Genuine Christianity, part 3 (Philippians 3:3)

I don’t imagine that anyone sets out to become a legalist and yet a great many God-fearing, Scripture-loving, holiness-seeking people inevitably seem to end up there.  Again, I believe that legalism is engrained into our minds and hearts because in every other area of life we have to work hard to earn approval, grades, a paycheck, a relationship.  Grace is a foreign concept to most of us and we don’t know what to do with it.

Nick Batzig says this:

Legalism is, by definition, an attempt to add anything to the finished work of Christ.  It is to trust in anything other than Christ and His finished work for one’s standing before God.  The New Testament refutation of legalism is primarily a response to perversions of the doctrine of justification by faith alone.  The majority of the Savior’s opponents were those who believed that they were righteous in and of themselves, based on their zeal for and commitment to the law of God.  The Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes exemplified, by their words and deeds, doctrinal legalism in the days of Christ and the Apostles.  While they made occasional appeals to grace, they self-righteously truncated and twisted the Scriptural meaning of grace.  The Apostle Paul summed up the nature of Jewish legalism when he wrote: “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” (Rom. 10:3–4).

Understanding the relationship between the law and the gospel for our justification is paramount to learning how to avoid doctrinal legalism.  The Scriptures teach that we are justified by the Savior’s works—not our own.  The last Adam came to do all that the first Adam failed to do (Rom. 5:12–211 Cor. 15:47–49).  He was “born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law” (Gal. 4:4–5).  He came to be our representative in order to fulfill the legal demands of God’s covenant—namely, to render to God perfect, personal, and continual obedience on behalf of His people.  Jesus merited perfect righteousness for all those whom the Father had given Him.  We, through faith-union with Him, receive a righteous status by virtue of the righteousness of Christ imputed to us.  In Christ, God provides what He demands.  The good works for which God has redeemed believers, that we might walk in them, do not in any way whatsoever play into our justification.  They are merely the necessary evidence that God has forgiven and accepted us in Christ.

However, doctrinal legalism can also creep into our minds through the back door of sanctification.  The Apostle Paul intimated as much in Galatians 3:1–4.  The members of the church in Galatia had allowed themselves to be deceived into believing that their standing before God ultimately depended on what they achieved in the flesh in the continuation of their Christian life.  It is possible for us to begin the Christian life by believing in Christ and His saving work alone and then fall into the trap of foolishly imagining that it is entirely up to us to finish what He has begun.  In sanctification, no less than in justification, the words of Jesus hold true: “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

Doctrinal legalism in sanctification is sometimes fueled by passionate preachers who emphasize Jesus’ teaching about the demands of Christian discipleship while divorcing them from or minimizing the Apostolic teaching on the nature of Christ’s saving work for sinners.  The renowned Reformed theologian Geerhardus Vos explained the nature of this subtle form of legalism when he wrote:

There prevails still a subtle form of legalism which would rob the Savior of his crown of glory, earned by the cross, and would make of him a second Moses, offering us the stones of the law instead of the life-bread of the Gospel . . . [legalism is] powerless to save.

And we can add, “powerless to sanctify,” as well.

Paul expresses in Philippians 3:1-3 how vigilant we must be against legalism.  There he said:

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

We’ve noted that Paul gives two commands, which were so necessary in this fight against legalism:  First, rejoice in the Lord, maintain your attention and affection in Jesus.  Secondly, look out for these people who promote legalism, because it will not be good for you, only harm.

Finally, in verse 3, Paul focuses on their true identity.

Whenever we struggle, it is always important to return to our identity in Christ, who we are in Christ.  Whether we are struggling spiritually, emotionally, psychologically and even physically and financially, it always helps us gain a more hopeful perspective by reminding ourselves who we are in Christ.

In verse 3 Paul identifies four characteristics of their identity that helps us in this battle against legalism.

Verse 1 is what we do—rejoice in the Lord.  Verse 2 is what we avoid—those who deny that Jesus is enough, and verse 3 is who we are.

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

First, in contrast to the Judaizers, Paul says that we are the “true circumcision.”

Now, I wouldn’t put that on a bumper stick, “I’m the true circumcision.”  I don’t think it would sell well.

But Paul wants them to know that both he, a circumcised Jew, and they, uncircumcised Gentiles, were the “true circumcision.”

The Old Testament prophets had long lamented the uncircumcised hearts of their people and called for spiritual circumcision (cf. Jeremiah 9:25).  Indeed, as Paul argued in Romans 4:9-12 Abraham was justified by faith long before he was circumcised.  Paul understood that those who have faith are the circumcised in heart.  So Paul included himself emphatically in his declaration, “For we are the [real] circumcision” (Philippians 3:3).

Thus Paul carried on his attack on the Judaizers with the “unequivocal assertion of the great spiritual reversal: Judaizers are the new Gentiles, while Christian believers have become true Jews” (Silva).

Paul was explicit: “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. His praise is not from man but from God” (Romans 2:28, 29).

True circumcision is that of the heart and is a matter of faith and grace from beginning to end.

Circumcision of heart had been predicted in the Old Testament (Jeremiah 4:4; Ezekiel 44:7) and in the New Covenant (a heart of flesh for a heart of stone).  That new heart is critical both for eternal life and for sanctification here and now.

Then Paul identifies three ways that we express our “true circumcision,” or genuine Christianity.  Paul used three terms or phrases to describe the false teachers (v. 2). He used three others to characterize the true circumcision.  Stephen Davey puts it like this:  We are those who worship God first, brag about Jesus the most, and trust in ourselves the least.

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

We worship, we declare God’s worth and we do that empowered and directed by the Spirit of God.

