In Philippians 1, the apostle Paul tells his readers that they must contend side by side for the sake of the gospel. They must defend it and advance it in the midst of adverse conditions. In chapter 3, we get a glimpse of this glorious gospel. Paul describes what it is to be part of the "real circumcision"...the true people of God...truly Christian. He says that they are those who worship by the Spirit of God, glory in Christ Jesus, and put no confidence in the flesh (v. 3). From this point, the apostle gives a glorious exposition of what it means to put no confidence in the flesh and glory in Christ Jesus (v. 3-11).
If anyone could boast in their life, Paul could. In verses 5-6, he writes that he was "circumcised on he eighth day, of the people 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 righteousness, under the law blameless."
The apostle Paul was known as Saul before he became "the apostle Paul." Saul's Jewish heritage was second to none. He was born into the right family, and that family was full of religious devotion. Saul was circumcised on the 8th day, per Genesis 17, and his family made sure he knew the Jewish language (Hebrew) and Jewish custom. He was, truly, a Hebrew of Hebrews.
Not only was his heritage right, his life was right. He took great pains in living a religious life. Saul was a strict student and teacher of the law of God; he would let no one twist God's words and get away with it. He zealously defended the reputation of God's people, especially against this new religious group called the Christians. Finally, Saul obeyed when he ought to obey, and where he sinned, he atoned in the way he ought to atone.
However, this grand spiritual resume...all this gain...looked different after the resurrected Jesus came and spoke to him (see Acts 9). Saul saw that none of this so-called "gain" made for a solid foundation on which to stand before God. He saw that, in depending on his heritage and his religious effort, he was actually trying to build his house on sinking sand. All that he once counted gain, he now sees as loss (v. 7-8).
Rather than looking to himself and putting confidence in his flesh, this new man now looked to Jesus Christ in faith. He gloried in Christ Jesus. Through faith in Christ, Saul was counted righteous, made right with God, called to be an apostle of Christ, and eventually, he became known as Paul. God had opened his eyes. Thus, the apostle Paul was born...or, more accurately, born again...and we are all still benefiting from his work.
It really is a glorious text, and the truth of this text is one we must come back to over and over again. Specifically, in Sunday's sermon, I reminded our congregation that we must never fall into the trap of putting confidence in our great spiritual heritage or our spiritual efforts. Both can be great gifts of God's grace, but neither are a sufficient grounds for being made right with God. Only Christ and His atoning death suffice for that!
These truths are part of what is called the doctrine of justification. Justification is the truth that on the ground of Christ's atoning death, God forgives sinners and proclaims them righteous in His sight when they trust in Christ alone. Think of it as a great exchange. Trusting in Christ, all our sin was laid on Him, and all His righteousness is laid on us. He took the eternal curse we deserved, and we got the eternal blessing He deserved. Christ was forsaken by the Father, so that we could be received by the Father. God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor. 5:21). What a sweet truth it is!
But it's also a practical truth. Allow me to list a few practical applications of this doctrine as seen in Philippians 3. I pray they are as meaningful and beneficial to you as they are to me.
- Just as we must not count on our spiritual heritage, we must not count ourselves out if we don't have one. This struck me afresh yesterday as I listened to two sermons: one by Alistair Begg and one by Voddie Baucham. Both men spoke at the same pastors' conference in 2008, and I have been listening to its contents of late. Alistair Begg has a great spiritual heritage; I remember him speaking of sitting in the pew as a boy with his father pointing to Bible verses as the pastor would read. His parents were great Christian influences in his life. On the other hand, Voddie Baucham was raised, as he says, in drug-infested, gang-infested, south central Los Angeles by a single, teenage, Buddhist mother. No gospel influence there! Yet, both of these men, by God's grace, are being used to for His glory in gospel ministry. Just as Alistair Begg cannot count on his spiritual heritage, Voddie Baucham cannot count himself out. And neither should you...if that's your story.
- We must be careful not to boast in our standing before God, but in Christ who has died for us. I realize that for some, it may seem that I am splitting hairs by making this distinction, but I think it's an important distinction to make. It's a hair that needs splitting. Why? Because thinking of oneself as a "true Christian" can become a source of arrogance. We think about the world and the grave sinfulness of man, and we are tempted to think, "I'm so glad I'm not like all of those people!" Suddenly, we are one of the characters in Jesus' story about two men praying in the temple, but we're the wrong one (see Luke 18:9-14). Yes, it is a great blessing to be forgiven and to be counted righteous. Yes, we live our lives in the full knowledge of these things. But no, we do not boast in them...we do not think ourselves superior because of them...because we had nothing to do with them! It was all Christ; we must boast in Christ. We must not boast in the gift of righteousness but in the Giver of righteousness...the Righteous One! Paul wants to know nothing among his listeners but Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). He wants to boast in nothing but the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ (Gal. 6:14).
- Parents must look to this text and find relief...but not relief from our responsibility. Raising children is a heart-wrenching exercise. One day, we are rejoicing at the progress we see. The next day, we wonder if the progress we once saw was just an illusion. It's three steps forward, two steps back, two steps back, two steps back, one step forward, two steps back, three steps forward...you get the idea. When we parents remember that a sterling spiritual heritage is no guarantee of being right with God...and we remember that a sub-par spiritual heritage is no guarantee of not being right with God...then we should praise God and stop believing our children are doomed because we forgot family devotions last week. [Just to be clear...this also means that getting it all right, all the time, in every way, with every devotional, every bedtime prayer, being at church every time the doors are open, etc., etc., ad nauseum, is no guarantee of salvation or spiritual maturity.]
Of course, this does not mean that we are relieved of our responsibility. We are to raise our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Eph. 6:4). We are to constantly look for opportunities to teach them...in both formal and informal settings (Deut. 6:4-9). We have the devotions, we pray with and for our children, we have them involved at church, we seek to teach and model, etc. But we are to do so realizing that we are merely God's fellow workers in our children's lives. We will plant the seed of the gospel, and we will water it with all the influence we are granted. However, it is God who gives the growth (1 Cor. 3:5-9).
For those of you who are now empty nesters, take refuge in the truth of this text. Did you fail? Did you fail heinously? It's quite possible. You may need to go to your adult child and confess your failures and seek his forgiveness for not being the mother or father God called you to be. However, your parental failures cannot stop the power of God from transforming your child's life, so stop torturing yourself. Likewise, your parental successes cannot help God transform your child; while God uses means for His work, He needs no help.
No matter where we are on the parenting spectrum, this text is both freeing and humbling. It is freeing for us who are overly discouraged by our failures, and it is humbling for us who are over encouraged by our successes. And it drives all of us to our knees to pray that God would give our children power to comprehend His love for them in Christ (Eph. 3:14-19).