The Threat of Legalism

Posted On February 25, 2020

Philippians 3:2-3, “Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh.”

False teaching steals joy because it pulls us away from Christ—the source of true joy. The believers in Philippi are beginning to experience this. False teachers are adding to the gospel by saying that the Gentile converts must be circumcised if they were to be included in the people of God. They are putting these believers under the old covenant—with its rules and regulations that no one could keep fully.

Under the old covenant, circumcision was an important ritual for the nation of Israel. It distinguished them from the other nations as God’s special, chosen people—along with their dietary restrictions and cleansing routines. But Christ’s death fulfilled the meaning and purpose of circumcision (Colossians 2:11-12). God’s people are no longer identified by their own efforts to keep the law, but by their union with Christ—the one who fulfilled it perfectly. They are free from the anxiety of wondering whether their obedience—or performance—is sufficient. They can rejoice in the certain knowledge that Christ has accomplished all that is necessary to secure salvation.

Paul warns the Philippians about the false teachers who threaten this joy—they are dangerous. He calls them dogs, evildoers and mutilators of the flesh. Like wild dogs that prowl around devouring the vulnerable and spreading disease, these teachers rob believers of joy by spreading a false gospel of “Salvation through Christ—plus human effort.”

We are no less vulnerable to this kind of false gospel than the believers in Philippi. We may be influenced by people who insist that baptism or communion or church membership are necessary for salvation. Or we may strive to earn God’s favor or approval by our good works or “spiritual disciplines.”. Bible study, prayer, fasting, sacrificial giving, or serving can become ways to impress God or make amends for sin—rather than ways of enjoying intimacy with him.

Like the Philippians, we must be on our guard against a false gospel of Jesus-plus. Like them, we must rejoice in the transforming work of the gospel.

“For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh.”

Circumcision symbolized a cutting away of the sinful heart and a setting apart from the world to serve God. This is what believers in Jesus have experienced inwardly—our hearts have been circumcised by the Spirit (Romans 2:29). We have been set apart to serve God by his Spirit. Only those whose hearts are circumcised can truly worship. Only they can glory in Christ—only they can joyfully boast in who he is and what he has done.

Paul wants the Philippians—and us—to resist the temptation to rely on anything other than Christ for salvation. We put no confidence in human activity or human ability; we rely solely on him. The Spirit enables us to live in joyful dependence on him and with joyful confidence in him. This is what will distinguish us as God’s set-apart people.

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