Jesus told the woman at the well that the Father is seeking those who “worship in spirit and in truth.”  While there is no capitalization in John 4:24 and thus it could be speaking of our own spirits, that it comes from within, here Paul clearly says that this worship happens by means of the “Spirit of God.”

There is much that passes for worship these days, and much of it is extreme emotionalism.  Neither God nor I are against emotions, but it is vital that we submit everything to the Spirit of God and we are motivated by the Spirit.

Those who are in Christ are part of a new order. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

The newness of the new creation is the product of creation power (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:4-6).  But the passing of the old and the coming of the new is also meant to call to mind the coming of the new covenant that Paul earlier described wherein we have been made “ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (3:6).

The evidence of the new covenant and circumcision of the heart is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (cf. Romans 8:8, 9).

And when God indwells us, he makes us worshipers.  His Spirit takes our part before his own throne and helps us with our weaknesses, empowering acceptable worship and prayer (cf. Romans 8:26, 27).  The objective of the Holy Spirit is to glorify the Son, so worship driven by the Spirit does not glorify self, or focus so much on ourselves, but glorifies and focuses on the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Worshiping by the Spirit of God also means that our worship is not limited to one place.  The Holy Spirit inhabited the temple in the Old Testament, but now each Christian is a temple of the Holy Spirit and we can worship Christ everywhere and at any time.  All of life can be an act of worship.

Second, we glory in Christ Jesus.  Pointedly, we do not glory in ourselves.

In what do you glory?  What do you brag about?  What do you boast about?  Yourself, your own accomplishments, or Christ Jesus and what He had done for you?

These last two signs of true believers are opposing: If we glory in Christ, we aren’t trusting in ourselves.  If we trust in ourselves, then we glory in ourselves.  As Paul says in that amazing passage in Romans 3:

27 Then what becomes of our boasting?  It is excluded.  By what kind of law?  By a law of works?  No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.

Salvation by grace through faith redirects our boasting from ourselves to Jesus Christ.

In 1993 the (then) Houston Oilers were playing the Buffalo Bills in the playoffs.  Jim Kelly, quarterback of the Buffalo Bills, had been injured, so little known Frank Reich took his place.  Now, just a few weeks before Frank Reich had heard the gospel and had become a Christ follower.  On the way to the playoff game he was listening to some Christian music and heard the words:

In Christ alone I place my trust and find my glory in the power of the cross.  In ev’ry victory, let it be said of me: My source of strength, my source of hope, is Christ alone.

He had never heard it before and it amazed him, so he wrote it down on a piece of paper and stuck it into his pocket.  At the stadium for the game he put on his pads and went out to play the game.

The first half was a complete disaster.  They were playing at home, but the Oilers were embarrassing them and were up 35-3 at halftime.  It looked like a blowout.  Frank Reich was booed off the field.

While in the locker room he pulled out those words and read them again.

Some people say that that second half was the greatest comeback in NFL history.  Buffalo’s defense stepped up and the offense was in sync and they won 41-38,

Reporters scrambled to Frank Reich after the game and asked, “How did you do this?”  They were likely expecting clichés like, “Every game has two halves” or “It’s not over until it’s over…”  But instead Frank Reich reached into his pocket and read…

In Christ alone I place my trust and find my glory in the power of the cross.  In ev’ry victory, let it be said of me: My source of strength, my source of hope, is Christ alone.

Later Frank Reich attended seminary and is now pastoring.

Here was a man who boasted in Christ.  When the microphones were placed in front of him he didn’t boast about what he did, or even what his team did, but he boasted in Christ.

That is important when it comes to our salvation, especially, but it is also important in every accomplishment and achievement.

Jeremiah 9:23-24 warns us:

23 Thus says the LORD: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, 24 but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.”

When the disciples were sent on an early mission of healing and casting out demons and preaching, in Luke 10, and they came back and said, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name.”  In other words, you should have seen the crusades we held and the conversions we witnessed and the miracles we performed.  Lord it was really something amazing!

And Jesus used that moment as a significant teaching moment as he responded to them, no doubt with patient grace – “Men, don’t rejoice so much in all of that – if you really want something to truly rejoice over – rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven.”

Don’t glory in what you did for me, but in what I have done for you.

Finally, Paul says, “who put no confidence in the flesh.”

Paul, more than anyone, had learned not to put confidence in his own flesh, in his own will-power.  Romans 7 is a clear testimony that we cannot trust ourselves.  We want one thing and do another time after time after time.

Genuine Christians are those who put 100% of their confidence in Jesus Christ and absolutely none in themselves.  Any variation, even 1,000th of a percent, would mean that we are not of the “true circumcision.”

The “flesh” in this case is not what inclines us to do evil (although it certainly can do that), but rather the energy within ourselves that inclines us to do good for our own benefit or our own glory.

We do not have “confidence” that anything we do to our bodies (circumcision), or anything we do with our bodies (good works, self-efforts), will make us acceptable to God: we realize that trusting in Jesus Christ is all that is necessary.  We have no confidence in what we are by nature to make us acceptable to God. We understand that we cannot save ourselves, and we acknowledge that God must save us.

You see, unbelievers can be very good people, full of good works, and still go to hell.  Of course, believers can be very good people, full of good works too.  But the difference is that true Christians are trusting wholly and only in Jesus Christ 100%.

Our joy is rooted in the truth of Christ’s totally sufficient, totally acceptable work in our behalf.

Our joy is lost whenever we hop back on that treadmill of performance, believing that God loves me only if I perform consistently well, or perfectly.

The joyful truth is that God forgives us and loves us and approves of us solely on the basis of what Jesus Christ did for us on the cross.  We just have to accept that by faith.

Keep your confidence fully in Jesus Christ.  You cannot rejoice in Him if you start to put your confidence in the flesh.

Only one “good work” takes you to heaven, the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross.

Published by

Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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