A Study of Philippians 3:1-11
This is one of the most profound and theologically rich passages in the Bible. Here we have a clear description of the doctrine of justification based on the imputed righteousness of Christ without the deeds of the law. We also see one of the greatest examples of saving faith and true repentance in this autobiographical sketch of Paul’s conversion.
Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you, to me indeed not grievous, but for you safe.
The Apostle Paul begins by encouraging these believers to “rejoice in the Lord.” The repetition of such basic Gospel exhortations was no trouble for Paul. This was his and their hope of eternal life. To rejoice in the Lord is not a mystical feeling of euphoria. There are many times that we as believers are not happy, but even in those times we can rejoice in the Lord. To rejoice in the Lord is to be glad and happy, but this gladness is derived from our confidence of our whole salvation, including our final glory, conditioned on the Lord Jesus Christ, based on His righteousness alone. This is brought out more in verse 3. It is joy that flows from justifying faith, and joy which we have in knowing that our final glory in Heaven is certain in Christ.
Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision.
Here we see one of the sharpest denunciations of false preachers found in the Bible. It is interesting how those who accuse believers of being judgmental and take passages such as Matthew 7:1, “Judge not, that ye be not judged,” out of their context. If this is a blanket denunciation of all judging then Paul is wrong. He judges these preachers as false and calls them dogs, evil workers and the false circumcision. These false preachers were Judaizers who did not openly deny Christ but who said that salvation by Christ was not complete. They claimed that salvation must be supplemented or completed by the believer’s efforts at religion and morality such as in the act of circumcision. This was the same heresy Paul dealt with in Galatians (Galatians 2:21; Galatians 5:1-2). If a person claims to be saved by God’s grace in Christ alone, but then thinks that his efforts at religion and morality can make him more saved, more holy, more fit, or more certain for Heaven, then Christ will not profit him. He may claim to be saved by grace alone, but in reality he believes a cleverly disguised system of works.
Paul calls these false prophets “dogs”. This was a term the Jews used to describe pagan, godless, ignorant Gentiles. It referred to a scavenger that groveled in the dung-heap of the city. So Paul is describing them as ungodly.
Who are the ungodly?
They are sinners who seek after or expect salvation or any part of it based on anything other than the imputed righteousness of Christ. Ungodly describes all unbelieving sinners, from the most immoral and unconcerned to the most moral and dedicated religionist who outwardly appears righteous unto men. “Evil workers”–These false prophets claimed to be workers of righteousness. They “followed after the law of righteousness” (Romans 9:31), but they did not achieve their goal (Romans 9:32). Again, we must consider God’s definition of “evil workers.” These are unbelieving sinners, the ungodly, who seek to promote religious activity, dedication, zeal, morality, aimed at making sinners more saved, more holy, more fit or more sure for Heaven. It includes any obedience not motivated by the absolute certainty of final glory based solely upon the imputed righteousness of Christ. These false prophets were promoting fruit unto death, dead works, works of iniquity, and evil deeds.
“The concision” or false circumcision–The word concision actually means mutilation. Paul’s point here is that these false prophets in seeking to promote circumcision as a way for believing men to be more holy or more fit for Heaven were only promoting a mutilation of the flesh. Circumcision of the flesh in the Old Testament was designed as a sign of the covenant God had made with Abraham. It physically signified that a man was a natural descendant of Abraham and a member of the nation of Israel, God’s chosen people. It was a symbol of inward circumcision of the heart which is the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing a sinner to faith in Christ and repentance from dead works and former idolatry. The Jews had perverted the physical symbol of circumcision and made it a sign of God’s eternal favor and blessing as if to say that it was an automatic sign of salvation and of being a child of God. But God sent them prophet after prophet to show them their error and to point them to Christ for eternal salvation. These false prophets in Philippi were promoting the same kind of perversion. Therefore, Paul calls them the false circumcision. They were not children of God, but they were actually idolaters.
For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence the flesh.
Here Paul distinguishes the true children of God. This is a strong division between verses 2 and 3. He identifies and describes true believers after exposing false believers.
“For we are the circumcision”–Believers are the true circumcision. Paul speaks of inward, spiritual circumcision of the heart. This is the work of the Holy Spirit in God’s elect which is the fruit and effect of Christ’s righteousness. It takes place when a sinner is born again by the Spirit of God (Romans 2:28-29). A true child of God is one who has been born again. This includes regeneration by the Spirit of God who immediately then brings the regenerated sinner to faith in Christ and repentance in the preaching of the Gospel (2 Thessalonians 2:13-14). Faith and repentance of the first evidences of this inward, spiritual circumcision (Galatians 3:26-29; Colossians 2:9-11). A person who has been circumcised spiritually knows that physical circumcision has nothing to do with salvation or any part of it (Galatians 6:12-16). He knows that Christ and His righteousness makes the only difference between saved and lost, holy and unholy, fit and unfit, certain blessedness and certain destruction (Colossians 3:9-11).
