Philippians 3:4 “If anyone else thinks he has reason to put confidence in the flesh, I have more…”
Paul was battling with Christians who wanted people to believe that you needed more than just Jesus to be saved. You needed to be circumcised. You needed to “do something” to get into heaven.
Circumcision isn’t an issue in any part of the Christian church today as far as I know. But the underlying attitude Paul combated is always trying to sneak back in among God’s people. It appeals to our pride to think there is something I can contribute to a restored relationship with God. When a church shows more interest in “what you do” than in “what you believe,” the attitude which puts confidence in the flesh is trying to push its way back in.
It also appeals to our sense of fairness to think the most moral people, even if they are unbelievers, might somehow be saved. Many years ago my friend Frank insisted that former Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi would be in heaven. Gandhi lived such a kind, self-sacrificing life that Frank just couldn’t believe God would condemn him, even if he was Hindu.
But there was probably never a more moral unbeliever than Paul himself had been. That is why he says, “If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put 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; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for religious zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.” Look at his credentials. Not only was this man a natural-born member of God’s chosen people. His theological leanings were the right ones, at least as the majority of the Jews of his day would have seen it. He was a faithful, Bible-believing conservative, not one of those liberals who were trying to change everything.
Martin Luther once followed a similar road. He said of his years before the Reformation, “I was a pious monk, and so strictly did I observe the rules of my order that I may say: If ever a monk got to heaven through monasticism I, too, would have got there…If this life had lasted longer, I would have martyred myself to death with vigils, praying, reading, and other labor.”
Why is it that, at least deep down inside, we would like to think that God can find such “good” people, whether Bible characters or heroes of history, acceptable for the great things they have done? I suspect that it has less to do with our concern for their fate. It has more to do with our own. We may not live such outstanding, self-sacrificing lives as some have lived, but we would still like to think our best efforts gain us some favor with God. We still like to think of ourselves as “good” people.
That is why we need to suffer a great loss in this regard. Paul continues, “But whatever was to my profit, I now consider a loss for the sake of Christ.” Paul is speaking the language of business and trade. Once he saw his “good” and “religious” and “spiritual” life as money in the bank, interest on his investment. These were the riches with which he would stand before God and be sure of his eternity. But God changed his point of view. Now he saw them as a loss. He wasn’t rich. He was in debt, and this false hope in his own life, and his own goodness, had put him there.
However, Paul had found a new source of wealth. Jesus Christ and his grace more than covered the losses Paul recognized in his own worthless life. He experienced the joy and discovery of the men in two of Jesus’ parables: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy he went and sold all he had and bought that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it” (Matthew 13:44-46).
The gospel of free forgiveness, the Savior who gives life and salvation as a gift—these lead us to let go of our dependence on cheap trinkets and plastic counterfeits coming from our own spiritual efforts. We give them up for the sake of real treasure, for the sake of Christ. That’s where Christian confidence properly rests.