt anyone. This reinforces my initial argument: more doctrine (teaching) leads to more doxology (praise of God). If we rely on the Holy Spirit and revel in the plethora of treasures we find in the gospel, we will change because our hearts will change. What is ultimately required is a deeper knowledge of the Scriptures and a stronger comprehension of our new found identities.

My hope in this article is for us to grab hold of more doctrine, not so we can puff ourselves up, but so we can hold more tightly to God himself and marvel at how marvelous he is. The study of doctrine is intended to send you into God-glorifying moments of worship as you reflect on who he is and what he has done for you in Christ. That is its purpose.

THE MORALISTIC BALANCING ACT

Before I dive into the passage, I want to address the moralistic balancing act that many Christians fall into regarding how a person (1) gets saved and (2) grows in sanctification.

To begin, all of us have an inner lawyer that screams for justice. Whether it’s defending our case or prosecuting someone else—we love justice. We love to enact it, and we love to vindicate ourselves with it.

For example, take the married couple I alluded to earlier. If a husband is lazy at home and does not help with the housework or kids, then the wife who stays at home all day with them may feel unappreciated. “I work for a living so I can come home and not work. Besides, this is your job,” says the husband. Indeed the stay-at-home mom is to make a home, but the issue is not job titles and job duties. The issue is service. Are you as a husband going to serve your wife as you are called to do?

“You never help around the house. You never tell me that you love me,” says the wife, and justifiably so. The husband, who activates his justice radar and inner lawyer, retorts, “I do tell you that I love you and I mowed the grass and just painted the fence to prove it!”

Do you see what is happening? Justice wars are happening. Instead of owning up to his faults, he tries to vindicate his case and throw it back on his spouse. Instead of repenting from his sins and shortcomings, he declares himself in the right (“just”/”righteous”) and proceeds to retaliate or exert more justice on his wife. The circle of justice is in full swing in this home.

Whether you admit it or not, sin distorts our perception of justice. I call this the “moralistic balancing act” because a balancing act is what we do as believers who are following Jesus. This can show its ugly head in several different ways. Sometimes it shows as we learn to deal with our conscience that accuses us; it also happens when we feel the weight of the law of God that brings us under examination.

For example, think for a moment about the last time someone confronted you. How did you respond? Were you upset? Did you get defensive? Did you listen to the person intently, trying to understand where he/she is coming from? How we deal with confrontation is just one of several of the ways we balance justice in our lives. If something is wrong with us and we know it, we would do well to take ownership of this problem and repent of it instead of try to vindicate ourselves and respond back as a prosecuting attorney.

When it comes to salvation, many folks believe that their good works will earn them heaven. Because of the indifference and apathy of many evangelicals, a lot of people do not even think this anymore. Many are not worried whether or not their good works will get them into heaven. No, most believe that what they are doing right now will suffice. As if God loves indifference to his glory. As if God would let a lukewarm nobody into his presence. His holiness is never compromised.

We shall come back to this issue of works after laying the groundwork from the Old Testament.

ISRAEL, COVENANT, AND JUSTIFICATION

This entire chapter (Phil. 3) revolves around the story of redemption and how a holy God has achieved the impossible task of restoring sinful man to himself. While Jesus is certainly the apex of the story of redemption, it all starts in Genesis.

If you recall, our first parents, Adam and Eve, broke the covenant of works by eating of the tree that they were forbidden to partake of. Because of this, God made an animal sacrifice to appease his justice and cover their guilt (Gen. 3:21). When the two realized they were naked, the feeling of shame kicked in for the first time, and the two were marked as transgressors of God’s law. Here is an exciting act of redemption, second, I suppose, only to God’s decision to create. God stepped in and provided what the sinners could not provide for themselves.

As the story goes on, Genesis 12 rolls around and a man named Abram receives a calling to “go.” Again, God refuses to leave his sin-trodden creation to go to waste. Instead, he enters in and forms another covenant, this time with Abraham. In Genesis 15:1-6 God says something profound to Abraham:

After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” And behold, the word of the LORD came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.

The last phrase, “And he counted it to him as righteousness,” is what ought to arrest your attention. Here is Abram. He is a foreigner in a strange land and he used to be a pagan. In spite of this, God uses him to begin his new creation project in the form of a Jewish nation. This happened before he is given the son of the promise. Before Abram can do anything righteous, God counts him as righteous simply because Abram believed.