The Judaizers had forfeited their right to be called the children of God because they had rejected the true circumcision (Acts 7:51). To accept the true circumcision they would have had to receive Christ, submit to His righteousness and admit that all their efforts before justifying faith were dead works and acts of open idolatry. People today do not realize that they forfeit any right to claim God’s salvation when they believe that anything but Christ’s righteousness alone makes the difference between Heaven and Hell (Galatians 5:3-4). To claim that our works and efforts can make us more saved, more holy, or more fit is to imply that there is a deficiency in Christ and His righteousness. This is a rejection of God’s salvation. The apostle gives three marks of the true circumcision, true children of God, saved, justified sinners:
1. “Worship God in the Spirit”–This distinguishes true believers and their worship from idolaters and their worship. We have been born again by the Spirit of God, and therefore we worship the true and living God as we are guided, directed, and energized by the Spirit of God. We have come by faith to God who justifies the ungodly based on the imputed righteousness of Christ (Romans 3:30; Romans 4:5). The Holy Spirit would never encourage believers to seek God’s favor or blessing based on anything other than the merits of Christ. Also, we worship God as He reveals Himself by His Spirit through His word in Christ Jesus. We do worship God according through legal ordinances and means trying to earn His favor. We do not worship God by some physical representation according to our own thoughts and imaginations. We worship God our Father who has engaged all His attributes on our behalf in Christ, the Lord our Righteousness.
2. “Rejoice in Christ Jesus”–This distinguishes a true believer’s faith from an unbeliever’s faith. The word “rejoice” here is a different word from “rejoice” in verse 1. “Rejoice” in verse 1 means to be glad, and the ground of our gladness is our certainty of final glory based on the righteousness of Christ. “Rejoice” here means to glory or have confidence in Christ. The true believer’s confidence is in Christ alone. We fully expect to go to Heaven based on His righteousness alone. This is not presumption because it is based on a promise of God. So our faith is saving, justifying faith proven by the object of that faith. Our faith excludes all boasting in self because it looks to Christ alone for all salvation (Hebrews 12:1-2). We do not have faith in our faith because we know that faith does not make the difference between Heaven and Hell. Christ makes the only difference. Saving faith looks outside of itself and to Christ and His righteousness as the only ground of salvation. Again, read Galatians 6:14.
3. “Have no confidence the flesh”–This is a specific confidence in the flesh that is directly opposed to confidence in Christ. It does not mean that true believers cannot have confidence in their God-given abilities to achieve goals in temporal matters such as athletics or occupation. It does mean that a true believer has absolutely no confidence in any deeds or works of obedience, anything done by him or in him, as forming any part of the ground of salvation. This distinguishes a true believer’s repentance from an unbeliever’s legal repentance. The “flesh” here represents anything that men highly esteem or value as recommending them unto God or making the difference between saved and lost, holy and unholy. It stands for deeds of law. Paul is not talking about immorality here. Immorality is certainly of the flesh, wicked and evil, but this is not Paul’s subject. We know this for three reasons:
(1) These false preachers were not promoting immorality. They were promoting circumcision and deeds of law aimed at recommending sinners unto God.
(2) Men by nature do not have confidence in immorality as recommending them unto God.
(3) The examples Paul uses in verses 4-6 show that immorality is not the issue here.
Paul is talking about things that men by nature highly esteem (Luke 16:15). He is describing himself before true conversion as one who walked after and minded “the things of the flesh” (Romans 8:5) “bringing forth fruit unto death” (Romans 7:5). Again, this describes anyone who is seeking salvation or any part of it based on anything other than the imputed righteousness of Christ. Having no confidence in the flesh begins with true repentance when we who believe the Gospel admit that everything before justifying faith was dead works and former idolatry. We continue to have no confidence in the flesh by always admitting that none of our efforts at obedience and morality can make us any more saved, holy, or fit for Heaven, or complete than we already are in Christ (Colossians 2:9-10). We must admit that all our righteousnesses are “filthy rags” when compared to the righteousness of Christ.
