Philippians 3:3-7 - Boasting in the Flesh
The Peril of Legalism
Legalism is a spiritual disease that has afflicted the church since its inception. I cannot recall having met a legalistic Christian who is characterized by deep joy. This is because legalists attempt to achieve, through their own efforts, an externally imposed standard of performance in the hope that this will somehow earn them merit in the sight of God. This produces insecurity, frustration, denial, and failure for several reasons:
• The Scriptures tell us that there is nothing we can do to earn favor before God, since all of our own efforts fall short of His character and righteousness (Rom. 3:23; Titus 3:5-7).
• Just as none of our actions will make God love us more, it is equally true that there is nothing we can think, say, or do that will make God love us less than He does (Rom. 5:6-10).
• Spiritual growth is accomplished by Christ's life in us, not by our own attempts to create life. Our responsibility is to walk in the power of the Spirit and not in dependence on the flesh (Gal. 2:20; 5:16-25).
• The focus of the Christian life should not be deeds and actions, but a relationship; it is not centered on a product, but on a Person. It is a matter of abiding in Christ Jesus (John 15:1-10) rather than fulfilling a set of religious formulae.
This is why Paul was quick to warn believers about those who were distorting the gospel of God's grace by making salvation or sanctification dependent upon human performance rather than divine power. He characterized those who understand true spirituality as people who "worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh" (Phil. 3:3).
Turning the Tables
Just to show the futility of those who boast in their heredity and accomplishments, Paul plays their game in the next few verses to show that on the basis of such standards, he excels his opponents:
. . . although I myself might have confidence even in the flesh. If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation 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 the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless (3:4-6).
In this passage, Paul presents a succinct list of seven reasons why he could boast in the flesh. The first four relate to his birth: (1) "circumcised the eighth day"--he was a legitimate Jew from the beginning, not a proselyte. (2) "of the nation of Israel"--his was a pure lineage that traced directly back to Jacob (Israel). (3) "of the tribe of Benjamin"--the tribe of Benjamin provided Israel with its first king and remained loyal to the house of David. (4) "a Hebrew of Hebrews"--he was not raised as a Hellenistic Jew, but in a family that retained the Hebrew language and customs.
The last three relate to Paul's achievements: (5) "as to the Law, a Pharisee"--he was a member of the strictest, most orthodox and patriotic sect of Judaism. (6) "as to zeal, a persecutor of the church"--he was a zealous defender of the integrity of Judaism, and before his encounter with Christ, he aggressively sought to overthrow the early Christian communities. (7) "as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless"--from the outward perspective of conduct and observance of the Mosaic Law, he lived by the book.
If anyone had a right to put confidence in position and performance, it was Saul of Tarsus. But "God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart" (1 Sam. 16:7). Measured by God's standards, all his worldly attainments were like ashes in his mouth. "But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ" (3:7). Using an accounting metaphor, Paul says that what he regarded as profit (righteousness by works) turned into loss when he met Christ on the Damascus Road. After his encounter with the risen Christ, he could no longer cling to his accomplishments.
When people depend upon the goodness or sincerity of their lives, they are drawn away from God, not toward Him. Is is only when they renounce their attempts to build up merit with God that they are ready to lay hold of His grace, forgiveness, and love.
Many of us are inclined to base our identity and worth in earthly accomplishments, but this is too fragile and shallow a foundation. Our true worth and identity is found in Christ, not in the fleeting recognition of men.