Let me explain to you what I mean by “righteousness.” In short, righteousness is covenant faithfulness to the law of God. Without a doubt, and this will be beneficial to remember in the next section, God’s law must be fulfilled perfectly if someone is going to go to heaven. You must perform works and be perfect (Mt. 5:48; cf. Jas. 2:14-26). In sum: to be righteous is to fulfill the law of God in some manner and be deemed “in the right” (just) in the eyes of God as a faithful covenant keeper.

As the story progresses, the Israelites are redeemed from slavery in Egypt under the leadership of Moses. In Exodus 19, the Israelites arrive at Mount Sinai and it is here that God promises to Israel that she will be his treasured possession if she keeps his commandments (Ex. 19:5-6). Following this, in chapter 20, Israel receives the Ten Commandments. As the story progresses yet again, we arrive at Deuteronomy 29 when the covenant is renewed at Moab, just before Israel enters the promised land. If Israel does well and obeys, things will go good for them. If they fail, they will not be in the land very long (30:19).

After entering the land, Israel’s sin accumulates and it does not take long for things to go bad. In 722 B.C., Assyria destroyed the Northern Kingdom, several hundred years after the time of King David (circa 1000 B.C.). One hundred and thirty-six years later, Babylon came and destroyed Jerusalem, hauling the Jewish people away in the Southern Kingdom off to the foreign land. All of this because of their sinful whoredom (see Hos. 1:2).

Throughout the Old Testament, God sent his prophets to woo Israel back to the covenant, but to no avail. Israel was simply unwilling to repent and because of this, many of the prophets were killed. Over and over again, God sent his messengers, yet no one would listen. The covenant was grossly violated, and yet no one was willing to repent and turn back to God.

Herein lies the perpetual problem in the Old Testament, and I will leave Job’s words for you to ponder:

How can a man be in the right before God?[1]

The perennial question in the Old Testament, as well as the New—from Genesis to Revelation—is this question: “Where is your righteousness?” How can someone who is a perpetual covenant breaker ever stand before the only perfect covenant keeper and be declared “in the right”? Said another way: how can a sinner stand in front of a holy and righteous God and be not only absolved from sin, but given a right standing in the court?

This is the question.

Have you asked it? Have you ever thought about it? What would be your answer?

When the Old Testament closes out, it does so on a note of uncertainty. There are questions that the Jewish people have. They are in exile, and they want to know when a New Exodus is going to come. The land of promise is rightfully still theirs, but they are not living there.

Where is the righteous Israelite who will lead the way?

Has God abandoned his covenant people?

Is God truly just if we are still in exile?

These are the questions, and they are hard ones indeed.

JESUS AND THE JUSTIFICATION OF GOD

One of the challenges for the modern reader and average church-goer as I see it, is that people do not often see the ongoing connection between the Old Testament and the New. Aside from a few typological guesses, what I have just outlined in the previous section may come as something new to you. Rest assure, this is not new. The overwhelming problem in the Old Testament is this issue of God’s righteousness (Ps. 98:1-3; 143:1). Yes, the Jews understood that they had maligned the covenant—they got that part. But where is God to step in and help them? When is he going to come to their rescue as he did in the days of Moses and David? When are they going to be vindicated? You must deal with this tension before you can understand all that Jesus says and does.

What the New Testament affirms loud and clear is that God is, in fact, just and that Jesus is the righteous Israelite for which they have been waiting. Paul says in Romans 1:16-17 that God’s righteousness (his covenant keeping faithfulness) has been revealed in the gospel, namely, in the person and work of Jesus. What Jesus does in his ministry and sacrificial death, and subsequent resurrection, is vindicate God as just. At the same time, God affirms Christ’s death as sufficient while vindicating Jesus, too (1 Tim. 3:16). In other words, the problem left in the Old Testament has now reached its solution.

When Jesus ascends back to the Father to inherit his throne in Acts 1, there is a new problem that arises: now what are the disciples to do? They thought the kingdom was now going to be restored to Israel (Acts 1:6), but instead Jesus instructs them to go and wait until the Spirit comes. As the story unfolds the church expands through the preaching of the gospel. Not only do many Jews respond, Gentiles begin to respond through the ministry of Peter, too (see Acts 10). As Gentiles begin to repentant and trust in Jesus as Lord, a new problem arises in the early church. How does one become a part of God’s new covenant family? Acts 15 follows next, and the Jerusalem Council affirms that Gentiles do not first have to become Jewish in order to become Christians. Gentiles do not have to be circumcised, nor do they have to observe the traditional Jewish laws of ceremony and ritual.