As we have seen, the apostle had spoken so strongly against false believers. In verses 4-11 he shows why he had spoken so strongly. He wanted these believers to know exactly what it means (the implications) to be justified by faith in Christ. In order to illustrate this he uses himself as an example. He shows us the true nature of saving, justifying faith and true repentance that springs from God-given faith. Justifying faith is the first evidence of the new birth, and true repentance is the first evidence that faith is true justifying faith. A person cannot exercise one without the other. Any who claim to believe God’s Gospel, to trust in Christ alone for righteousness and salvation but who refuses to repent of dead works and former idolatry does not have justifying faith. Their faith falls short of saving faith. True repentance is a change of mind that brings about a change of life. The Apostle Paul illustrates this in the following autobiography and confession. This is how God saves all sinners. The details will vary with different ones, but the principles are all the same.
I. THE ISSUES OF TRUE REPENTANCE
Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more:
Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee;
Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.
Remember what it is to have “confidence in the flesh.” Paul is describing himself before true conversion as one who walked after and minded the things of the flesh. Again, this describes anyone who is seeking salvation or any part of it based on anything other than the imputed righteousness of Christ. Remember, confidence in the flesh is a specific confidence directly opposed to confidence in Christ. Paul is saying, “If anyone could have been justified by deeds of law, I could have been.” Paul could have outdone all of these preachers who were promoting confidence in the flesh. He is saying, “If you want to tally up what men by nature esteem and what men by nature, by natural conscience and determination can achieve, then I did more than all of these others.” Here Paul demonstrates the utter worthlessness of human works, deeds of law, and conditional salvation when it comes to establishing a righteousness before God. Saul of Tarsus, an ungodly idolater, did indeed appear righteous unto men.
He first mentions things attained by natural birth, heritage, and upbringing. This was one of the main things in which the Jews trusted as proving they were children of God. “Circumcised the eighth day”–The Jews boasted in their physical circumcision as an outward sign that they were children of God. The eighth day was the day that all newborn Jewish males were to be circumcised according to the Law of Moses. “Of the stock of Israel” refers to the fact that he was a natural descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. “Of the tribe of Benjamin” refers to a place of honor among the Jewish tribes. It meant he was no ordinary Jew. “An Hebrew of Hebrews” means that he was not the product of a mixed marriage which was so common in that day. He was of pure Jewish blood.
He now mentions things that have to do with personal diligence and dedication. “As touching the law, a Pharisee” means that Paul, before his conversion, had been a member of the most devout, strict religious sect in Judaism. It shows that in religion he went far beyond the call of duty and followed not only the written law but the oral law that had been built up around it. “Concerning zeal, persecuting the church” shows that Paul had been so zealous for his religion that he sought to stamp out anything he saw as heresy. The Pharisees saw Christians as opposing the Mosaic Law, and to them this was a direct assault upon God. “Touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless” means that according to the outward letter of the law, he could not have been charged guilty.
How can we say this is the issue of true repentance for everyone?
Some say that God meets every person at his/her point of rebellion. They may object that these things were Saul of Tarsus’s points of rebellion but not everyone’s. The Bible tells us that every persons point of rebellion is that there is no fear of God before our eyes. We by nature have no regard for the honor of God’s character in redemption and salvation conditioned on Christ alone. Our point of rebellion is self-righteousness, self-love, and religious pride. This rebellion may take many different forms, and it may express itself in many different degrees, but it is the same for all in nature and substance. Some may go to the lengths of Saul of Tarsus in trying to establish a righteousness. Some may only go half that far. Some may not try at all. They may throw caution to the wind and go the way of immorality, but even they by nature believe that if they reformed and became moral, this would recommend them unto God.
All may not have been dedicated Jewish Pharisees like Saul, but all by nature, before conversion, are lost and believe that something other than the imputed righteousness of Christ can contribute in some way or degree to saving themselves, keeping themselves saved, making themselves holy and fit for Heaven. When we preach the Gospel and command sinners to believe it and repent, they must know of what they are to repent. As stated, repentance in the Bible is a change of mind that leads to a change of life. Whatever repentance is, it must be apply to the most religious and dedicated unbeliever as well as the most immoral and unconcerned unbeliever.
II. THE CONFESSION OF FAITH AND REPENTANCE
But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ.