Through it all, Jesus’ perfectly obedient life, death, resurrection, ascension and sending of the church broke down all racial, gender and socio-economic barriers (Gal. 3:28). How can you become part of God’s new covenant family? By faith, just like Abraham. Is God righteous and faithful? Yes. 

THE TEXT

Paul opens us this next section with a bold proclamation:

Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you. Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh—[2]

Paul is comfortable writing to the church because of their relationship and it is “safe” to address something of utter importance, namely that there is a gospel, and we ought to not mess with it.

In accordance to Jewish law, a male was to be circumcised on the eighth day (Gen. 17:1-14). In doing so, the perpetual covenant that God made with Abraham progressed along as the Jewish people were marked out in the world for God and his purposes.

What Paul addresses here he frames within the larger context of his theology elsewhere. You will need to read Galatians and Romans to get a larger picture of the concern that Paul has with those who say one must become Jewish in order to become Christian (they are called the “Judaizers”).

What Paul affirms here for the Philippian church is that the real “dogs” are the ones who are propagating the idea that you cannot be a follower of Jesus unless you are circumcised and observe other Jewish ceremonial laws. Normally the Jews would call Gentile people dogs (not a common house pet at this time!), but Paul switches the term and ferociously accuses them of being the actual “dogs.” He says that they are the ones who mutilate their flesh thinking it does something to earn them a status! “In [Christ] also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ” (Col. 2:11).

What is key in understanding Paul’s theology is the connection between the Spirit’s new work in the heart verses the law’s work in the flesh:

For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not is uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.[3]

As Gentiles come into the New Covenant, Jewish laws become the center of discussion. As these verses in Romans illustrate, circumcision came after Abraham was credited righteousness (Rom. 4:11); therefore, the argument is null and void because righteousness cannot come from the law. Knowledge of sin comes from the law (Rom. 3:19-20). Our trespasses increase because of the law, too (Rom. 5:20). Being found guilty of unrighteousness, Paul says, there cannot be a righteousness attainable through the law no matter how good and perfect it is. Circumcision is a matter of the heart; our hearts are what needs to be changed (Jer. 17:9).

How does one worship God, then, if fleshly matters are not what is essential? Paul says that the truly “circumcised” (in the heart) worship by the Spirit of God and give weight and centrality to Jesus, putting zero confidence in the flesh. Jesus takes centrality, not the foreskin or Jewish ceremonies.

Paul continues:

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: 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; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.[4]

At the heart of Paul’s argument you will find his résumé and credentials that speak loud and clear of his achievements and personal righteousness.

Paul has more reason to have confidence in his Jewish heritage and self-performance (flesh) than most people. He was circumcised on the eighth day, and not later like many had done. He was a full-blooded Jew, one who descended from the great tribe of Benjamin (the only clan that stuck with Judah after the kingdom split). He was a “Hebrew of Hebrews,” and in relation to the law, he was a Pharisee, which meant he taught the law and would have had it memorized. Paul was a seminarian. In terms of his passion and zeal of defending Judaism, he tried to smite the early followers of Jesus. With regard to his covenant faithfulness, he was blameless (not perfect, but close!). Paul had it all. If anyone could consider their flesh[5] as being top notch, it was Paul. He had gain.

But…

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 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 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.[6]

Paul saw that all of the “gain” he had in the credit side of his account must be considered a “loss” because of Christ’s surpassing worth. Because Christ is supreme and of ultimate value, anything else is refuse. Paul does not just know Christ (like how we know what the color blue looks like), he knows him to the point of suffering with and for him. He even considers the most righteous and “good” things that he has as loss so that he can be found in Messiah, having a righteousness that is outside of his own moral effort and given to him as a gift in the person and work of Jesus. How does Paul get this righteousness? By faith in Christ.

This passage, along with portions of Romans and Galatians, is ground zero for the doctrine of justification. As touched on back in chapter 2 of Philippians, justification is central to the gospel. Without this doctrine, the whole of the gospel collapses into oblivion. Let me explain this a bit more as a reminder that fighting for joy with Christ’s righteousness is a fight to believe and treasure our justification.