Yea doubtless, and I count all things loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them dung…
Here Paul shows exactly what it is to have no confidence in the flesh and what it is to have confidence in Christ. It means a true believer has absolutely no confidence in any deeds or works of obedience, anything done by him or in him, before salvation or after salvation, as forming any part of the ground of salvation. In verses 4-6 Paul mentioned all his efforts at religion and morality before conversion. Here he shows that true repentance springs from saving, justifying faith and is directly related to the glory of God in the salvation of sinners based on the imputed righteousness of Christ. Repentance is a radical change of mind concerning the redemptive character of God and the ground of salvation. Paul shows here that all he used to hold dear and valuable, everything he before thought profitable to recommend him unto God and prove his salvation, he now counts (considers, appraises and regards) as loss when it comes to the ground of salvation. Repentance sees that none of these things makes any difference between saved and lost, holy and unholy, fit and unfit, before God. Now there is nothing wrong with any of these things in and of themselves, but when a person thinks that any of these things recommend him unto God, when a person seeks to perform any of these things while ignorant of the only righteousness that removes God’s wrath and gains God’s favor, the imputed righteousness of Christ, they then become evil deeds, fruit unto death, and acts of open idolatry. These things were what the evil works of verse 2 were promoting. This is why they hated Paul (John 3:19-20; 7:7).
Repentance is an act of the mind and the will. Having no confidence in the flesh begins with true repentance when a believing sinners admits that everything before justifying faith was dead works and former idolatry. This is an amazing thing that what Paul used to call good he now called evil, and what he used to call evil (Philippians 3:6) he now called good. Everything he before put in the profit column he now put in the loss column, and everything he before put in the loss column he now put in the profit column. This is the way it is with all of God’s people.
What was it that caused Paul to come to such a radical change of mind?
It was all in view and consideration of the surpassing value of the knowledge of Christ and salvation conditioned on Him alone based on His righteousness alone. Paul had been slain by the law (Romans 7:8-11). He had been convinced of sin. He had seen how God could not justify sinners if salvation is conditioned on sinners. He saw how that God is so holy that He can only justify sinners based on the imputed righteousness of Christ. And in comparison with the righteousness of Christ, all his efforts at religion and morality were dead works and fruit unto death. Paul had been convinced of righteousness, that God is faithful to save sinners based on the imputed righteousness of Christ without the deeds of the law. This is a classic example of how all men and women by nature are lost before hearing and believing God’s Gospel which the revelation of the very righteousness of God. Before we hear, understand, and receive Christ and His righteousness we cannot have justifying faith nor true repentance, because before hearing the Gospel, we know nothing of this excellent knowledge of the righteousness of Christ. We can only see the worthlessness of our efforts in light of the Gospel, God’s promise of salvation conditioned on Christ alone.
Notice how Paul says “Christ Jesus my Lord.” This shows us that bowing to the Lordship of Christ is directly related to submitting to His righteousness as the only ground of salvation. Paul did not simply change from one religion to another, nor did he just change from one doctrine to another. Paul changed Gods. He changed his whole ground of salvation. He changed his whole motive for obedience. And in light of this change, he counted all his efforts before conversion as “dung.” This is the only time this word is used in the Bible. It refers to human excrement, garbage, spoiled food. This is how repulsive it is to God when a sinner approaches Him upon any other ground other than the righteousness of Christ. Paul would have been sickened today by those who claim to believe the doctrine of Christ but who insist that they were saved in Arminianism or some other form of works religion.
All this distinguishes a true believer’s repentance from an unbeliever’s legal repentance. Repentance that flows from justifying faith causes God’s elect to count all our efforts before faith as dung. Legal repentance stirs up sinners out of fear of punishment or promise of reward to trying to establish a righteousness of their own (2 Corinthians 7:10).
How can we know if we are under Holy Spirit conviction rather than legal conviction?
III. THE ISSUES OF JUSTIFYING FAITH
… that I may win Christ,
And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith:
That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death;
If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead.
True, Godly repentance springs from justifying faith. Any repentance that comes before faith is legal repentance, the product of natural-conscience conviction rather than Holy Spirit conviction. In these verse the apostle shows the issues that make up saving, justifying faith, that faith that leads to true repentance. They all have to do with the absolute certainty of salvation and final glory based on the imputed righteousness of Christ alone without the deeds of the law. He lists five things that motivated him to believe and repent.
1. “That I may win Christ” — Many claim that this language seems to indicate an uncertainty on Paul’s part as if he were not sure that he had Christ or that he was saved. But this is far from his message here. Paul knew that he was saved (Romans 8:31-39; 2 Timothy 1:12), and this assurance of salvation is the motivation for all godliness and obedience. But assurance of salvation must be based on the right ground and according to God’s testimony. Here, Paul is speaking in contrast with all those things he before salvation counted as “gain.” The word “win” here is really the verb form of the noun translated in 3:7 as “gain.” So Paul is saying, “that I may gain Christ.” His point here is that we cannot have Christ and keep our past religion while we were either ignorant of or not submitted to His righteousness revealed in the Gospel. We cannot have His righteousness and our own as to the ground of salvation (Galatians 2:21; Galatians 5:1-4). We cannot add our own righteousness by law to His righteousness imputed (Matthew 9:16-17). Grace and works will not mix (Romans 11:6). The lesson here is this: If we trust Christ alone, plead His righteousness alone without the deeds of the law, we are certain to enter Heaven’s glory. But if we trust anything else, even along with Christ, we are certain to be condemned throughout eternity.
2. “And be found in Him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith” — This is stated in lieu of death and the Judgment. Paul is saying that he does not desire to appear before God at the Judgment in his own righteousness. Here he is speaking of his works after conversion, the obedience of a believer. He is again speaking in comparison to Christ’s righteousness as the ground of salvation. A believer’s works of righteousness as evidences of salvation are the fruit and effect of Christ’s righteousness as the only ground of salvation. When compared to His righteousness as the only ground of salvation, our righteousnesses are “filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). Our only hope of salvation now and at Final Judgment is to be clothed in His righteousness alone.
Paul makes it clear that the righteousness which is our only ground of salvation is no inherent or imparted righteousness. It is nothing we do nor anything done in us with the help of the Holy Spirit. It is a righteousness imputed to us by God and which we receive by God-given faith.
What exactly is this righteousness?
IT IS THE ENTIRE MERIT (virtue and worth) OF CHRIST’S WHOLE WORK OF SATISFACTION TO GOD’S LAW AND JUSTICE BY HIS OBEDIENCE UNTO DEATH FOR GOD’S ELECT, GIVEN TO HIM BEFORE THE FOUNDATION OF THE WORLD.
He shows here, much in the same way he did in Romans 1:16-17 and in Romans 3 and 4, how faith is distinguished from that righteousness. Faith is no part of the righteousness based upon which God justifies the ungodly. Faith is not the condition for salvation. Righteousness is the condition for salvation. Saving faith, which is the means of salvation, looks outside of itself, receives and rests upon Christ and His righteousness as the only ground of salvation.
Most professing Christians believe that faith is the God-approved substitute for works. They believe God acknowledges that we cannot achieve righteousness and salvation by works, so He accepts an inadequate substitute. But they do not know and understand the Gospel and real salvation by grace alone. They do not understand real, justifying faith. Faith is the antithesis of works. Faith believes that Christ alone met all the conditions of salvation. This is how saving faith excludes boasting in sinners (Romans 3:27).
Notice how Paul refers to this righteousness as that “which is of God,” or “which comes of God” (Romans 1:17; Romans 10:3). He refers to it this way for several reasons:
(1) To distinguish it from the righteousness of men and totally exclude man’s righteousness from the ground of salvation;
(2) because God purposed it, promised it and provided it by the obedience and death of Christ, His beloved Son; and
(3) because this righteousness is everlasting, unchangeable and of infinite value, having been wrought out and established by that PERSON, Jesus Christ, Jehovah Tsidkenu, THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS (Jeremiah 23:6).
3. “That I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection” — Again, some seem to imply that Paul is expressing an uncertainty here as if he was not sure whether or not he knew Christ savingly. But, again, this is far from his mind. Paul is telling these believers exactly why he counted all his self-righteous efforts as dung in light of the surpassing knowledge of Christ. He is telling them that this repentance is one of the main evidences of a saving knowledge of Christ. It is not enough for a person simply to claim to know and love Christ. Our knowledge and love is proven first by repentance from dead works and former idolatry. This repentance is also one of the main evidences of God the Holy Spirit’s work of regeneration. This is the “power of His resurrection” to which Paul refers (Ephesians 1:17-20). The power that raised Christ from the dead is the same power that regenerates and converts sinners.
4. “And the fellowship of His sufferings, being made conformable unto His death” — Paul is referring to the reproach that comes from our testimony of the Gospel, especially the confession of true repentance when we tell religious sinners that they are lost and their deeds are evil. Herein we suffer in our service to Christ and for the cause of the Gospel. Remember how Paul had already told them “unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake;” (Philippians 1:29). This is specific suffering due to the offense of the cross is one of the main evidences that we are saved. This only comes to those who have repented themselves. Paul is telling them that as Christ stood in relationship to this world, true believers will take up their cross and stand in that same relationship to this world.
5. “If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead” — In Philippians 3:11 Paul expresses the full expectation of being finally glorified all based on Christ’s righteousness alone. “If by any means,” is literally “in order that.” Paul is proving how that Christ is the only way possible for sinners to be saved and finally glorified. He is showing how none of the things men by nature esteem and hold dear are worth the loss of our souls. These are the issues of true, saving faith, and every lost sinner must come to grips with these issues and side with God against himself and the world. This is the only way of salvation.