Before the heavenly courtroom, God declares the Christian righteous by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Though Adam sinned and all died in him, Christ obeyed and many were made righteous (Rom. 5:18-19). Our salvation and justification were granted, not by the intensity of our faith, but on the objectivity of Jesus. When God declares us righteous, he does it because of what Jesus has done, not by what we have done. Our works, no matter how good or bad, cannot be used. Many believe that there are various gradations of human righteousness, but the Bible shuts this down fairly quickly: we are sinful and He is holy. Because of this, God must declare us “in the right,” for we cannot do so on our own.

To God be the glory!

God has sent Christ, accepted his work as sufficient, imputes (reckons/credits) his work to our account, gives us the will and faith to believe, and does it all for his glory. This is our God! Even the faith to believe is a gift (Eph. 2:8-9). Justification is an act of grace, so much so that even the means by which we are justified (faith) is a gift from God. God produces in us the will and act of believing.

What is crucial to understand here is that when God looks at the believer, he sees her as if she always obeyed, and as if she had never sinned. God does not see a fallen sinner, but a redeemed sinner. Theologically, the Christian is simul justus et peccator (“at the same time just/righteous and sinner”). Our old sinful nature has been crucified with Christ (Gal. 2:20), however, we still carry around this body of death (Rom. 7:24) and need to beat it up from time-to-time (1 Cor. 9:27). The issue is not what good works we can offer up, but rather what good work Christ has done on our behalf. I mentioned beforehand that God imputes the righteousness of Jesus to the believer. The doctrine of justification is secure in this concept: God takes our sin and lays it upon Christ, and then takes Christ’s righteousness and credits it to our account (2 Cor. 5:21). This is God at work from start to finish!

I want to take a moment and address this issue as it pertains to Roman Catholic theology and Reformed theology. Oftentimes people assume that Roman Catholic theology teaches that as person gets salvation by doing good works. This is only partially true. The Roman Catholic formula for justification is: faith + works + justification. The biblical formula is that faith = justification + works. While the Reformed view teaches imputation, the Roman Catholic view teaches infusion. No one argues that God alone justifies. The issue is on what grounds. In Roman Catholic theology, you must do sacraments and spark some sort of righteousness inside of yourself in order for God to then infuse his righteousness. Be careful though, otherwise it will be removed if you commit a mortal sin. This is called the analytical view of justification. What the Bible teaches, as well as Reformed theology, is a synthetic view of justification. We are dead in our sins, and God credits (reckons/imputes) Christ’s righteousness to us, and it is never withdrawn. We did not do anything good or bad to earn it; therefore, we cannot do anything good or bad to keep it. It is ours in Christ. The Roman Catholic must cooperate with God in order to get this justification and even if he gets it, there is never a guarantee it will always be there.

THE FIGHT FOR JOY WITH CHRIST’S RIGHTEOUSNESS

Quite frankly, the Roman Catholic view is not the gospel. It is far from the gospel of grace. For the Roman Catholic Church, faith is necessary for justification, but it is not sufficient. You must try a little harder to help God along in his justification project. Be warned: even your good works still qualify for repentance. Sometimes the hardest thing to repent of is virtue.

If we think for a moment that we can contribute anything to our salvation and justification, then we are mocking God and belittling his grace.

Part of fighting for joy is believing that true joy is knowing Jesus. Happiness is circumstantial, but joy is unwavering because joy is based upon the rock solid objectivity of Jesus. The heart of Paul’s thinking in this passage is that Christ is enough; He is more than adequate. He is so sufficient that nothing else we do, no matter how noble, good and righteous. Nothing else will give us the deep and abiding joy that only comes from Christ. Paul looked at all of his credentials as rubbish (literally “dung”), so that he can be justified (vs. 9), sanctified (vs. 10), and glorified (vs. 11). All of this is worth more than anything because it is of supreme worth and will never fade.

Joy can be had because God gives to us Christ’s righteousness. Stop trying to prove yourself to God and other people. The work is done. You’re not impressive, but Christ is impressive. You can prop yourself up to look morally acceptable, or you can fight for joy knowing that Christ’s righteousness is sufficient! That is the difference between fighting for an abiding joy in Christ with what he gives us, and fighting for an elusive joy in Christ that is ultimately about us because we think we are something special and have something to offer. Truth be told, it gets exhausting. All we bring to the table is our sin, because all is grace.

[1] Job 9:2.

[2] Phil. 3:1-3.

[3] Rom. 2:25-29.

[4] Phil. 3:4-6.

[5] Again, read “flesh” to mean “heritage,” or “Jewishness,” as well as the old nature and sinfully depraved body we are born with.

[6] Phil. 3:7-11.